Authors: Howard Fast
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti
A New England Legend
brave Americans who, toddy and yesterday, have accepted prison and even deathârather than betray the principles they believed in, the land they loved, or the people whose trust they bore
On the 15th of April, in the year 1920, a carefully planned and ruthlessly executed payroll robbery occurred in the town of South Braintree, Massachusetts. In the course of this robbery, a paymaster and a payroll guard were killed by the bandits
Subsequently, two men, Nicola Sacco, a shoe worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, one-time baker and kiln worker, and now a fish peddler, were arrested and charged with this robbery and murder. They were brought to trial in Dedham, Massachusetts, for murder, and found guilty by the jury which heard the case
Under Massachusetts law, pleas are heard and motions are presented in such a case before the judge passes sentence. In this, the Sacco and Vanzetti Case, such pleas and motions stretched through a period of seven years. Not until April 9, 1927, did the presiding judge in the case sentence the two men to death, and then he ordered that such sentence should be carried out on the 10th of July, 1927
However, the execution of this sentence was delayed, for one reason or another, until the 22nd of August, 1927
in the morning is the beginning of the day. If the day begins then, eighteen hours are left until the time called midnight, which, in the minds of so many, is the end of the day.
At six o'clock in the morning, animals and things close to animals smell the day arid feel the day, arid the fish turn over and show their bellies and look at the cloudy, gray light that falls upon the water. The birds, flying high, can see the lip of the sun, and on the ground, the dust mixes with the morning mist; and rising out of this mist like a medieval castle, is an octagonal-shaped prison.
On the prison walls, the guards who stand watch, turn their somber, thoughtless eyes to the daylight. Soon the roosters will crow, and sunshine will appear upon the earth again. The prison guard is a man like other people. There are thoughts that he thinks, and dreams that he dreams, but' he is also aware that a whole history of civilization, an echoing and re-echoing song of the whip, separates him from ordinary people like you and me. And he is different, entrusted with man's best hopes and most frightful fears, which he must guard with his gun and his club.
At this same time of the morning, inside the prison in the death house, a thief awoke. The almost soundless whispering and grunting and creaking of an earth warmed by the first suggestion of daylight, awakened him; and he stretched out on his bunk, and yawned, and felt fear creep through his bones and his blood stream, even as consciousness and awakening came to him.
The name of this man is Celestino Madeiros. He is twenty-five years old, hardly more than a boy, and not uncomely. All the awful years of hate and violence and passion have left less of a mark upon him than they might have. He has a straight nose, a broad, full-lipped mouth, and straight brows. His dark eyes are heavy with fear and longing.
This man is Madeiros, the thief. He comes from sleep into consciousness, and thereby he comes into the knowledge that this is the last day of life that he has upon this earth.
The thought makes him shiver, and cold chills race across his body. Even though it is summer time and warm, he draws the blanket over him in an attempt to stop the chills and to light some fire in his own heart. It does no good, and the chills creep over him again and again. Thus does he awaken, filled with the coldness of fear.
First, Madeiros tried to reassure himself by thinking himself out of this place entirely; he closed his eyes and plunged back into his memories in order that he might believe he was elsewhere, that he was not a full grown man of twenty-five years, that he was once again a school boy in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He thought of his days at school. He saw himself sitting in the room where his teacher taught him arithmetic, which he did well with, for his mind could cope with numbers, and then in another room with another teacher, where he was taught to spell words in the complex language that his mother and father had chosen for him, even as they chose the city of New Bedford, the State of Massachusetts, and the land of America. And here he did poorly, for he could not grapple with these strange words.
The thought of this choice of theirs and of their coming here, plucked him back to prison from his vision of school. Whereupon, he cursed them for not remaining in the Azores, where all their generations had been before they picked up and left and came to America; and when he realized that here and now, on the last day of his life, he was cursing his parents, his father and his beloved mother who had brought him onto the earth, he crawled out of bed and fell upon his knees and began to pray.
The thief prayed for his sins. Of sins he had many, and more than enough. He had drunk and gambled and whored and stolen and killed. He clasped his hands before him, pressed his face upon the bed, and muttered into the bedclothes:
“Mother of God, forgive me for all that I have done. I have sinned all the sins that a man can sin, but I want to be forgiven. All these days and months that I have thought about myself and my fate and what I did and what brought me here, I have seen that some of it was not my own doing. Did I ask to become a companion to sin? The only thing I ever asked was forgiveness. Everything else happened, but forgiveness I asked. I don't want wrong to remain wrong. I tried to right it and to make the wrong right. No one should suffer for me. I confessed my crime. I absolved the two others, the shoemaker and the fish peddler. What more may I do? Did I ask to be born? Did I ask for you to bring me onto this earth? I am here, and I made the best or the worst of it. And now it is finished. I only ask for forgiveness.”
