". . . Never in our full life could we hope to do such a work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of men as we do by accident . . . That last moment belongs to usthat agony is our triumph."
VANZETTI, from the Death Cell
There was a crowd of reporters waiting on the State House steps in Boston when Governor Alvan Tufts Fuller arrived to conduct the day's business on August 23, 1926.
"It's a beautiful morning, boys, isn't it?" he said, smiling broadly.
"The Governor seems in excellent health and spirits," The New York Times man wired his paper.
But there was a strong question that day about the health and spirits of two other men in MassachusettsNicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists. They were in the Death House at Charlestown Prison waiting to keep an on-and-off date with the electric chair. They might have been pardoned a little uneasiness on that beautiful morning. It was meant to be their last.
The long, tortured night of Sacco and Vanzetti began with their arrest on May 5, 1920. The Red Raids were then in progress and the police questioned them about a memorial meeting for Andrea Salsedo, an anarchist who had plunged fourteen stories to his death from the Department of Justice offices in New York after an eight-week grilling. Sacco and Vanzetti both had loaded pistols on them and on May 7 the police began to ask if they knew anything about a hold-up murder in South Braintree on April 15. A five-man bandit band had seized a $15,776.51 payroll belonging to the Slater & Morrill shoe factory after shooting down paymaster Frederick A. Parmenter and guard Alessandro Berardelli. Sacco and Vanzetti denied knowledge of the crime.
Questioned about an earlier payroll holdup, in Bridgewater, Sacco produced a time-clock alibi: he was at his bench in the Stoughton shoe factory where he was an edge trimmer. But Vanzetti, a fish peddler, was tried in the Bridgewater holdup. The judge in the case was the Hon. Webster Thayer, an aging pillar of the Back Bay aristocracy and a violent foe of all things radical. His charge to the jury included an injunction which, while horrid in a judicial sense, was quite popular at the time. "This man, although he may not actually have committed the crime attributed to him," Judge Thayer said, "is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions . . . the defendant's ideals are cognate with crime." In a quick switch to 1970, you might ask whether President Richard M. Nixon was very far away from this sort of law-'n-order approach when he pronounced Charles Manson "guilty, directly or indirectly, of at least eight murders" when the hippie cult leader was on trial in Los Angeles in the death of Sharon Tate and six others and still faced another murder charge.
Oh, well. To get back to Bartolomeo Vanzetti, he was found guilty in the Bridgewater holdup after no less than thirty witnesses testified that he was in Plymouth on the day of the crime. He was sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison on that conviction.
Judge Thayer, then sixty-four, also presided in Dedham the following spring when Vanzetti and his friend Sacco were tried in the South Braintree case. The Commonwealth produced an array of eyewitnesses who placed the two aliens at the scene. For the defense, nine witnesses from Boston put Sacco there on the day of the crime; the clerk of the Italian Consulate testified that he had come in that day to inquire about getting a passport to Italy. In Vanzetti's case, six witnesses placed him in Plymouth that afternoon on his door-to-door rounds. The prosecution had 61 witnesses and the defense 107. The jury had to determine where the weight of the truth lay.
The two men in the steel cageboth radicals, both slackers who had fled to Mexico during the war; Vanzetti with a brand-new criminal record in the Bridgewater holdupwere found guilty. The jury deliberated six and a half hours, but the case reverberated around the world for the next six years. During that time, evidence piled upon evidence to throw massive doubts on the conviction, but Judge Thayer denied successive motions for a new trial, including one based on a convicted murderer's story that he could name the gang that committed the crime.
