I thought I'd finished writing, Girls of Tender Age, ten years ago. Then an email appeared in my inbox with a subject line so unexpected, so shocking, really, that it took me a few minutes to dare touch my fingers to the keyboard. First I went and poured a second cup of coffee, took a couple of gulps, sat down at my desk again and opened the message. The story was not over. A new ending was out there, a miserable one. I bought a new notebook and a box of Pilot G-2s, #10, Bold; I write all my first drafts in longhand.
The memoir centered on the murder of Irene Fiederowicz in Hartford, Connecticut. Irene was my friend, my neighbor, and my classmate. The last time I saw her was the day we went on our field trip to the Hartford Electric Light Company. We'd been studying electricity and learned that the first city in the United States to carry electricity to streets and homes was Hartford. My today, in Florida, is where Thomas Edison built his winter getaway.
Irene and I planned to put a banana in our lunch bags. That morning our class climbed onto the chartered bus, so happy to have a day off from school. At lunchtime, we all ate our sandwiches, and Irene and I peeled our bananas together. Her mother allowed her to bring a box of cookies to share. Irene passed the box around our table.
That night after dinner, Irene's brother Fred left to play basketball. Her mother sent her off to the corner grocery store to pick up potatoes for the next day's dinner so she could make potato salad that night, and Irene could replace the box of cookies. It was December 9th, 1953. Dusk had darkened the sky but several neighborhood children were playing outside. Her mother told her it looked like rain, and if rain started, she should tie her scarf over her hair.
Irene stopped at a house a few doors away to see if another friend of hers wanted to come along, but the girl's mom said, no, that it was going to rain. She played for just a couple of minutes with the children she met along the way.
Irene never came home from the store. Her mother called the police. All night long, the police looked for Irene. So did her mother and Fred, who took turns searching for her or waiting by the phone. Early the next morning, in a back yard a few houses from mine on Nilan Street, a quarter mile from her home, Irene's body was discovered by the family who lived at the property. She had been raped and strangled. On the route her killer dragged her, the police found the grocery bag with the potatoes and the box of cookies.
Two weeks before Irene was murdered, a Bulkeley High School student had been viciously assaulted a few city blocks from where Irene died. She survived. I gave her the name Pidgie D'Allessio to protect her identity.
The killer had demanded both girls not tell anyone what he'd done to them. Irene refused. Her last words reflected extraordinary bravery. She said, "I'm going to tell my mother." He tightened the knot of her scarf twisted around her neck until she stopped struggling for her life.
In what could have been the last seconds of Pidgie's life, he gave her the same chance to live that he had Irene. But Pidgie was not a little girl, she recognized her only hope was to do what he said. Pidgie promised him she wouldn't tell. He loosened, then removed her scarf twisted around her neck and then began to act as if she were his date. She went along with his wanting to walk her home. Then he ran off. The minute she stumbled through her front door, she fell into her mother's arms.
Her parents called the police. An officer arrived. Sitting between her mother and father on the sofa, Pidgie gripped their hands. It was difficult for her to speak; she was in pain from her physical injuries and her emotional ones. But she managed to tell the officer what the man had done to her. He then asked Pidgie what the marks were on her neck, and asked too, "Do you have a boyfriend?"
His report stated that there was no rape. Today, with the passage of the the 2012 revision to the Uniform Crime Report, wherein the United States Department of Justice has re-defined the definition of rape; the acts Irene and Pidgie suffered meet the definition.
The killer was Robert Malm, recently paroled after serving five years of a seven-to-nine year prison term for an attempted attack on another child in New London, where he served in the Navy. He'd gotten time off for good behaviour. His parole board found him a job in a Hartford suburb.
Pidgie read of Irene's murder the night of December 10th, in Hartford's now defunct evening paper, the Hartford Times. Pidgie knew that the man who had come within moments of murdering her had her killed the little girl.
