Sacco & Vanzetti Chapter One

Book Summary
First Chapter

Praise for Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind

“Bruce Watson’s spirited history of the affair does a great service in rescuing fact from the haze of legend…”
New York Times

“… the most thorough and readable plumbing yet of the Case Record. . .”
The Nation

Wall Street Journal

“. . . presents a lucid, evenhanded, and at times gripping look at a complex political mystery.”
American Heritage

“. . . a well-researched page-turner. . .”
Library Journal

“Bruce Watson does a terrific job of reviewing the historical record of the trial, drawing compelling portraits of the principals, their families, and partisans on both sides of the bitter controversy.”
Seattle Times

“The literature of this case is vast, but surprisingly little of it provides as balanced and unemotional a survey as this volume does.”
Washington Post

“Likely to become, for a new generation of readers, the definitive account.”

“an unusually even-handed look at a case more often politicized than understood. . .”
New Yorker

Late in the summer of 1927, a distant bell echoed throughout the world. Its tolling resounded from Europe to Australia, from Paraguay to Japan. And for one agonizing Monday in August, all talk of tomorrow ceased, and all attention focused on a hulking granite prison in Massachusetts where Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were due to die at midnight.Eulogized as “the good shoemaker and the poor fish peddler,” they had become the most famous people on the planet. Some considered them demonic – murderers, anarchists, immigrants bent on savaging “all the institutions that American hold dear.” Others saw them as “shining lights,” gentle pacifists framed by a heartless judge and a ruthless prosecutor. Few knew them as men, one a dedicated father, the other a vagabond with the soul of a poet, both fierce militants. And at the approach of executions the whole world would witness, millions could not look but could not look away.

Outside the American embassy in Paris, tanks squared off against angry mobs. London’s Hyde Park teemed with protesters. Across South America, widespread walkouts shut down factories and transportation. Restless crowds swarmed the streets of Sydney, Bucharest, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Athens, Prague, Johannesburg, Marrakech. . .

Throughout America, the “Jazz Age” America of flappers and rumble seats, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, talk across back fences was of the two Italians, their eloquent pleas of innocence, the doubts clouding the verdict, the evidence of their guilt. Rank and file workers had contributed the modern equivalent of millions to free them. Now it all came down to midnight. Would there be another stay of execution? A last minute pardon? Another bomb destroying a Manhattan subway or another juror’s home? As darkness fell, lawyers raced to find a judge who might intervene. Radio stations promised to stay on the air late. Marchers outside the locked down prison gazed at a watchtower where a light would dim when the switch was thrown.

The drama did not end that day, nor had it started with a 1920 gangland murder. The deepening saga of Sacco and Vanzetti, which descended into a deathwatch, opens like a package rigged with dynamite.


And so, I think it best you follow me
for your own good, I shall be your guide
and lead you out through an eternal place
Where you will hear desperate cries, and see
tormented shades, some as old as Hell itself.
— Dante, Inferno


Neatly wrapped and labeled, thirty identical bombs were mailed from Manhattan in late April 1919. Each bomb was addressed to a prominent American – John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Oliver Wendell Holmes – and each was a masterpiece of sinister intent. Enveloped in brown paper, the long, thin packages were marked “GIMBEL BROTHERS, NEW YORK — SAMPLE” and graced with a drawing of an Alpine mountaineer. Depending on their destinations, some bombs were mailed earlier than others so that all would be detonated in one devastating May Day demonstration.

Along with the more famous recipients, the targets of the plot included many prominent Americans singled out for suppressing radicals. Among these were Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Congressmen from both parties, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future baseball commissioner whose court had found scores of “Wobblies” from the Industrial Workers of the World guilty of sedition. Seattle’s mayor, targeted for breaking a general strike that winter, received the first bomb.

Taking the tan package from the mayor’s mail, a clerk unwrapped it upside down. A slim vial of acid fell to the floor leaving hundreds of metal slugs packed around a stick of dynamite. The package was taken to the bomb squad who admired its ingenuity. The following day in Georgia, an ex-Senator received a Gimbel’s package. His wife started to open it but, thinking it contained only pencils, told her maid to put the contents in a cabinet. Tearing off the paper, the maid unscrewed the top of the enclosed tube. Two screws punctured a glass phial, pouring acid onto cotton wadding. The acid soaked through the cotton. The bomb blew off the maid’s hands. That afternoon, a dozen other Gimbel’s packages arrived in post offices throughout the nation.

The broadest assassination plot in American history was foiled by a postal clerk. At 2:00 a.m. on April 30, Charles Kaplan was riding the El-train home to Harlem. Weary from the night shift, Kaplan sat reading a newspaper. He was drawn to a story from Atlanta about a bomb blowing off a maid’s hands. As the train rattled him toward home, Kaplan read about the “infernal machine” and the “Negro servant” it had nearly killed. The description of the package struck the clerk as familiar. In the bleary-eyed darkness, he hopped off the El and took a train back to his midtown post office where he and a supervisor found sixteen identical packages in the parcel post room. All were marked “GIMBEL BROTHERS, NEW YORK — SAMPLE.” Neither caution nor carelessness explained why these packages had not been sent. Sealed with a red sticker denoting first class mail, sixteen bombs had been delayed for insufficient postage.

