The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend (7 page)

BOOK: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend
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“With his race. They live on shrewdness. But I don't see his position as so powerful. He has slandered honest men, and he must be made to pay for that. I am an old man, sir.”

“Many younger men have less vigor and youth.”

“That may be. Nevertheless, I must husband myself. The strength I use cannot be replaced. When a man passes seventy years, death sits at his elbow. Nevertheless, I did not spare myself. When I was called upon for public service, I came forward. I did not say that these were Italians. Am I prejudiced against Latins? Some would say I am prejudiced against Jews. Not so. Not so!” he repeated. “My ancestors planted a sturdy race on this soil, clear-eyed and fair of feature. We dealt with no such names as Sacco and Vanzetti then, but of Lodges and Cabots and Braces and Winthrops and Butlers and Proctors and Emersons, there were plenty indeed. And when I look around me today—where is that race? Yet I did not use this when I was called upon. When the head of this ancient Commonwealth asked me to serve in inquiry, weighing the facts in this case that has made our land like a trollop's name on the lips of people everywhere, I did not refuse. I served. I examined the facts. I sorted the wheat from the chaff. I—”

He was interrupted in his words by the entrance of the Professor of Criminal Law; and then at that moment it seemed to the two men in attendance, the Dean of the Law School and the instructor, that the Professor of Criminal Law walked, indeed, where wiser men—and even angels—would fear to tread. Uncomely, squinting behind his glasses, he lumbered into the room and faced the President of the University.

“You wanted to see me?” he asked bluntly.

The President found he was trembling a little. “Age,” he thought to himself. “I am not properly armed for anger.” And he said deliberately, “I heard that at your lecture this morning, you said some things that a thoughtful man might find reason to regret.”

“The reports came quickly,” answered the Professor calmly, “but I said nothing that I see reason to regret. Nor do I consider myself unusually thoughtless.”

“Consider again, sir!”

“I have considered well and seriously,” the Professor replied. “I have lost count of the hours I spent weighing these matters. I decided that what must be said, must be said.”

For all the care with which he spoke, there was more than a trace of a foreign accent in the voice of the Professor. Some of his formulations carried that awkwardness which suggested echoes of another tongue, and when he pronounced a word ending with
ing
, he could not prevent the
k
sound from creeping in. Of these things, the President of the University was acutely aware; but his awareness was brushed all over with irritation, and this made him even more irascible than he ordinarily was. For several days now, he had contained within himself a fine comfortable feeling of achievement and power at the decision he and his companions on the investigating committee had come to. Never, never would he put it so bluntly and vulgarly as the Judge in the case had put it, when the Judge said,
Well, I did give those anarchist bastards what was coming to them!
Yet he couldn't deny that he felt something of the same thing that the Judge must have felt. But all morning now, that feeling of achievement had been slipping away, dissipating, and when he heard of the ill-considered—as he thought of it—and violent lecture the Professor had given, the remainder of that feeling of achievement quickly disappeared.

What did they mean, he wondered now, when they said that the Professor was in a powerful position? Did they mean that approval—approval of decent people, and some not too unlike himself, old people well-located in Boston—might rest with the Professor of Criminal Law? Could they mean such a thing?

“You are very sure of yourself, sir,” the President said coldly.

“Yes—yes, I think I am.”

“And that gave you the right and the purpose to accuse people of desiring the death of these two men?”

“People do desire it—a few people in high places. The world knows it. I said it. I don't regret saying it.”

“Meaning myself?”

“Sir?”

“You accuse me?”

“No—I never mentioned you,” the Professor said. “
You
accuse
yourself
, sir. Your feelings are hurt, but these two men will die tonight. How many times have you died, sir?”

“You are being insufferable!”

“Am I? Was their lawyer also insufferable? He was more eloquent than I am. I read his argument only once, but it remained with me. How did he conclude—
if you cannot give these men a fair trial, pardon them, pardon them by all that is holy. Christians created a God that is merciful. You sit like God, with life in your hand
. Did he say that or something like that? Only yesterday. Shall I forget that you enjoyed being executioner?”