On December 11th, Pidgie and her parents went to police headquarters in downtown Hartford. She repeated all she'd told the officer who had come to her house, and added more details she'd come to recall, including the brand of cigarettes he smoked; a pack of Old Golds had fallen out of Malm's pocket while he brutalized her. The police knew the man too. There had been several complaints of a man loitering in Pidgie's and Irene's neighborhoods. The police had been watching him.
With Pidgie's information in hand, the police would soon take Malm would into custody. They questioned him for days about the attack on Pidgie. They got nowhere.
Governor John Davis Lodge offered a reward of $3000 for information leading to the arrest of Malm.
The police asked Pidgie's father if he could bring her back to headquarters. They wanted to see if she could pick Malm out of a line-up. Pidgie agreed, returned to headquarters, and did in fact, point at Malm standing in the line-up as the man who attacked her. Then she was asked to go with a policewoman into a room where Malm was present. He would be asked a question and Pidgie was to listen to his answer. If she recognized his voice as that of the man who attacked her, her identification would be validated. At first both parents refused to allow it. Then her father said she could do it if he went into the room with her. The police couldn not allow it, but with a policewoman by her side, they promised that Pidgie would be in the room with Malm for just a few seconds. Pidgie went into the room where he was sitting with a police officer. At a signal, the officer asked him a question just as the door opened and Pidgie and the policewoman stepped in as he answered and then back out again. Malm never reacted in such a way that showed he recognized who Pidgie was. Pidgie signed a paper that Malm's voice was the voice of the man who attacked her.
What more turmoil could possibly be expected of this girl? A lot more.
The police then questioned Malm further, not for the attack on Pidgie, but for the murder of Irene. Malm ceaselessly protested any and all accusations.
On December 15th, the police promised Malm a bench trial rather than a trial by his peers if he would confess to Irene's murder. They explained that a bench trial meant three judges would try him. The judges would not be affected by the details of the crime as would emotional jurors. He would likely escape the death penalty. Malm grabbed at the bargain. He then took the police behind the Nilan Street yard. He showed them where he'd left Irene's body, saying he restrained her for about half an hour, during which time he tortured, raped and murdered her.
Because the police did not believe what Pidgie had initially told the officer following Malm's attack, she could not save Irene. But Malm's capture, prosecution, guilty verdict, sentencing, and execution were entirely the result of Pidgie's profound courage and the fortitude she maintained to bear witness against him, face-to-face, at his trial. All accomplished by a schoolgirl in one selfless and courageous act after another.
Robert Malm was put to death by electrocution eighteen months later.
When I came to write the memoir, my research revealed that Pidgie had claimed Governor Lodge's offer of reward, but her claim was denied by the Connecticut Supreme Court. A court reporter would have transcribed those proceedings, but trial transcripts were copyrighted to the reporters. The reporters could sell copies of the transcripts, and if no one was interested they would often throw them away. They were not obligated to store them. Such was the case with the transcript I'd hoped to find But then I learned through an attorney friend that if Pidgie had gone on to file an appeal, the appeal transcript would become available to the public and would include the facts of the initial ruling.
At the Connecticut State Library, I scrolled through court records on microfiche for days on end. Then a copy of Pidgie's appeal transcript appeared on the screen in front of me. The undeterred Pidgie had indeed filed an appeal. The basis for the denial of her original claim for the reward was appalling.
The lead judge in her case was the aggressively conservative Raymond Baldwin, former governor of Connecticut and later a United States senator. He determined that an offer of a reward was a contract, no different from a business contract. Since the reward—the contract—was dated after Pidgie had given the police the details of the crime against her, and one day after she picked Malm out of a line-up, Baldwin ruled she did not claim the reward in response to the offer; the offer hadn't been made yet.
According to Baldwin, Pidgie did not abide by the conditions of the contract. And where did the governor's offer of reward make such a stipulation? Nowhere. The two other judges witnessing the proceedings concurred with him.
