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Tragedy In Dedham

July 2024
17min read

A restrospect of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial

On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, two gunmen killed a paymaster and his guard, seized the $16,000 payroll, and escaped. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were picked up by police and identified by several witnesses as the holdup men. In 1921, at the conclusion of a trial in Dedham, the two men were found guilty of murder. The leisurely legal processes of exception and appeal, however, went on for six years; in that period many people came to feel that the trial had been unfair and that Sficco and Vanzetti had been convicted not because they were murderers, but because they were anarchists. In June, 1927, the late Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a committee of review composed of fudge Robert Grant, President Samuel W. Stratton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard. The Lowell Committee concluded that the trial had been fair and made no recommendation for clemency. Sficco and Vanzetti were executed in the early morning hours of August 23, 1927, in the Charlestown State Prison.

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which began as ihe prosecution lor a commonplace it brutal murder, developed gradually into one of the world’s great trials. In the end it was much more than a trial. It became one of those events that divide a society. Ahhough the issues that it raised have been overlaid by war and political events, they never wholly die. Even today middle-aged men and women hearing bysome chance the names Sacco and Vanzctti still find themselves stirred by the passion and violence of their younger days. Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, and like all symbols the meaning varies with those who adopt it.

I myself do not have any memory of the 1921 trial, I then being in the fifth grade of the Boston public schools, but I do remember from my seventeenth year the agitation and excitement of those summer weeks in 1927 preceding the two men’s execution. The day they were to die I took the elevated in to Boston and spent the better part of the afternoon walking over Beacon Hill and across the Common in the August sunshine. In spite of the tranquillity of the weather the atmosphere was tense. Police were everywhere, hard-laced and angry, some of them carrying rifles—a thing I had never seen before. Pickets with placards marched up and down before the Bulfinch facade of the Slate House. Periodically the police carted groups of them away in a patrol wagon to the Joy Street Station. Almost at once their places were filled by others. Buses kept arriving from New York hung with signs announcing that “Sacco and Vanzetti Must Not Die!” and trailing red paper streamers. As tin buses pulled into Park Street those inside began to snig “The Red Flag.” They looked like foreigners, most of them. I did not like their looks. Crossing Boston Common on that hot afternoon I sensed in myself die hostility of the bourgeois world toward these two men. Jn spite of any pickets and red-streamered buses from New York, I knew that they were going to die that night. As I walked under the faintly scented lindens on the Tremont Street side of the Frog Pond, I felt a sense of oneness with the community that was asserting itself. I was glad Sacco and Vanxetti were going to die.

It never occurred to me that the two men might be innocent. In the shabby-genteel little private school I went to in Roxbury none of the masters would have dreamed of such a thing. We took our opinions from them and from our parents. The father of one of my classmates was court reporter of Massachusetts. He had written a much approved pamphlet, Sacco and Vanzetti in the Scales of Justice , in which he had demonstrated the quasi-divine status of Massachusetts justice, a status which made even the appointment of the Lowell Committee to investigate the case a reflection on the Commonwealth’s judicial system. According to the reporter that system, so sanctified by the past, could not err. Such a conservative position was common enough in Massachusetts then. Nor did it change. Thirty years later the reporter still listed his pamphlet in the American Who’s Who as his single literary accomplishment.

By and large one’s view of the case depended on one’s status in the community. If one were middleclass and Republican and read the Herald mornings and the Transcript nights, one thought Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty. Any latent doubts subsided after President Lowell of Harvard issued his report. But if one were a university liberal one tended to think the trial unfair, and if one read the Nation or New Republi c one was sure they were innocent.

My father was a lawyer and a Republican. He believed the two men guilty, not from any particular study of the trial itself but because of his acquaintance with Captain Van Amburgh, a ballistics expert who testified at the trial. Captain Van Amburgh through laboratory examinations was certain that one of the recovered murder bullets had been fired from Sacco’s gun. Ibis convinced my father, although—as it came out later—it never convinced Captain Proctor of the State Police.

My Aunt Amy, who was a social worker and lived in the Elixabeth Peabody House, was equally convinced of the two men’s innocence. This again was not from studying the evidence—( don’t think Aunt Amy did anything more than glance at Professor Frankfurter’s hook—but that was the way one had to feel if one were a social worker. Nobody could have continued to stay at the Elizabeth I’eabody House who IcIt otherwise—not that such a person would ever have been there in the first place. One of the proud moments of Aunt Amy’s IiTc was when she was arrested lor picketing the State House and taken away in the patrol wagon. I think she was almost disappointed that die policeman who arrested lier was so courteous about it.

