The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend (3 page)

BOOK: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend
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“Where there's life, there's hope,” the Warden said.

“I don't understand,” his wife went on. “Everyone connected with this thinks so well of these men.”

“They are very nice men. You would have to go a long distance to find two men like them. I can't explain it. They are very nice and very gentle men. They are very quiet, very polite. There has never been a harsh word from either of them. They are not angry at me. I asked Vanzetti about that, and he explained that he understood, and so did Sacco, that it wasn't my fault, what had happened to them. Vanzetti feels that anger is wasted unless it is directed in the right place.”

“That's what makes it so strange,” his wife said.

“Why is it so strange? This is just the way it is. They are very nice.”

“Anarchists,” his wife began, “are supposed to—”

“Neither of us knows anything about anarchists when you come right down to it,” the Warden interrupted. “This has nothing to do with their being anarchists or not being anarchists. I don't know much about anarchists or communists or socialists. Sacco and Vanzetti may be all three. They may be soaked in evil from head to foot. All I am saying is that you don't notice this when you talk to them. Whenever you talk to them, you come away saying to yourself that these are two men who never, under any conceivable set of circumstances could have committed murder. Anyway, not the kind of murder that they have been accused of committing. That kind of murder is the work of cold-blooded gunmen who shoot down men as if they are dogs. These two men are very different. I don't know just how to put it, but these two men are very tender toward life. They couldn't kill in just that way. Now mind you, I am saying this privately. I say this off the record. If I don't know a murderer, who would?”

“There are all kinds of murderers,” his wife reminded him.

“Well, there you go. There you are. I don't blame you. It's like everybody else. You have to keep asking yourself how this can happen to someone who is innocent. When you come right down to it, that is the thing, isn't it?”

“I suppose so,” his wife agreed.

“Well, I went to see Vanzetti this morning, and there he was, just as calm and quiet and as pleasant as if today was like any other day.”

At this point in their conversation, they were interrupted by a prison guard who told the Warden that Madeiros was screaming with hysteria, and would the Warden' permit the physician to use a few grains of morphine? The Warden excused himself to his wife, wiped his mouth hurriedly, and went along with the guard. They passed by the infirmary and picked up the physician, and the three of them went to Madeiros' cell. When they were still quite a distance from it, they heard the screams, which increased in volume and intensity as they neared the cell.

Madeiros was in the death house, very close by to both Sacco and Vanzetti. In order to reach his cell, the Warden had to pass the cells of both these men; but now he did not bother to peer into the little windows of the death cells to see what the two men were doing.

Madeiros himself lay upon the floor of his cell, his body twitching and writhing spasmodically. In his case, there was a history of epilepsy, and this was not the first fit of this kind he had undergone since being in prison. The Warden tried to speak to him, but he was beyond hearing; he screamed and beat his hands upon the stone floor. A mixture of blood and saliva ran out of his mouth, and the sight of him and the sound of his screaming made the Warden quite sick.

“Now, now, it will be all right,” the Warden tried to tell him. “Just take it easy, and here we are and you are not alone any more and it's going to be all right and you might as well calm down and take it easier than this.”

“It's no use to talk to him,” the physician said. “The best thing for me to do is to give him morphine. Do you agree to that?”

“Well, go ahead,” the Warden said. “What are you waiting for? Go ahead.”

He and the guard held Madeiros while the doctor injected the morphine. In just a few minutes the young man's body relaxed; the hard cords of his muscles began to loosen, and his screaming turned to sobbing.

The Warden left the cell. He felt sick to his stomach. His previous certainty that there would be a delay in the executions today as there had been in the past, now disappeared, and instead, he felt quite sure that today they would go through with it. This was only the beginning of a terrible day. It was only eight o'clock in the morning. He didn't see how he was going to get through the rest of a day like this.

Chapter 3

I
T IS SURPRISING
how suddenly people became curious about Sacco and Vanzetti and wanted to know something about them, who they were and what they were like. It is also surprising how few people knew about them before the time came for Sacco and Vanzetti to die.

The year 1927 was a strange year, a year for news; and the headlines in the daily press came hard and furious and one on top of the other. It was the midst of the best of all possible times, and Charles A. Lindberg flew the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, one man alone, so that the Baltimore
Sun
was able to cry out, “He has exalted the race of man.” Peaches Browning and her aging husband, Daddy Browning, also exalted the race of man, and then Chamberlain and Levine flew the ocean, and Jack Dempsey fought Sharkey before he was defeated by Gene Tunney.

Sacco and Vanzetti, however, were either communists or socialists or anarchists or deeply subversive elements of one kind or another, and there were many newspapers through out the country that printed never a word about them until the time came for them to die. Even the great journals in Boston and New York City and Philadelphia carried only an occasional line about the case. It had been so long since the case began!

“After all,” these newspapers could have said in their own defense, “the Sacco-Vanzetti case began in 1920, and here it is 1927.”

The imminence of death made a shoemaker and a fish peddler eloquent; their very silence was eloquent. From early in the morning, very early indeed, on the 22nd of August, the sound and the smell and the scent and the feeling of death were in the air. It would seem, indeed, more than passing strange that in a world where so many hundreds and thousands died unsung and unwept, the death of two agitators and a common thief would make such a commotion and grow into a thing of such tremendous importance. As curious as that was, it was nevertheless the case, and people had to take note of it.