Undeterred, Pidgie's parents filed an appeal on her behalf. Baldwin denied her again in a determination beyond appalling; the decision he wrote and read in court was criminal, perhaps even unconstitutional. His basis for the denial of the appeal was a legal construct called "plain terms." It means that the plain terms of the contract—words whose meanings are clearly understood—should be read literally, in a way that the attorneys who wrote the text of Governor Lodge's reward offer did not intend. In fact, the legal definition of "plain terms" states that such a construct cannot be applied if the results are cruel and absurd; two perfectly plain words whose meanings are clearly understood. Baldwin applied both in his ruling. The same two witnessing judges concurred as they had earlier.
This concept of "plain terms" has been called a travesty of justice by legal scholars, and recently, a fiction—a myth—by the Dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, Erwin Chemerinsky, in an article he wrote that appeared in the ABA Journal. In arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States, he has demonstrated that "plain terms" relies on a court's requirement to consider only the understood meanings of words, rather than the meanings intended by the lawmakers who wrote them. In Pidgie's case, Baldwin actually invented a plain term, calling an offer of reward a contract, which it is not.
The "plain terms" basis for a court decision is used almost exclusively to protect businesses from lawsuits, to allow attorneys representing those businesses to take advantage of victims who do not have the means to afford a defense against the so-called "plain terms" argument. Records show that ninety percent of these victims will not even appear in court, a slam-dunk for the attorneys. Business is business, money is money, and the victims of legal thievery are expendable. There are those who see themselves as above the law, cruelty and absurdity their pleasure.
The text of Baldwin's repulsive conclusion to his argument was, as follows:
"An offer of reward ... is not the recognition of an equitable duty of the government to the informer, but a mere act of public policy … whose terms are wholly within the discretion of the government. Whoever [makes a claim for such an offer] must bring himself within its terms. Failing to do that, his compensation is the consolation which comes to every citizen from the discharge of a public duty … the common obligation of all .... Courts must apply legislative enactments [meaning Governor Lodge's reward offer] according to their plain terms."
Baldwin had seen fit in his parting shot to lecture Pidgie with condescending derision, berating her for not appreciating that her consolation should not come from a reward, but from her public duty, which according to him, is an obligation. But Pidgie was consoled by performing her public duty, consoled by her hope that her testimony would prevent what happened to her from happening to other girls. This despite her public duty requiring she describe what a savage psychopath had done to her in front of a court packed with the general public.
If Baldwin had ever experienced anything of the horror that Pidgie had, perhaps he would not have relied on such cruel and absurd admonitions. Where does the Constitution say that the words he used to slander Pidgie were permissible? It doesn't. In fact, asserting false, deceptive, misleading, or unconscionable means as were perpetrated by Baldwin is prohibited by law.
After my memoir was published, I received hundreds of emails and notes from people with a connection to Irene, or to Hartford. What was overwhelming were the heart-wrenching letters from women with no connection except that they were also raped as children. These women never told anyone what happened to them because of the humiliation they felt. They told me.
The memoir, they said, relieved them of the burden of shame they carried. Good God, shame. Little girls who never received comfort, let alone medical attention, because society led them to believe that they'd done something shameful. And there were also women who done what Pidgie had, and were faced with similar victim-shaming questions like the one the police asked Pidgie, the most common: "What were you wearing when this happened?"
But Pidgie knew she should not feel shame, and she knew her parents would help her do what was right. They did.
And so, I received that shocking email, one year ago, in March, 2019, the subject line: I am Pidgie D'Allessio's son.
The youngest of Pidgie's three sons, Joseph F., wanted me to know that he'd never heard of the crime against his mother, and only learned of it when, out of curiosity, he was checking a census for family names. His mother's maiden name showed a connection to Malm's case. Somehow—and I can't imagine how—he came to tell his mother he needed to speak to her about something in her past. Now, the two haven't stopped speaking about what happened to her, how it affected her and their loved ones.
Pidgie told Joe that when her book club was planning to discuss Girls of Tender Age, she realized that her rape was integral to the book. She quit the club. She never read the book, but a decade later her son did.