I can remember Sundays alter dinner when my father and Aunt Amy would get to wrangling about the case, not arguing from logic but merely making mutually contradictory statements. One afternoon Aunt Amy struck the table and called my father a liar. Neither one of them was the least bit interested in the other’s point of view. After the publication of the Lowell Report my father maintained that Frankfurter should have resigned from the Harvard Law School. Aunt Amy’s high opinion of the Lowclls was never quite the same again.

I don’t know when my views about Sacco and Van/etti changed. It must have been some time in the thirties, when I happened to read their letters. Those letters just weren’t compatible with the sordid and mercenary Draintree murders. As to the question of who were the murderers if Sacco and Vanzetti were not, I found that answered later in a book by one of their counsel, Herbert K. Ehrmann’s The Untried Case , which seemed to prove conclusively enough that the men who did the killing were from the Morelli Gang of Providence. If one accepted that explanation, reinforced by more factual evidence as time went on, everything fitted together, even to the number of men involved. For all witnesses agreed that there were five men in the murder car, although the prosecution never attempted to account for more than two. One of the Morellis looked enough like Sacco to have been his brother.

Dedham, where the trial took place, is one of those quiet backwaters that span the decades without ever causing much comment until suddenly, and much to the regret of the townspeople, it is made known by the event. For the most part it is a mill town stretched along the loops of the Charles River. But the older section near the High—not Alain—Street is a wellpreserved relic of the Colonial past. This High Street, overarched by elms, has its spacious frame houses of the mid-eighteenth century and its later and more grandiloquent mansions of the century’s end. Tt has two graceful white meetinghouses and a Victorian granite Episcopal church with an English-type churchyard where deans and a bishop lie buried. The Courthouse on the High Street, built in 1827, is a stone building with massive Greek-revival columns. Its Roman-style dome, soberly proportioned to the columns, is the most characteristic object in Dedham. From the flat country beyond the river it looms above the elms, Hanked by the meetinghouse spires, a symbol of authority.

I have seen its silhouette from across the marshes in all seasons of the year. That stretch of bogland beyond U.S. i, those miles of buttonbush and hardhack and speckled alder, converges on the horizon line of the Courthouse dome. Almost always when I see the great dome so secure above the peaceful community I find myself thinking back to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Its ghost still seems to linger over the Courthouse and the High Street, a tangible presence, whatever one’s feelings may be about it.

I felt that presence even more keenly in 1953, 32 years after the trial, when I was called on to serve for a month as a juror in that domed Courthouse, in the same aloof paneled room where Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and lound guilty and, after all the exceptions and delays, were sentenced to death six years later.

Scarcely a day of that month passed but there was some reference to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. In Uedham, at least, there were no longer any feelings of partisanship about it. Yet everyone sensed somehow that for the town it had been the climactic event.

The old sheriff in his blue serge cutaway with the large brass buttons had served there for forty years. He had been deputy sheriff in the First World War, and was made sheriff the year before the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Sometimes during the long lunch hour one of us would ask about the trial and he would reminisce. All his loyalty and most of his life svcre bound up with the Dedham court. The law revealed there was majestically certain. I don’t think he ever entertained the idea it might err, nor do i think his mind ever questioned the Sacco-Vanzetti decision. A due process of law was final. To think otherwise would be to challenge the very things that had become part of him—his brass buttons, his white wand of office with the blue state seal on it. His office did not however keep him from having personal feelings apart from the law. He had come to like Sacco and Vanzetti. ‘They were good boys,” he told us. “I knew Nick best, but they were both good boys. Never any trouble in jail. Now those Milieus—you remember them? They were really bad eggs. You had to keep your eye on them every minute.”

Sometimes at the end of the afternoon session he would take a few of us through the jail two streets away, and alter showing us the reception hall and the dining mum and the laundry would always point out the cells of Sacco and Vanzetti. “I was in the court,” he told us one afternoon as we stood in front of the barred door, “that day when Judge Thayer sentenced them. Vanxetti made his speech first, that long speech —maybe you heard about it. And all the time he was talking Judge Thayer just sat there with his chin in his hand looking down at his desk. Never moved. But when Vanzetti finished, then he let him have it.”

