COMMON KNOWLEDGE: SACCO AND VANZETTI
One of the points of this series has been to correct excesses, confusion, and myths about different news stories and cultural events in the past. When I dig into these stories, I usually find two things. First, that the generally accepted storyline about these events is riddled with falsehoods. Second, that the reaction to these falsehoods usually is extreme and mistaken as well.
Its as if we are climbing onto a horse too quickly, fall off one side, then get back on so careful to avoid the same mistake that we fall off the other. The Zimmerman/Martin case last year is a good example of this, one side crying racist murdering stalker of an innocent child while the other cried heroic noble protector brutally beaten nearly to death by thug.
In the end, the story almost always ends up being not either extreme - Zimmerman was using questionable judgment and while beaten wasn't hurt enormously but did act in reasonable fear of his life, and Martin was definitely a shady character much older than the picture usually shown around but probably not a murderous thug, just a drugged up teen posing as tougher than he really was.
And this isn't new.
JAZZ AGE ANARCHISTS?
For this edition of Common Knowledge, we go back in time, almost a century ago. A pair of Italian Immigrants named Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco who came to America in 1908. They were followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who was behind the bombing and murder of several US politicians and judges. In the evidence included in a later trial, Galleanist leaders sent a letter to Sacco telling him to destroy all their correspondence (which apparently, he did not).
It was on April 15, 1920 when Sacco and Vanzetti robbed the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. There the guard was shot while reaching for his pistol and a paymaster trying to flee the scene was shot in the back and killed. Also involved in the robbery was fellow anarchist Mario Buda, and possibly a man named Riccardo Orciani.
Police quickly found ties between this event and a previous attempted robbery in Bridgewater Massachusetts the year before. Both were speculated to be money-raising attempts for terrorist acts (such as a later bombing of Wall Street in 1920).
In the first trial, only Vanzetti was tried for the Bridgewater case. The defense attorney produced hosts of Italian witnesses who all swore that Vanzetti was no where near that crime at that time, he was off doing wonderful family things. At least one witness admitted being coached to memorize his testimony while on the stand.
The jury found him guilty of robbery and attempted murder, and Vanzetti bitterly blamed his lawyer. The judge found out that the jury had examined the bullet casings to see if they were the right size for the gun, and the judge threw out their conviction of murder based on this.
As an aside the inability of juries to independently gain the facts they need to decide a case when lawyers either deliberately or incompetently forget to bring that up is infuriating to me. There can be no hope of justice if the jury is not given access to all the information they require to properly adjudicate and the hissy fit by a judge for them not following his rules was absolutely wrong here.
In any case, a subsequent trial put both Sacco and Vanzetti up for the attempted murder in the Baintree case. The prosecutor produced the weapon Sacco owned, a witness that saw the getaway car speed by firing pistols and identified Sacco, and witnesses that identified the automobile and articles of clothing worn by the men. Forensic testing showed that not only were the bullets that killed the men from the type of gun Sacco owned, but they could have only come from his gun.
The case against Vanzetti was weaker, and they could not produce the other automatic which shot the guard. Vanzetti had a revolver on him which might have been the guard's pistol. He was tentatively identified as being one of the men at the scene, which would make him guilty of felony murder (engaging in a felony in which someone was killed, even if not by the individual being charged). However in trial, the witnesses noted they couldn't be sure. The prosecutors sought the death penalty.
During the trial, sensationalism began. A Defense Committee, made up of Galleanists and friends of the pair, began a campaign of turning public mood against the trial. Claiming racism and anti-immigrant fervor (yes, racism against Italians; for those history-challenged it was not uncommon in the early 20th century to be racist against south Europeans, Irish, and other groups), their publicity appealed to newspapers, some of which picked up the cry. Nobel Prize winner in literature Anatole France wrote "The death of Sacco and Vanzetti will make martyrs of them and cover you with shame. You are a great people. You ought to be a just people."
Progressive Magazine The New Republic took up the cause and began trumpeting the innocence of the pair and how they were being cruelly railroaded by anti-Italian government types. The Boston Globe followed suit, and the rhetoric was pretty familiar stuff about working class types being oppressed by the ruling class and so on. Labor union publications ran regular stories about the pair, portraying them as working class heroes fighting against a cruel system run by the bourgeoisie.
Meanwhile the case went oddly. Multiple motions for retrial were attempted by both sides. Some witnesses claimed coercion by the prosecution, and the same host of friends of the guys showed up as character witnesses, coached by the defense. A defense firearms expert disassembled several pistols, including the one owned by Vanzetti, showing how their parts were interchangeable. The judge ordered him to put the Vanzetti back together properly. Later, it was found that the barrel in Vanzetti's gun was new and had never been fired. The defense expert was questioned and claimed he'd not swapped the barrels during his display, and the judge ordered an older barrel be placed in the gun. At this point the trial probably should have been stopped and restarted, because the evidence was so tampered with as to be useless.
