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Why I Changed My Mind About The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

June 2024
8min read

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.

I continued to think Sacco and Vanzetti innocent but now considered them victims of circumstance, a matter of mistaken identity and bad luck, their case a tragedy rather than a melodrama. From this altered point of view I wrote an article, “Tragedy in Dedham,” that I later expanded to a book. In beginning the book I considered myself impartial, but I was much more emotionally committed to Sacco and Vanzetti than I then realized. Starting out, I had been convinced of their innocence and hoped with reasonable luck to prove this once and for all. But as I progressed, the road that had first seemed straight developed so many bends, twists, and reverses that, in the end, I found myself reluctantly facing in the opposite direction. It was a direction I had long tried to avoid. But questions that I had brushed aside as inconsequent returned to trouble me. Why did Sacco and Vanzetti lie after their arrest about matters that had no connection with their anarchist beliefs? Both described themselves as men of peace. Why were they armed when they were picked up by the police? Sacco had on his person a Colt automatic pistol and thirty-two cartridges—three Remington, sixteen Peters, seven U.S., and six Winchester, of an obsolete type. Unaware of the brand differences, he said he had bought his cartridges in a sealed box. By the time of his trial he had learned better. He now said he had bought an opened box of mixed cartridges.

A Winchester bullet of an obsolete type had been taken from the body of a guard shot down durins the holdup-murders for which Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted. An obsolete Winchester shell was one of four spent shells found at the murder scene, the others being two Peterses and a Remington. The prosecution claimed that the obsolete Winchester bullet and shell had been fired in Sacco’s Colt, but the trial’s ballistic tests were primitive. In spite of later, more sophisticated tests, I remained unconvinced, still hoping that further tests might establish that the fatal bullet and shell had not been fired in his Colt. Other aspects, nevertheless, disturbed me. Sacco’s story on the night of his arrest did not ring true. On the day of the crime he had been absent from work, and alibi witnesses who testified to having seen him in Boston on that day were Italian radicals.

I became more ambivalent when I discovered that Moore had in the end doubted his clients’ innocence. Not long after their execution, he told Upton Sinclair that he had regretfully come to the conclusion that Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti possibly guilty. Finally my doubts crystallized on my learning that Carlo Tresca, the anarchist leader who brought Moore into the case, had later said flatly that Sacco was guilty and that by not admitting his guilt had let the innocent Vanzetti die. In 1939 Tresca still held to their innocence. Two years later he had become voluble on Sacco’s guilt. He talked compulsively, angrily, as if he had only recently made the discovery.

Tresca was an abounding presence, a man of massive integrity. Even the police who arrested him—and he had been arrested some thirty-five times—could not help liking him. He, Moore, and Vanzetti were the three individuals I was most drawn to in the course of writing my book, as if they were still living persons; the ebullient Tresca, later murdered so foully in New York; Moore, the Bohemian radical who had built the Sacco-Vanzetti case up from insignificance to an international cause and then lost faith in it; Vanzetti, of much per- sonal charm, for all his dogmatic radicalism, and with an incantatory gift of words even through his imperfect medium of English.

Tresca’s statement was, for me, the way down the mountain. Other bits and pieces of evidence that I had thrust aside now returned to overwhelm me. After foot-dragging negotiations, I finally received permission from the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety to sponsor new ballistics tests. But not until 1961 was I able to arrange for two nationally known experts to make them. By then I had lost my belief in Sacco’s innocence. The tests came out as I expected. The obsolete bullet and shell had been fired in Sacco’s weapon and could have been fired in no other. At the invitation of the experts, I peered through the microscope lens and saw the incontrovertible shell and bullet matchings. There was the proof, right before my own eyes.

Those tests in 1961 merely confirmed my conclusions: Sacco was guilty. The tests failed to impress Sacco-Vanzetti partisans, who held to the dogma of innocence betrayed with fundamentalist tenacity. Shortly after my book came out, I met a young woman, an instructor at one of the smaller Ivy League colleges. “Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent,” she announced to me challengingly. “Have you read my book?” I asked her. “No,” she said, “but they had to be innocent.” And so they have had to be to their more zealous sympathizers. While writing my book, I let the founder of the Committee to Vindicate Sacco and Vanzetti, Tom O’Connor, read my manuscript chapter by chapter, even the last one in which I stated that Sacco was guilty. He said nothing at the time, though later, when he passed me on the street, he refused to speak to me. After his death, when his papers were given to Brandeis University, I discovered that he and Judge Musmanno had launched what they called Operation Assault to persuade book editors not to review my “meretricious” book. Fortunately for me, they were not successful.

In the two decades since the publication of Tragedy in Dedham, every additional piece of evidence that has turned up has merely confirmed its conclusions. One of Professor Frankfurter’s most telling charges was that Sacco and Vanzetti had been arrested and convicted through the connivance of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation (later FBI) with the prosecution. But the opening of the FBI files in 1975 under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrated that, until the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, they were unknown to the Bureau, and that the Department of Justice had had no part in the trial. The papers of Harvard’s President Lowell, opened only in 1977, show that he at first was inclined to believe Sacco and Vanzetti innocent, and only the weight of evidence caused him to change his mind.

They were innocent, the young woman insisted: “They had to be innocent.”

Confronted with the cold reality of the later ballistics tests, the more embattled Sacco-Vanzetti partisans have accused the prosecution of substituting a fraudulent bullet and shell for the Winchester originals. There were indeed two gunmen engaged in shooting on the day of the crime, one identified by the prosecution as Sacco, the other never identified.

At still another ballistics test, sponsored by a Boston television station in 1983—at which I was also present—the hitherto unknown fact was demonstrated that six of the sixteen Peters cartridges found on Sacco at his arrest had been manufactured by the same machine as the two Peters shells found at the crime scene. These shells were not fired in Sacco’s Colt, but they do indicate that Sacco and the other gunman drew their assorted ammunition from a common source. With this added to the other ballistics evidence, any claim of substitution collapses.

Finally, and almost inadvertently, I brought to light the admission of an old anarchist, Giovanni Gambera, an insider of insiders, the first person to visit Sacco and Vanzetti after their arrest. Before his death in 1982, Gambera confided to his son that Sacco was guilty. Not legal evidence, of course, but convincing nonetheless.

I have been the only one writing about the Sacco-Vanzetti case who has changed his mind. Though I was at first tied to the dogma, the facts turned against me. I would admit additional and contrary facts if they existed, but they do not exist. Gambera’s revelation has underlined that. Sacco and Vanzetti were militants, theoretically accepting violence as the necessary concomitant of their revolutionary dreams. Vanzetti, whatever his theories, was temperamentally incapable of violence. Sacco regarded himself as a soldier of the revolution and, whatever his guilt, may well have considered himself innocent in the sense that he was serving a higher cause. As I wrote in my concluding chapter, his was the iron belief, one that has brought about so much slaughter in the world, that the cause is more important than the individual. So he lived, and so he died.

—Francis Russell

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