Just outside the courtroom in the tessellated corridor we would pass the prisoners’ cage, used in all Massachusetts murder trials. In this cage the defendants Sacco and Vanzetti sat, as have all other Norfolk County defendants. The cage has often been mentioned in the literature of the case, as if the two men had been exhibited in court like monkeys in a zoo. Hut in spite of its name the cage is no cage at all. It is a topless enclosure of woven metal lattice about three feet high in front rising to five feet in the back. Inside is a bench; at either end are latched doors. Except for its symbolism there is nothing very form! dable about it.

I was on a civil jury. Most of our cases concerned car accidents and personal injuries. One of our last cases, a minor one involving a woman who had cut her leg in the door of a car, made the courtroom buzz as it began. The lawyer for the plaintiff seemed to be the cause of it, for as soon as he appeared there was a wave of whispering. Even the clerk came over to the rail and muttered something quickly to our foreman. The lawyer was a portly man in his sixties or seventies, with a manner so assured that it was almost contemptuous. He was baldish, his face florid, with the flesh sagging under the cheeks. Behind his rimless spectacles his pale-blue eyes watered. Hc was dressed with the conservatism of a Boston banker, a hardwoven worsted suit cut in characteristic pear-shaped style. His shoes were of Scotch grain leather, he had a handkerchief tucked in his sleeve, and there were several club seals on his gold watch chain. When he spoke his voice was upper-class Bostonian, that clastic prolongation of the vowel sounds that has come to be known as the Harvard accent. As soon as he opened his argument he lapsed into Victorian rhetoric.

The clerk’s remark was passed along the jury box; the man next to me nudged my elbow. ‘That’s Kat/mann,” he said, “the fellow that got Sacco and Vanzetti.”

In his pear-shaped suit he seemed the culmination of the ghosts of the month. There he was again, in Judge Webster Thayer’s old courtroom, at the scene of his triumph of a generation before. As I watched him lacing us, spinning polysyllabic phrases out of nothing, I tried to form an impression of him divorced altogether from the Sacco-Vanzetti case. If t had seen him only at that moment, I should have thought him empty and pompous, his smugness derived from the fact that he was a Mayflower descendant (as in spite of his name I believe he was). But I should also have admitted his basic honesty. He died the following year.

Some months later I talked with a judge who had known Katzmann. When I told him about Dedham he asked me my opinion of the man. I said he was verbose, third rate, not wholly grammatical. He laughed. “That describes most of us lawyers,” he said. “As for Katzmann, he was average—an average district attorney, a little tricky like most of them, but no worse than most out to get a conviction. He thought Sacco and Vanzctti were guilty. I’m sure he never changed his mind.”

“What did you think of the trial?” I asked him.

“I don’t think the trial was fair. Whether they were guilty or not, I don’t think it was fair. Judge Ihayer was prejudiced—although like Katzmann, l grant you, he thought they were guilty, guilty of murder and not of just being Reds.”

It does not seem to me today that any reasonableminded person reading over the literature of the Sacco-Vanxetti case could come to any other conclusion than that the two men were innocent. There are aspects of the case that arc still inexplicable—but these men were not the stuff of criminals, either in their natures or their habits or even their practical experience. “The dry bones still rattle,” Heywood Broun wrote nine years after their execution. They no longer rattle. The case has become part of history. And since then we have become more used to innocent people being condemned. A new generation is scarcely aware of them; the cause they thought they died for is no cause. One finds Vanzetti’s noble last address to the court in several anthologies: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph.” Eut the words were not prophetic after all.

A third of a century has passed since the trial, fudge Thayer, Katzmann, President Lowell, and most of the jurors and witnesses arc dead. What remains out of this shadowed past? Two men were executed for a crime they did not commit. Beyond all partisanship, how could it have been avoided?

The two sides became irreconcilable. One side felt, as did the court reporter in his pamphlet, that anything less than the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti would undermine the Massachusetts judiciary. The other side demanded that the whole proceedings of Judge Thayer’s court be repudiated. There should have been some middle way out, some face-saving formula that would at least have pacified if not contcnted the reporter and his kind and yet given the men their lives. Whatever the defense’s private opinion of Judge Thayer, it would have been better to have said less about him and concentrated on the subsequently discovered evidence. That this evidence, chiefly concerning the Morelli gang, changed nothing was pre-eminently the responsibility of President Lowell. Working as he did in private with his committee, unhampered by strict rules of legal evidence, he had the opportunity to examine all the facts. A word from him, an indirect indication, and Governor Fuller would have stayed the death sentence and ordered a new trial. The Lowell Report is incomprehensible—unless it was that Lowell, the trained and objective historian, took the point of view of a minor court reporter.

