Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sacco & Vanzetti: Jazz Age Terrorists?

Criminals or Patsies? Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left), Handcuffed to Nicola Sacco.
Dedham, MA Superior Court, 1923.
(Courtesy Boston Public Library)

It was a crime so sensational that the label "crime of the century" was inevitable. What else would you call a case featuring anarchists, communists, socialists, terrorists, politicians, celebrity protesters, global crusaders, innocent victims, scapegoats, Jingoism, Xenophobia, a payroll heist, two murders, and executions in the electric chair? April 15, 2010 marks the 90th anniversary of the day of the events that set it all in motion. And the town where it happened, Braintree, Massachusetts, is remembering by holding a three-day event, "Sacco & Vanzetti: A Retrospective."

Co-sponsored by the town of Braintree and the Braintree Historical Society, the retrospective is not to determine the guilt or innocence of those convicted, and ultimately executed, for grand theft and two murders. It is to facilitate intelligent discussion about the case, to pay tribute to those who died, and to honor the town’s history and Italian culture. "It was a very emotional, controversial case," says John Dennehy, chairman of the events and former president of the Braintree Historical Society and Library. "People in Braintree were reluctant to talk about this case. It’s simply time to look back at this, and how it impacted Braintree."

Scene of the Crime: Slater & Morrill Shoe Company (nd).
(Courtesy Braintree Historical Society)

It all started on April 15, 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts. A pair of trigger-men gun down a paymaster and his security guard in a heist near the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company. The take: a cool $16,000 (roughly $175,000 today), the entire payroll for Slater and another shoe company. The dough grabbed literally minutes before it was to be distributed to the workers. Dead were Frederick Parmenter, paymaster, and guard Alesandro Berardelli. A man described as wearing a felt-cap ignored Berardelli's desperate pleas for his life and mowed him down with a barrage of shots, execution-style. Then he cold-bloodedly stole the guard's gun. A second gunman was said to have dispatched paymaster Parmenter. The perpetrators sped off in a waiting getaway car described as a dark-colored,black or blue, Buick. Investigators recovered six shells from the crime scene, all were .32 caliber.

Gunned Down: Paymaster Frederick Parmenter (nd).
(Courtesy The Patriot Ledger, Massachusetts)

Braintree in the early 1920's was a center for shoe-manufacturing, and still had a small-town feel compared to nearby Boston. Strangers, especially those looking "foreign," or otherwise out of the ordinary, were noticed. Eyewitnesses described the robbers as "Italian-looking," and one had a handlebar mustache. Many Italians, locals and immigrants, were questioned. In due course, two Italian immigrant workers, anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested.

Sacco, himself employed at a nearby shoe-factory, was pinched packing a loaded .32 caliber Colt automatic; Vanzetti, a fishmonger, had a .38 caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver, also loaded. (The prosecution would later maintain this was the murdered guard's stolen gun). "Significantly" (to the police, anyway) Vanzetti also had a note concerning an anarchist rally tucked into his pocket. Moreover, both men were soon revealed to be World War I draft dodgers. These "unpatriotic" leanings were as incriminating as the weapons to many in the Massachusetts town. Anarchists, much like today's Al-Qaeda terrorists, were reviled and feared in the early part of the 20th Century. After all, President McKinley's assassin had been a self-proclaimed anarchist.

Sacco's Gun, .32 Caliber; Vanzetti's, .38 Caliber.


Sacco and Vanzetti were disciples of militant anarchist Luigi Galleani. Though the duo weren't involved, several of these so-called Galleanists were responsible in April, 1919, for sending 30 mail-bombs across the US, labeled "Gimbel Brother's, Novelty Samples." The intended targets were high-profile public figures, including oil-baron John D. Rockefeller, US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and assorted cabinet members, governors, senators, congressmen, and mayors. But the target most despised by the anarchists was US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

The 30 parcels were intended for delivery on May Day, the world-wide day for celebrating labor, anarchist, socialist, and communist solidarity. No one was killed by these bombs, but some were slightly injured and a few seriously maimed. What saved the lives of many was the ironic fact that the anarchists had skimped on stamps: insufficient postage meant undeliverable mail. And the bombs were so distinctively packaged that once one was discovered by an alert postal worker, the others were easily spotted and scooped up just before delivery.

To erase the shame of the failed bombings, two months later the Galleanists went large. They successfully ignited eight bombs simultaneously across the country. These bombs were much more lethal, with greater payloads, than the parcel-package duds. Weighing as much as 20 pounds, with large chunks of metal included as deadly shrapnel. Targeted were politicians and officials favoring punitive deportations, and judges who had consigned anarchists to prison. Once again, the hated Attorney General Palmer was an intended victim, but once again, he survived. So did all the other targets: only two innocent bystanders and, ironically, an anarchist who was the quarry of a previously parcel-bombed FBI agent, were killed.

Most Hated Man in America? Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was at the Top of Many Anarchist Hit Lists. President Woodrow Wilson Begged to Differ, Calling Him "young, militant, progressive and fearless." (Palmer was Just Shy of 50; Wilson, in His Mid-60's.)

In retaliation, two-time survivor Palmer set up his own squadron of government agents intent upon the arrest, detention, and deportation of suspected leftie radicals of all stripes. The notorious "Palmer Raids," were the beginning of the First Red Scare (1917-1920). Singled out were communists, socialists, anarchists, and their "sympathizers," and immigrants of "undesirable" ethnic groups. Besides being unconstitutional, the raids entrapped an unsettling number of folks who were undeniably innocent. As many as 10,000 were arrested in indiscriminate roundups, but ultimately only 560 were actually deported.

