Tragedy In Dedham: A Final Note

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What Russell did at this point can only be regarded as fantastic. In order to prepare the pistol for the test, he had his two experts fire two shots through the pistol to “clear the rust from the barrel.” We know that rust is so much a part of the material to which it attaches that it cannot be scraped off like mud. Thus, when Russell’s experts fired two shots through the pistol for the purpose of blasting out rust, it was inevitable that small but nevertheless integral particles of the interior of the pistol barrel went along with the rust. By this blasting process, the pistol of ip6i was no longer the pistol of 1920!

Russell hangs his case against Sacco from an alleged thread one half of onethousandth of an inch thick. One only need read Sacco’s testimony on the witness stand and his letters while in prison to find that thread breaking and dissolving like wax in fire. …

Michael A. Musmanno

Judge Musmanno, a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, is a wellknown trial lawyer and author of many books. As a young lawyer associated with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, he spent many fruitless hours trying to obtain a last-minute stay of execution for the defendants, and has been their partisan ever since.

MR. RUSSELL REPLIES

I have the highest respect for Judge Musmanno but I feel that over the years he has become so emotionally committed to the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti that it has become part of his personality. … I began my book Tragedy in Dedham as convinced of the men’s innocence as Judge Musmanno still is. But as a historian I felt compelled to accept and evaluate all the evidence I encountered. When I arranged for the ballistics tests of October, 1961, I was willing to accept whatever results those tests might show, without preconceptions. The two experts who made the tests … were professionally indifferent as to the results. All they were interested in doing was establishing the facts. …

Sacco was not, as Judge Musmanno asserts, a night watchman at the shoe factory who needed to go armed. He merely had the small extra job of tending the factory furnace … It may be true, as Judge Musmanno states, that there were 300,000 such Colts [as Sacco’s] then in existence, but the markings in the barrel and on the breechblock of each one of them would be as distinctive as the fingerprints of each of 300,000 individuals. The odds for another Colt with the same breechblock and barrel markings being used in the murders are remote. Bullet III—as I shall again explain—showed the identical markings of test bullets fired from Sacco’s pistol both in 1921 and 1961. One of the shells, Shell W, found at the scene of the crime had markings corresponding to the markings on the base of test shells fired in Sacco’s pistol. This correspondence can be clearly seen in the enlarged photograph published in the June, 1962, edition of AMERICAN HERITAGE .

As for Captain Proctor, it is true that he never did believe that Bullet III had been fired from Sacco’s Colt, but it is also true that his knowledge of ballistics was crudely elementary. At the trial he was asked to strip a pistol and was unable to do so. Judge Musmanno speaks of the two trial defense experts, but he does not reveal that in 1927 one of the experts, James Burns, disavowed his testimony and announced he was convinced that Shell W had been fired in Sacco’s Colt. Nor does he reveal that another defense expert, Professor Augustus Gill of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after observing the 1927 microscope tests of Major Calvin Goddard, repudiated his earlier findings, and stated that he was now certain that Sacco’s Colt had fired Bullet III. … [As for the bullets], Dr. Boyd soaked each in a solution of benzidine to see if he could determine any traces of blood. Several months after the tests the state chemist at my request washed the base of Bullet III so that I could make a clearer photograph of the identification scratches. A certain amount of plastic substance, used to hold the bullet in place in the comparison microscope, had become imbedded in the base. …

Rather than engage in extended counter-trivialities, I think it more enlightening to explain just what happened when the 1961 tests took place. It was my original intention to have Colonel Jury and Mr. Weller compare Bullet III under the comparison microscope with test bullets fired from Sacco’s Colt at the time of the trial. Colonel Jury thought it might be well in addition to test-fire Sacco’s Colt in the laboratory and use these bullets as a further comparison with Bullet III. However, as there was some rust in the Colt barrel, Colonel Jury was not sure that test bullets of the present would be clear enough for comparison. The rust proved superficial. After two shots were fired to clear the barrel, four more were fired. The markings on these shells and bullets were clear and distinct.

Colonel Jury and Mr. Weller worked independently with their individual comparison microscopes at opposite sides of the room. While one compared the shells, the other compared the bullets. Then they changed places. Each made his findings without telling the other. … The match was unmistakable. Similarly both men compared Shell W with the 1921 test shells and the test shells just fired. The shells matched in every detail.