Governor Fuller, of course, took his cue from the report. If he, the parvenu, had not been so in awe of Lowell and the Back Hay ascendancy he represented, perhaps he would have acted otherwise. His contact with Sacco and Vanzetti is said to have been friendly.

Once or twice a year going into the State Street Trust building I used to see Fuller. The doorman would see him first and swing the door open with a ringing “Good morning, Governor.” I slipped through in the eddy. The old politician billowed ahead of me under full sail. Self-esteem carried him along like a favoring wind. His was the pride of manner that has reached its goal. An Alger story of the new century. From a Maiden bicycle shop to the head of the Packard agency for New England when Packard was the Rolls Royce of America. A mansion on the water side of Beacon Street hung with Gainsboroughs and Romneys and Raeburns. That was the first stage. Then the governorship. And when Packard slipped in the depression, the ex-Governor sensed the moment of ebb and shifted to Cadillac.

In these last years of his life, I suppose Sacco and Vanxetti, those men whose hands he shook so long ago in the death cells, had become blurred impressions, half-forgotten, overlaid by eighteenth-century paintings and the tail-fins of Cadillacs. “Our reputation is your protection,” said the Governor’s used-car “ad.” Yet I never saw him swinging into the State Street Trust but I thought of his role in the trial.

Public opinion in Massachusetts—however that nebulous entity can be defined—was against Sacco and Vanxetti. To the community they were two murderers who had been given a fair trial and every opportunity for appeal afterward. The whole thing had gone on for much too long. Radicals and anarchists and Communists were trying to use the case as a lever to pry apart the foundations of law and order. But Massachusetts was not going to be dictated to by such people. There might be demonstrations in front of American embassies throughout the world, there might be more bombs planted in the houses of those concerned —as had already happened to fudge Thaycr and one of the jurors. Nothing like that was going to change the course of justice. Conservative opinion more and more adopted the point of view that Sacco and Vanzetti had become a challenge to society that could be answered only by their deaths. This view, though it prevailed judicially, never did have a literate apologia.

Literary talent was the forte of the other side. That side consisted of the literary left, radicals, liberals. Communists, woolly well-meaning progressives like my Aunt Amy, plus a large scattering of people who could not be labeled politically but whose sense of justice had been outraged. Some of these latter were starched conservatives. The crystallized view of the opposition was that Sacco and Vanxetti were the victims of a malignant conspiracy. Neither judge nor district attorney had really believed them guilty of murder. The trial was a put-up job to get rid of two troublesome agitators.

For the Communists—to whom this case gave their first opportunity for a mass appeal—Sacco and Vanzetti were martyrs of the proletariat, murdered by reactionaries trying to preserve an unjust social order. As Eugene Lyons wrote in his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti ; “They were sacrificed to the basic fears of capitalist society. They died for the working class of the world.”

Seen from this point of view two alien Reds could expect no justice from a Massachusetts court or a Dedham jury. That jury had obviously not debated long over the case, for it took them only five hours to bring in their verdict.

During my month in Dedham I couldn’t help but wonder about that earlier jury. Drawn in much the same way that we were, they couldn’t have been so very different from ourselves. And what were we? Some middle-class, some working-class, a few of us stupid, a few opinionated, but most of us reasonable enough to weigh an issue. At least we tried to overcome our prejudices; we felt it on our conscience that we should be fair. The jury I sat on would have been prejudiced against Reds, but they would not have convicted a Communist on a capital charge because of his political beliefs. It didn’t seem to me the SaccoVanxetti jury could have been otherwise. Granted even that the foreman was prejudiced, there would have been some of the others who would have stood out against injustice. I IeIt sure that when the jury decided that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty, it was because they were convinced that they were guilty of murder.

Thinking of the great trial I found myself wondering how I should have voted if I had been on the Sacco-Van/etti jury, knowing little or nothing of the background of the case but merely faced with what svas offered me day after day in six weeks of testimony. As soon as I had the time I went back to the transcript of the trial itself. Il there was any answer to this question, it would be there.

