Chapter 3. “Those anarchistic bastards”
The case of Sacco and Vanzetti spanned the period of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. It began with the arrest of the two Italian workers on May 5, 1920, and ended seven years, three months and eighteen days later, with the execution of the two men on August 23, 1927.
Before the case reached its tragic climax, it had become a prism through which were refracted all the dark and brilliant colours of the fiercely contending social elements in the post-war world.
Nicola Sacco at the time of his arrest was a twenty-nine year old Italian immigrant, skilled shoe-worker and devoted family man with a passionate love of nature. He was described by Michael Kelley, the owner of the factory where Sacco worked, as a “man who is in his garden at 4 o’clock in the morning, and at the factory at 7 o’clock, and in his garden again after supper until nine and ten at night, carrying water and raising vegetables beyond his own needs which he would bring to me to give to the poor.”
Bartolomeo Vanzetti was a thirty-two-year-old Italian immigrant, migrant worker and fish peddler, a brilliant, self-educated, widely read student of literature, history and philosophy. He numbered among his favourite authors Kropotkin, Gorky, Marx, Renan, Darwin, Zola, Hugo, and Tolstoy.
Both men were philosophic anarchists, and both had been active in strikes and other labor struggles. The two men were close friends.
Arrested at the frenzied peak of the Palmer raids, Vanzetti was accused of involvement in two crimes, and Sacco in one. Vanzetti was charged with participation in an unsuccessful attempt to steal the payroll of the L. Q. White Shoe Company in Bridgewater, Massachusetts; and he and Sacco were both charged with participating in a payroll robbery at the Slater and Norrill Shoe Factory at South Braintree, Massachusetts, during which the robbers had shot down and killed the paymaster Frederick Parmenter and the guard Alessandro Berardelli.1
From the outset, the Justice Department took a special interest in the case. Not only were the names of Sacco and Vanzetti on the list of “dangerous radicals” which had been compiled by J. Edgar Hoover’s General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation. More important, both men had displayed a disturbing curiosity about the strange death of Andrea Salsedo, an Italian anarchist printer who, after being held illegally for eight weeks and tortured by Justice Department agents at the Park Row building in New York City, had plunged from a fourteen-floor window on the night of May 3, 1920.
The Justice Department’s special concern with the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti was subsequently revealed by Fred J. Weygand, one of the Federal agents assigned to the case, who stated in a sworn affidavit:
I am thoroughly convinced and always have been, and I believe that … it has been the opinion of such Boston agents of the Department of Justice as had any knowledge of the subject, that these men [Sacco and Vanzetti] have nothing whatsoever to do with the Braintree murders, and that their conviction is the result of cooperation between the Boston agents of the Department of Justice and the District Attorney.
“Facts have been disclosed, and not denied by the prosecution,” wrote Felix Frankfurter in his treatise The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, “to show that the case against Sacco and Vanzetti for murder was part of a collusive effort between the district attorney and agents of the Department of Justice to rid the country of these Italians because of their Red activities.”
On June 22, 1920, Vanzetti went on trial in the Superior Court at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on charges of assault with intent to rob and assault with intent to murder, in connection with the attempted hold-up at Bridgewater. Wizened, elderly Judge Webster Thayer of Worcester occupied the bench. Prosecuting the case was District Attorney Frederick G. Katzmann.
Despite the testimony of more than twenty witnesses that the defendant was miles from Bridgewater at the time of the crime, Vanzetti was found guilty on both charges and was sentenced by Judge Thayer to a prison term of twelve to fifteen years.
The evidence on the basis of which Vanzetti was convicted was evaluated by Felix Frankfurter in these words:
The evidence of identification of Vanzetti in the Bridgewater case bordered on the frivolous, reaching its climax in the testimony of a little newsboy who, from behind the telephone pole to which he had run for refuge during the shooting, had caught a glimpse of the criminal and “knew by the way he ran he was a foreigner.” Vanzetti was a foreigner, so of course it was Vanzetti!
Judge Thayer’s charge to the jury had included such comments as “This man, although he may not actually have committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.” The full text of the judge’s highly biased charge became unavailable shortly after the trial, when fifteen pages of the court record mysteriously disappeared and were never found.2
With the state prosecution now advantageously able to charge that one of the accused men was already a convicted felon, Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted on the charge of murdering Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter during the South Braintree hold-up.
