Charcoal burners of Alatri and the Valle della Femmina Morta

A ‘carbonaro’ is someone who makes his living making charcoal from carbonizing wood. The finished product was used for iron smelting (making pots and church bells), glassmaking and working precious metals (gold and silver jewellery).

The men led a lonely life since they must stay near to the kiln to control the ‘burn’ although those forced to travel to find better quality wood often took their families with them.  They were frequently ostracized and considered the lowest on the social scale of the times.

Many emigrated, some to Nevada where, in 1879 there was a war which pitted 500 Italian Charcoal burners against the companies to whom they sold their product.  You can get the details here: https://www.onlinenevada.org/articles/charcoal-burners-war-1879 .

Do not confuse these hard-working people with the conspiratorial organization of the CARBONARI whose members included Napoleon Bonaparte, and Giuseppe Garibaldi and whose goal was to create a constitutional monarchy or a republic.

This story tells of the Charcoal burners of ALATRI (FR). The documents are from those recovered from the PREFETTURA of FROSINONE and tell of the arrest and conviction of several Alatri men who were trespassing on Veroli land.  The documents were translated by Irene Palombo, our translator, and put into story form.  Maybe one of these men was your ancestor!

The episode, to which these documents refer, occurred in September 1915 and involved some “carbonai” (charcoal burners) from Alatri. Their occupation consisted in manufacturing charcoal by burning the wood in a pile or a kiln. It was a very old craft, which has almost disappeared today, but absolutely essential in the past, considering that charcoal was used for primary needs like heating and cooking food. Nevertheless, it was a despised profession due to its hardness and the dangerousness of spending months alone in the forest.

 On the mountains between Alatri and Veroli, there is a wooded valley, whose name is pretty bizarre: Valle della Femmina Morta(Valley of the Dead Female). Both towns had claimed possession of that area for several years, as documents retained by the State Archive of Frosinone reveal.

The Valle della Femmina Morta was rich in the raw material (the wood) from which can be obtained the precious carbon. More important, it was rich in beech wood, which produces a lower quality charcoal but in much larger quantities than other types of wood. Since it was destined merely for domestic use, quantity mattered much more than quality.

So, in the middle of September 1915, the charcoal burners from Alatri went to the Valley with the purpose of restocking for the upcoming cold season. But while they were felling the trees and carbonizing the logs, the forest rangers together with the municipal guards of Veroli suddenly arrived and arrested four of them: Carlo Gatta, Vincenzo Cataldi, Balduino Bragalone and Sebastiano Ricciotti.

However, on the days following, the “carbonai” continued to go there and the forest rangers had to request the intervention of the police, who arrested another three men: Giuseppe Brina, Francesco Gatta and Luigi Tofani.

The allegations against them were serious; unauthorized crossing of borders, devastation of the forest in the municipal territory of Veroli and theft of wood. In support of these charges, the Mayor of Veroli tried to enforce the judgment of May 13th 1882, which appeared to recognize his town’s possession over the longtime challenged land.

In their defense, the charcoal burners asserted that the town of Veroli was arbitrarily claiming to have the ownership of the “Valle della Femmina Morta”, which they believed belonged to the town of Alatri. Moreover, they were just exercising the so-called “diritto di legnatico” (timber right), by which they were allowed to work in that area.

In an attempt to defend his citizens and to win the dispute, the Mayor of Alatri argued that the border line ran down Mount Passeggio and through the dale and that the “carbonai” had never crossed it, but had always remained in the portion of territory owned by the town of Alatri. He even went in person to explore the area to find proof of their innocence but a sudden fog followed by a big storm did not allow him to continue and he was not able to verify the boundaries with the required accuracy.

Still every attempt was in vain. On November 19th 1915, the following charcoal burners were sentenced to pay a fine, costs of the proceedings and damages to the town of Veroli: Carlo Gatta, Vincenzo Cataldi, Balduino Bragalone, Luigi Tofani, Giacomo Galuppi, Sebastiano Ricciotti, Sisto Frasca, Vincenzo Mingotti, Tommaso Del Vescovo, Bernardo Tofani, Vincenzo Fratarcangeli, Giacomo Gatta, Sisto Ritarossi, Vincenzo Cataldi, Sisto Tofani, Francesco Gatta, Saverio Cicuzza, Alessandro Mangiapelo and Alessandro Del Vescovo. Only three were acquitted, Giuseppe Brina, Arcangelo Ceci and Fausto Sabini.

The verdict finally acknowledged the possession of the Valle della Femmina Morta to the town of Veroli but, probably, it would last only till the next disagreement.

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