June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
The murders for which Nicola Sacco and Barlolomeo Vanzetti were convicted and finally executed were quick, simple, and brutal. On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in the small shoe manufacturing town of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a paymaster, Frederick Parmenter, and his guard, Alessandro Berardelli, were shot and robbed as they walked down Pearl Street with the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company payroll—some fifteen thousand dollars in two metal boxes.
The paymaster and the guard, each carrying a box, had crossed the railroad tracks near the front of the Rice & Hutchins factory when two strangers who had been leaning against the fence there suddenly stepped toward them. The strangers were short, dark men. One wore a felt hat and the other, a cap. in a Hash the first man whipped a pistol from his pocket and fired several shots into Berardelli. The guard dropped to the ground. Parmenter, a step in advance, turned and when he saw what was happening, stalled to run across the street. Before he reached the other side he was shot twice. He dropped his box and collapsed in the gutter. Witnesses—of which there were a number in the factory windows and along Pearl Street—were afterward uncertain whether one man or two had done the shooting, but most thought there had been two.
With Parmenter and Berardelli lying in the gravel, one of their assailants fired a signal shot, and a Buick touring car that had been parked near the Slater & Morrill factory now started jerkily up the rise. As it slowed down, the two bandits picked up the money boxes and climbed into the back seat. Berardelli had managed to get to his hands and knees. Seeing him wavering, a lhird man sprang from the car and fired another shot into him. It was a death wound.
The Buick continued along Pearl Street with five men in it, a gunman in the Iront seal firing at random at the crowd drawn by the sound of the shots. No one was hit, although one bystander had his coat lapel singed. The car gathered speed, swung left at the top of Pearl Street, and one of the men in the rear seat threw out handfuls of tacks to hinder any pursuit. The speeding car was noticed at intervals along a tenmile stretch of road: then it vanished. Two days later it was found abandoned in the woods near Brockton, a dozen miles away.
Berardelli died within a few minutes, the final bullet having severed the great artery issuing from his heart. Parmenler too hail received a fatal wound, a bullet cutting his inferior vena cava, the body’s largest vein. He died early the following morning. At the autopsy two bullets were found in Parmcnter and four in Berardelli. The county medical examiner, Dr. George Burgess Magralh, removed the bullets from Berardelli’s both, scratching the base of each with a Roman numeral. The bullet thai had cut the artery and that, from the angle of its path, he determined must have been fired while Berardelli was down, he marked III. It had struck the hipbone obliquely and was slightly bent from this glancing contact.
Of the six bullets, five had been fired from a .32 caliber pistol or pistols with a right-hand twist to the rifling. These bullets were of varied manufacture—three Peters and two Remingtons. The remaining bullet, the one Dr. Magrath marked III, was a Winchester of an obsolete type having a cannelure, or milling around the edge. It had been fired from a .32 caliber pistol with a left-hand twist. Only a Colt, among American pistols, had such a reverse twist. Four spent cartridges of the same caliber as the bullets were picked up in the gravel near Berardelli’s body. Two of these were Peters, one a Remington, and one a Winchester later known as Shell W.
No weapons were found on the bodies, although Berardelli customarily carried a revolver with him. On March 19, 1920, he had taken his gun to the Iver Johnson Company in Boston to have it repaired. According to his wife, it needed a new spring. Lincoln Wadsworth, in charge of the repair department, recorded that on that day he had received a .38 caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver from Alex Berardelli and had sent the gun upstairs to the workshop. There the foreman, George Fitzemeyer, for some reason marked it as a .32 caliber Harrington & Richardson requiring a new hammer and ticketed it with a repair number.
No one at Iver Johnson’s recorded the revolver’s serial number. The store manager testified a year later at the trial that the company did not keep a record of deliveries of repaired guns, but he was certain this particular revolver had been delivered. All weapons in the repair department not called for by the year’s end were sold and a record made of each sale. Since Berardelli’s revolver was no longer in the store, and there was no record of its being sold, the manager insisted it must have been called for.
Several witnesses of the shooting said at the inquest that they saw one of the bandits stoop over Berardelli. Peter McCuIlum, peering out of the first floor cutting room of Rice & Hutchins alter he heard the shots, saw a man putting a money box into the Buick while holding a “white” revolver in his other hand. A Harrington & Richardson revolver was nickel-plated and might well have seemed white in the sunlight. This may have been Berardelli’s. It seems unlikely that the guard would have accompanied the paymaster without being armed. And if he had a revolver, it is possible that one of the men who shot him may have reached down and taken it.