By the following noon, federal investigators were fanning out through post offices nationwide searching for more infernal machines. Bombs were intercepted in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Salt Lake City. . . “I do not recollect anything of the kind in our history more diabolical than this conspiracy,” said Postmaster General Albert Burleson, another target of the plot. Federal agents quickly drew up a list of suspects, but did not round them up. Not yet.

No bombs exploded on May 1, 1919. In offices and boardrooms, May Day was quiet. On the street, however, something akin to a culture war raged as veterans back from the Great War slugged it out with their fellow Americans. In Boston, parading Socialists battled the flying fists of soldiers and sailors. More than 100 people were arrested. In Manhattan, a mob ransacked the offices of a Socialist daily, smashing furniture, confiscating books and pamphlets. Vigilantes in Cleveland battled May Day paraders throughout the city. Lesser disturbances shook Chicago and Detroit. Meanwhile, accusations flew about who was to blame for the bombs. Rumors hinted of a German plot. Wobblies blamed “capitalist hirelings” trying to pin the crime on the IWW. The Georgia senator who had received a bomb accused “disgruntled anarchists [and] Bolshevik cussedness.” As days passed and a final three bombs were found – one Congressman tried to open his package but the lid jammed — the “Negro servant” remained the plot’s only casualty, but a slow, creeping fear was its consequence.

On May 4, the New York Times urged “vigorous prosecution if the Bolshevist movement is to be held in check.” Two days later in Washington, D.C., a pageant crowd rose for the “Star Spangled Banner.” When the final strains faded, three shots rang out. A sailor had killed a man who had refused to stand. The audience burst into applause. All that May, talk of terror spread, fanned by Seattle’s mayor, Ole Hanson. “I trust Washington will buck up and clean up and either hang or incarcerate for life all the anarchists in the country,” Hanson said. “If the government doesn’t clean them up, I will.” Hanson soon resigned to embark on a nationwide tour warning Americans about the red menace. He found an eager audience.

* * * * * *

1919 had begun in joy and mourning. The Great War was over. Ten million were dead, but at least no more would die in the trenches. The burden of killing had shifted from man to microbes. A deadly strain of Spanish Flu was raging. Before the pandemic ebbed, it would kill fifty to one hundred million people, making it the worst plague in history, worse even than the Black Death of the Middle Ages. Advancing like an invading army, the flu swept through American cities and towns, killing 675,000, more than died in the Civil War. Tragic stories – of healthy people dying in a day, of entire companies of soldiers who survived the trenches only to be stricken down after the armistice – spread like the virus itself. The dead, their bodies turned a ghastly blue, were stacked like cordwood. Priests drove horse-drawn hacks through the streets calling people to bring out their dead. By that spring, the pestilence was waning, yet makeshift hospitals with starched white tents and Model T ambulances still dotted the country, and doctors warned the virus could strike again the next winter.

The twin tolls of war and disease shaped 1919, the year Americans had longed for since the war began. Anticipated as a time of peace, it unfolded in pitched battles on the home front. After sacrificing 126,000 soldiers, America maintained a wartime mentality. The war had thrown the economy into overdrive, doubling pre-war prices. Workers in every trade walked off the job. There were dressmakers’ strikes, railway strikes, cigar makers’ strikes, miners’ strikes. Even police went on strike, leaving Boston to rampaging drunks and looters. That summer, savage race riots set off by white mobs broke out in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and two dozen other cities.

The war had finished off the Victorian age, yet no new ethos had taken its place. Each day Americans awoke to a strange new world. From the ashes of tottering empires rose fledgling nations whose names tripped the tongue – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Not even the laws of science seemed immutable. In late May, Newtonian physics fell to the first concrete proof of Einstein’s universe. A few weeks later, another tower toppled as Congress granted women the right to vote. Come fall, baseball’s World Series concluded with rumors of a gambler’s fix. The year was not over before Americans were shocked by an ad showing a woman holding a cigarette. By the dawn of 1920, the average citizen faced a nation he did not recognize in a world he did not know. And under Prohibition he could not even order a beer and laugh about the changes. Given the uncertainty, scapegoating was only natural. The search begun on that chaotic May Day quickened a month later when bombs came to American doorsteps. Taking no chances with postage this time, the bombers delivered their packages by hand.

Just after 11:00 p.m. on June 2, a tall man wearing a pinstripe suit, a polka dot bow tie, and a derby strode briskly through a posh neighborhood in Washington, D.C. No one noticed the man or his flimsy suitcase. In it were a stack of flyers, two revolvers, an Italian-English dictionary, and twenty pounds of dynamite. As the man strolled up the street, Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy and not yet stricken by polio, parked his car and walked with wife Eleanor into their home. Across the street, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer turned off the light in his library and went upstairs. Palmer had just undressed when he heard a thump at his front door. The noise was followed by a deafening explosion. Windows shattered up and down the block. “The world is coming to an end!” the Roosevelts’ cook shouted. Mansions shook on their foundations throwing sleeping residents from their beds. Hurrying outside, pajama-clad people smelled a foul odor and saw pieces of flesh splattered through the treetops. Roosevelt rushed to Palmer’s home to find his neighbor unhurt. Despite the force of the blast, its lone casualty was the bomber who had tripped on the steps. But his was only a wake-up call.