There was much that the transcript could not olter —the actuality of the past moment, the atmosphere of the court with its tensions, the appearance of the witnesses and the defendants, the subtleties that could be gathered from a tone of voice but could not be preserved in black and white. Yet the substance, the prime matter of the trial endured, each word spoken during that six weeks pressed and dried between the now yellowing pages. Over 2,000 pages of testimony faced me, with the repetitions, the irrelcvancies, the long-drawn-out legal impasses that I had become all too familiar with as a juror—and then the sudden revelation of the living fact from the dead record. One hundred and sixty-seven witnesses there were, including the ballistics experts.

Through the long days of another summer I occupied myself with this inchoate mass that gradually took shape and form as I read. I tried to disavow any preconceptions, to imagine myself in the jury box at Dedham occupied solely with the question of whether two men murdered two other men, and knowing no more about it in advance than the evidence offered. How should I have judged?

I knew one thing anyway—that I should have disregarded the experts. My month had taught me that. Experts canceled each other out as the paid bias of either side, and a jury then decided on other grounds. The real grounds in this case were the half do/en or so witnesses who identified Sacco—and to a lesser extent Vanzetti—as being at or near the scene of the murder on that April day. Jn opposition to them were an equal number of witnesses who testified that these two were not the men. It was a question finally of which group to believe. Every witness who saw the get-away car testified there were five men in it. The weakest part of the Commonwealth s case was that it made no effort to account for the remaining three, as Ehrmann did in his book. And the prosecution never did establish an adequate motive for the crime.

On the other hand Sacco and Vanzetti were both armed the night the police picked them up, Sacco with a revolver of the type that fired the murder bullet, Vanzetti with one that might have been taken from the murdered paymaster.

Sacco maintained that he had put his revolver in his pocket that afternoon and forgotten about it; Vanzetti said that he carried his for protection. Both statements may have been true. Often the lame excuse is really the truthful one. Yet here were two men, philosophical anarchists, who maintained that the use of force was never justified; during the war, they had become fugitives from military service. Their philosophy denied the use of force, even for self-protection (as it must). Yet when they were picked up, almost by accident, they had on them the weapons of force. If they had not been armed the chances are that they would never have come to trial.

The trial may well have been more unfair than seems apparent in the record. There the most glaring fault is the district attorney’s harrying interrogation of the two men as to their beliefs, their lack of patriotism, and their reasons for running away to avoid the draft. That the judge allowed such questioning to go on was outrageous.

Its impropriety stares out of the printed page. Here certainly was error, yet I cannot believe that this was primary in the jury’s verdict. The judge’s charge seems reasonable enough in cold print. Reading it over twice I could not take exception to it.

I was finally left with the feeling that if I had been on the original jury and heard the evidence that was placed before those men, I should probably have voted with the others. Yet I was not really certain.

Looking back at it now over a lapse of years the case of Sacco and Vanzetti becomes a tragedy in the classical sense. It was no melodrama, as many have seen it, with good neatly divided from evil. Katzmann was as sharp as most district attorneys out for a conviction, a limited man but not a bad one. Judge Thayer could not hide the bias of his obsessions off the bench. He was indiscreet and he was weak, but he made an effort to conduct the trial fairly. Both he and Katzmann believed to their dying day that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.

It was not a conspiracy of evil men against noble men, as Maxwell Anderson saw it in his theatrical Gods of the Lightning . There was something more, something deeper and more embracing than all the literature about the case. It was in fact fate that was the mover behind the events at the Dedham Courthouse in the spring of 1921. And it was fate in the ironic Greek sense, dwarfing all the participants, ending in inexorable disaster.

Sacco and Vanzetti were figures of Greek tragedy, the doomed king’s son become in modern dress two Italian workmen. Fate lurks behind them at each step. Sacco, the regular worker, never misses a day at the factory except that one day of the murder when he goes to Boston for a visa to return to Italy. If he had picked any other day, the factory time clock would have been his alibi. Without him it is agreed Vanzetti could not have been convicted. But on that one day fate sent him to Boston. Fate gave him his singular resemblance to Joe Morelli. Fate engineered the almost accidental arrest of the two men as they were riding on the Brockton streetcar. But for fate Sacco would have been off to his native country in two weeks.

And as in Greek tragedy the hero condemns himself unknowingly in his own words, is doomed by his own inner weakness, so in the end are Sacco and Vanzetti doomed by theirs. The men of peace go armed. Fate plus human weakness—that is the basis of high tragedy, a tragedy such as theirs that they played out to the end with bravery and dignity. It was a tragedy for everyone concerned with the case, and in the end it is best accepted so, as it was by the Greeks.

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