Sacco-Vanzetti: The Unfinished Debate

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Setting aside the public furor, the naked issue in the six-year controversy, quite simply, was the validity in our civilization of trial by jury. That issue was clearly recognized and upheld by the high court of Massachusetts and by the Supreme Court of the United States, both denying petitions for new trials, after prolonged hearings on appeals.

 

Anyone might think that a generation that has seen “blood purges” in Nazi Germany or “state trials” in Russia would recognize and defend the institution of trial by a jury of a man’s peers, with rights to counsel and appeal.

Sacco’s defense was an alibi. He swore that on April 15, 1920, he had spent the day in Boston, to get a passport to return to Italy. He could not produce a passport, but his story ran that he had taken in a large family photograph and was told he must have a regulation passport photo. The defense produced an affidavit made in Italy of a former clerk in the Boston consulate, whose memory was phenomenal. After a year, he not only recalled Sacco’s few minutes in the consulate, and the family group photo, but even fixed the time within fifteen minutes!

April 15 was a Thursday. Sacco, under oath at his trial, had testified that he needed the passport because “we were going Saturday to New York to get the steamboat.” Yet, instead of walking half a mile from the consulate to Scollay Square, Boston, which was lined with studios specializing in passport photos delivered immediately, he said that he had loafed around Boston all day in restaurants, and gone to work on Friday, telling his boss that the consulate was so crowded that he could not get his passport.

As for Vanzetti, whose alibi was that he had been selling eels all day around Plymouth, Massachusetts, he testified at the trial that on April 22 he went to Boston to consult with radical friends and thence to New York to see the lawyer for an Italian held for deportation. It is a fact that not one dollar of the Slater & Morrill payroll was traced by police to either Sacco or Vanzetti. It is also a fact that more than a third of a million dollars was forthcoming for their defense.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti admitted their anarchist affiliations at the trial. (Sacco’s last words, as he went to the electric chair, were “Long live anarchy!”) They admitted going with Boda and Orciani by prearrangement on the evening of May 5, 1920, to get Boda’s Overland car from the Johnson garage. They said they intended to visit radical friends to collect and secrete subversive literature to avoid deportation.

After the first appeals for a new trial had been denied, late in 1925, one Celestino Madeiros, a fellow prisoner with Sacco in the Dedham jail, suddenly “confessed” that he, with others he declined to name, had committed the South Braintree robbery and that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had been with them. Aside from palpable discrepancies, such as that the payroll was in a black bag (it was in two flat tin boxes) and that he and his gang had driven from Providence to Boston, back to Providence, from Providence to Braintree and then “spent some time in a speak-easy” before the three o’clock crime, his confession left unexplained Sacco’s possession of the Colt revolver.

When all the appeals to higher courts had been considered and denied, six years after the original trial, the Defense Committee sought a pardon for Sacco and Vanzetti, then under sentence of death. Governor Alvan T. Fuller of Massachusetts, a conscientious man, appointed as an advisory committee A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University; Samuel W. Stratton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Robert Grant, retired judge of the probate court in Boston. As a newspaper reporter I knew them all personally. I considered them to have been honorable men of ability and probity.

They interviewed the eleven jurors then surviving, the judge, district attorney, defense counsel, and forty-one witnesses for the prosecution and the defense. They went to the prison with Governor Fuller to interview Sacco, Vanzetti, and the “confessing” convict Madeiros. In the end, they published a report stating that on the evidence, they believed that the jury’s verdict was warranted.

During the six years, the furor of public opposition to the verdict had been not only vocal but violent. The defense enlisted statements in behalf of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti from prominent people all over the world. Others, who remained anonymous, took more violent means of opposition. Starting in 1921, American embassies were bombed in Paris, Havana, and various South American countries. So, over the next few years, were the homes of the presiding judge, a juror, a key witness, and even Robert Elliott, the official executioner who threw the switch.

“The lovers of justice,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Harold Laski, “have emphasized their love by blowing up a building or two.”

Threats had been sent to Governor Fuller, Justice Holmes, and other officials, so that police had them under day-and-night guard in those days. Justice Holmes was one of four on the United States Supreme Court who had had petitions presented to them and, after consideration, had declined to intervene. The others were Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Harlan F. Stone and Chief Justice William Howard Taft. On the opinion of such men, I am willing to believe that the two gunmen were afforded every opportunity to have their innocence established, had they been innocent.

In the nearly forty years since a Braintree paymaster and his guard with the payroll were shot to death, the world has seen many attempts to destroy the democratic way of life. It is important for future generations that the record of facts be not distorted.