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested almost by chance on lhe night of May 5, 1920. They had met earlier in the evening at Sacco’s bungalow in Stoughton—a half-dozen miles from South Brainiree—with two anarchist comrades, Mike Boda and Ricardo Orciani, to arrange about gathering up incriminating literature from other comrades for fear of government “Red” raids. Until a few months before this, Boda had been living in West Bridgewater ten miles away with another anarchist, Ferruccio Coacci, who had been taken away for deportation on April 17. Not until Coacci was at sea did the police come to suspect that he and Boda might have been concerned in the South Braintree holdup. Boda had left an old Overland touring car in a West Bridgewater garage to be repaired, and the four men were planning to pick it up that evening. Orciani and Boda left Stoughton on Orciani’s motorcycle. Sacco and Vanzetti went by streetcar. Once they had arrived, Boda was unable to get the car from the forewarned proprietor. As the men argued, the proprietor’s wife telephoned the police.
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in Brockton while riding back to Stoughton on the streetcar. The police found a .’52 caliber Colt automatic tucked in Sacco’s waistband. In the gun’s clip were eight cartridges, with another in the chamber. Sacco had twenty-three more loose cartridges in his pocket. These, though all .32 caliber, were of assorted makes—sixteen Peters, seven U.S., six Winchesters of the obsolete type, and three Remingtons. Van/etti was found to be carrying a Harrington fc Richardson .158 caliber revolver, its five chambers loaded with two Remington and three U.S. bullets.
The day following their arrest the two men were questioned at some length by the district attorney, Frederick Katzmann. Sacco told Katzmann he had bought his automatic two years before on Hanover Street in Boston under an assumed name. He had paid sixteen or seventeen dollars for it, and at the same time he had bought an unopened box of cartridges.
Vanzetti said he had bought his revolver four or five years before, also under an assumed name, at some shop on Hanover Street and had paid eighteen dollars for it. He had also bought an unopened box of cartridges, all but six of which he had fired oil on the beach at Plymouth.
At their trial fourteen months later the two men told very different stories. They both admitted they had lied when they were first questioned, but explained that they then thought they were being held because I hey were anarchists. They had lied, they said, partly because they were afraid and partly to protect their comrades. Indeed they had good reason to feel apprehensive about their anarchism, for there were rumors of new government Red raids, and only a few days before their arrest their comrade Salsedo had died mysteriously in New York while being held by federal agents.
Sacco’s revised trial story was that he had bought the pistol in 1917 or 1918 in the small town where he was working. He had bought a box of cartridges on Hanover Street shortly afterward. The man who sold him the box filled it with various makes because of the wartime scarcity of cartridges.
Vanzetti now said that he had bought his revolver a few months before his arrest. Often he carried a hundred dollars or more with him from his fish business, and he felt he needed a gun to protect himself because of the many recent holdups. He had bought the revolver from a friend, Luigi Falzini. It was loaded when he bought it, and he had never fired it.
Falzini appeared in court, identified the revolver by certain rust spots and scratches as having belonged to him, and said he had bought it from Orciani. Another witness, Rexford Slater, testified that the revolver had originally belonged to him and that he had sold it to Orciani in the autumn of 1919.
Orciani had been arrested the day following the arrests of Sacco and Vanzetti. However, as he was able to provide a timecard alibi for his whereabouts on April 15, he was released. During the early part of the trial he acted as chauffeur for one of the defense attorneys, but although he was in the courthouse almost daily, he did not take the stand. Yet he was, as the district attorney pointed out in his summing up, the missing link in lhe revolver’s chain of ownership.
At the trial the prosecution contended that the automatic found on Sacco was the one that had fired Bullet III and that Vanzetti’s revolver had been taken from the dying Berardelli. Several days before the ballistics testimony, two experts for the prosecution, Captain William Proctor of the Massachusetts State Police—then no more than a detective bureau—and Captain Charles Van Amburgh from the Remington Arms Company in Connecticut, fired a number of test shots from Sacco’s automatic into oiled sawdust. Proctor and Van Amburgh were joined in these experiments by a defense expert, James Burns. After the test bullets were recovered they were then compared with Bullet III.
