Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Garden of History: The Whole World Knew Their Name

           From "Trial of the Century: Local Amnesia" (published in 2002 in Beyond Plymouth Rock): 
           "Plymouth has always been ambivalent about Vanzetti, arguably the central figure in one of the most famous criminal trials of the 20th century. By the end of the 20th century even long-time Plymouth residents had largely forgotten that he lived here among us, at 35 Cherry St. when he was arrested on a Brockton streetcar in 1920. But for many years the name of Vanzetti was known throughout the world. People who had never heard of John Alden, Gov. Bradford or Myles Sandish, or who may not have known much else about America in the 1920s nevertheless knew who Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were -- the workers who were framed and executed for their opposition to capitalism."
              When I came across the surprising information that Bartolomeo Vanzetti had lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Pilgrims and the first real community of English speakers in what became the United States, the first place I went to learn more was Plymouth Public Library. This was so long ago that the library was still on North Street. We could walk to it, and did, from our house up on a hill over Plymouth Harbor. Everything in Plymouth Center was historic. The plaque on the corner of our street named, not coincidentally, Massasoit Street and Mayflower Street stated that this was the place the first embassy from the Wampanoag Indian sachem Massasoit met with Pilgrim representatives led by Edward Winslow. The Pilgrim colony was fortunate to have Winslow, a natural diplomat, in its company. 
              But living on a corner where something from the history books took place is not unusual in Plymouth. Plaques and statues abound. A couple of blocks toward the harbor, on the way to the library on North Street, lay the park built along Town Brook. Town Brook was the fresh water source the Mayflower colonists were desperate to find before they would leave the ship (in whatever weakened state) and put up stakes. 
             So maybe when you have history to burn it's not surprising the town could forget about the early 20th century residency of one of the most well known names, worldwide, of his era, the seven years from the arrest to the execution (1920-1927) of Vanzetti and his anarchist comrade Sacco, like him an Italian immigrant and a believer that the widespread social injustice and poverty faced by masses of human beings in America, as in Italy, would not be overcome until the world turned to the path they termed "the beautiful idea." 
             However, while there is no public, physical acknowledgment of Vanzetti's presence anywhere in the town, Plymouth library knew about him (as it knows about most things). Reference Librarian Lee Regan, for whom local history was a passion, took me upstairs to the "local history room" and showed me the shelf where she kept books specifically related to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I found more than enough there, notably the mammoth Francis Russell history of the case, titled "Tragedy in Dedham," to get me started. 
              I was familiar with the general outline of the story, the way someone with an interest in radical American politics is likely to know the headlines of the story -- two immigrants of suspect political beliefs nabbed for an outrageous daylight robbery and murder, and convicted because of the prevailing societal prejudice against everything these men appeared to represent, rather than on any solid evidence. I am being sentenced, Vanzetti said (to paraphrase his remarks to the court before sentencing), not for the case brought against me, but because I am an Italian and because I am a radical. 
               Yet the more details I learned about the case, about Vanzetti's life, and about the world he and millions of working class laborers and their families inhabited, it seemed to me that the story of a man whose name was known to everyone in the world  90 years ago, but whose story was ignored in the town he lived in, still has much to tell us.
              Both about the way things were back the, and -- remarkably, unhappily -- about the way some things still are.
              The excerpt below is from my novel "Suosso's Lane":
             Late in the evening of August third, waiting until almost midnight so that reporters hovering all day outside his door would have no time to gather reaction to his decision, Governor Fuller released the report of the commission affirming the conduct of the court and the verdict of the jury. He set an execution date for two weeks away. 
            The newspapers reported the decision with a two-word headline: "They Die!"
Two words were all that were needed. Everybody in the world able to read a newspaper knew who "they" were.  
 (Suosso's Lane available at