All the newspapers knew what their headlines would be on the following morning, but they needed more than headlines. A reporter, thereupon, went this morning to the place where the family of Sacco lived. Here was the mother of two children, the wife of Sacco. The reporter had been told that many people were interested in Vanzetti, but even more were interested in Nicola Sacco. The case of Nicola Sacco was one of human interest, and anyone who missed that was a fool. Here was Sacco, only thirty-six years old as he stood at the edge of the great, yawning gulf of predetermined death—being one of those singled out to know the very moment of his departure from the earth. The newspaper man was informed that, according to the simple thoughts of millions of simple folk in this country, Nicola Sacco left behind him great riches, for he was a family man.

Sacco had a wife and two children. His wife's name was Rosa. The boy, who was almost fourteen years old, was named Dante. The little girl, who wasn't yet seven years old, was named Ines. The reporter, given to understand that here was a human interest story of the highest type, was instructed to see the mother of Sacco's children. He must find out how the mother felt and how the children felt.

This particular assignment did not please him, and that was not an extraordinary thing; for even if this reporter had been as hard as flint, such an assignment would not have been an easy one to contemplate. But he had his job to do, and he went on it early, for a complete
beat
, a story that no one else would have before him, knocking at the door of the place where Rosa Sacco lived, at eight o'clock in the morning.

The mother came to the door and opened it and asked him what he wanted. He looked at her, and he had a rather unusual reaction.

“My God!” he said to himself. “Isn't she beautiful! Isn't she one of the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes on!”

It was very early in the morning. Her hair, tied together hastily, was uncombed, and she had no paint or rouge on her face. Perhaps she was not as beautiful as the reporter felt. He had been prepared for something else. She astonished him with the simple directness of her brown eyes, the awful tranquility of her terribly sad face. Like a cup flowing over, sorrow filled her and poured out. This morning, in the eyes and imagination of the reporter, the grief equated itself with beauty; and this was so disturbing that the reporter experienced an enormous urge to run away. But that was the terror of suddenly revealed truth. His trade was not to deal with truth, but still and all, his trade fed him. Whereupon, he stood there and pursued his inquiries.

“Please go away,” the mother said. “I have nothing to say.”

He tried to explain to her that he could not go away. Didn't she understand that here was his job, and that possibly his job was the most important in the whole world?

She did not understand that. She told him that her children were still asleep. Speaking painfully, each word embedded in grief, she begged him not to wake the children.

“I don't want to wake them,” he said in his defense. “Of all things, I have no desire to wake your children. Can't I come inside for a moment?”

She sighed and shrugged and nodded her head and let him come inside.

The first thing he saw in that house were the sleeping children. Afterwards, it struck him that they were all he saw. He was a very young man, and he was not supposed to have sensitivity to the children of an Italian shoemaker. He himself was a Yankee American, and the child of real honest-to-God Yankees. Not only had he been born in Boston, but his grandfather had been born in Boston, and his great-grandfather had been born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and his great-great-grandfather had been born in Salem, Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, he saw how a little girl sleeps. There is a singularity in this; in the whole world, nothing else is just like it. A little girl who is not yet seven years old is, in her sleep, the model for all the dreams of angels men have dreamed. This little girl lay with her dark hair spread out above her, her arms outflung, and her face reposeful in its tranquil innocence. Not even a bad dream seemed to disturb her early on this morning. She had her fill of bad dreams already in the past, and perhaps she had dreamed them all out. She had dreamed of an electric chair; she dreamed of it in her own childish way.

She saw, in her dream, a chair with a great frame of electric lights over it, so the whole chair glowed and sparkled with brilliance, and in this chair her father sat, Nicola Sacco. This creation of her childish mind was the result of all her terrible grappling with the vague and frightening two-word image that seeped into her consciousness, heard surreptitiously, heard by accident, heard from other children who used it in mockery. It never occurred to her, of course, to inquire as to the particular ethics of a State which pays no heed to a little girl in relation to a thing like an electric chair.

Hunger strike
was just as difficult for her to comprehend, and her dreams had taken other forms for this awful thing. She dreamed of being hungrier than she ever actually was in her real waking life. Once when she was dreaming such a bad dream of overwhelming hunger, she woke up, weeping. That was a night when her mother had not been with her, and her brother Dante rocked her in his arms and comforted her and tried to explain to her that this image which she had evoked was not how such things really happened.

“See,” he said to her, “I have a letter from papa which tells all about it.”

Then he promised to read her the letter the following day, and of course he did so. She sat with her legs bent and her knees tucked into the circle of her arms, while her brother read the letter her father had written. Thus he read:

“My Dear Son and Companion:

“Since the day I saw you last I had always the idea to write you this letter, but the length of my hunger strike and the thought I might not be able to explain myself, made me put off all this time.”

“The other day, I ended my hunger strike and just as soon as I did that I thought of you to write to you, but I find that I did not have enough strength and I cannot finish it at one time. However, I want to get it down in any way before they take us again to the death-house, because it is my conviction that just as soon as the court refuses a new trial to us they will take us there. And between Friday and Monday, if nothing happens, they will electrocute us right after midnight, on August 22nd. Therefore, here I am, right with you with love and with open heart as ever I was yesterday.”

“If I stopped hunger strike the other day, it was because there was no more sign of life in me. Because I protested with my hunger strike yesterday as today I protest for life and not for death.”

“Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother, and when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging sourness, I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers here and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and of the gentle tranquility of the mothernature, and I am sure that she will enjoy this very much, as you surely would be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”

BOOK: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend
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