- Historic Sites
Tragedy In Dedham
A restrospect of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
Sometimes at the end of the afternoon session he would take a few of us through the jail two streets away, and alter showing us the reception hall and the dining mum and the laundry would always point out the cells of Sacco and Vanzetti. “I was in the court,” he told us one afternoon as we stood in front of the barred door, “that day when Judge Thayer sentenced them. Vanxetti made his speech first, that long speech —maybe you heard about it. And all the time he was talking Judge Thayer just sat there with his chin in his hand looking down at his desk. Never moved. But when Vanzetti finished, then he let him have it.”
Just outside the courtroom in the tessellated corridor we would pass the prisoners’ cage, used in all Massachusetts murder trials. In this cage the defendants Sacco and Vanzetti sat, as have all other Norfolk County defendants. The cage has often been mentioned in the literature of the case, as if the two men had been exhibited in court like monkeys in a zoo. Hut in spite of its name the cage is no cage at all. It is a topless enclosure of woven metal lattice about three feet high in front rising to five feet in the back. Inside is a bench; at either end are latched doors. Except for its symbolism there is nothing very form! dable about it.
I was on a civil jury. Most of our cases concerned car accidents and personal injuries. One of our last cases, a minor one involving a woman who had cut her leg in the door of a car, made the courtroom buzz as it began. The lawyer for the plaintiff seemed to be the cause of it, for as soon as he appeared there was a wave of whispering. Even the clerk came over to the rail and muttered something quickly to our foreman. The lawyer was a portly man in his sixties or seventies, with a manner so assured that it was almost contemptuous. He was baldish, his face florid, with the flesh sagging under the cheeks. Behind his rimless spectacles his pale-blue eyes watered. Hc was dressed with the conservatism of a Boston banker, a hardwoven worsted suit cut in characteristic pear-shaped style. His shoes were of Scotch grain leather, he had a handkerchief tucked in his sleeve, and there were several club seals on his gold watch chain. When he spoke his voice was upper-class Bostonian, that clastic prolongation of the vowel sounds that has come to be known as the Harvard accent. As soon as he opened his argument he lapsed into Victorian rhetoric.
The clerk’s remark was passed along the jury box; the man next to me nudged my elbow. ‘That’s Kat/mann,” he said, “the fellow that got Sacco and Vanzetti.”
In his pear-shaped suit he seemed the culmination of the ghosts of the month. There he was again, in Judge Webster Thayer’s old courtroom, at the scene of his triumph of a generation before. As I watched him lacing us, spinning polysyllabic phrases out of nothing, I tried to form an impression of him divorced altogether from the Sacco-Vanzetti case. If t had seen him only at that moment, I should have thought him empty and pompous, his smugness derived from the fact that he was a Mayflower descendant (as in spite of his name I believe he was). But I should also have admitted his basic honesty. He died the following year.
Some months later I talked with a judge who had known Katzmann. When I told him about Dedham he asked me my opinion of the man. I said he was verbose, third rate, not wholly grammatical. He laughed. “That describes most of us lawyers,” he said. “As for Katzmann, he was average—an average district attorney, a little tricky like most of them, but no worse than most out to get a conviction. He thought Sacco and Vanzctti were guilty. I’m sure he never changed his mind.”
“What did you think of the trial?” I asked him.
“I don’t think the trial was fair. Whether they were guilty or not, I don’t think it was fair. Judge Ihayer was prejudiced—although like Katzmann, l grant you, he thought they were guilty, guilty of murder and not of just being Reds.”
It does not seem to me today that any reasonableminded person reading over the literature of the Sacco-Vanxetti case could come to any other conclusion than that the two men were innocent. There are aspects of the case that arc still inexplicable—but these men were not the stuff of criminals, either in their natures or their habits or even their practical experience. “The dry bones still rattle,” Heywood Broun wrote nine years after their execution. They no longer rattle. The case has become part of history. And since then we have become more used to innocent people being condemned. A new generation is scarcely aware of them; the cause they thought they died for is no cause. One finds Vanzetti’s noble last address to the court in several anthologies: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph.” Eut the words were not prophetic after all.
A third of a century has passed since the trial, fudge Thayer, Katzmann, President Lowell, and most of the jurors and witnesses arc dead. What remains out of this shadowed past? Two men were executed for a crime they did not commit. Beyond all partisanship, how could it have been avoided?