The trial testimony of the firearms experts on both sides was involved and confusing, “a wilderness of lands and grooves” as one reporter noted. In the opinion of the G’fcnther brothers, whose book on firearms identification has become a legal classic, all the ballistics evidence offered was so primitive as to be worthless.
Each tooled gun barrel, with its hundreds of minute striations, is unique. The one certain method of determining whether two separate bullets have been fired through any particular barrel is the use of a comparison microscope. Through this instrument the ends of the two bullets are brought together in one fused image. If the striations match, then it is practically certain that both bullets were fired from the same weapon.
Today the comparison microscope is the standard method of bullet identification. In 1920 it was just beginning to come into use, but it was not used in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. There the experts attempted to measure the bullets with calipers and compare them with measurements made of a cast of the barrel of Sacco’s pistol. It was a useless, haggling proceeding.
No one disputed that Bullet III hail been fired from a Colt automatic, but Captain Proctor told District Attorney Katzmann before the trial that he did not believe it had been fired from Sacco’s Colt. The prosecution was aware of Proctor’s doubts when the captain was questioned in court. “My opinion is,” Proctor said with a prearranged ambiguity that escaped the defense, “that it [Bullet III] is consistent with being fired by that pistol.” The prosecution claimed that the Winchester cartridge among the four picked up near Berardelli had also been fired in Sacco’s pistol. Comparing this cartridge with one fired on the test range, Proctor again used the word “consistent.” Privately he had from the time of their arrest expressed doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.
Two years after the trial he signed an affidavit saying that he had used the ambiguous phrase “consistent with” at Katzmann’s request, but that if he had been asked directly in court whether he believed that Bullet III had been fired from Sacco’s Colt, he would have replied No.
Captain Van Amburgh was scarcely more emphatic in his trial testimony: “I am inclined to believe,” he said, “that the Number III bullet was fired from this Colt automatic pistol.” Burns and a second defense expert, J. Henry Fitzgerald of the Colt Patent Firearms Company, denied this. Jn their opinion neither Bullet III nor Shell W, the Winchester cartridge, had any connection with Sacco’s pistol.
Fitzemeyer, the I ver Johnson foreman, when handed Vanzetti’s revolver on the witness stand and asked if it had been repaired recently, replied: “Well, a new hammer, I should call it, a new hammer.”
In the summer of 1924 Captain Van Amburgh was appointed head of the newly formed ballistics laboratory of the Massachusetts State Police. Fortunately for his new career the repercussions of his blunder in the Harold Israel case had not yet reached Massachusetts. On February of that same year Father Dahme, a priest in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had been shot and killed as he was taking his customary evening walk. A week later a drifter by the name of Harold Israel was picked up by the police in nearby Norwalk. In Israel’s pocket was a loaded .32 caliber revolver. Several witnesses identified him as the man they had seen shoot Father Dahme. Van Amburgh was called in to examine the ballistics evidence. He fired Israel’s revolver and compared a test bullet with one taken from Father Dahme’s body. Both bullets, he reported, had come from the same weapon. Later, however, five experts from the Remington Arms Company plus another from the New York Police Department examined the bullets and were of the unanimous opinion that the bullet that had killed Father Dahme could not have been fired from Israel’s revolver. Israel was then released.
Captain Van Amburgh remained head of the state police laboratory until his retirement in 1946. During his earlier years there he developed a device called a spiralgraph with which he was able to make strip photographs of bullets as they revolved on a turntable. By comparing the strips of two bullets, he maintained he could determine whether or not they had been fired from the same gun. Later he made such comparative photographs of Bullet III and the test bullets of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. These photographs he used for demonstrations when he testified in the 1923 Hamilton-Proctor motion, one of the many filed requesting a new trial for Sacco and Vanzetti.
The Hamilton-Proctor motion was based in part on Captain Proctor’s affidavit as to what he had really believed when he testified at the trial, although Proctor himself had died before the motion could be argued. In addition to his affidavit, there was further evidence offered by a post-trial defense expert, Dr. Albert Hamilton, that Bullet 111 could not have come from Sacco’s Colt.
Dr. Hamilton would never have been engaged by lhe lawyers for Sacco and Vanzetti if they had known more about his background. His doctor’s degree was self-awarded. He had started out in Auburn, New York, as a small-town druggist and concoctor of patent medicines. Over the years behind the counter he developed expertness at a second career, advertising himself in a publicity pamphlet as a qualified expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting, ink analysis, typewriting, photograph), fingerprints, toxicology, gunshot wounds, guns and cartridges, bullet identification, gunpowder, nitroglycerine, dynamite, high explosives, blood and other stains, causes of death, embalming, and anatomy.
