From the Stacks: “In Dedham Jail: A Visit With Sacco and...

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FROM THE STACKS JULY 5, 2013

From the Stacks: “In Dedham Jail: A Visit With Sacco and Vanzetti” June 22, 1927

I1927, The New Republic’s managing editor, Bruce Bliven, went to visit the “two most famous prisoners in all the world”: the Italian immigrants Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, respectively. In their free time, however, they were anarchists, and the state—despite contradictory evidence—convicted them of participating in a 1920 armed robbery that led to the murder of a factory pay-master and his guard. As The New Republic wrote, “Nine witnesses of good repute took oath that Vanzetti sold eels to them in Plymouth at a time which completely precluded his being in Bridgewater when the hold-up was attempted.” When Bliven arrived at the jail where they awaited execution—amid “a pleasant green New England landscape” and “Louisa Alcott’s own lilacs”—he was surprised by their equanimity. “Mr. Bruce Bliven is a nice youth,” Vanzetti later wrote in a letter to one of his advocates. “He was here and promised to send us a copy of the New Republic containing the interview; he sent it to my keepers who kept it for themselves. They are so fine and so interested in our—doom!”

The automobile slides through a pleasant green New England landscape: parks and ponds and big houses set far back from the road, among Louisa Alcott's own lilacs. A sharp turn through the elms, a hundred feet down a side road, and here we are. 

It does not look like a prison, this nondescript, rambling structure, painted white and gray, and, like the houses, set back in the lawn, with a curving driveway and wooden stables at one side. It looks like a private school—or do all private schools look like prisons?... The stables have been converted to garages, but even so, there is such an air of 1880 about them that involuntarily you lift your eyes to the gable for the galloping horse, silhouetted in iron, which should be there as weather-vane. Up a flight of steps, through a door, and now we know where we are. Before us is another door, made of big vertical steel bars. A guard lets us in—an elderly, silver-haired New Englander, like a lobster-man come ashore. We are in a huge rectangular space, flooded with sunshine on this lovely June day. It is hardly a room. So much wall space has been removed and so many iron bars substituted, that it is like a cage; and here come those it encloses. No ball-and-chain, no lockstep; but men in single file, heads bent, arms folded on their breasts. They look young and healthy, on the whole; there are some fine faces and well modeled heads, and others which are less pleasing. These men wear trousers of gray stuff, uncouthly cylindrical—since they never have been pressed and never will be—and gray-and-white-striped shirts, cheap and coarse. They mount the stairs and pass along the balcony before the cell block, falling out of line one by one. The air resounds with the clash of metal, ringing harshly in our ears, as they lock themselves in. Every few minutes during the next half-hour, another such file passes through, silhouetted against the bars and the lush green of grass and trees, climbs the stairs and breaks up as it centers the cells.

From the cell block they appear, these two most famous prisoners in all the world, walking briskly, side by side. No bars are interposed between them and their visitors; we are introduced, shake hands, sit down on a bench and some chairs, like so many delegates to a convention, meeting for the first time in a hotel lobby. They are in prison garb like the others; they look well, seem in good spirits. Both are of average height; both black-haired, both somewhat bald in front, a baldness which somehow gives them a mild domestic air. Vanzetti wears a big, bristling Italian moustache; Sacco is clean shaven and his hair is clipped rather close on his round Southern skull. Vanzetti is expansive, a glowing friendly temperament, with bright eyes, an expressive face; Sacco is intelligent, too, but less emotional. He listens acutely, interjects a shrewd word or two at times. He judges men's specific acts, pessimistically, in the light of general principles, and usually for the purpose of deflating Vanzetti's too-generous view of human nature. What he says sounds true; and sometimes profound as well. He is not sullen. Neither of them reveals to the casual visitor any trace of that warping of the faculties which the experts say has been produced in them.

Today is an anniversary of a sort, for these two. One month from today, or within the six days thereafter, they are to die. Unless the Governor of Massachusetts acts to stay the process of the law, these strong and healthy men, eager and full of life, will sit in the electric chair, their heads tonsured, their trouser legs split, for the electrodes, and say farewell to life. Thus the state will take its Old Testament revenge for a murder which someone committed seven years ago.

Well, perhaps Sacco and Vanzetti were members of the band which did that deed, though I know what I am talking about when I say the chances against it are a thousand to one. But that they did not have a fair trial, there is no doubt whatever. No intelligent man has ever read the record of what happened in the courtroom, coming to the case with an open mind, without being convinced that these two were the haphazard victims of a blind hostility to the community, which was compounded of "patriotic" fervor, anti-foreignism, and of hatred of these men in particular because, as Professor Felix Frankfurter has summed it up, they denied the three things judge and jury hold most dear: God, country and property.

We try sitting now on these hard chairs in Dedham jail, to speak of their plight, to offer the words of cheer which decency seems to dictate. They listen gravely, and we read in their eyes the disbelief which they are too courteous to put into words. When you have been under the shadow of death for seven years, you do not any longer clutch at straws of hope. "We'll be glad if you are right," says Vanzetti politely; but it is as though one said to a baby, "It will be nice, if you can reach the moon." They have long expected that their martyrdom, which has already been so incredibly cruel, will be completed, and that they will die in the chair.

