- Historic Sites
Tragedy In Dedham
A restrospect of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
The two sides became irreconcilable. One side felt, as did the court reporter in his pamphlet, that anything less than the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti would undermine the Massachusetts judiciary. The other side demanded that the whole proceedings of Judge Thayer’s court be repudiated. There should have been some middle way out, some face-saving formula that would at least have pacified if not contcnted the reporter and his kind and yet given the men their lives. Whatever the defense’s private opinion of Judge Thayer, it would have been better to have said less about him and concentrated on the subsequently discovered evidence. That this evidence, chiefly concerning the Morelli gang, changed nothing was pre-eminently the responsibility of President Lowell. Working as he did in private with his committee, unhampered by strict rules of legal evidence, he had the opportunity to examine all the facts. A word from him, an indirect indication, and Governor Fuller would have stayed the death sentence and ordered a new trial. The Lowell Report is incomprehensible—unless it was that Lowell, the trained and objective historian, took the point of view of a minor court reporter.
Governor Fuller, of course, took his cue from the report. If he, the parvenu, had not been so in awe of Lowell and the Back Hay ascendancy he represented, perhaps he would have acted otherwise. His contact with Sacco and Vanzetti is said to have been friendly.
Once or twice a year going into the State Street Trust building I used to see Fuller. The doorman would see him first and swing the door open with a ringing “Good morning, Governor.” I slipped through in the eddy. The old politician billowed ahead of me under full sail. Self-esteem carried him along like a favoring wind. His was the pride of manner that has reached its goal. An Alger story of the new century. From a Maiden bicycle shop to the head of the Packard agency for New England when Packard was the Rolls Royce of America. A mansion on the water side of Beacon Street hung with Gainsboroughs and Romneys and Raeburns. That was the first stage. Then the governorship. And when Packard slipped in the depression, the ex-Governor sensed the moment of ebb and shifted to Cadillac.
In these last years of his life, I suppose Sacco and Vanxetti, those men whose hands he shook so long ago in the death cells, had become blurred impressions, half-forgotten, overlaid by eighteenth-century paintings and the tail-fins of Cadillacs. “Our reputation is your protection,” said the Governor’s used-car “ad.” Yet I never saw him swinging into the State Street Trust but I thought of his role in the trial.
Public opinion in Massachusetts—however that nebulous entity can be defined—was against Sacco and Vanxetti. To the community they were two murderers who had been given a fair trial and every opportunity for appeal afterward. The whole thing had gone on for much too long. Radicals and anarchists and Communists were trying to use the case as a lever to pry apart the foundations of law and order. But Massachusetts was not going to be dictated to by such people. There might be demonstrations in front of American embassies throughout the world, there might be more bombs planted in the houses of those concerned —as had already happened to fudge Thaycr and one of the jurors. Nothing like that was going to change the course of justice. Conservative opinion more and more adopted the point of view that Sacco and Vanzetti had become a challenge to society that could be answered only by their deaths. This view, though it prevailed judicially, never did have a literate apologia.
Literary talent was the forte of the other side. That side consisted of the literary left, radicals, liberals. Communists, woolly well-meaning progressives like my Aunt Amy, plus a large scattering of people who could not be labeled politically but whose sense of justice had been outraged. Some of these latter were starched conservatives. The crystallized view of the opposition was that Sacco and Vanxetti were the victims of a malignant conspiracy. Neither judge nor district attorney had really believed them guilty of murder. The trial was a put-up job to get rid of two troublesome agitators.
For the Communists—to whom this case gave their first opportunity for a mass appeal—Sacco and Vanzetti were martyrs of the proletariat, murdered by reactionaries trying to preserve an unjust social order. As Eugene Lyons wrote in his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti ; “They were sacrificed to the basic fears of capitalist society. They died for the working class of the world.”
Seen from this point of view two alien Reds could expect no justice from a Massachusetts court or a Dedham jury. That jury had obviously not debated long over the case, for it took them only five hours to bring in their verdict.