In 1915 Hamilton had come a cropper when he appeared as an expert for the prosecution in the New York trial of Charles Stielow, accused of murdering his housekeeper. According to Hamilton’s testimony, a bullet taken from the housekeeper’s body could only have come from Stielow’s revolver. Principally because of this testimony Stielow was found guilty and sentenced to death. Yet later he was pardoned after it was shown by more competent experts that the death bullet could not have come from this revolver.
Hamilton’s career survived even this devastating reverse. When he appeared in Boston to testify in the Proctor-Hamilton motion, he had the respectable assistance of Augustus Gill, a professor of chemical analysis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hamilton now claimed that by the measurements he had made under the microscope he was able to determine that the test bullets offered in evidence at the trial had been fired from Sacco’s pistol but that Bullet III had not. Professor Gill corroborated this opinion. Hamilton also maintained that the hammer in Vanzetti’s revolver was not new, since an essential screw did not show marks of having been removed.
In answering for the prosecution Captain Van Amburgh had become much more positive than he had been at the trial. He displayed his strip photographs, declaring that he was now “absolutely certain” that Bullet III and Shell W had been fired in Sacco’s pistol.
Toward the close of the hearing, Hamilton appeared in court with two new .32 caliber Colt automatics that he said he wanted to compare with Sacco’s pistol. Before Judge Webster Thayer and the lawyers for both sides, he disassembled all three pistols and placed their parts in three piles on a table in front of the judge’s bench. Then, picking up various parts one by one, he explained their function and pointed out their interchangeability. Finally he reassembled the pistols, putting his own two back in his pocket and handing Sacco’s to the clerk of court.
Just as Hamilton was leaving the courtroom Judge Thayer called him back and ordered him to hand over the two pistols in his pocket to be impounded. He did so. Two months later when Van Amburgh was again examining Sacco’s pistol, he noticed that the barrel, previously fouled with rust, appeared bright and sparkling as if it were brand-new. At once he realized that there had been a substitution of barrels and that if the gun were now fired it would produce very different markings on the bullets. He notified Assistant District Attorney Williams, who went at once to Judge Thayer. After a private hearing Thayer ordered an investigation. This was held in the following three weeks with only Van Amburgh, Hamilton, the district attorney, and a defense lawyer present.
At the opening of the investigation the three pistols were brought in. The briefest examination made it clear that Sacco’s Colt had acquired a new barrel. Its original fouled barrel was now found to be in one of Hamilton’s pistols. Everyone in the room was aware that Hamilton must have made the substitution when he disassembled the three guns in court, and the district attorney now accused him of trying to work up grounds for a new trial. Unabashed, Hamilton maintained that someone connected with the prosecution had made the switch. At the conclusion of the investigation Thayer passed no judgment as to who had switched the barrels but merely noted that the rusty barrel in the new pistol had come from Sacco’s Colt. In concluding he ordered this barrel replaced and the three pistols delivered into the clerk’s custody “without prejudice to either side.” The prejudice, however, was not so easily erased. To the end Hamilton was a detriment, expensive, untrustworthy, and untrusted.
In the six years that had elapsed between the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti and the passing of the death sentence on them in 1927, the case had expanded from its obscure beginnings to become an international issue of increasing turbulence. Finally in June, 1927, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a three-man committee headed by President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard to review the case.
The ballistics issue had remained dormant since Judge Thayer’s rejection of the Proctor-Hamilton motion. Just before the Lowell Committee hearings, still another expert, Major Calvin Goddard, arrived in Boston with a comparison microscope, with which he offered to make without charge what he maintained would be conclusive tests on the Sacco-Vanzetti shells and bullets. The prosecution had no objections. William Thompson, the conservative Boston lawyer who had taken charge of the defense, would not approve of the tests but agreed not to try to prevent them.
Goddard made his tests June 3 before Professor Gill, a junior defense lawyer, an assistant district attorney, and several newsmen. His findings were:
- That Shell W was fired in the Sacco pistol and could have been fired in no other.
- That the so-called “mortal” bullet, Bullet III, was fired through the Sacco pistol and could have been fired through no other.
Professor Gill, after spending some time looking through the comparison microscope, became convinced of the parallel patterns of Bullet III and a test bullet, but felt that these would have shown more clearly if Bullet III could have been cleaned of its encrusted grime. Thompson, for the defense, refused to give permission to have this done. Shortly afterward Gill wrote to Thompson that he now doubted his testimony at the Hamilton-Proctor motion and wished to sever all connection with the case. His disavowal was followed by another from the trial defense expert James Burns.
Goddard’s findings, though unofficial, undoubtedly had much influence on the Lowell Committee. When Thompson later appeared before the committee, he made the novel accusation that the prosecution had juggled the evidence by substituting a test bullet and cartridge fired in Sacco’s pistol for the original Shell W found in the gravel and Bullet III taken from Berardelli’s body. As an indication of this he pointed out that the identifying scratches on Bullet III differed from those on the other bullets, being wider apart and uneven—as if made with a different instrument.
The year after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Thompson spoke out even more bluntly and emphatically, accusing Captain Proctor of having made the shell and bullet substitution just before the evidence was offered at the trial. After the substitution, according to Thompson, Proctor’s conscience had bothered him to the point that he had just before his death signed the affidavit expressing his doubts.
The certainty that Goddard had hoped to bring to the ballistics evidence was made to seem less than certain in the autumn of 1927 by his findings in the Yorkell murder case in Cleveland. A few weeks after Yorkell, a bootlegger, had been shot down in the street, the police arrested a Frank Milazzo, who was found to be carrying a revolver similar in type to the one that killed Yorkell. Two bullets taken from Yorkell’s body and several bullets test-fired from Milazzo’s pistol were sent to Goddard for examination. After viewing the exhibits through his comparison microscope Goddard announced that one of the bullets found in Yorkell had been fired from Milazzo’s revolver. In spite of Goddard’s findings Milazzo was shortly afterward able to prove that he had bought the revolver new a month after the shooting. Goddard attributed the mistake to a mix-up of bullets at police headquarters. The Cleveland police denied this. Supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti have used the incident to question the infallibility of the comparison microscope. What apparently happened was that Goddard, instead of comparing a murder bullet and a test bullet, had compared the two Yorkell murder bullets with each other. They, of course, matched. Who was at fault it is impossible to say, but the comparison microscope itself was in no way discredited.
In July, 1927, the Sacco-Vanzetti guns and bullets were brought to Boston from the Dedham Courthouse, where they had been in the custody of the clerk of court since the trial, to be examined by the Lowell Committee. Then they disappeared. When in 1959 I tried to see them, they were nowhere to be found. The Dedham clerk of court had a record of their having been sent to Boston but no record of their return. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office had no idea where they were, nor did the Commissioner of Public Safety at state police headquarters.
It took me six months of poking about before I finally managed to discover where they had gone. Apparently, after they had been examined by the Lowell Committee, they were sent to the ballistics laboratory of the state police and placed in the custody of Captain Van Amburgh. He put all the exhibits, each triple-sealed in its official court envelope, in a cardboard box and locked them away. The box remained there almost twenty years. Then when Van Amburgh retired he took several ballistics souvenirs with him, among them the box of Sacco-Vanzetti exhibits.
Van Amburgh—who died in 1949—was succeeded in the laboratory by his son. The son in turn retired in 1951 to Kingston, a small town near Plymouth, about forty miles from Boston. When I telephoned him to ask about the Sacco-Vanzetti exhibits, he refused at first to say whether he had them or not. But after I had persuaded the Boston Globe to run a feature article on the missing exhibits, he admitted to reporters that he did have them but regarded himself merely as their “custodian.” The Globe story was a Sunday sensation. Among the paper’s early readers was the Commissioner of Public Safety, J. Henry Goguen. The Commissioner at once sent two state troopers to Kingston to demand the surrender of the exhibits. The next day the guns and bullets, still in their box, were back in the state police laboratory.
When I at last saw the exhibits at the laboratory they were relatively free from corrosion, although the clips that fastened them in their triple envelopes had rusted into the paper. Apparently they had not been disturbed since 1927. What I first planned to do was to have comparison tests made of Bullet III and a bullet fired from Sacco’s pistol, and similar comparisons made with Shell W. Then I hoped to determine whether or not the other bullets and shells had been fired from a single gun.
Yet I knew that even if Bullet III could be proved beyond dispute to have come from Sacco’s pistol, there still remained the question raised by Thompson of bullet substitution. There was at least the possibility that the bullets might still test for blood. If it could now be demonstrated that all six bullets had traces of human blood on them, then the evidence would be overwhelming that there had been no bullet substitution. If on the other hand Bullet III showed no trace of blood, whereas the other five bullets did, the presumption would be strong that Proctor or someone connected with the prosecution had substituted one of the bullets fired into sawdust.
I thought there would be no difficulty in arranging these tests, but when I discussed the matter with Commissioner Goguen I found out otherwise. Even in 1959, it seemed, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was still an explosive political issue-as the spring legislative hearings requesting a posthumous pardon for the two men had demonstrated—and the Commissioner wanted to stay out of it. Each time I asked for permission to have properly qualified experts conduct ballistics tests, he postponed any definite answer, telling me to come back in a month or two. At last, after a year, he announced flatly that he would allow no tests.
Not until Goguen’s term of office expired and his successor, Frank Giles, took over was I able to arrange for the tests. Finally on October 4, 1961, Professor William Boyd of the Boston University Medical School examined the six bullets for blood. Unfortunately, because of slight oxidization of the bullets, he was unable to determine whether any blood traces remained. However, after Bullet III had been washed I was able to examine the base under the microscope. Previously the bullet had been covered with some foreign substance that obscured the markings on the base. With this removed I could see the three scratched lines clearly. Although they were farther apart than the lines on the other bullets, this could have been because Bullet III had a concave base whereas the bases of the remaining bullets were flat. In any case as I looked through the microscope successively at Bullets I, II, HI, and IIII, I could see no notable difference between the scratches on Bullet III and those on the rest.
A week after Professor Boyd had made his blood tests, two firearms consultants came to Boston to make the ballistics comparisons: Jac Weller, the honorary curator of the West Point Museum, and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Jury, formerly in charge of the Firearms Laboratory of the New Jersey State Police. On October 11, 1961, Weller and Jury conducted their tests in the laboratory of the Massachusetts State Police.
Sacco’s pistol, they found, was still in condition to be used. After firing two shots to clear the rust from the barrel, Colonel Jury fired two more shots which he then used to match against Bullet III in the comparison microscope. Making independent examinations, Jury and Weller both concluded that “the bullet marked ‘III’ was fired in Sacco’s pistol and in no other.” They also agreed, after comparing the breechblock markings of Shell W and a test shell (see opening photograph), that Shell W must have been fired in Sacco’s pistol. The other five bullets, they concluded, were fired from a single unknown gun, probably a semiautomatic pistol. It is to be presumed that the three shells, also from a single gun, came from the same weapon as did the five bullets-although this, as Jury and Weller pointed out, cannot be demonstrated.
I spent some time myself looking through the microscope at the cross-sections of Bullet III and the test bullet. The striations fitted into each other as if the two bullets were one. Here was a matter no longer open to question. But there still remained Thompson’s question: was this Bullet III a substitution?
Even though nothing could be proved by blood tests, Jury and Weller felt that there had been no substitution. They maintained that a bullet fired into oiled sawdust would have shown characteristic marks on it. No such marks were on Bullet III. Theoretically, they pointed out, it would have been possible to have fired a test bullet into a side of beef, but this would have involved many problems, such as the purchase of the beef and keeping the experiment secret.
Besides the reasoning of Jury and Weller I had reasons of my own that made me feel there had been no bullet substitution, that the theory itself evolved out of Thompson’s despair. There was, of course, the coincidence that Bullet III with its obsolete cannelure was duplicated by the six Winchester bullets found on Sacco when he was arrested. According to the autopsy report of April 17, 1920, Bullet III had been fired into Berardelli as he was in a prone position. Dr. Magrath identified Bullet III at the trial by the scratches he had originally made on it: As I found it [he testified], it lay sideways against the flat surface of the hip bone, and in my opinion the flattening of the bullet was due to its striking that bone side on. This peculiar flattening would have been almost impossible to duplicate in a substitute bullet. When Thompson in 1927 accused the prosecution of substituting Bullet III, the assistant district attorney offered to call Dr. Magrath before the Lowell Committee to reidentify the bullet he had marked, but the defense showed no interest in this.
