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Battles for Freedom
The Use and Abuse of American History
By Eric Foner
I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd and The Nation Company, LLCCopyright © 2017 The Nation Company, LLC
All rights reserved.
The Men and the Symbols
August 20, 1977
My conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian.
— Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 1927
It is fifty years this month since two immigrant Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, died in the electric chair in Massachusetts. Yet "the case that will not die" still arouses emotional controversy and remains a pivotal event in the history of American justice. It will continue to do so, not only because of the character of the two men but because, as Edmund Wilson wrote at the time, the case "revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system."
In origin, Sacco and Vanzetti were no different from the millions of other immigrants who entered the United States early in this century. Sacco was born in the village of Torremaggiore in southeastern Italy, one of seventeen children in a relatively prosperous peasant family. Emigrating to this country in 1908 at the age of 17, he learned to edge-trim shoes and worked in a shoe factory in Milford, Massachusetts. The common picture of Sacco as a "good shoemaker," suggesting the familiar Italian-American cobbler, is misleading; he was a skilled factory workman who commanded high wages. By the time of his arrest in 1920 he was married, owned a house and had accumulated $1,500 in savings.
In contrast to Sacco, the settled family man, Vanzetti was an itinerant, unskilled laborer, one of the innumerable "tramps" and migrants of the period who could not or would not adjust to the discipline of the new industrial order. Born in northwestern Italy in 1888, he had spent seven years in school and later took great pride in recalling his excellent record. Arriving in America in 1908, he was first a dishwasher in New York City restaurants, then roamed New England, working variously in a stone quarry, a brick furnace, digging ditches and finally as a fish peddler.
Neither man had come to America as a radical, but both were attracted to anarchism here. Sacco and his wife on occasion performed in street theater to raise funds for the anarchists, and both men were involved in strikes and war resistance. Sacco collected bread for the Lawrence strikers in 1912 and assisted strikes of Massachusetts foundry and shoe workers; Vanzetti was blacklisted for his part in a strike at a Plymouth cordage factory in 1916.
When the two men met is not known. However, in 1917 Sacco, Vanzetti and other New England anarchists fled to Mexico for a year to avoid the draft and possible deportation for antiwar activities. The more intellectual of the two, Vanzetti, during his years in America read books ranging from Dante to Marx, Tolstoy and Kropotkin. Both lived among Italians, neither spoke English well and both planned to return to Italy. It was their arrest that made them fully a part of American life.
The crime with which Sacco and Vanzetti were charged and the conduct of their trial have been recounted many times, but it is probably well to summarize them briefly. On April 15, 1920, a shoe company in South Braintree, Massachusetts, was the scene of a robbery and murder. As a paymaster and guard carried the $16,000 payroll to the factory, two men who had been waiting nearby shot and killed them, and were then picked up by a car carrying three other men. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested three weeks later while accompanying Mike Boda, an anarchist friend suspected of involvement in the crime, to pick up his car from a repair shop.
At their trial, a major issue was made of the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti were armed at the time of their arrest and lied under initial questioning, denying knowing Boda or being anarchists. This behavior, according to the prosecution, revealed a "consciousness of guilt." Since at the time they had not been told of the charges against them, it seems plausible to assume that the guilt of which they were conscious was radicalism, not robbery. They lied to protect their friends and associates, as well as to avoid possible deportation.
The arrests coincided with the period of the most intense political repression in American history. During World War I the Espionage and Sedition Acts had made illegal virtually any utterance against the war. With the war's end, the foreign-born radical replaced the savage Hun as the symbol of evil for self-appointed defenders of the American way. The postwar Red scare culminated in the notorious Palmer raids ofJanuary 1920, when 4,000 radicals were rounded up and several hundred eventually deported.
Sacco and Vanzetti knew, moreover, that the police were less than scrupulous in their treatment of arrested anarchists. Vanzetti had just been to New York, where he had investigated the two-month detention of the Italian anarchist Andrea Salsedo. After Vanzetti's return to Plymouth, two days before his arrest, Salsedo plunged fifteen stories to his death from the offices where he was being questioned by federal agents.
The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for the South Braintree crime opened on May 31, 1921. The prosecution sought to place the two at the scene through eyewitnesses and a few pieces of physical evidence; the detense produced eyewitnesses who denied that either man had been there, and others to establish alibis.
The evidence against Vanzetti was absurdly thin. Only one man claimed to have seen him at the scene of the crime, and he identified Vanzetti as the driver of the getaway car, contradicting almost all other witnesses, who described the driver as of fair complexion. The prosecution also claimed, with little supporting evidence, that the .38 revolver Vanzetti was carrying at the time of his arrest belonged to the murdered guard. The defense produced thirteen witnesses, all Italian, to testify that Vanzetti had been selling fish on the day of the crime.