On May 31, 192 1, with Judge Thayer again presiding and District Attorney Katzmann prosecuting the case, Sacco and Vanzetti went on trial.
The trial took place in the Norfolk County Superior Court at Dedham, Massachusetts, a residential suburb where well-to-do Bostonians made their homes. Like the rest of the country, Dedham was still gripped by the post-war anti-Red hysteria. The Dedham courthouse was under heavy police guard, and even newsmen were frisked for concealed weapons on entering the courtroom.
As G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan observe in their exhaustive study of the case, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti:
The defendants were tried before a jury drawn from a community and a people whose social mind was unfit to deal with any issue involving its hysterical passions. As far as the jury was concerned, it was inevitable that the quality of its verdict should be tainted. A sick society makes sick decisions.
During the early stages of the trial a friend of the jury foreman, Harry H. Ripley, told him it seemed unlikely that two men would rob a factory in broad daylight where one of them had worked and was well known. “Damn them,” replied the jury foreman, “they ought to hang them anyway!”
One of the state’s key “eye-witnesses,” who testified to having seen Sacco and Vanzetti driving from the scene of the crime in the bandits’ car, was a man who went by the name of Carlos E. Goodridge. Actually, the name was an alias. The witness “Goodridge” was an ex-convict, swindler and convicted perjurer, who had served two prison terms for theft, been implicated in an arson case with the intent to defraud an insurance company, and was, at the time he testified, a fugitive from a New York indictment for larceny. When the defence counsel sought to challenge the credibility of “Goodridge” by asking him whether he had a criminal record, District Attorney Katzmann objected to the question. Judge Thayer promptly sustained the objection.
The court interpreter at the trial was a man by the name of Joseph Ross. He was on close friendly terms with District Attorney Katzmann and also with Judge Thayer, after whom he had named his son, Webster Thayer Ross. Periodically during the trial, Vanzetti protested that Ross’s translations were deliberately favourable to the prosecution. Judge Thayer summarily brushed aside Vanzetti’s protests. Shortly after the trial, Ross was sent to prison for the attempted bribery of a judge in another case.
Among the Justice Department agents investigating Sacco and Vanzetti, and providing the prosecution with information about them, was an operative named Shaughnessy. Subsequently, Shaughnessy was arrested for highway robbery and sentenced to a twelve- year prison term.
One of the leading state officials connected with the case was Attorney General Arthur K. Reading, who represented the Commonwealth at several hearings following the trial and kept in close touch with Governor Allan T. Fuller. In 1928, Reading was charged with having blackmailed, to the tune of $25,000, a concern he was supposed to be investigating. He was impeached by the Massachusetts lower house, resigned from office and was later disbarred.
From the first day, the trial was permeated with bitter prejudice, Italian-Americans who appeared as defence witnesses were bullied by the prosecution and ridiculed for their unfamiliarity with the English language, as were Sacco and Vanzetti themselves. Objections by the defence counsel to such tactics were invariably overruled by Judge Thayer. In the words of Felix Frankfurter:
By systematic exploitation of the defendants’ alien blood, their imperfect knowledge of English, their unpopular social views and their opposition to the war, the district attorney invoked against them a riot of political passion and patriotic sentiment; and the trial judge connived at— one had alm.ost written, cooperated in— the process.
Both inside and outside the courtroom Judge Thayer made no attempt to conceal his hostility toward the defendants. He treated Sacco and Vanzetti with open contempt and badgered the defence lawyers at every possible opportunity.
George U. Crooker, an acquaintance of Judge Thayer at the University Club in Boston, with whom the judge discussed the case on several occasions, later revealed:
He conveyed to me by his words and manner the distinct impression that he was bound to convict these men because they were “Reds.” I remember Judge Thayer in substance said to me that we must stand together and protect ourselves against anarchists and “Reds.”
On July 14, 192 1, after a flagrantly prejudicial charge by Judge Thayer to the jury, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of murder.
In the year that had elapsed since the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, a constantly growing section of the labor and progressive movement in the United States had rallied to the defence of the two Italian workers. With the Sacco-Vanzetti Defence Committee coordinating the campaign, talented left-wing journalists such as Art Shields publicising the facts of the case, and impassioned champions of civil liberties like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ella Reeve Bloor, Carlo Tresca and Fred Biedenkapp addressing meetings in every state, a fervent crusade to free the two men had been organised on a national scale.