It got even more muddy. A man named Celestino Madeiros facing a certain conviction for murder, claimed he had been responsible for the Baintree robbery, and one member of his gang closely resembled Sacco. Many people, including former Supreme Judicial Court justice and the Boston Herald called for a retrial. The trial was concluded, and the men were found guilty by the jury.
Labor unions began holding strikes in protest of the trial and rallies were held in their defense. Benito Mussolini contacted the governor on behalf of the pair. Celebrities such as Dorothy Parker, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, and George Bernard Shaw signed petitions for a retrial or release of the two.
People began claiming evidence had been planted by the police, such as the one that fitted Sacco's gun. They became a popular cause of the political left and icons of oppression of the working man. Leftists to this day complain that the jury had no Italians on it (no evidence suggests any were in the jury pool), and point out that the prosecution's case was weak.
The trial was, and still is, portrayed as a government trying to punish people for their radical politics rather than about the evidence, murders, and robbery. By 1927, 25,000 people (mostly union members and radicals) took to the streets of Boston in protest.
In response to this uproar, the governor ordered a commission to examine the trial and see if there was anything to this other than leftist rabble rousing. Their conclusion was that while the trial was a bit iffy, the pair were certainly guilty.
Upton Sinclair wrote a book about how the men were innocent and railroaded, but later letters were found indicating that he feared for his life and decided "It is much better copy as a naive defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public." Sinclair's biographer Pasco later said in an interview with NPR:
I think he cut some corners on this. He thought that a larger truth was that there was repression in America and that that was his subject and that innocent people sometimes were found guilty. I think that he showed a similar kind of ethical lapse later on when he was very hesitant in the late 1930s and early 1940s to condemn Stalin.
Even if the men were guilty, he felt that the larger context of the world in which they were living rendered their guilt perhaps less important than it might have been otherwise.
As the son of one of the group of Boston revolutionaries told Pasco, “They all lied. They did it for the cause.” The cause was more important than the crimes or the lives taken, more important than the robbery of working class people's payroll. More important than the truth.
One of the attorneys for Sacco and Vanzetti, Fred Moore, was a strong defender of the pair, but when he became convinced that they were actually guilty of the crimes, they fired him. Moore later told Sinclair that the men were guilty and further how he'd created fraudulent alibis for the men.
One of the primary men behind the public outcry defending Sacco and Vanzetti was Willi Münzenberg, who worked for Josef Stalin. He raised half a million dollars for their defense and publicity, of which the Committee only about $6000. As Chuck DeVore points out in Human Events:
Known by historically minded conservatives as “anti-anti-communism,” this crusading mindset of the left in America made the Cold War all the more dangerous by disarming a large segment of the American population to the notion that the Soviet Union and communism was a deadly enemy to be resisted. Instead, the theory of “moral equivalency” took hold, largely due to the efforts of people such as Upton Sinclair, whose influential writings portrayed the United States as a bad nation with no standing to criticize the U.S.S.R., a Socialist workers’ paradise.
In 1926, a bomb destroyed the house of the man who called the police on Sacco. While in prison, Sacco called for the public death of the judge, who he blamed for everything now instead of his lawyers.
What was called Anarchy back then was essentially Communism. They used the same rhetoric, the same philosophies, they followed the same ideological leaders and books, and they had the same goals. And from the trial of these two men onward, Sacco and Vanzetti became the left's byword for how evil anti-communism was. They turned the murder trial into a class struggle and portrayed it as oppression of their people.
Later examination of the testimony, the evidence, and physical evidence with more modern technology and techniques all support the guilty verdict, such as a 1961 examination of the bullets and guns. But that's irrelevant.
The prosecution cut corners and pulled tricks to get their case to a guilty verdict. The defense lied and manipulated testimony and even evidence to get a not guilty verdict. Both sides withheld evidence and cheated. Neither side of the court case was working out of the greatest interest in truth and justice. The prosecution hammered witnesses about their politics, giving rise to the defense's argument that this was all just a political railroading. The judge should have tossed the case out and had a retrial, but apparently had some personal interest in staying in charge.
But in the end, the two men were guilty as charged, and in all the arguments and politicking this was totally lost. And to this day, you'll read regularly that these two heroic figures of the working class were cruelly betrayed by oppressive government afraid of Communism. That they were not guilty but the trial was rigged by bigots who hated immigrants.
And that narrative was so useful to the left, that even knowing it to be utterly false, they clung to it and lied through their teeth. It was valuable to advance their goals, and who cares what the truth is? There's a "deeper truth" as we've been told by their sort in recent years, which matters more.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.