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Tragedy In Dedham: A Final Note

May 2021
8min read


To the Editor:

In October, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE published an article by Francis Russell in which he said that he was convinced that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were innocent of the crime of murder, of which they were convicted and for which they suffered death. In the issue of June, 1962, you published an article by the same author in which he said he believes Sacco was guilty but that Vanzetti was innocent. On what evidence, or alleged evidence, does Mr. Russell base his change of mind? He says that a test with Sacco’s .32 Colt pistol made in 1961 proves that the fatal bullet (known as Bullet III) taken from the body of Berardelli (one of the victims of the shooting in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920) matched the markings of a test bullet fired in 1961. …

To begin with, we must keep in mind that the pistol which belonged to Sacco, and which he carried because he was employed as a night watchman at a shoe factory, was not a distinctive weapon. It was an ordinary .32 caliber Colt, of which there were 300,000 in existence at the time. In order to prove that Sacco’s pistol fired the fatal bullet, it must be proved that there was absolutely no possibility that the bullet was fired by any one of the other 299,999 Colt .32’s.

Captain William Proctor of the Massachusetts State Police declared under oath that it was his opinion Bullet III had not been fired through Sacco’s pistol. Two defense firearms experts testified in agreement.

Now comes Francis Russell, who is no firearms expert, to say that he knows Bullet III was shot through Sacco’s pistol. It is simply basic and fundamental that for a test of any firearm to have any value whatsoever in establishing identity of a weapon, the weapon, when tested, must be in exactly the same condition it was when the original shot was fired. It must also be established conclusively that the bullet to be tested has similarly not undergone any change.

The trial ended in 1921. In 1923, a firearms expert, Albert Hamilton, in making some tests and comparisons, disassembled Sacco’s pistol and two other pistols of similar make and caliber. When the three pistols were reassembled it was discovered that the barrel now attached to Sacco’s pistol was not the original one. This barrel was new; Sacco’s old barrel was rusty. The weapons were again disassembled, and it can only be assumed that in the reassembling, the original rusty Sacco barrel was properly attached to the Sacco pistol. …

In July, 1927, Bullet III and Sacco’s pistol … [were] taken away by the official custodian of state exhibits and carried to his home, where, because of the historical character of the exhibits, the possibility cannot be excluded that he often handled them (perhaps even experimented with them) and allowed other persons to handle them. In 1959, the exhibits were restored to the State laboratory from which they should never have been taken. …

It must be apparent, even to a blind man, that the slightest tampering with exhibits, or a change resulting from passage of time, renders a subsequent test entirely worthless. …

By the time Russell took up his quest, the charge had been made that … there had been a substitution of bullets. If indeed there was such a substitution, all the later testing in the world would prove nothing. The bullet extracted from Berardelli’s body had flattened because of allegedly striking human bone. Russell claims that “this peculiar flattening would have been almost impossible to duplicate in a substitute bullet.” This is a ridiculous assertion. Flattening may be obtained by firing a bullet into soft pine. …

Medical authorities have declared that a bullet which has been imbedded in a human body will reveal evidence of adhering blood for an indefinite period after such imbedding. Thus Russell, in order to prove that Bullet III was the actual bullet which had been taken from Berardelli’s body, had it examined by Professor William Boyd of the Boston University Medical School for evidence of blood stains. And what was the result of this examination? Russell tells us, with almost childlike artlessness, that “unfortunately, because of slight oxidization of the bullet,” the professor “was unable to determine whether any blood traces remained.” What Mr. Russell does not seem to grasp is that by this time there is no certainty that he has even the right bullet or the right pistol!

… What does Russell do now? He has Bullet III washed! In what? … If the bullet was washed in acid, this washing would further erode the bullet and make its microscopic markings valueless from an evidentiary point of view. If it was washed in an innocuous solution, no amount of laundering could restore it to its original condition. …

Russell tells us that “previously the bullet had been covered with some foreign substance that obscured the markings on the base.” What was this foreign substance? Russell does not let the reader in on this secret. In removing the foreign substance, was anything else removed? Russell offers no explanation.

But all this is nothing to what is to follow. On October 11, 1961 (that is, 41 years, 5 months, and 26 days after the original firing!), two firearms experts engaged by Russell conducted their test, which consisted of shooting another bullet through Sacco’s pistol and then comparing it with Bullet III.

What Russell did at this point can only be regarded as fantastic. In order to prepare the pistol for the test, he had his two experts fire two shots through the pistol to “clear the rust from the barrel.” We know that rust is so much a part of the material to which it attaches that it cannot be scraped off like mud. Thus, when Russell’s experts fired two shots through the pistol for the purpose of blasting out rust, it was inevitable that small but nevertheless integral particles of the interior of the pistol barrel went along with the rust. By this blasting process, the pistol of ip6i was no longer the pistol of 1920!

Russell hangs his case against Sacco from an alleged thread one half of onethousandth of an inch thick. One only need read Sacco’s testimony on the witness stand and his letters while in prison to find that thread breaking and dissolving like wax in fire. …

Michael A. Musmanno

Judge Musmanno, a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, is a wellknown trial lawyer and author of many books. As a young lawyer associated with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, he spent many fruitless hours trying to obtain a last-minute stay of execution for the defendants, and has been their partisan ever since.


