Tragedy In Dedham


My Aunt Amy, who was a social worker and lived in the Elixabeth Peabody House, was equally convinced of the two men’s innocence. This again was not from studying the evidence—( don’t think Aunt Amy did anything more than glance at Professor Frankfurter’s hook—but that was the way one had to feel if one were a social worker. Nobody could have continued to stay at the Elizabeth I’eabody House who IcIt otherwise—not that such a person would ever have been there in the first place. One of the proud moments of Aunt Amy’s IiTc was when she was arrested lor picketing the State House and taken away in the patrol wagon. I think she was almost disappointed that die policeman who arrested lier was so courteous about it.

I can remember Sundays alter dinner when my father and Aunt Amy would get to wrangling about the case, not arguing from logic but merely making mutually contradictory statements. One afternoon Aunt Amy struck the table and called my father a liar. Neither one of them was the least bit interested in the other’s point of view. After the publication of the Lowell Report my father maintained that Frankfurter should have resigned from the Harvard Law School. Aunt Amy’s high opinion of the Lowclls was never quite the same again.

I don’t know when my views about Sacco and Van/etti changed. It must have been some time in the thirties, when I happened to read their letters. Those letters just weren’t compatible with the sordid and mercenary Draintree murders. As to the question of who were the murderers if Sacco and Vanzetti were not, I found that answered later in a book by one of their counsel, Herbert K. Ehrmann’s The Untried Case , which seemed to prove conclusively enough that the men who did the killing were from the Morelli Gang of Providence. If one accepted that explanation, reinforced by more factual evidence as time went on, everything fitted together, even to the number of men involved. For all witnesses agreed that there were five men in the murder car, although the prosecution never attempted to account for more than two. One of the Morellis looked enough like Sacco to have been his brother.

Dedham, where the trial took place, is one of those quiet backwaters that span the decades without ever causing much comment until suddenly, and much to the regret of the townspeople, it is made known by the event. For the most part it is a mill town stretched along the loops of the Charles River. But the older section near the High—not Alain—Street is a wellpreserved relic of the Colonial past. This High Street, overarched by elms, has its spacious frame houses of the mid-eighteenth century and its later and more grandiloquent mansions of the century’s end. Tt has two graceful white meetinghouses and a Victorian granite Episcopal church with an English-type churchyard where deans and a bishop lie buried. The Courthouse on the High Street, built in 1827, is a stone building with massive Greek-revival columns. Its Roman-style dome, soberly proportioned to the columns, is the most characteristic object in Dedham. From the flat country beyond the river it looms above the elms, Hanked by the meetinghouse spires, a symbol of authority.

I have seen its silhouette from across the marshes in all seasons of the year. That stretch of bogland beyond U.S. i, those miles of buttonbush and hardhack and speckled alder, converges on the horizon line of the Courthouse dome. Almost always when I see the great dome so secure above the peaceful community I find myself thinking back to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Its ghost still seems to linger over the Courthouse and the High Street, a tangible presence, whatever one’s feelings may be about it.

I felt that presence even more keenly in 1953, 32 years after the trial, when I was called on to serve for a month as a juror in that domed Courthouse, in the same aloof paneled room where Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and lound guilty and, after all the exceptions and delays, were sentenced to death six years later.

Scarcely a day of that month passed but there was some reference to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. In Uedham, at least, there were no longer any feelings of partisanship about it. Yet everyone sensed somehow that for the town it had been the climactic event.

The old sheriff in his blue serge cutaway with the large brass buttons had served there for forty years. He had been deputy sheriff in the First World War, and was made sheriff the year before the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Sometimes during the long lunch hour one of us would ask about the trial and he would reminisce. All his loyalty and most of his life svcre bound up with the Dedham court. The law revealed there was majestically certain. I don’t think he ever entertained the idea it might err, nor do i think his mind ever questioned the Sacco-Vanzetti decision. A due process of law was final. To think otherwise would be to challenge the very things that had become part of him—his brass buttons, his white wand of office with the blue state seal on it. His office did not however keep him from having personal feelings apart from the law. He had come to like Sacco and Vanzetti. ‘They were good boys,” he told us. “I knew Nick best, but they were both good boys. Never any trouble in jail. Now those Milieus—you remember them? They were really bad eggs. You had to keep your eye on them every minute.”