- Historic Sites
Why I Changed My Mind About The Sacco-Vanzetti Case
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Twice during the last twenty-eight years, Francis Russell has written about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for American Heritage. His first article, in October 1958, sought to prove the innocence of the two men. His second story, in June 1962, was written when he had come to believe that one of them was guilty. A new book of his, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved, has recently been published by Harper & Row.
If in 1953 I had not been drawn for a month’s jury duty in Dedham, where Sacco and Vanzetti were tried in 1921, I doubt if I should ever have written about them. That granite building with its austere columns still seemed haunted by the two dead anarchists. The sheriff, in his blue serge cutaway with its embossed brass buttons and his white staff of office, had been the, sheriff at the great trial, and sometimes in the over-long lunch hours I would talk with him about it, or rather listen to him. My interest in the case began during that month. I determined then to read the transcript of the trial.
As a Harvard undergraduate I had read Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti and had taken for granted that men who could write so movingly, and in Vanzetti’s case so eloquently, could not have been guilty of the sordid holdup-murder for which they had been convicted. The dogma of their innocence, expounded until it became a fixed belief in most intellectual circles, I accepted as selfevident. According to that received dogma, Sacco and Vanzetti were harmless philosophical anarchists arrested during the hysteria of the postwar Red scare. The police, in cooperation with the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, considered a robbery-murder charge a good way of getting rid of two troublesome agitators. No one involved could really have considered them guilty. Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s lives were snuffed out by Massachusetts reactionaries. Their trial, little better than a kangaroo court, was presided over by an intemperate, narrow-minded judge, a “black-gowned cobra” in Vanzetti’s words, already determined to convict the defendants. The jury was made up of nativist bigots, the prosecution corrupt to the point of framing evidence. In the post-trial stages of the case, the parvenu governor of Massachusetts, Alvan T. Fuller, a bicycle mechanic who had turned to automobiles and made himself wealthy selling Packards to the rich, was no more than a toady to Beacon Hill Boston. Harvard’s president A. Lawrence Lowell, reviewing the case, preferred to see the two anarchists die rather than to disturb the social structure.
My first lapse from this dogma came as I read through the trial transcript. Reluctantly I had to admit that, judging by the printed record, the trial had been proper, the verdict reasonable. Sacco and Vanzetti were armed when arrested—for all their explanations, a telling point against them. Judge Webster Thayer’s conduct and remarks seemed temperate. His charge to the jury, so assailed by Professor Felix Frankfurter in his seminal book that did most to stir world opinion, seemed to me fair. No doubt the judge had practiced declamation at high school in the postCivil War period of oratory, but he could scarcely be faulted for that. “Let your eyes be blinded to every ray of sympathy or prejudice,” he told the jury, “but let them ever be willing to receive the beautiful sunshine of truth, of reason and sound judgment.”
It was for the court, he said, to decide questions of law. Only the jury could decide the facts. Alibis were always questions of facts. “The Commonwealth [he continued] claims that these defendants were two of a party of five who killed the deceased. The defendants deny it. What is the fact? The Commonwealth must satisfy you beyond reasonable doubt that the defendants did. If the Commonwealth has failed to satisfy you, that is the end of these cases and you will return verdicts of not guilty.…On the other hand, if the Commonwealth has so satisfied, you will return a verdict of guilty against both defendants or either of them that you so find to be guilty.
“I have now finished my charge,” he concluded. “My duties are now at end. I have tried to preside over the trial of these cases in a spirit of absolute fairness and impartiality to both sides. If I have failed in any respect you must not, gentlemen, in any manner fail yours. I therefore now commit to your sacred keeping the decision of these cases.”
After the charge but before the jury had brought in its verdict, Sacco and Vanzetti’s chief attorney, Fred Moore, a former general counsel for the Industrial Workers of the World, told the judge that whatever the verdict, no one could say that the defendants had not had a fair trial. Many would later say just that. I was no longer one of them.