Sacco-Vanzetti: The Unfinished Debate

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Parmenter had started [to run] across the street … There was probably eight or ten shots … [a man] stood over Berardelli. He shot, I should say, he shot at Berardelli probably four or five times … Probably I was away from him 50 or 60 feet … and as I turned they swung around and shot at me twice … The automobile came up the street … saw the two that done the shooting and one other that got off the runningboard … he got out and helped throw the two cans, or boxes … that had the payroll, in … I saw it was a Buick car … As it passed me, I went back to where Berardelli was laying … He laid, he set, just off the sidewalk … He laid in a kind of crouched position and I helped lay him down and everytime he breathed, blood flowed and was coming out his mouth.

One of the four bullets fired into Berardelli’s body as Bostock watched in horror was extracted at the autopsy and was proved, ballistically, to have been fired from the Colt .32-caliber revolver that police found concealed on Sacco at his arrest.

There were a number of other eyewitnesses. Their cumulative testimony may be read in the transcript of the trial. The jury heard their living voices, watched as they made identifications of the accused on trial.

Let us pass on to the sworn testimony of Sacco and Vanzetti concerning their actions from April 15 to May 5, 1920, and the circumstances of their arrest.

Ever since the attempted payroll robbery in Bridgewater the previous December, police throughout southern Massachusetts had been investigating “suspicious characters.” One whom they had under surveillance was an Italian named Boda who lived in Bridgewater; he had been seen driving a large, black Buick like that described in the Braintree payroll robbery. A Braintree shoeworker named Pelzer had seen the robbery and had written down the license number of that car. It was soon found, abandoned in woodland; the number plate had been stolen in December.

Boda owned an Overland car, which he had taken for repairs to the garage of Simon Johnson, a law-abiding citizen. Police asked Johnson to notify them if Boda or anyone else came to claim the Overland.

On the evening of May 5, 1920, after the Johnsons had gone to bed, four men knocked at their door. Mrs. Ruth Johnson opened the door and saw, by the headlight of a motorcycle, Boda and three others. While her husband detained Boda in conversation, Mrs. Johnson went to a neighbor’s house and telephoned police. Two of the men, whom she later identified as Sacco and Vanzetti, followed her, going and coming back.

Her husband, meanwhile, had convinced Boda that without 1920 license plates the latter could not drive his Overland out of the garage onto the highways. Boda and another man, testified to have been one Orciani, then mounted the motorcycle, drove away and were never subsequently apprehended by police.

Sacco and Vanzetti walked away in the direction of the electric streetcar line to Brockton (nearest point to Stoughton, where Sacco lived and Vanzetti was temporarily visiting him). Police, alerted by Mrs. Johnson’s telephone call, boarded the next streetcar from Bridgewater and arrested the pair. When searched at the Brockton police station Sacco was found to be carrying the Colt .32-caliber revolver with a number of cartridges to fit it. On Vanzetti was a Harrington & Richardson revolver, similar to the one missing from the body of the murdered payroll guard, Berardelli.

All the eyewitnesses of the Braintree crime were given an opportunity to view Sacco and Vanzetti at the police station, and a number identified them. This is important, as it happened only two weeks after the crime, although their indictment by a Norfolk County grand jury and their trial at Dedham Courthouse did not come until a year later. Part of the delay was due to the trial (and conviction) of Vanzetti for the attempted payroll robbery in Bridgewater in December, 1919, which had priority.

Under Massachusetts law, no reference was made, at the Dedham trial, to Vanzetti’s previous trial and conviction. No eyewitness testified to seeing Vanzetti fire a shot, but again under Massachusetts law, an accessory present and participating in a crime where murder occurs is equally subject to the death penalty.

In retrospect, the extraordinary thing, to me and to other reporters and citizens of the area, was the instant organization—May 7, 1930—of an enthusiastic Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. My newspaper editor sent me often to the Defense headquarters at 256 Hanover Street, Boston, to interview the various people that congregated there—professed anarchists, sympathetic liberals, and emotional Italians. The Defense Committee brought from California, as chief defense counsel, a lawyer who had previously defended persons accused of anarchist violence. In four years, The New York Times reported on October 4, 1925, the Defense Committee collected and accounted publicly for the spending of nearly a third of a million dollars. They subsequently carried the litigation, with reiterated appeals, to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to the governor of Massachusetts, and to several justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, for two more years, exhausting every legal resource before the death sentence was carried out on August 23, 1927.

In thirty years as a reporter on a metropolitan newspaper, never again did I see such lavish outlay of money, or such public furor as was elicited for the defense of two aliens, arrested carrying guns, convicted of murder in connection with a payroll robbery.