A Corroborative View

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A quite similar view of the Sacco-Vanzetti case—concluding that Sacco was very probably guilty and Vanzetti probably innocent—is contained in James Grossman’s stimulating article, “The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Reconsidered,” in the January, 1962, issue of Commentary. After reviewing the facts of the crime and examining the ballistics evidence, Mr. Grossman goes on, in the excerpt reprinted below, to discuss the characters and beliefs of the principals.

Sacco and Vanzetti’s defenders have always urged as their strongest argument that it is impossible for these two men to have committed this sordid crime; it is utterly inconsistent with their characters. … In part perhaps because it seems to fit in with their characters, Sacco and Vanzetti are often regarded as holding a harmless, mildly eccentric, Utopian belief in the natural goodness of man and as being completely opposed to violence in all forms and under all circumstances. These views … are not the views they actually held. Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of Luigi Galleani [“the Nestor of the Massachusetts anarchists”], who approved not only of the traditional propaganda of the deed, killing kings and heads of state, which we associate with some anarchists, but who also justified robberies and thefts if they were committed for the cause. …

When we turn … to the conditions existing in 1920 we find that they are the very conditions which [Sacco and Vanzetti believed] would justify violence on behalf of themselves and their friends. The White Terror [their term for Attorney General Palmer’s roundup of radicals during the Red Scare] was for them not a propaganda phrase but a reality. It was reported to them almost daily that their friends were being persecuted, arrested, held incommunicado … They had the right to defend themselves; and defense was bound to be expensive. …

While the Braintree murder is unthinkable as a personal theft of Sacco’s, I am suggesting that it is possible to understand it as an act of war, a step in the raising of a defense fund. … The figure of speech, war, which taken fairly literally seems to be the clue to the Braintree deed, may also explain how Sacco, if he was guilty of the deed, can be so sincere and convincing in his claim of innocence and never for a moment in his public statements in court or in his private letters seem to be a conscious murderer. For if he did commit the deed, he would no more feel guilty of murder than would a soldier defending his country. …

In the court proceedings, and in speaking to his supporters, Sacco, of course, did something more than assert innocence in general terms; he claimed he was in Boston and not in Braintree on the day of the murder. … [But] in writing to his comrades and his friends, publicly or privately, Sacco never in any letter that I have seen soecificallv denies the killing. … No word of his innocence was spoken at the solemn great moment of his death, when he cried out long life to anarchy and bade farewell to his wife, children, and friends …

Vanzetti’s letters throughout, his statements on being sentenced and afterward, to the very moment of death, are startlingly different from Sacco’s in the unmistakable explicitness of Vanzetti’s assertions of innocence and denials of guilt. … When his words are general he excludes all possibility of revolutionary ambiguity: “I am utterly innocent in the whole sense of the word.” And at the moment of death … he uses his most moving formulation; to those present he said, “I wish to tell you that I am an innocent man. I never committed any crime, but sometimes some sin.” … The sense, whether true or false, of Vanzetti’s innocence radiates so profusely through the pages of his fine letters and magnificent statements that we read Sacco’s in their light. … Sacco has been parsimonious [in expressions of] innocence and generous only in the use of terms that do not necessarily imply it. …

Vanzetti’s statements … seem to me affirmative proof of his innocence. But if we ignore them entirely, the evidence against him is not strong. … For in Vanzetti’s case there is no strong evidence, like the bullet in Sacco’s, requiring an almost irrefutable defense to overcome it.