Sacco-Vanzetti: The Unfinished Debate

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There exists a five-volume transcript of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, but few have the time to read, analyze, and ponder it. At least, let the inaccuracies that have crept into the literature of the cause célèbre be corrected. Let Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself a Massachusetts man, a great jurist, one concerned in and cognizant of the trial, be quoted. At the time, he could not properly speak publicly, but he left the record. He wrote: “I think the row that has been made idiotical.” And again: “Sacco and Vanzetti … were turned into a text by the reds.”

Dorothy G. Wayman

Mr. Russell replies:

Mrs. Wayman may have seemed to make a good case for herself, but when her points are examined carefully none of them is tenable.

In the matter of the bullet, I think it is unquestionable that the one shown her by Captain Van Amburgh was from Sacco’s pistol. Yet all witnesses testified that only one man shot Berardelli, that this man stood over him and emptied his revolver into him. Four bullets were found in Berardelli’s body. When exhibited in court three of these were admittedly from a weapon not found on Sacco or Vanzetti. The fourth bullet was from a Colt of the type Sacco carried. Therefore either the murderer used two guns or else someone switched a bullet. Medical Examiner McGrath on removing the bullets marked each with a number. The Colt bullet, however, seems to have been marked with a different instrument than the other three. Furthermore, the man who shot Berardelli was seen to reload. Four shells were found near the body. When shown in court only one was from a Colt. Yet the gunman was observed to reload only once. Certainly he could not have ejected two kinds of cartridges from one revolver.

By Lois Andrews I presume Mrs. Wayman is referring to the witness Lola R. Andrews. Lola Andrews talked with a man in South Braintree the day of the murders whom she later identified in court as Sacco. Yet she talked with him in English, unaware of any accent, though Sacco at the time could scarcely speak English at all. Mrs. Andrews, a hysterical woman, later repudiated her court testimony.

James E. Bostock saw the shooting more closely than any other witness. The getaway car passed within feet of him. When at the trial he was asked if he could identify Sacco and Vanzetti, he replied, “No, sir.” To the question whether he could tell if the defendants were the two men he saw do the shooting he answered: “No, sir, I could not tell whether or not they was, no sir.”

For the eyewitnesses who identified Sacco and Vanzetti, an equal number denied they were the men. As Police Chief Gallivan of Braintree later remarked: “The Government would put on a witness there and then the defense would rush in to offset it … That’s the way the case appeared to me to be drifting along, to strive to see who could get the biggest crowd. In other words to see who could tell the biggest lies.” As to the identification procedure before the trial, it was most irregular. Witnesses were not asked to pick Sacco and Vanzetti from a line-up but were shown them alone. Again, Mrs. Wayman is wrong about Orciani. He was arrested the day after Sacco and Vanzetti, but as he was able to provide a time-clock alibi he was released.

Mrs. Wayman gives the impression that Vanzetti’s earlier trial was independent of the Dedham trial. Such is not the case. Neither he nor Sacco had been suspected of any crime until they were accidentally picked up by the police a few weeks after the Braintree crime. Vanzetti’s counsel was afterward able to show a receipt for eels that Vanzetti the fish-peddler had signed in Plymouth the day he was supposed to have made the earlier robbery attempt.

Sacco and Vanzetti were convinced anarchists, and it is quite true that anarchists all over the land rallied to their defense, just as it is true that the Communists found the case convenient for their own political ends. One of Mrs. Wayman’s colleagues on the Boston Globe , Frank P. Sibley, attended every day of the Dedham trial. Later he testified to the Lowell Committee: “His [Judge Thayer’s] conduct was very improper. What affected one more than anything else was his manner. It is nothing that you can read into the record. In my thirty-five years I never saw anything like it.”

Mrs. Wayman should realize that a jury’s verdict is not sacrosanct. Both Maine and Rhode Island abolished capital punishment after it was discovered that innocent men had been executed in those states. Four years ago a Santos Rodriguez was convicted by a Massachusetts jury of murder, a conviction aided by his own confession. Yet last year he was finally proven innocent, and released.

Madeiros in his confession admitted that he was drunk during the holdup. Some of the details he gave may be wrong or hazy, yet the confession does account for five men being at the robbery. Although all witnesses testified to the five men including a blond driver, the prosecution made no consistent attempt to account for the other three. Madeiros was a member of the notorious Morelli gang of Providence.

As for Governor Fuller and the Lowell Committee, Fuller was a hesitant parvenu and President Lowell of Harvard had a hard Yankee bias against foreigners.

In conclusion I should like to point out that though anarchists have in the past committed acts of political violence as a gesture of protest against society, their motivations, however misguided, have been idealistic ones for which they have been willing to sacrifice their lives. Such a sordid commercial crime as the one in South Braintree would never have come within the anarchist canon. Anyone who reads the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti must realize how incompatible a robbery-murder was with the two men’s characters.