Sacco Guilty, Vanzetti Innocent?


Each tooled gun barrel, with its hundreds of minute striations, is unique. The one certain method of determining whether two separate bullets have been fired through any particular barrel is the use of a comparison microscope. Through this instrument the ends of the two bullets are brought together in one fused image. If the striations match, then it is practically certain that both bullets were fired from the same weapon.

Today the comparison microscope is the standard method of bullet identification. In 1920 it was just beginning to come into use, but it was not used in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. There the experts attempted to measure the bullets with calipers and compare them with measurements made of a cast of the barrel of Sacco’s pistol. It was a useless, haggling proceeding.

No one disputed that Bullet III hail been fired from a Colt automatic, but Captain Proctor told District Attorney Katzmann before the trial that he did not believe it had been fired from Sacco’s Colt. The prosecution was aware of Proctor’s doubts when the captain was questioned in court. “My opinion is,” Proctor said with a prearranged ambiguity that escaped the defense, “that it [Bullet III] is consistent with being fired by that pistol.” The prosecution claimed that the Winchester cartridge among the four picked up near Berardelli had also been fired in Sacco’s pistol. Comparing this cartridge with one fired on the test range, Proctor again used the word “consistent.” Privately he had from the time of their arrest expressed doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.

Two years after the trial he signed an affidavit saying that he had used the ambiguous phrase “consistent with” at Katzmann’s request, but that if he had been asked directly in court whether he believed that Bullet III had been fired from Sacco’s Colt, he would have replied No.

Captain Van Amburgh was scarcely more emphatic in his trial testimony: “I am inclined to believe,” he said, “that the Number III bullet was fired from this Colt automatic pistol.” Burns and a second defense expert, J. Henry Fitzgerald of the Colt Patent Firearms Company, denied this. Jn their opinion neither Bullet III nor Shell W, the Winchester cartridge, had any connection with Sacco’s pistol.

Fitzemeyer, the I ver Johnson foreman, when handed Vanzetti’s revolver on the witness stand and asked if it had been repaired recently, replied: “Well, a new hammer, I should call it, a new hammer.”

In the summer of 1924 Captain Van Amburgh was appointed head of the newly formed ballistics laboratory of the Massachusetts State Police. Fortunately for his new career the repercussions of his blunder in the Harold Israel case had not yet reached Massachusetts. On February of that same year Father Dahme, a priest in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had been shot and killed as he was taking his customary evening walk. A week later a drifter by the name of Harold Israel was picked up by the police in nearby Norwalk. In Israel’s pocket was a loaded .32 caliber revolver. Several witnesses identified him as the man they had seen shoot Father Dahme. Van Amburgh was called in to examine the ballistics evidence. He fired Israel’s revolver and compared a test bullet with one taken from Father Dahme’s body. Both bullets, he reported, had come from the same weapon. Later, however, five experts from the Remington Arms Company plus another from the New York Police Department examined the bullets and were of the unanimous opinion that the bullet that had killed Father Dahme could not have been fired from Israel’s revolver. Israel was then released.

Captain Van Amburgh remained head of the state police laboratory until his retirement in 1946. During his earlier years there he developed a device called a spiralgraph with which he was able to make strip photographs of bullets as they revolved on a turntable. By comparing the strips of two bullets, he maintained he could determine whether or not they had been fired from the same gun. Later he made such comparative photographs of Bullet III and the test bullets of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. These photographs he used for demonstrations when he testified in the 1923 Hamilton-Proctor motion, one of the many filed requesting a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti.

The Hamilton-Proctor motion was based in part on Captain Proctor’s affidavit as to what he had really believed when he testified at the trial, although Proctor himself had died before the motion could be argued. In addition to his affidavit, there was further evidence offered by a post-trial defense expert, Dr. Albert Hamilton, that Bullet 111 could not have come from Sacco’s Colt.

Dr. Hamilton would never have been engaged by lhe lawyers for Sacco and Vanzetti if they had known more about his background. His doctor’s degree was self-awarded. He had started out in Auburn, New York, as a small-town druggist and concoctor of patent medicines. Over the years behind the counter he developed expertness at a second career, advertising himself in a publicity pamphlet as a qualified expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting, ink analysis, typewriting, photograph), fingerprints, toxicology, gunshot wounds, guns and cartridges, bullet identification, gunpowder, nitroglycerine, dynamite, high explosives, blood and other stains, causes of death, embalming, and anatomy.