There were strong suggestions that the little Yankee judge had something more than a mild distaste for the convicted men. While turning down the appeals, he had freely referred to Sacco and Vanzetti as "Dagos" and "sons of bitches" in the confines of his golf club. During a Dartmouth football game he was overheard saying to a friend, "Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?" Robert Benchley, the writer, quoted a mutual New England friend"Webster has been saying those anarchist bastards down in Boston were trying to intimidate him." Frank P. Sibley of the Boston Globe, dean of the Massachusetts reporters, said that in thirty-five years around the courts he had never seen anything like Judge Thayer's handling of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. "His whole manner, his whole attitude,
seemed to be that the jurors were there to convict the men," Sibley wrote. Louis Stark of The New York Times said that in February, 1922, Thayer had said to him, "I hope The New York Times is not going on the side of these anarchists." Stark said the judge revealed to him an overwhelming abhorrence of radicals and foreigners. Other reporters also documented that point but it couldn't help win a new trial. The judge passing on that detail was Webster Thayer.
THE LAST DAYS OF SACCO AND VANZETTI
"I have known Judge Thayer all my life . . . He is a narrow-minded man; he is a
half-educated man; he is an unintelligent man; he is carried away with his fear
of reds . . ."
WILLIAM G. THOMPSON, for The Defense
On April 9, 1927, the eyes of the world were focused on a little courtroom in New England. The day of sentence finally had arrived. When Nicola Sacco was asked what he had to say, he replied in halting English that his friend Vanzetti would speak for both of them. But then the immigrant factory hand looked up at the shriveled old man on the bench and words poured forth:
"I never knew, never heard, even read in history anything so cruel as this court. After seven years' prosecuting they still consider us guilty. And these gentle people here are arrayed with us in this court today.
"I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will be always collision between one and the other. We fraternize the people with the books, with the literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try the education of people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality that hates each other. That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor . . .
"You know it, Judge Thayeryou know all my life, you know why I have been here, and after seven years that you have been persecuting me and my poor wife, and you still today sentence us to death. I would like to tell all my life, but what is the use?"
Vanzetti, forty-one, a prize student in Italy before he came to the United States, and in his time here a laborer, peddler, bricklayer, quarry worker, rope mill hand and strike leader, was even more eloquent than Sacco.
". . . I am not only innocent of these two crimes," he said, "but I never commit a crime in my life. I have never steal and I have never kill and I have never spilt blood and I have fought against the crime and I have fought and I have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes that the law and the church legitimate and sanctify.
"This is what I say: I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earthI would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times and if I could be reborn two other times I would live again to do what I have done already. I have
Judge Thayer noted in a wispy voice that Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court had upheld the verdicts and that death was mandatory. He set the week of July 10 for the executions but protests mounted with such force that Governor Fuller granted a reprieve until August 10 so that a special advisory commission could look into the case for him. He named Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, Dr. Samuel W. Stratton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ex-Probate Judge Robert Grant.
The Lowell Commission went over the record and heard a mass of testimonysome from prosecution witnesses recanting their 1921 stories, some throwing doubts on the veracity and character of other state witnesses, some backing the trial witnesses who had placed Sacco in Boston on the day of the South Braintree holdup, eighteen saying Vanzetti sold them fish in Plymouth that day, some to the effect that the court interpreter erred in translating key testimony. One witness swore that before the trial the man later made foreman of the jury had said, "Damn them, they ought to hang anyway."
Except for noting "a grave breach of official decorum" in Judge Thayer's oft-quoted off-the-bench remarks, the Lowell Commission found nothing to suggest a miscarriage of justice. The Governor accepted the findings but on August 10 granted a twelve-day reprieve for final legal moves. The stay reached the Death House in Charlestown Prison just fifty-one minutes ahead of the executioner and served to touch off violent Sacco-Vanzetti demonstrations all over the world. There were forty persons hurt in a London riot. There were street fights in Paris and disorders outside the American Consulate in Geneva. The American flag was burned before our Consulate in Casablanca. There were riots in Berlin, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Mexico, Cuba, Japan, Brest, Marseilles and elsewhere. Throngs wearing black mourning bands marched in Boston and New York. The voices of George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, H.G.
Wells, Romain Rolland, Anatole France and John Galsworthy joined with those of the American writers and intellectuals pleading for clemency. Heywood Broun, till then a leisurely observer of the American scene, tore into the Lowell Commission in his New York World column: