A haunting piece of history

Art Winslow, former executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

THE most famous words uttered by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed 80 years ago by the commonwealth of Massachusetts along with his good friend Nicola Sacco, appear without attribution in John Dos Passos’ “The Big Money,” the concluding volume of his “U.S.A.” trilogy. In their day, it was widely understood whence these words had come:

“If it had not been for those things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died unknown, unmarked, 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.”

Vanzetti spoke some close approximation of that to sum up seven years of travail, scant weeks before he and Sacco died in the electric chair in the first hour of Aug. 23, 1927, maintaining their innocence to the end. (The reporter who conducted the interview for New York World admitted the possibility of some embellishment.) By that time, the fate of the two Italian immigrants was an international cause célèbre, one that had waxed and waned along with a series of appeals and setbacks since their conviction in 1921 of having killed a paymaster and a guard in a payroll heist the year before in South Braintree. Massachusetts journalist Bruce Watson’s “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind” features that quotation as well, freighted as it is with the weight of the case and intimations of the character of the defendants, whether truthful and humble or deceitful and self-aggrandizing.

Even at this historical remove, the two men, Watson writes, “haunt American history,” in part because “there is little concrete proof in the case . . . only shifting stories and gut feelings.” As Katherine Anne Porter reported half a century after their death in her slim volume “The Never-Ending Wrong,” a firsthand account of demonstrating for them in the streets and working with their defense committee: “I did not know then and I still do not know whether they were guilty . . . but still I had my reasons for being there to protest the terrible penalty they were condemned to suffer; these reasons were of the heart.”

There are also legalistic readings, such as that offered in 1927 by then Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter, who termed Judge Webster Thayer’s decision in denying appeals for a new trial “a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations.” But reasons of the heart, or gut, determined the stance of most observers then and now. Thayer himself was quoted variously as saying -- well away from his courtroom in Dedham -- that Sacco and Vanzetti were “Bolsheviki” and that he “would get them good and proper.” After denying their appeals, he bragged to an acquaintance, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?” Frank Sibley, who covered the trial for the Boston Globe, was later asked by an advisory commission to the governor whether Thayer had displayed bias before the jury. “Only his whole manner,” Sibley replied. H.L. Mencken called the case “one of the most amazing scandals in the whole history of American jurisprudence.”


When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a streetcar almost three weeks after the robbery and murder, each was armed with a concealed handgun; Sacco was carrying a pocketful of extra cartridges and Vanzetti some shotgun shells. Interrogated within an hour by Bridgewater police chief Michael Stewart, both lied on various points. At their trial a year later, they were forced to admit the lies and claimed that they had feared deportation for their radical beliefs. (Indeed, the two had been on a government watch list because of their anarchist ties, well before the South Braintree robbery.)

Chief Stewart, Watson notes, was “proud of helping federal agents round up six actual Reds in Bridgewater during the Palmer Raids.” These, named for U.S. Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer, arose from the nation’s post-World War I turmoil, which included severe labor unrest, a spate of bombings, a xenophobic fear of “agitators” and widespread arrests of radicals. “America’s first ‘Red Scare’ was shorter than its McCarthy-era successor yet far more intense,” the author asserts.

Watson’s integration of the case with its cultural context and his attention to Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s close connections to truly dangerous anarchist dynamiters are the main strengths of his account. The facts, such as they are, have long been known -- except for what will probably never be known or must be considered hearsay. Francis Russell, whose “Tragedy in Dedham” is one of the significant historical reports of the case, wrote it 40 years after the trial but managed to interview several of the surviving figures. Among them was Warren Stearns, who had been the commonwealth’s prison psychiatrist at the time and had seen Sacco and Vanzetti regularly in that capacity. “I don’t think the truth will ever be known,” Stearns told Russell. “I tell you this, though. They weren’t criminal types.” Sacco “had a very winning way about him,” while Vanzetti had a “rigid mentality” and reminded Stearns of a trade-union leader.

Watson’s agnosticism on the question of their guilt or innocence lets him present a cogent overview that avoids the tendentiousness some of his predecessors fall prey to. Robert H. Montgomery, whose “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth” (1960) argues for the rightness of their conviction, relies primarily on the ballistic evidence, which others have claimed is problematic; he is also chary of Communist influence, speculating that the trial “was exploited for the purpose of toppling America, destroying capitalism, and bringing the world revolution.” Watson draws a more accurate historical distinction, pointing out: “Though Red-baiters linked the two anarchists with the Communists who rallied for their release, they were poles apart.” Vanzetti distrusted Lenin and “was not surprised when the Bolshevik Revolution descended into tyranny.”

Nor does Watson go as far as Herbert Ehrmann, associate counsel to Sacco and Vanzetti, does in his heartfelt and amazingly detailed exculpatory chronicle, “The Case That Will Not Die” (1969). In the trial, the defense suggested that the bullet that killed the payroll guard was a substitute, inserted into the evidence to tie Sacco’s gun to the killing. Whereas this idea is speculative, it is true that federal agents planted an observer in the cell next to Sacco’s, spied on meetings and rallies related to the defense and intercepted mail.

Like Ehrmann and others, Watson discusses the confession of Celestino Medeiros and its implications. Medeiros was executed the same night as Sacco and Vanzetti for a separate and unrelated killing, but he had revealed in prison in November 1925 that he was a participant in the Braintree robbery and that Sacco and Vanzetti were not. Medeiros would not name names, but several sources suggest that the heist was carried out by a professional gang led by one Joe Morelli, who bore a striking physical resemblance to Sacco; Morelli admitted the deed in noncritical circumstances and denied it in legally precarious ones.

"[T]he pride of an old Commonwealth, the zealotry of a judge and DA, the indifference of too many Americans, and the flexible morals of too many witnesses led to a denial of justice,” Watson concludes. Yet he also points out that Sacco and Vanzetti “believed in armed insurrection” and that none of those “poets, playwrights, and novelists” who took up their cause “hinted that the men were militant revolutionaries, that the slightest evidence had been presented against them, or that they had been fully armed when arrested.” And he includes Upton Sinclair’s assertion, in a recently discovered letter, that Sacco and Vanzetti’s head defense lawyer told him the pair were out to hide dynamite on the night of their arrest. One way or another, there was bound to be an explosion. *