It was in this atmosphere of hysterical red-baiting that the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti began. Actually, there were two trials; first, Vanzetti alone, for the robbery. (Sacco was able to prove that he'd been at work at the time.) This was tried as a fairly routine criminal case, but Judge Webster Thayer clearly saw the political angle. Though not part of the official court record, he reportedly said: "although [Vanzetti] may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, [he] is nevertheless culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions ." Not surprisingly, Vanzetti was found guilty.

Judge Webster Thayer Presided at Both Trials. Of Defense Attorney Fred H. Moore, he remarked: "No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!" (Moore Was From Los Angeles.) In Retaliation for The Verdicts, Thayer's Home Was Dynamited in 1932. He Survived, Only to Die of Natural Causes the Following Year.

Both men were defendants at the second trial, for the two murders. Here the trial was political from day one. Radical lawyer Fred H. Moore was hired by noted anarchist Carlo Tresca to helm "The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee" (.pdf format). What otherwise would have been a rather routine murder case, probably long forgotten, turned into a media circus, with Sacco and Vanzetti portrayed as archetypal long-suffering, down-trodden, immigrant laborers, wrongly accused by Big Government and the ruling class of a crime they did not commit. The two were the very symbols of justice denied for blue-collar workers around the globe. The prosecution, for their part, painted the pair as evil incarnate, filthy foreigners polluting the shores of the Republic with their godless, anti-democratic, demonic attempts to destroy the very fabric of decent American society. Whether Sacco and Vanzetti were both guilty, or one guilty and one innocent, or both innocent, became irrelevant to the case. On both sides there were charges of perjured witnesses, cooked-up evidence, and bribery. A tainted trial ruled by rabid rhetoric was the order of the day.

Handwritten Across Top: "Four Bullets Taken From Berardelli's Body" (nd).

(Courtesy Brandeis University - Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections)

The most compelling evidence for their guilt (according to later juror interviews) was the prosecution's ballistics testimony, and what became known as: "Bullet 3." Lodged in Berardelli's body, expert witnesses declared that this slug came from a .32 Colt automatic. This was the make of the the gun Sacco was carrying when he was arrested. Further testimony determined that it was "consistent with being fired from that [Sacco's] pistol." The defense countered with their own firearms experts, but to no avail. (Decades later, new, more exacting forensics tests determined that "Bullet 3" had, in fact, been fired from the gun in Sacco's possession at the time he was arrested.)

Is This "Bullet 3"? Composite Photo of Shell Found at Crime Scene.
(Courtesy Famous Trials Website, Douglas O. Linder.)

On July 14, after deliberating less than six hours (including a dinner break), the all-male jury returned a verdict of guilty for both men. The sentence: death in the electric chair. After the verdicts were announced, some supporters of the two men bombed what they thought was the West Bridgewater home of a key witness who had fingered the suspects for the police. In fact, they destroyed the wrong house.

On the Picket Line: Edna St. Vincent Millay (nd). (Sign Behind Her Head Refers to Current Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller.)

Across the country and internationally, the trial became a massive cause celebre, with protests, rallies, and marches worldwide. Famous activists, socialists, radicals, and intellectuals wrote of the "travesty of justice" and took to the picket lines, including Upton Sinclair, Jane Addams, George Bernard Shaw, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russel, Ben Shahn, Anatole France, Albert Einstein, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Sinclair noted in his 1928 novel about the trial, Boston, that "the case worked upon the consciences of persons who were cursed with artistic temperaments." A major rallying-point was a bitter denunciation of the events by attorney Felix Frankfurter in the Atlantic Monthly. Legally speaking, he said, the trial had been a farce. Innocent men had been sentenced for execution based on their radical politics and their ethnic origins, and their constitutional rights had been ignored.

Protesting the Executions (Boston, 1927). Nearly 700,000 Marched in the Funeral Procession.

The Defense Committee campaigned relentlessly for a retrial; appeals took several years, but all were in vain. Sacco and Vanzetti, despite their continued pleas of innocence, were electrocuted on April 8, 1927. Harvard professor Moshik Temkin, author of The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2009), said in a recent appearance at Boston Public Library that the world-wide protests, in addition to making Sacco and Vanzetti famous men, ultimately triggered their executions. The high-profile nature of the case made it impossible for any compromises to be reached. The death sentences had to be carried out. No one would risk the political consequences of backing down.

Gutzon Borglum's Bas-Relief Tribute (1928). Borglum Was Also the Creator of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

(Courtesy Community Church of Boston)

Fifty years after Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation that, while side-stepping the issue of their guilt or innocence, stated both men had been treated unjustly by the judicial system, and hoped that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." This, in turn, caused a controversy of its own: Dukakis hadn't consider the victims and their living relatives. Twenty years after this a bas-relief sculpture of Sacco and Vanzetti was delivered to the Boston Public Library. The work was greeted with such controversy that it has yet to find a place to be publicly displayed.

Braintree's retrospective hasn't forgotten the victims: April 15, 2010, has been designated as a "Day of Remembrance" for them. At 3:00 PM, ninety years to the hour of the robbery and murders, a monument commemorating paymaster Parmenter and security guard Berardelli, will be placed on the route they walked that fateful day. Parmenter and Berardelli family members will be on hand for the dedication. Later, a Sacco and Vanzetti exhibit will open at the town hall. A storyboard and timeline detailing the crimes will be set up nearby. Panel discussions focusing on the tragic events are scheduled to include members of the local judiciary, and Stephen Kenney of the Massachusetts State Archives. It is hoped that over the nine decades since these crimes took place the heated rhetoric they sparked will have cooled to the point where justice can, for once in this case, triumph over politics.

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