They are willing to spend but a moment on their own case, however. Vanzetti's mind is full of something else, and now, impatiently, he pours it out. He is troubled about Tom Mooney, who is dying of a broken heart in a bleak gray California prison by the Golden Gate. He looks at us appealingly, his words tumble out. God in Heaven! This man, who is to die in four weeks, is thinking only of another man 3,000 miles away, victim of an injustice like his own. Could we do something, Vanzetti asks, for poor Tom Mooney? He himself has been doing all he can—writing, writing, letters to many people, especially to some Austrian friends, urging them to keep up the fight. "I may not be able to help much longer," says Vanzetti, with a twisted little smile. "And he needs help, Tom Mooney. He's a sick man. If they don't look after him, he'll die."

Vanzetti's English, if not always idiomatically correct, is fluent and, on the whole, accurate. Sacco, perhaps, does not do quite so well; but it is fair to remember that most of the time they try to say things that are not too easy even in one's mother tongue. You must not be deceived by the accent, or by the workingman's easy way they have of sitting on a hard bench as though they were used to it. These are book men. Their political faith is philosophical anarchism, and they know its literature from Kropotkin down. In this year's graduating class at Harvard, they will not be twenty men who, on their own initiative, have read as many difficult, abstruse works as these gray-clad prisoners.

Since today's visitors are in no mood for abstract controversy, the hosts, ever courteous, follow their lead. The homes of these two men in Italy are mentioned. Have we ever been there? We never have, but we have been not far away. Florence, we all agree, is charming. The polite Americans call it Firenze, the polite Italians give it the Anglicized form. And Naples! Ah yes, lovely, is it not? And we go on to speak of a famous Italian wine; and one says, "When you are free, you will perhaps go back to Italy and drink again the lacrimae Christi?"

"When we are free..." says Vanzetti thoughtfully. Does he see against the bars a great clock which is ticking away his life and that of his companion?—"Tick, tock! thirty one days to live! Tick, tock! thirty days to live!"

One does not know. He says nothing for a few minutes, and then speaks quietly of exercise. Lately they have been given an Italian lawn-bowling set, which they use during the hour and a half they are permitted to be out-of-doors. "It is good," says Sacco, and Vanzetti corroborates: "It makes you sweat." Besides this, every morning in his cell, Vanzetti takes setting-up exercises; he flexes his biceps to show you, lest his English may not have conveyed the idea. The prison food, he goes on, is not well selected, too much starch. Before they had the set of lawn-bowls, Vanzetti had terrible indigestion much of the time. Now things are better. In their earlier years in prison, these men were treated with abominable cruelty. As their plight has become better known around the world, things have been made easier for them. Indeed, they have little to complain of, if you overlook their deadly peril of being victim of a foul judicial murder.

One of their visitors loses the thread of the conversation, thinking about that murder. One can understand a good hot-blooded killing; some day I shall commit one myself, if the organ grinder keeps on playing under my window. But to murder in blood that is seven years cold!—to assassinate men in order to bolster the prestige of an unbalanced judge... And now to find majority opinion in a great American community supporting that murder!...

He comes back from this by-path with a start, to hear Vanzetti speaking of his other trial, the one at Plymouth, which was even more brazen in its denial of common justice and common decency than the joint ordeal with Sacco. He remembers, Vanzetti does, with mild reproach, that some of the little funds which his friends—poor people, like himself—had raised to defend him, was squandered. A man took money to get an automobile and interview defense witnesses. (Judge Thayer subsequently failed to take these witnesses seriously, on the ground that they were Italians and that their testimony, therefore, could not be important.) But this man who was given funds to get an automobile, instead of seeing witnesses, went joy riding instead. Was that fair? Vanzetti asks.

He has hatred of injustice, one sees that in him perhaps most clearly of all. With his philosophical and political ideas this writer does not happen to agree; and yet one must recognize that no other sect in the modern world comes as close to primitive Christianity as his. He is opposed equally to Mussolinism in Italy and Sovietism in Russia, and for the same reason—he is against any rule supported by force. They do not believe in force, these two men who (according to the state’s official theory) after a lifetime of sober industry, on a given day suddenly turned murderers to get money “for the cause,” when the cause didn’t need it; planned a crime which bore every earmark of the expert professional, didn’t get any of the money when it was over, and made no effort to hide or escape afterward.

And now they are to die in four weeks.

Four weeks! Our conversation has halted for a little; we all have things to think about. We learn now—by accident—that we are keeping our hosts from their dinner’; if they are delayed much longer it will be cold, or they will get none. And so we stand up and shake ands and say good-bye. “Good-bye.” “Good-bye.” “You tell him I thank him so much. Perhaps you do something to help Tom Mooney?" 

And they walk away toward the cell-block, these three—Sacco and Vanzetti and the unseen gray-robed figure which is ever at their side; and we go into the glorious June evening, to the car and the chauffeur and the road home.

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