Now, with the verdict of guilty, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti became an international cause celebre.
Throughout the following months there were mass protest meetings in every part of Europe. Tens of thousands of men and women demonstrated before American legations. Famous writers and scientists, statesmen and philosophers, jurists and labor leaders on every continent joined in the worldwide campaign to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti.
“All over Europe, apparently,” scoffed the New York Times, “the various congeners of the Bolsheviki are going to howl against a fictitious injustice” . . .
Between July 192 1 and October 1924 the defence counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti submitted to Judge Thayer a series of motions for a new trial, based on the uncovering of fresh evidence, proof of collusion between the prosecuting attorney and state witnesses, and the admission of prosecution witnesses that their testimony had been falsified. The motions were accompanied by voluminous documentation, and hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, indicating the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti.
On October 1, 1924, Judge Thayer denied all of the motions.
The following month Judge Thayer elatedly told Professor James P. Richardson of Dartmouth College, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day! I guess that will hold them for a while . . . Let them go to the Supreme Court and see what they can get out of them!”
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held: “Exceptions overruled. Verdict to stand.”
On November 18, 1925, there came a sensational new development in the case. On that day, a signed note was delivered to Sacco from another prisoner in the Dedham jail, Celestino F. Madeiros, a young Portuguese criminal who was under death sentence for killing a cashier in a bank robbery. The note from Madeiros read: “I hear by confess to being in the south Braintree shoe company crime and Sacco and Vanzetti were not in said crime.”
Shortly before his confession, Celestino Madeiros had appealed his conviction of murder in the first degree; and there was a possibility he might not be executed. Even so, Madeiros admitted his participation in the crime at South Braintree. “I seen Sacco’s wife come here with the kids/’ Madeiros explained, “and I felt sorry for the kids” . . .
Sacco turned Madeiros’ confession over to William G. Thompson, the distinguished Boston attorney who had replaced the well- known labor lawyer, Fred Moore, as chief counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti in the late fall of 1924. Thompson immediately began a painstaking investigation of all the facts connected with Madeiros’ confession. In the following weeks, Thompson unearthed copious evidence substantiating Madeiros’ admission that he and five other members of the notorious Morelli gang of Providence, Rhode Island, had staged the hold-up and committed the murders at South Braintree.
On May 26, 1926, Thompson submitted the results of his findings to Judge Thayer in a motion for a new trial. Five months later, in a fifty-five-page decision, Judge Thayer denied the motion. Regarding Judge Thayer’s lengthy opinion, Professor Frankfurter wrote:
… I assert with deep regret but without the slightest fear of disproof, that certainly in modern times Judge Thayer’s opinion stands unmatched, happily, for discrepancies between what the record discloses and the opinion conveys. His 25,000-word document cannot accurately be described otherwise than as a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld Judge Thayer’s ruling.
On April 9, 1927, after seven years of imprisonment, Sacco and Vanzetti were brought before Judge Thayer for sentencing.
“Have you anything to say,” asked the clerk of court, “why sentence of death should not be passed upon you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Sacco. “I never knew, never heard, never read in history anything so cruel as this court.”
Vanzetti spoke. “What we have suffered during these seven years,” he told Judge Thayer, “no human tongue can say, and yet you see me before you, not trembling, not changing color, you see me looking in your eyes straight; not blushing, not ashamed or in fear.”
Concluding, Vanzetti said:
This is what I say: I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the most low or misfortunate creature of the earth— I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; 1 have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.
I have finished. Thank you.
Judge Thayer sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to die in the electric chair on July l0, 1927.
As Thayer hurried from the courtroom, he met a group of newspaper reporters. “Well, boys, how did it go?” he asked. The newsmen remained silent. “Boys,” said the judge, “you know I’ve often been good to you. Now see what you can do for me.”
During the next four and a half months, as the date set for the execution of the two men was postponed first to August 10 and then to August 22, protests against the sentence and pleas for executive clemency poured into the U.S. State Department and the Massachusetts state capital in a growing avalanche from every part of the world. In Paris, Madrid and Mexico City, London and Havana, Basle and Buenos Aires, and scores of other cities in every land, great mass demonstrations took place. There were protest strikes of workers in Denmark, Australia, South Africa, throughout Central and South America. Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland, Martin Andersen Nexo, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, and many other world-renowned figures added their voices, in impassioned pleas for clemency, to those of the millions . . .
