Sacco-Vanzetti: The Unfinished Debate

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Today, thirty-two years after Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for the murder of a paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts, the ghosts of the cobbler and the fish-peddler are not at rest. As recently as last year a joint senate-house committee of the Massachusetts legislature was asked to recommend that the governor issue posthumous pardons, thus correcting “an historical injustice which had besmirched the reputation and standing of Massachusetts in the eyes of the entire world.” No pardons were forthcoming.

In October of 1958 AMERICAN HERITAGE published an article about the case entitled “Tragedy in Dedham,” whose author, Francis Russell, concluded that the two men were innocent of the Braintree crime. Recently we received a letter in reply from Mrs. Dorothy G. Wayman, now a librarian at St. Bonaventure College in upper New York State, but formerly a newspaperwoman who covered the SaccoVanzetti trial. It is published here in the interests of historical fairness, with a brief defense of his original thesis by Mr. Russell.

—Ed.

Reading recently in AMERICAN HERITAGE that the SaccoVanzetti case in 1921 was a miscarriage of justice, I was led to the conclusion that the propaganda of the 1920’s is becoming enshrined in amber. The article in question was written by one who candidly confessed he was a boy in grammar school in 1921.

I was “working press” in those years. I interviewed the prisoners, knew the counsel for both sides, was familiar with the scene and the people of the times.

From the day that Captain Charles Van Amburgh, ballistics expert for the Massachusetts State Police, showed me, in the state police laboratory, how the bullet that had killed Alessandro Berardelli matched test bullets fired from the revolver found on Nicola Sacco at his arrest on a Brockton streetcar, I have been as convinced as the twelve Norfolk County jurymen of the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti.

First, let us rehearse, factually, the events in the payroll robbery, involving two murders and the theft of $15,776, which became a cause célèbre , with six years of litigation and thirty years of ideology.

Life was going on peacefully in April of 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts. I know Braintree, some twenty miles south of Boston, because I grew up in the next town, Randolph. Across from the South Braintree railroad station and a bit downhill on Pearl Street you came first to the Rice & Hutchins shoe factory (where Nicola Sacco had worked under an assumed name); and next to it, the Slater & Morrill shoe factory.

(A few miles further south, in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, four months earlier, on December 24, 1919, there had been an attempted robbery of a payroll for a Bridgewater shoe factory, with gunplay in the street. That payroll was in a guarded truck, the guards returned the shots, and the robbers escaped. You will not find in reference works that Bartolomeo Vanzetti was identified and convicted of participation in that affair and was a convict under sentence when tried, in 1921 with Sacco, for the South Braintree murders. However, it is true.)

Thursdays were paydays at Slater & Morrill. On the morning of Thursday, April 15, 1920, Express Agent Shelly Neal received as usual a consignment of cash for the company. He worried a little because an unfamiliar large black automobile, with engine running, was parked outside the station, and its driver watched Neal cross from the express office with the bundle of money to the office of Slater & Morrill. The car, however, drove off toward the village square. Two hours later, with no train due, William Heron, a railroad detective, noticed two strange men—Italians, he thought —enter the station and loiter by the restroom. (After the arrest, a fortnight later, Heron identified Sacco as one of them.)

Shortly before Heron saw the men in the railroad station, Mrs. Lois Andrews, looking for a job at the Slater & Morrill factory, saw a large, black automobile parked in front of the factory and a man bent under the hood as though tinkering with something. She tapped the man on the back and asked about the other shoe factory. He stood up and told her which door to go in for the employment office at the Rice & Hutchins factory.

Two or three hours elapsed while the Slater & Morrill payroll was being put in the individual pay envelopes.

Frederick Parmenter was the official paymaster for the Slater & Morrill shoe factory; Alessandro Berardelli, his armed guard. During the robbery and murder, Berardelli’s Harrington & Richardson revolver disappeared.

The two set out that sunny April afternoon about three o’clock to walk, as they did every Thursday, the short distance across the railroad tracks, down the hill, from the office to the Slater & Morrill shoe factory. Office employees watched them from the second-story window with a clear view. Each man was carrying a long, flat tin box, like a covered tray, filled with pay envelopes stacked in order.

As they walked, they met James E. Bostock, machinist at the Slater & Morrill factory, who, leaving the factory to come uphill, had seen two foreign-looking strangers—he thought they were Italian fruit-peddlers—loafing near the factory. Parmenter spoke to Bostock about a pulley that needed repair. The two with the payroll went on down the hill. A moment later, Bostock heard shots and turned around. As recorded in the official trial transcript, Bostock testified: