[1886 American Prison Art by an Italian-American Circus Performer Incarcerated for Murder, possibly a painting of a Cuban Slave Plantation].
Italian-American Achille Onofri, was an acrobat and contortionist who had met trapeze artist Millie Cook in Havana, married her, and then moved to Philadelphia with her and her 9-year-old daughter, Carlotta “Lotta” [sometimes seen as Lotti] Cook.
On May 11, 1886, Onofri was teaching his step-daughter Lotta to walk the tightrope, but she was unable to do it. Apparently, in a fit of anger, he beat her viciously with a shovel, and she died within a few hours. The stepfather had also horrendously beaten her Lotta’s siblings. After his trial and conviction for second degree murder, Onofri was sentenced to twelve years in Pennsylvania’s infamous Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. (e.g., see the May 30, 1886 issue of The New York Times for additional details of Onofri’s crime.) According to contemporary notes on the verso, he executed this painting in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, likely during pre-sentencing.
Onofri’s painting is a pastoral, idealized scene of individuals, possibly slaves, seen in front of a row of wooden cabin-like houses or quarters. Men and women converse at leisure in the foreground. In the background, individuals are seen working. Onofri’s marriage to his wife in Cuba suggests that this may be the painting’s locale.¹ Cuba abolished slavery in 1886, coincidentally the year Onofri created his painting. Handwritten notes on the verso provide provenance and other details (in full):
Painted by Achille Onofri, At Moyamensing Prison, June 6, 1886. He was charged with murder and found guilty of Murder in the 2nd Degree May 8th 1886 – and sentenced to 12 years in the Eastern [crossed out word] Penitentiary. B.F. Butcher, Physician. Property of C.G. Barnard, Keeper. Phila., Penna.
An unusual example of nineteenth-century American prison art, unambiguously identifiable as such, its creator unambiguously identified.
Description: [1886 American Prison Art by an Italian-American Circus Performer Incarcerated for Murder, possibly a painting of a Cuban Slave Plantation].
[Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia, 1886]. Watercolor on paper, mounted to cardboard backing. Painting: 7¾ x 10 inches; overall, 8 x 10 inches. Signed by artist at lower right, “A. Onofri.” Contemporary manuscript provenance and notes on verso of backer. Touch of faint, possible water-staining to the artist’s name at the bottom right corner (it is still completely legible). In very good condition.
Note. 1. Aerialist Millie Cook was known by her performance name as Millie Turnour (“the handsomest and bravest woman in the world) ”and that she performed with a number of circuses, Ringling, Forepaughs, Orrin, Noyes, etc. She was married to Wooda Cook, a well known bareback circus rider.