Regarding Sacco, there was eyewitness testimony that he had and had not been at the scene. Some prosecution witnesses, in violation of standard police procedure, had viewed Sacco individually instead of in a lineup, whereupon their initial recollection of the murderer's physical appearance improved remarkably. Others claimed, implausibly, that Sacco had spoken to them in clear, unaccented, colloquial English.
The key testimony against Sacco was the assertion that the .32 bullet found in the body of the guard had been fired from the revolver Sacco had on him when arrested. Each side produced ballistics experts to affirm or deny the claim. The prosecution expert, Capt. William Proctor of the State Police, testified that the bullet was "consistent with" having been fired from Sacco's gun. He later admitted that the prosecution had carefully coached him in that exact wording after he had said he could not make a positive identification. He added that he did not believe Sacco's gun had fired the shot. In 1961, two experts commissioned by Francis Russell, the author of Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1962), reaffirmed the theory that Sacco had fired the fatal shot, a conclusion that remains in dispute.
To accept the controversial ballistics evidence, one must not only dismiss Sacco's alibi but also ignore all the gaps in the prosecution's case. Sacco claimed to have gone to Boston that day to obtain a passport for return to Italy. The defense produced witnesses from the Italian Consulate, others who had lunched with him in Boston, and a man who recognized Sacco as having sat across from him on the train. More important, perhaps, is the evidence the prosecution did not present. No attempt was made to determine who had fired five of the six bullets found in the bodies of the dead men, to link the defendants with the stolen money, to establish a motive for the crime, or to present fingerprints as evidence, even though newspaper reports indicated fingerprints had been found on the getaway car.
The entire trial, moreover, was conducted in an atmosphere of intense hostility to the defendants. Seasoned newspaper reporters were shocked by the blatant prejudice shown by Judge Webster Thayer, and by prosecutor Frederick Katzmann's sarcastic, bullying cross-examination of the defendants as to their political beliefs. With Sacco, Katzmann raised such questions as whether he loved America, whether America was a free country, why he had avoided the draft, what he thought of Harvard University, and whether he sent his son to public school (he did). Thayer later remarked to a friend. "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards?"
In such an environment, a conviction was a foregone conclusion. For six years defense lawyers filed successive motions for a new trial, pleading new evidence, recantation of prosecution witnesses, the prejudice of the judge, and a confession implicating the Morelli gang of Providence, Rhode Island, in the robbery. But Judge Thayer rejected all motions and in 1926 the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld his decision.
Finally, in the spring of 1927, Thayer pronounced a sentence of death. By this time, the case had become an international cause célèbre. Governor Fuller appointed a three-member advisory commission to consider the fairness of the verdict. Consisting of Samuel Stratton, president of M.I.T.; Robert Grant, a former judge; and, at the head, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, the commission was an embodiment of Brahmin respectability. As The New Republic observed, "The life of an Italian anarchist was as foreign to them as life on Mars." Lowell's presence recalled the turbulent history of the immigrant factory workers in the cities bearing his familial names. For years he had been an official of the Immigration Restriction League; among his contributions to life at Harvard was the establishment of a segregated residence for black students. The commission's findings affirmed the verdict and sentence, and, despite last-minute appeals to the federal courts, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. "What more can the immigrants from Italy expect?" remarked Heywood Broun. "It is not every prisoner who has a president of Harvard throw on the switch for him."
In her account of the August days preceding the execution, Jeanette Marks observed, "Already as individuals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were being lost sight of ... already they had gone from our midst ... [they had become] symbolic." The sentimental portrait of a humble shoemaker and fish peddler had, even before their deaths, begun to obscure the living persons. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way writers on the case have treated the anarchism of Sacco and Vanzetti. Perhaps the problem can be stated as follows: everyone recognizes the importance of politics in the case, but most writers refuse to take the politics of the two men seriously. Herbert Ehrmann, one of the defense lawyers, found their political views "absurd and pathetically impracticable." Francis Russell, who believes Sacco was guilty, considers their beliefs "nobly absurd." Roberta Feuerlicht, the latest student of the case, who is convinced both were innocent, speaks of Vanzetti "prattling about the proletariat" and finds anarchism so senseless that she is "skeptical how deep their beliefs ran." In fact, anarchism was central to the lives of both men.