Thus he finished his prayer, but even after he finished, he kept muttering his name as if he were seeking to extract a magic spell from it. “I am Celestino Madeiros,” he kept saying. And after he had said that over and over at least twenty times, he broke down and put his face in his hands, and wept. He wept very quietly, because he knew it was early in the morning, and he did not want to awaken any of the other prisoners. But if anyone had been there to see it and hear it, they could not have remained unaffected. There was a heartbreaking quality in his great sorrow for himself and for the end he was coming to.
He had been sentenced to die in the electric chair, and tonight the sentence would be carried out. He had lived only twenty-five years, and of these few, a number had been spent in prison; yet for all of that, it was surprising what evil he had managed to crowd into the few short years that had been his.
As a child, he ran wild as an animal, full of hatred, anger and hopelessness, and he grew poorly, twisted and bent, in the dirty back streets, first of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and afterwards, of Providence, Rhode Island. In school he learned little. They thought he was a witless fool, and the other children called him names for the difficulty he had in learning. “Slow-witâdim-witârubberhead,” they called him. But the truth of it was that his eyes were bad, and his eyes hurt when he looked too long and too hard at anything.
So he came to avoid school, and he learned other things. He was robbing unguarded warehouses when he was twelve, and freight cars when he was fourteen.' At the age of fifteen, he knew the tactics of a pimp, and he abided by the ethics of a procurer. He lived between the pool rooms and the whore houses, and he drank full, long draughts of the civilization which had been provided for him. At seventeen, he had carried out five stick-ups. Half a year later, he killed his first man.
In so many words, this was a thief. What had gone into making the thief was a complex of intricate circumstances that he himself could neither understand nor explain, and which nobody else was particularly interested in explaining. He was there in the ghettos and the alleys; he was part of the scene. When the police picked him up, they beat him because they saw that he was a thief, a fact printed, stamped, and emblazoned on him, and therefore it was evident that he needed to be beaten. Whereupon, he did his best to see to it that the police did not pick him up, and he used what poor skill he had.
Now and again, when a job of honest work came his way, he refused it. He did not know how to work any more than he knew how to live without being a thief. For work he had fear and scorn, and horror and diffidence. So when work came his way, he retreated from it.
Once his pattern was set, everything that happened to him was inevitable. Things happened to him like clockwork, and their happening was the miserable logic of his existence. It was the miserable logic of his existence that sooner or later he should be a part of murder.
It was the miserable logic of his life and existence that, when he was just eighteen years and one month old, they should come to him in Providence where they knew about him. Two men came to him. They were men with cold, hard eyes and evil ways, and they had already said to themselves that he, Celestino Madeiros, was of their own kind. So they came to him and told him about a job they had planned and prepared, and did he want to be in it?
Yes, he said, he wanted to be in it.
There was a lot of money in this job. If he would be in this job, then he would live like a king, with his pockets stuffed full of money, and then he could have dope and liquor and women to his heart's content.
Yesâhe would be in on it.
A day after this discussion, on April 15th in the year 1920, this thief, Celestino Madeiros, got into a car with three other men. They drove north from Providence, Rhode Island, to the town of South Braintree in Massachusetts, where they arrived shortly before three o'clock in the afternoon. They parked their car in front of a shoe factory. Inside the shoe factory, a payroll of $15,776.00 was being made up. They knew about this payroll, because they had their contacts inside the factory. Now they parked their car and waited until the payroll make-up was completed, and the two payroll guards came out of the factory, carrying the money in heavy metal boxes. That was just a minute or two before three o'clock. When these two guards appeared, two of the men who were in the car got out of the car and walked over to them and shot them down in cold bloodâwithout even giving them a chance to surrender or run away. The two men picked up the payroll boxes and leaped back into the car, and then the car drove away.
It had been very easy for Madeiros. He only had to sit in the car with his gun ready. He did not have to kill this time. Others did the killing for him. And when the loot was divided, almost three thousand dollars of it was his.
If the life of Celestino Madeiros was inevitable, then his death was just as inevitable. If he escaped one crime, another crime caught up with him. And here he was, seven years later, twenty-five years old, waiting in the death house for his execution.
The terrible irony of it was that on the same day, two more men would be executed, two men who were accused of the double murder at South Braintreeâthe murder which Madeiros had witnessed, the murder which Madeiros had been an accessory to.
Madeiros knew this. He knew these two men. One of them was a shoe worker whose name was Sacco. The other was a fish peddler whose name was Vanzetti, and both of them were plain Italian workers. Madeiros himself was not Italian, but Portuguese, yet he felt a kinship to these men, and his tight, frightened heart warmed to them. During the years he had spent in prison, he had thought very deeply about these two men who had been sentenced to death for a crime which they did not commit or have anything to do with, but which he himself did commit and did have much to do with. He had thought of many other things while in prison, many things beside this particular crime. It was not easy for him to think. He had no rational basis of knowledge around which to group his thoughts, and therefore the process of thinking was slow and painful; and very often, without any clear meaning or logical conclusion. Perhaps it might be said that what a normal person could think about in a matter of hours, took Madeiros many weeks.