I have the highest respect for Judge Musmanno but I feel that over the years he has become so emotionally committed to the cause of Sacco and Vanzetti that it has become part of his personality. … I began my book Tragedy in Dedham as convinced of the men’s innocence as Judge Musmanno still is. But as a historian I felt compelled to accept and evaluate all the evidence I encountered. When I arranged for the ballistics tests of October, 1961, I was willing to accept whatever results those tests might show, without preconceptions. The two experts who made the tests … were professionally indifferent as to the results. All they were interested in doing was establishing the facts. …

Sacco was not, as Judge Musmanno asserts, a night watchman at the shoe factory who needed to go armed. He merely had the small extra job of tending the factory furnace … It may be true, as Judge Musmanno states, that there were 300,000 such Colts [as Sacco’s] then in existence, but the markings in the barrel and on the breechblock of each one of them would be as distinctive as the fingerprints of each of 300,000 individuals. The odds for another Colt with the same breechblock and barrel markings being used in the murders are remote. Bullet III—as I shall again explain—showed the identical markings of test bullets fired from Sacco’s pistol both in 1921 and 1961. One of the shells, Shell W, found at the scene of the crime had markings corresponding to the markings on the base of test shells fired in Sacco’s pistol. This correspondence can be clearly seen in the enlarged photograph published in the June, 1962, edition of AMERICAN HERITAGE .

As for Captain Proctor, it is true that he never did believe that Bullet III had been fired from Sacco’s Colt, but it is also true that his knowledge of ballistics was crudely elementary. At the trial he was asked to strip a pistol and was unable to do so. Judge Musmanno speaks of the two trial defense experts, but he does not reveal that in 1927 one of the experts, James Burns, disavowed his testimony and announced he was convinced that Shell W had been fired in Sacco’s Colt. Nor does he reveal that another defense expert, Professor Augustus Gill of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after observing the 1927 microscope tests of Major Calvin Goddard, repudiated his earlier findings, and stated that he was now certain that Sacco’s Colt had fired Bullet III. … [As for the bullets], Dr. Boyd soaked each in a solution of benzidine to see if he could determine any traces of blood. Several months after the tests the state chemist at my request washed the base of Bullet III so that I could make a clearer photograph of the identification scratches. A certain amount of plastic substance, used to hold the bullet in place in the comparison microscope, had become imbedded in the base. …

Rather than engage in extended counter-trivialities, I think it more enlightening to explain just what happened when the 1961 tests took place. It was my original intention to have Colonel Jury and Mr. Weller compare Bullet III under the comparison microscope with test bullets fired from Sacco’s Colt at the time of the trial. Colonel Jury thought it might be well in addition to test-fire Sacco’s Colt in the laboratory and use these bullets as a further comparison with Bullet III. However, as there was some rust in the Colt barrel, Colonel Jury was not sure that test bullets of the present would be clear enough for comparison. The rust proved superficial. After two shots were fired to clear the barrel, four more were fired. The markings on these shells and bullets were clear and distinct.

Colonel Jury and Mr. Weller worked independently with their individual comparison microscopes at opposite sides of the room. While one compared the shells, the other compared the bullets. Then they changed places. Each made his findings without telling the other. … The match was unmistakable. Similarly both men compared Shell W with the 1921 test shells and the test shells just fired. The shells matched in every detail.

In their final report Colonel Jury and Mr. Weller concluded that Bullet III and Shell W had been fired in Sacco’s Colt and could have been fired in no other weapon. Both pistol and bullet, they found, were the same as originally introduced in evidence. Lest this latter statement be challenged, the pistol tested bore the same serial number as the Colt offered in evidence at the trial; the bullets and shells corresponded exactly to the description and photos of the bullets and shells offered in evidence.

Even if sufficient rust had accumulated in Sacco’s pistol to make impossible any comparison of bullets fired in 1961 with Bullet III, there was still the ample evidence of the 1921 test bullets. Similarly, rust on the barrel would not have affected the imprint of the breechblock on the 1961 shell cases.

Judge Musmanno even suggests that the Colt of 1961 is not the Colt of 1921. Obviously if it were a different weapon, the 1961 test bullets would not have matched the 1921 test bullets or Bullet III. And if the 1961 test bullets had not matched Bullet III I should have been the first to make this public and Judge Musmanno—forgetting the rust—would have been the first to announce that the tests had proved Sacco innocent. In mentioning Dr. Hamilton, Judge Musmanno neglects to state that the selfstyled doctor was a defense expert and was caught trying to tamper with the evidence. In a post-trial ballistics hearing Hamilton appeared in court with two new Colts of a similar type which he said he wished to compare with Sacco’s. After disassembling all three pistols, he assembled them again and in so doing managed to replace the barrel of Sacco’s pistol with one from his own without anyone’s notice. As Hamilton was leaving the courtroom Judge Thayer called him back and impounded the two pistols that Hamilton was carrying away with him. Only later was it discovered that one of these pistols contained the barrel of Sacco’s Colt. If Hamilton’s scheme of switching barrels had succeeded and he had later demanded that Sacco’s Colt be test-fired, the markings on such test bullets would have been completely different from Bullet III. On these grounds Hamilton would have demanded a new trial. Nevertheless the test shells would have continued to match Shell W!

After Bullet III and the other bullets were removed from the dead guard’s body, they were placed, along with the shells picked up at the scene of crime, in the custody of Captain Proctor. He, and he alone, was in the position to replace the exhibits, Bullet III and Shell W, by a shell and bullet test-fired from Sacco’s pistol. Yet to the end of his life Captain Proctor held to his belief, based on crude caliper measurements, that Bullet III had not come from Sacco’s Colt. As I have pointed out before, if he had made such a substitution he would have known that Bullet III came from Sacco’s Colt, however guilty he might have felt about his deception. The markings on the base of all four bullets—photographed by me for the first time—can be seen to be roughly similar. …

No rhetoric, not even Judge Musmanno’s, can explain away such facts.

Francis Russell

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