Dear Ms. Tirone Smith,
My wife and I have just finished reading your book, Girls of Tender Age. Thank you for writing it. It has affected me deeply, and my understanding of who my mother is.
I first learned of Robert Malm a few years ago when I was searching my mother's maiden name hoping to find her in the newly publicized 1940 census. My mother and her family never mentioned Malm or her involvement in the case.
In some very profound ways, my mother has remained a teenager her whole life. I now understand why her development was stifled. She is 84 years old and will answer my questions about this terrible time directly and eerily without the emotion one would expect. I am pretty sure she distanced herself from emotions all those years ago.
I hope it is rewarding for you to know how impactful your work is and how telling Irene's story continues to heal generations who weren't even born at the time of her murder.
With gratitude and admiration,
And so, moved by his words, I will conclude with a request to Derek Slap, State Senator, West Hartford, District 5; and Jillian Gilchrest, State Representative, West Hartford, District 18, presently representing Pidgie: Please support Representative Edwin Vargas's bill, "An act requiring the payment of a reward to Patricia 'Pidgie' D'Allessio." (Proposed Bill No. 5160. See the entire wording at cga.ct.gov. Go to "Bills Quick Search.") Representative Vargas represents the district where Irene Fiederowicz was murdered, and Pidgie D'Allessio suffered a brutal attack.
The same request to John Fonfara, State Senator, Hartford, District 1; Edwin Vargas, State Representative, Hartford, District 6; and Julio Concepcion, State Representative, Hartford, District 4. These men now represent the districts where Pidgie D'Allessio and Irene Fiederowicz lived.
Pidgie D'Allessio was raped twice, once by an inhumane sadist, and then again by the state of Connecticut. This courageous teenager, who acted on her obligation to society—a society that treated her with obscene scorn—deserves a second reparation from Connecticut: an official apology from Governor Ned Lamont.
Joe's mother has agreed to let me make public her travails beyond the horror I described in Girls of Tender Age. I'd like to thank her for that and for allowing me to know that the real Pidgie grew up to live a productive life, to marry a good man, and to raise three fine sons. I wish her well.
If you want to help deliver justice to Pidgie, please show your support by calling or emailing the governor and legislators. Their contact information and sample messages follow. Also, a thank-you message to Representative Vargas is in order.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Sample message to the legislators:
Please vote to support Bill No. 5160 requiring the State of Connecticut to give Pidgie D'Allessio the reward offered by Governor John Davis Lodge for information leading to the capture and arrest of Robert Malm, who murdered Irene Fiederowicz on December 10, 1953. It was the information Pidgie gave the police after Malm attacked her that did indeed lead to his capture and arrest. But she was denied the reward based on a legal construct called "plain terms," considered to be cruel and absurd, in fact, unconstitutional.
To Governor Lamont:
Please support the legislation introduced by Representative Edwin Vargas, 6th District, Bill No. 5160, requiring the State of Connecticut to give Pidgie D'Allessio the reward offered by Governor John Davis Lodge for information leading to the capture and arrest of Robert Malm, who murdered Irene Fiederowicz on December 10, 1953. It was the information Pidgie gave the police after Malm attacked her that did led to his capture and arrest. But she was denied the reward based on a legal construct called "plain terms," considered to be cruel and absurd, in fact, unconstitutional. In addition, please see to a second reparation from Connecticut: An official apologyfrom Governor Ned Lamont to Pidgie.
A compendium of the groundswell of support for this action:
On October 19, 2019, Connecticut Assemblyman Edwin Vargas, who represents District 6, the south and south central part of Hartford, including the South End neighborhood where Irene, Pidgie and I grew up, sent me an email thanking me for telling him about this effort. This led to a chain of communications and actions supporting my mission to see to justice for Pidgie.
On January 9, 2020, the Hartford News published an article by Anne Goshdigian, "Justice for Pidgie D'Allessio." Ms. Goshdigian's take on the story is brilliant.
