Tragedy In Dedham

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On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, two gunmen killed a paymaster and his guard, seized the $16,000 payroll, and escaped. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were picked up by police and identified by several witnesses as the holdup men. In 1921, at the conclusion of a trial in Dedham, the two men were found guilty of murder. The leisurely legal processes of exception and appeal, however, went on for six years; in that period many people came to feel that the trial had been unfair and that Sficco and Vanzetti had been convicted not because they were murderers, but because they were anarchists. In June, 1927, the late Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a committee of review composed of fudge Robert Grant, President Samuel W. Stratton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard. The Lowell Committee concluded that the trial had been fair and made no recommendation for clemency. Sficco and Vanzetti were executed in the early morning hours of August 23, 1927, in the Charlestown State Prison.

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which began as ihe prosecution lor a commonplace it brutal murder, developed gradually into one of the world’s great trials. In the end it was much more than a trial. It became one of those events that divide a society. Ahhough the issues that it raised have been overlaid by war and political events, they never wholly die. Even today middle-aged men and women hearing bysome chance the names Sacco and Vanzctti still find themselves stirred by the passion and violence of their younger days. Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, and like all symbols the meaning varies with those who adopt it.

I myself do not have any memory of the 1921 trial, I then being in the fifth grade of the Boston public schools, but I do remember from my seventeenth year the agitation and excitement of those summer weeks in 1927 preceding the two men’s execution. The day they were to die I took the elevated in to Boston and spent the better part of the afternoon walking over Beacon Hill and across the Common in the August sunshine. In spite of the tranquillity of the weather the atmosphere was tense. Police were everywhere, hard-laced and angry, some of them carrying rifles—a thing I had never seen before. Pickets with placards marched up and down before the Bulfinch facade of the Slate House. Periodically the police carted groups of them away in a patrol wagon to the Joy Street Station. Almost at once their places were filled by others. Buses kept arriving from New York hung with signs announcing that “Sacco and Vanzetti Must Not Die!” and trailing red paper streamers. As tin buses pulled into Park Street those inside began to snig “The Red Flag.” They looked like foreigners, most of them. I did not like their looks. Crossing Boston Common on that hot afternoon I sensed in myself die hostility of the bourgeois world toward these two men. Jn spite of any pickets and red-streamered buses from New York, I knew that they were going to die that night. As I walked under the faintly scented lindens on the Tremont Street side of the Frog Pond, I felt a sense of oneness with the community that was asserting itself. I was glad Sacco and Vanxetti were going to die.

It never occurred to me that the two men might be innocent. In the shabby-genteel little private school I went to in Roxbury none of the masters would have dreamed of such a thing. We took our opinions from them and from our parents. The father of one of my classmates was court reporter of Massachusetts. He had written a much approved pamphlet, Sacco and Vanzetti in the Scales of Justice , in which he had demonstrated the quasi-divine status of Massachusetts justice, a status which made even the appointment of the Lowell Committee to investigate the case a reflection on the Commonwealth’s judicial system. According to the reporter that system, so sanctified by the past, could not err. Such a conservative position was common enough in Massachusetts then. Nor did it change. Thirty years later the reporter still listed his pamphlet in the American Who’s Who as his single literary accomplishment.

By and large one’s view of the case depended on one’s status in the community. If one were middleclass and Republican and read the Herald mornings and the Transcript nights, one thought Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty. Any latent doubts subsided after President Lowell of Harvard issued his report. But if one were a university liberal one tended to think the trial unfair, and if one read the Nation or New Republi c one was sure they were innocent.

My father was a lawyer and a Republican. He believed the two men guilty, not from any particular study of the trial itself but because of his acquaintance with Captain Van Amburgh, a ballistics expert who testified at the trial. Captain Van Amburgh through laboratory examinations was certain that one of the recovered murder bullets had been fired from Sacco’s gun. Ibis convinced my father, although—as it came out later—it never convinced Captain Proctor of the State Police.