For the next ninety minutes, bombs splintered the silence of several cities. In Philadelphia, two bombs caved in the porch of a Catholic church. In Cleveland, a pipe bomb blew off the front of the mayor’s house. Midnight bombs destroyed homes in Pittsburgh, Boston, New York, and New Jersey. The targets had one thing in common – each had zealously suppressed radicals, especially anarchists. Lest anyone wonder who was responsible, copies of the same pink flyer were found scattered in the rubble. Beneath a headline — PLAIN WORDS — the flyer began:

“The powers that be make no secret of their will to stop here in America the worldwide spread of revolution. The powers that be must reckon that they will have to accept the fight they have provoked. . .

“The challenge is an old one, O ‘democratic’ lords of the autocratic republic. We have been dreaming of freedom, we have talked of liberty, we have aspired to a better world, and you jailed us, you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us. . .

There will have to be bloodshed; we will not dodge; there will have to be murder: we will kill, because it is necessary; there will have to be destruction; we will destroy to rid the world of your tyrannical institutions. . . ”

Thirteen more paragraphs denounced the “capitalist” war in Europe, the expulsion of radicals from America, and the enrichment of a few at the expense of millions. Concluding with the cry “Down with tyranny!” the pamphlet was signed — THE ANARCHIST FIGHTERS.

Over the next few weeks, police pieced together clues from the flyers, the debris, and pieces of the man blown to bits on the Attorney General’s steps. The man’s left leg was found on a nearby doorstep, and his torso was discovered a block away. Two boys found a foot and kept it in their refrigerator until their mother came upon it. When forensic experts gently lifted the man’s scalp off a roof, a hairdresser examined its thick black locks, identifying the bomber as an Italian in his late twenties. While the hunt continued, the press called for “a few free treatments in the electric chair.” “If I had my way,” said evangelist Billy Sunday, “I’d fill the jails so full of them that their feet would stick out the windows. . . . Let them rule? We’ll swim our horses in blood up to the bridles first.”

Ten days after the bombings, the raids began. Manhattan police stormed the Russian Bolshevik Mission, took several prisoners, and seized pamphlets calling for workers’ soviets in America. A few days later, they raided a Socialist school but found just a few men playing cards. Wobblies were rounded up across the nation. As July 4 approached, Americans braced for more bombings. Police guarded federal buildings and prominent homes. Headlines stoked the fear: “REIGN OF TERROR PLANNED (Chicago Tribune); “PLANS FOR WIDESPREAD VIOLENCE AND MURDER” (Cincinnati Enquirer) “CITIES PREPARE FOR REDS” (Los Angeles Times). The Fourth came and went but the only explosions were fireworks, the only fighting was Jack Dempsey pummeling Jess Willard to win the heavyweight championship. Yet as the summer dragged on, the alarm lingered. “There is hardly a respectable citizen of my acquaintance who does not believe that we are on the verge of armed conflict in this country,” a West Virginia man told the Attorney General.

Scarred by war, devastated by plague, terrorized by bombs, American lashed out against a new scapegoat, one that had surged to prominence during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Reds had stirred up “the Negroes.” Reds had caused all those strikes. Reds had infiltrated the schools, the government, the movies. America’s first “Red Scare” was shorter than its McCarthy era successor yet far more intense. Teachers were fired for merely mentioning Bolshevism. A Connecticut man was jailed for praising Lenin. Following a shootout in central Washington, one of the accused — both a Wobbly and a veteran — was dragged from jail, castrated with a razor, hung from a bridge and riddled with bullets. Then the federal government took over.

That fall, Attorney General Palmer, criticized for being soft on subversives, cracked down. Palmer suddenly saw red everywhere, in “the sharp tongues of the Revolution’s head licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes and seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws.” Courting public opinion as an election year approached, Palmer ordered the raids that would bear his name. In November, federal agents swarmed through labor halls arresting hundreds guilty only of being present. Many were beaten or held for months without trial. Just before Christmas, a ship nicknamed “the Soviet Ark” sailed out of New York taking 249 radicals to Russia. The press and the public cheered. Then on January 2, 1920, came the biggest of the “Palmer Raids,” masterminded by Palmer’s assistant, future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Bursting into meetings and arresting everyone in sight, agents rounded up four thousand aliens in thirty-three cities. Raids were especially intense in Massachusetts’ industrial towns – Brockton, Bridgewater, Lawrence, and Lowell. Then as the frenzy was fading, its ashes were stirred by the story of two Italian immigrants near Boston. On a dark night far from their homes, both were arrested while covering up for their friends, the Anarchist Fighters.

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