Beyond the physical evidence of the bullet itself, the substitution theory breaks down when the trial record is examined. There Captain Van Amburgh on the stand had been most tentative in identifying Bullet III as having been fired from Sacco’s pistol. Captain Proctor was even more ambiguous and later admitted that he never believed that Bullet III came from that particular Colt. If, however, Bullet III had been a substitution, the two captains would have known that it came from Sacco’s Colt, since they themselves had fired it. Doubts they might have had as to their conduct, but none at all about the bullet.
When the case first came to trial, it was no earth-shaking issue for District Attorney Katzmann or for the state police. Katzmann, if he had lost, would still have been re-elected district attorney. The case could not have been worth the risk of detection and disgrace to forge the evidence for a conviction.
In the light of the most recent ballistics evidence and after reviewing the inquest and autopsy reports, as well as the trial testimony, I felt I could come to no other conclusion than that the Colt automatic found on Sacco when he was picked up by the police was the one used to murder Berardelli three weeks earlier. About the gun found on Vanzetti there is too much uncertainty to come to any conclusion. Being of .38 caliber, it was obviously not used at South Braintree, where all the bullets fired were .32’s. There is at least the possibility that it may have been taken from the dying Berardelli, but there is an equally strong if not stronger possibility that this is not so. A Harrington & Richardson was a cheap, common revolver, and there were several hundred thousand of them being carried at the time Vanzetti was arrested. No one today can be certain whether Berardelli’s Harrington & Richardson was of .32 or .38 caliber, whether it had a broken spring or a broken hammer, whether it was ever called for at Iver Johnson’s, whether in fact Berardelli had a gun with him the day he was murdered. Jury and Weller found it impossible to determine if the hammer of Vanzetti’s revolver had been replaced.
Whether Sacco himself pulled the trigger of his automatic that day in South Braintree, whether he was even present, cannot be established definitely. But if he did not fire it, and if in fact he was not there, then one of his close associates must have been the murderer. The ballistics evidence leaves no alternative.
When a few years ago I wrote an article, “Tragedy in Dedham” (A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1958), I was convinced that the two men were innocent, victims if not of a judicial frame-up at least of an ironic fate. But after the ballistics tests of 1961 I felt that, at least in the case of Sacco, I could no longer hold to my opinion. It has been pointed out that Vanzetti, just before he died, solemnly proclaimed his innocence. Sacco, however, when he took his place in the electric chair, gave the traditional anarchist cry—“Long live anarchy!”
Whatever my altered views about Sacco, I still continue to feel that Vanzetti was innocent. Besides various subjective reasons, and convincing talks with Vanzetti’s old friends, I found what seemed to me the clinching evidence in the statement of the New York anarchist leader, Carlo Tresca. Tresca, a luminous and vivid personality, became the most noted anarchist in the United States after the deportation of Luigi Galleani in 1919. He was the admired and trusted leader to whom the anarchists confidently turned when they were in trouble. It was he who had selected the original trial lawyer for Sacco and Vanzetti. His influence remained vast over the years, not only among the dwindling anarchists but throughout the whole New York Italian colony.
During World War II the anti-Soviet Tresca was so successful in keeping the Communists out of the government’s overseas Italian broadcasts that a G.P.U. killer known as Enea Sormenti was imported to eliminate him. Tresca was shot down on a New York street in 1943. Several weeks before he died he happened to be talking with his long-time friend Max Eastman, who had earlier written a “Profile” of him for the New Yorker . The subject of Sacco and Vanzetti came up, and Eastman asked Tresca if he would feel free to tell him the truth about them.
Without hesitation Tresca replied: “Sacco was guilty, but Vanzetti was not.” At that moment some people came into the room, interrupting the conversation, and Eastman never saw Tresca again. Yet the reasons for Tresca’s answer must have been profound. He could easily have avoided the question or even denied his comrade’s guilt. And if any man should have known the truth of the case, Tresca was the man.
To my mind the most that can be said against Vanzetti is that he must have known who did commit the Braintree crime. Sacco, if he was guilty, was so out of no personal motive. But anarchist deeds of robbery and violence for the sake of the cause were not unknown. If he actually participated in the South Braintree holdup, it was to get money to aid his imprisoned fellow anarchists, and he must then have seen himself not as a robber but as a soldier of the revolution. But if someone else of his group was guilty, someone from whom he had received the murder pistol, he would have preferred death to betraying a comrade.
As far as the guns and bullets in the Sacco-Vanzetti case are concerned, the evidence is in, no longer to be disputed. The human problem remains.