A month later, I received an email from Debra St. Germain:
Hello Ms. Tirone Smith,
I am writing today as an executive board member of the Southwest-Behind the Rocks Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, or, the neighborhood where you and Pidgie grew up.
Thank you for making us aware of the injustice done to Pidgie by the state of CT.
At our meeting on Thursday we voted to assist you in as many ways as we can to secure Pidgie her just and much overdue reward.
The President of our Board immediately reached out to Sen. Fonfara and Rep.Vargas.
I am happy to report that Rep.Vargas has responded. "I support giving Pidgie the reward she earned. I'll push for action in the upcoming session."
I will be your contact as we will be honored to see this through with you.
Debra St. Germain is on the move! Debra has just told me that the Board President, Kathy Evans, on the members behalf, has now requested the Hartford City Council get on board.
Representative Vargas expressed his intention to Debra St. Germain to seek action from his fellow legislators in the coming session. (Keep those letters flowing, people, especially to Senator Derek Slap and Representative Gillian Gilchrest, who represent the West Hartford district where Pidgie now lives. Pidgie worked in the West Hartford public schools for many years until she retired.)
On Feb. 13, 2020, Representative Vargas, a man I've never met, never laid eyes on, never spoken to, texted me to say that he's in the process of introducing a bill to the legislature giving Pidgie the reward she'd been denied. Joe will tell his mom the news this weekend. He said that she is only now beginning to recognize the heroic actions she took when a teenager.
Feb. 14, Bill No. 5160 is on the legislative calendar: "An Act Requiring the Payment of a Reward to Patricia 'Pidgie" D'Allessio.' " House Majority Matt Ritter is noted on the bill as co-sponsor. There will be a public hearing on March 13, 2020, at 11:30am. COME ONE, COME ALL!
Attorney Richard Baltimore, Chief Advisor and Legal Counsel to House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, delivered a letter from me to Governor Ned Lamont's office with a request that the Governor/Senior Advisor review the efforts toward justice for Pidgie.
Debra attended a meeting along with Governor Lamont. She spoke to him about the bill.
Hartford Attorney Timothy Hollister, who is keeping his late son Reid in our hearts forever with his vision, now reality, to see to our precious teenagers' safety behind the wheel, is responsible for nudging Leader Ritter.
Laurie Bompart, Manager of the UCONN/Barnes & Noble Bookstore in downtown Hartford, continues to spread the word via social media, increasing word-of-mouth interest.
Connecticut librarians across the state have been spreading the word to their patrons since the get-go, after I sent a copy of the epilogue to as many of them as I could reach. (Libraries have always been my refuge; librarians my heroes.)
The more-than-willing cooperation of Pidgie's son, Joe, continues to keep my engines charged.
I have sent letters to the principal of Bulkeley High School and the pastor of St. Augustine's Church in Hartford, asking them to encourage their student body and parishioners to look at the issue at hand and to consider contacting their Connecticut General Assembly representatives and Governor Lamont. (Pidgie, her siblings, her cousins graduated from Bulkeley and were parishioners of St. Augustine's. Her father and uncle were custodians at Bulkeley, her aunt worked for many years in the cafeteria.)
So at this point,WE HAVE TRACTION! But what do we still need? If Representative Vargas's bill passes, an apology from Connecticut has to go hand-in-hand with that passage. Ergo, to all you letter-writers, and those of you who might be thinking about contacting the state representatives listed in the conclusion of the epilogue, please call Governor Lamont's office, email him, write to him--anything!
With the encouragement of Debra, Corey Moses, Lead Teacher at Bulkeley High School has introduced into his social studies class, "Hartford History," a new unit centered on Pidgie D'Allessio's struggles and heroism, guiding his students as they write letters to members of the General Assembly and Governor Lamont. Let us be ever-thankful for teachers like Mr. Moses. Flexibility isn't a simple thing, when you have to follow a stringent curriculum. Keep up those juggling acts, sir, and GO KIDS!
Thank you everyone for all your advice, support, encouragement and help.