But as Robert Lincoln O’Brien, millionaire owner of the Boston Herald and the Boston Traveller, later observed in a privately published document called My Personal Relations to the Sacco Vanzetti Case:
“The momentum of the established order required the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti . . .”
“If this were the South,” a Boston newspaperman told the author and Daily Worker reporter, Michael Gold, early that August, “the 100 respectable mob would be storming the Charleston jail to lynch the two Italian workers.”
On August 3, Governor Fuller denied a plea for clemency from Vanzetti. Four days later a special Advisory Committee which had been appointed by the Governor to study the case reported it had found that the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was “fairly conducted,” that there was no subsequent evidence warranting a new trial, and that they were “convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the murder” . . .3
As the dreaded day of the execution drew near, an almost unbearable tension gripped the nation. There were protest rallies from coast to coast and strikes in nearly every state. The Charlestown Penitentiary, where Sacco and Vanzetti were now confined, bristled with machine guns and was guarded day and night by more than 700 heavily armed city and state police officers. Government agents were stationed at Federal buildings in principal cities with orders “to shoot first and ask questions afterwards” if trouble started. In Washington, D.C., army detachments were mobilized in readiness “to defend the Capitol.”
Shortly before the date set for his electrocution, Vanzetti told Philip Duffield Strong of the American Newspaper Alliance:
“If it had not been for this thing I might have lived out my life among scorning men. I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by an accident.
“Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all!
“The moment that you think of belongs to us— that last agony is our triumph!”
On August 23, 1927, the case, which had begun at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims had established the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England, ended in the Charlestown Penitentiary near Bunker Hill, where the first major battle of the American Revolution had been fought. A few minutes after midnight, the lights of the prison flickered and grew dim as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were killed in the electric chair.
When word was flashed to the country that Sacco and Vanzetti were dead, men and women who had congregated in every city in the desperate hope of a last-minute reprieve wept agonizingly in the streets. This is how the New York World described the scene in Union Square, where a great crowd had assembled:
The crowd responded with a giant sob. Women fainted in fifteen or twenty places. Others, too overcome, dropped to the curbs and buried their heads in their hands. Men leaned on one another’s shoulders and wept. There was a sudden movement in the street to the east of Union Square. Men began to run around aimlessly, tearing at their clothes and ripping their straw hats, and women ripped their dresses in anguish.
In France, a few hours after the execution, the famous novelist, Romain Rolland wrote: “I am not an American; but I love America. And I accuse of high treason against America the men who have soiled her with this judicial crime before the eyes of the world.”
On August 27, 1927, four days later, the Boston Herald editorialized:
Let us get back to business and the ordinary concerns of life, in the confident belief that the agencies of law have performed their duties with fairness as well as justice . . . Now let us go forward to the responsibilities of the common day with a renewed determination to maintain our present form of government, and our existing social order.
The Herald editorial was headed: “Back to Normalcy.”
1. Despite the eagerness of the authorities to pin both crimes on the same “gang,” Sacco had a foolproof alibi to prevent his being charged with the Bridgewater crime; he had been working at his job at the 3K-shoe factory in Stoughton at the time the attempted hold-up occurred . . .
2. In the summer of 1928, the ex-convict Frank Silva admitted in a sworn confession that he and several other gunmen had staged the Bridgewater hold- up. Silva’s confession was published, along with corroborative evidence, in the October 31, 1928 issue of the magazine, Outlook and Independent.
3. The Advisory Committee was composed of A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard University; Samuel W. Stratton, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Robert Grant, a retired probate judge. The proceedings of the Committee, which was commonly known as the Lowell Committee, were dominated throughout by the wealthy, autocratic Harvard President. “He was,” write Joughin and Morgan in The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti “widely regarded as a perfect specimen of the New England snob, dominated by the sense of noblesse oblige . . .” One of his “private prejudices,” add these authors, “a dislike of Jews— is in the process of being supported as the passage of years releases collections of private documents.” Joughin and Morgan imply that this particular prejudice may have influenced Lowell in his consideration of Professor Frankfurter’s findings. In any case, Lowell, like other members of his set, felt nothing but bitter hostility toward Sacco and Vanzetti, and saw to it that the proceedings of the Committee were prejudiced against them from beginning to end.