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A haunting piece of history

Sacco and Vanzetti The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind Bruce Watson Viking: 434 pp., $25.95

August 19, 2007|Art Winslow | Art Winslow, former executive editor of the Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

THE most famous words uttered by Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed 80 years ago by the commonwealth of Massachusetts along with his good friend Nicola Sacco, appear without attribution in John Dos Passos' "The Big Money," the concluding volume of his "U.S.A." trilogy. In their day, it was widely understood whence these words had come:

"If it had not been for those things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died unknown, unmarked, a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by an accident."

Vanzetti spoke some close approximation of that to sum up seven years of travail, scant weeks before he and Sacco died in the electric chair in the first hour of Aug. 23, 1927, maintaining their innocence to the end. (The reporter who conducted the interview for New York World admitted the possibility of some embellishment.) By that time, the fate of the two Italian immigrants was an international cause célèbre, one that had waxed and waned along with a series of appeals and setbacks since their conviction in 1921 of having killed a paymaster and a guard in a payroll heist the year before in South Braintree. Massachusetts journalist Bruce Watson's "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind" features that quotation as well, freighted as it is with the weight of the case and intimations of the character of the defendants, whether truthful and humble or deceitful and self-aggrandizing.

Even at this historical remove, the two men, Watson writes, "haunt American history," in part because "there is little concrete proof in the case . . . only shifting stories and gut feelings." As Katherine Anne Porter reported half a century after their death in her slim volume "The Never-Ending Wrong," a firsthand account of demonstrating for them in the streets and working with their defense committee: "I did not know then and I still do not know whether they were guilty . . . but still I had my reasons for being there to protest the terrible penalty they were condemned to suffer; these reasons were of the heart."

There are also legalistic readings, such as that offered in 1927 by then Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter, who termed Judge Webster Thayer's decision in denying appeals for a new trial "a farrago of misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations." But reasons of the heart, or gut, determined the stance of most observers then and now. Thayer himself was quoted variously as saying -- well away from his courtroom in Dedham -- that Sacco and Vanzetti were "Bolsheviki" and that he "would get them good and proper." After denying their appeals, he bragged to an acquaintance, "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?" Frank Sibley, who covered the trial for the Boston Globe, was later asked by an advisory commission to the governor whether Thayer had displayed bias before the jury. "Only his whole manner," Sibley replied. H.L. Mencken called the case "one of the most amazing scandals in the whole history of American jurisprudence."

When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a streetcar almost three weeks after the robbery and murder, each was armed with a concealed handgun; Sacco was carrying a pocketful of extra cartridges and Vanzetti some shotgun shells. Interrogated within an hour by Bridgewater police chief Michael Stewart, both lied on various points. At their trial a year later, they were forced to admit the lies and claimed that they had feared deportation for their radical beliefs. (Indeed, the two had been on a government watch list because of their anarchist ties, well before the South Braintree robbery.)

Chief Stewart, Watson notes, was "proud of helping federal agents round up six actual Reds in Bridgewater during the Palmer Raids." These, named for U.S. Atty. Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer, arose from the nation's post-World War I turmoil, which included severe labor unrest, a spate of bombings, a xenophobic fear of "agitators" and widespread arrests of radicals. "America's first 'Red Scare' was shorter than its McCarthy-era successor yet far more intense," the author asserts.

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