Anger went away, and suddenly the President of the University was afraid. His ancestors were a poor, cold shroud. His ears hummed, as if that man the Professor of Criminal Law had just referred to, the lawyer of Sacco and Vanzetti, were standing before him again.

“Sit down,” he had said then to that other lawyer who had appeared before him a few days ago to make a last plea—standing before him then even as this Jew stood before him now. “Why must you stand and pace like that?” “I cannot argue sitting,” the lawyer had answered. “I cannot plead sitting. I am pleading now. If you cannot give these men a new trial, having heard so much evidence, then they should be pardoned. They are not to blame if the State of Massachusetts employs a judge who refers to men on trial before him as ‘anarchistic bastards,' tells about how he will get them, and that ‘that will hold them,' and boasts about what he had done to them and what he is going to, do. Sacco and Vanzetti did not appoint him and are not to blame if the State of Massachusetts tolerates him.

“If the Supreme Court of this State has no jurisdiction to alter what a judge has said, because it has to protect the discretion vested in the judge, then the only thing the State can do is to pardon these men, humiliating as it may be, humiliating as it is to every citizen in this State to have to admit that men can be treated as these men have been treated. We have to stomach it, to stand it; there is no way out of it. And any attempt to evade this, to gloss it over, to make black white, to stamp it down, to suppress it, will not do any good. Everybody is familiar with the case, all over the world. This evidence has been translated into every European language. They are as familiar with it in Germany and France as we are. We are up against the wall.”

“The ablest men in Massachusetts who respect the courts are forced into a corner. We have got either to make some explanation that won't be accepted and that really can't commend itself to our own judgment as sincere, candid and fair, or else we have got to admit that this trial was a mistake and a miscarriage of justice, that it was unfairly conducted, that there was a reasonable doubt, which has been enormously increased since, and that our courts have been unable to correct the error then made, and therefore the Governor should pardon these men, whether or not you now believe they are guilty, whether or not you think that in five years from now the evidence would be stronger against them or weaker against them. The day has gone by, the State has had its chance, the trial has occurred. These arguments have all taken place. The courts have finished, and this is the result of this case.”

“Now I am through with this case. I have done the best I could with it. I have labored here for years trying to bring about elementary justice, and if I fail I shall feel bitterly disappointed but not remorseful. I have done what I could, and I ask you to do what you can to prevent what, if not prevented, will be to the everlasting disgrace of this State.”

“Sit down, can't you?” was all he could think of saying to the lawyer then—when that argument was made. He had not even heard, with any perception, the words he remembered so cruelly now. But, finished with his plea, the lawyer for Sacco and Vanzetti had remained standing and looking at him, even as the Professor of Criminal Law now looked at him; and in his mind, the University President tried to formulate words that would not take shape. Words like
I shall have to ask for your resignation
. But he did not and could not speak those words. “All alone,” he said to himself.

“You're an old man,” the Professor of Criminal Law said bitterly, “and yet you love death. Old man, you're an executioner!”

“How dare you talk like that!”

The instructor watched and listened in horrified silence, but the Dean of the Law School cried, “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, no—no, not at all. Why am I wanted here?”

The old man, who was one of the high aristocrats of a nation that supposedly had no aristocracy, suddenly reread once again the document he had signed, and signed it again in his mind's eye, his old hand trembling, as his eyes traveled down the lines he himself had dictated:

“The alibi of Vanzetti is decidedly weak. One of the witnesses, Rosen, seems to the Committee to have been shown by the cross-examination to have been lying at the trial; another, Mrs. Brini, had sworn to an alibi for him in the Bridgewater case, and two more of the witnesses did not seem certain of the date until they had talked it over. Under these circumstances, if he was with Sacco, or in the bandits' car, or indeed in South Braintree at all that day, he was undoubtedly guilty; for there is no reason why, if he was there for an innocent purpose, he should have sworn that he was in Plymouth all day. Now there are four persons who testified that they had seen him;—Dolbeare, who says he saw him in the morning in a car on the main street of South Braintree; Levangie, who said he saw him—erroneously at the wheel—as the car crossed the tracks after the shooting; and Austin T. Reed, who says that Vanzetti swore at him from the car at the Matfield railroad crossing. The fourth man was Faulkner, who testified that he was asked a question by Vanzetti in a smoking car on the way from Plymouth to South Braintree on the forenoon of the day of the murder, and that he saw him alight at that station. Faulkner's testimony is impeached on two grounds: First that he said the car was a combination smoker and baggage car, and that there was no such car on that train, but his description of the interior is exactly that of a full smoking car; and second, that no ticket that could be so used was sold that morning at any of the stations in or near Plymouth, and that no such cash fare was paid or mileage book punched, but that does not exhaust the possibilities. Otherwise no one claims to have seen him, or any man resembling him who was not Vanzetti. But it must be remembered that his face is much more unusual, and more easily remembered, than that of Sacco. He was evidently not in the foreground. On the whole, we are of the opinion that Vanzetti also was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

“It has been urged that a crime of this kind must have been committed by professionals, and it is for well-known criminal gangs that one must look; but to the Committee, both this crime and the one at Bridgewater do not seem to bear the marks of professionals, but of men inexpert in such crimes.”

Such was the President's summation, after his Committee had heard the evidence. This he had signed—just as one signs a death warrant. Why was he afraid now, when he had played the executioner then with such certainty?

“Why am I wanted here?” the Professor of Criminal Law repeated. “To be scolded? To be asked for a resignation? I will not resign. To be Jew-baited? I will not be Jewbaited.”

“You are insufferable, sir. Get out of here!” the President of the University cried.

“You are an old man, but Sacco is only thirty-six years old, and Vanzetti is not yet forty. There is death all over you, old man, death and hatred.” And with that, the Professor of Criminal Law turned on his heel and walked out.”

Behind him, he left a room fixed and riveted in silence and with no motion except the trembling of the old man who had name and wealth and honor and position and was now as bankrupt as a man could be, frightened and heavily aware of death. But for the Professor of Criminal Law, there was no victory either. He had been able to say what he pleased because his position was strong; he was wrapped in a mantle of righteousness; but how much had he himself left undone and unsaid? Did he even understand with any sort of clarity why these two must die? Or was that something he was afraid to challenge with understanding?

Chapter 6

A
T ELEVEN O
'
CLOCK,
reinforcements came rolling up to Charlestown Prison, and people who saw this had the impression that a small war had begun and these troops were hurtling out to meet the enemy. There were armed men sitting in cars, motorcycles with tommy gunners in the side cars, and a searchlight truck able to produce a beam that could cut through fog and nightfall for fully three miles. With sirens screaming, this cavalcade rolled up and halted before the prison; and the Warden, who had been told earlier that trouble might be expected and that reinforcements were on their way, went out to greet them, and eyed them most dubiously.

When the chief of the state police had first called the Warden and said that, acting upon instructions of the Governor, he was sending additional forces to the prison, the Warden replied querulously and with a good deal of annoyance.

“What kind of trouble?” the Warden wanted to know.

They did not say what kind of trouble. They had no way of knowing what kind of trouble. It just seemed that there was trouble in the making, and that they ought to be prepared to meet it.

“Well, if you feel that way about it, I suppose that's your feeling and you have got some basis for it,” the Warden said to the chief of police, thinking to himself that there was plenty of trouble and would be a good deal more before this bitter day finished; but not that kind of trouble. What did they think, the Warden wondered? Did they think that an army was coming to blast through the prison walls and take out the two anarchists? In his own thoughts, the Warden was somewhat defensive about Sacco and Vanzetti. He had come to believe that he was possessed of an area of knowledge about the condemned men denied to the average man and woman; and he knew very well what mild and quiet people these poor devils were. That was such knowledge as grew inside of a prison and nowhere else. The Warden could think back to many years of learning how mild and quiet some people were, people whom the whole outside world condemned with one voice.

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