Today, when anarchists represent a minor fringe in most countries, it is perhaps difficult to recall that before World War I the militant left in Europe and America tended to be anarchist. Within a span of twenty years anarchists assassinated the monarchs of Italy and Austria-Hungary, the presidents of France and the United States, and the prime minister of Spain. In this country, ever since the Haymarket affair of 1886, the image of the bomb-carrying anarchist evoked the kind of fear Bolshevism would inspire in a later decade. "For half a century," as John Dos Passos wrote in 1927, "anarchy has been the bogy of American schoolmasters, policemen, old maids and small-town mayors."
The United States has had two distinct anarchist traditions. Native anarchism, symbolized by Emerson and Thoreau and deriving from the distrust of government so pervasive in the writings of Paine and Jefferson, was a form of extreme individualism. It was often coupled with pacifism or nonviolence and usually coexisted with a commitment to private property as the bulwark of individual freedom. Immigrant anarchism, associated first with Germans, then Italians, was, in contrast, a form of libertarian communism. As Errico Malatesta, the great Italian anarchist, put it, "anarchy without socialism is impossible."
The millennial dream of Italian anarchism was a communal society in which the triad of Old World evils — state, church and private property — had been abolished. More than in any other country, anarchists in Italy exalted the "propaganda of the deed." Terrorism, sabotage and assassination were all considered legitimate ways to stir the masses to revolutionary fervor. "We are all revolutionaries," said Malatesta, "because we believe that only the revolution, the violent revolution, can solve the social question." Although anarchists comprised only a small part of the Italian left before World War I, through emigration they exerted a powerful influence on the anarchist movement abroad. Among the most important exponents of Italian anarchism in America was Luigi Galleani, the man Vanzetti acknowledged as "our master." A brilliant propagandist and polemicist, Galleani preached a stern brand of anarcho-communism, rejecting any form of political organization and advocating violent revolution and a relentless war against capitalism. In his newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva, Galleani lionized McKinley's assassin Czolgosz as well as Gaetano Bresci, who had returned from Paterson, New Jersey, to assassinate King Umberto of Italy.
During World War I the federal government suppressed Galleani's newspaper when it urged Italians to resist the draft. Galleani himself was deported in May 1919, but not before he had called on his followers for violent revenge. Soon afterward bombs exploded in eight cities, and an Italian was killed trying to place a bomb at Attorney General Palmer's Washington home.
* * *
The little-studied Italian anarchist movement forms the backdrop for an understanding of Sacco and Vanzetti, who seem to have been members of one of the loosely organized groups of followers of Galleani that existed in Boston, New York, Paterson and other cities in those years. This does not prove, as Francis Russell claims, that Sacco "felt justified in committing even acts of robbery and murder for his cause." Most anarchists made a clear distinction between ordinary crime and acts of political violence; as Vanzetti later said, most of his political activity consisted of "talking on street corners to scorning men." But the point to remember is that, though Sacco and Vanzetti may never have committed violence, as followers of Galleani they were hardly the innocuous dreamers so often pictured in the literature on the case.
Most of what we know of the beliefs of the two men derives from their famous prison letters. Both were taught to read and write English in prison by wealthy New England women who had interested themselves in the case, and Vanzetti, in particular, became a highly articulate writer in English whose letters still evoke an emotional response. (The same is true of his Italian letters to his family, only portions of which have been translated.)
Sacco emerges from his prison letters as a man of sensitivity who was distraught over the prolonged separation from his wife and children and the inability to practice his craft. Yet the letters also reveal a social outlook underpinned by an unbending class consciousness and a view of himself and Vanzetti as "the good soldiers of the revolution."
Sacco's reputation for creative thought has suffered by comparison with Vanzetti's. But he was well acquainted with the anarchist press, including Galleani's newspaper, and at the time of his arrest had several dozen books in his home. Although he had received no formal schooling in Italy, he was hardly an illiterate. Nonetheless, events, not books, turned him toward anarchy. His experiences in the bitter strikes that wracked the ring of industrial towns around Boston affected his political outlook: in his letters there is little about the evils of government but much on the class struggle and the need for revolution. "I know," he told Judge Thayer, "the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed and the rich class, and there will always be collision between one and the other."
Even in the personal letters expressing his grief at the separation from his family, Sacco moves instinctively from an individual to a collective point of view. He tells his daughter Ines how he wishes he could "see you running, laughing, crying and singing through the verdant fields," but then adds, "the same I have wished for other poor girls ... the nightmare of the lower classes saddened very badly your father's soul."
Excerpted from Battles for Freedom by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2017 The Nation Company, LLC. Excerpted by permission of I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd and The Nation Company, LLC.
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