Thursday, March 17, 2016

Were Sacco and Vanzetti Guilty After All? How Bill Bryson Blew It



          After my program Tuesday night on "Suosso's Lane," a novel of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, an old friend pointed out to me that famous author Bill Bryson in his recent book "One Summer: America 1927" concludes that Sacco and Vanzetti were "probably" guilty of robbing a workers' payroll and killing two men in the Braintree shoe factory crime. 
             This is how I know Bryson blew it:
             He gets crucial facts wrong before delivering his smug, complacent apology for the status quo.
            After pointing out basic flaws in the state's improbable case against Sacco and Vanzetti, Bryson suddenly changes sides when he returns to the subject of the Sacco-Vanzetti case 20 pages later and now is all sympathy with the nativist, WASP establishment apologists for the judicial murder of two Italian political radicals during a time of racist hysteria over immigration by the "lower races."
          Here's the first of two incredible "howlers" (scholar talk for blatant mistakes) that show Bryson was not on top of his material:
            With the 1927 execution date two weeks away, Bryson writes, Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller granted a brief stay of execution to allow "the condemned men's defense team -- which was essentially the lone, harried lawyer Fred Moore -- twelve days to find a court prepared to grant a retrial to hear new evidence."
            How completely wrong is this? Defense lawyer Fred Moore had officially withdrawn from the case three years before (and ceased acting for the defense the year before that) after Sacco refused to speak to him any longer. In 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti's defense was led by the prestigious William G. Thompson, widely regarded as Boston's top lawyer, a thoroughly Brahmin establishment figure who took Sacco and Vanzetti's case because the obvious flaws in their trial offended his sense of justice (and after the defense committee raised his healthy fee).
            And despite Bryson's snide comment, Fred Moore was never a "lone" anything. An active Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee raised funds first to hire both Moore (a California labor attorney) and a team of assistants. The Defense Committee later provided funds for Thompson and his assistants. No "lone, harried" defender, but a team of lawyers chased US Supreme Court justices around the county looking to convince a judge to hear their pleas for a new trial and save their clients' lives.
            The second, and even more unforgivable goof is Bryson's wholly inaccurate claim that highly regarded historian Paul Avrich, in his influential 1991 book "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background," states that Sacco and Vanzetti were "almost certainly involved" in the Braintree robbery-murder.             
             Bryson states (inaccurately):
            "In his 1991 book, historian Paul Avrich asked rhetorically whether Vanzetti could have been involved in the South Braintree holdup, and wrote: 'Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.'"
            The actual quote (on page 150 in Avrich's book) is this:
            "Was Vanzetti himself involved in the conspiracy? Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.'"
            The "conspiracy" Avrich refers to in this statement is not the Braintree holdup but a series of bombings (in 1918-19) widely attributed to anarchists. Anyone looking at the quote on the page will come to the same conclusion. The sentence that Bryson twists to his own purpose directly follows Avrich's lengthy account of how Italian anarchists turned to the use of bombs to strike back at the government officials and big capitalists that were persecuting them and, as they believed, oppressing the poor. That "conspiracy" included planting a bomb at the home of the US Attorney General, an act that precipitated massive arrests of immigrants and deportations and -- as many students of the case have argued -- the framing of known anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for the Braintree crime.
            Those bombings (for whom no one was ever put on trial) and the Braintree shoe factory robbery-murder are entirely different cases. The only thing that puts the cases together is the state of Massachusetts' improbable theory that anarchists were responsible for the Braintree crime. Avrich may believe that Vanzetti and Sacco were "almost certainly" involved (in some unspecified way) in the Italian anarchist bombing conspiracy. He clearly does believe that they were members of the same network as the key anarchist figures he fingers as the principal conspirators (Carlo Valdinoci and Mario Budo).
          But when it comes to whether Sacco and Vanzetti bore any guilt for the Braintree crime, Avrich states explicitly that his book "makes no pretense of settling the issue of whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the crimes for which they were executed" (page 5). He states, instead, that the case against them "remains unproved... nor can their innocence be established beyond any shadow of doubt."  
            It's hard for me to believe that an author of Bryson's stature could have bollixed this up so badly unless, perhaps, he was working from notes made by others. Nevertheless, the representation of a respected historian's judgment about one matter as his judgment on a distinctly different matter is not merely sloppiness, it's the kind of academic wrongdoing that would get your PhD thesis thrown out of court. In my opinion, it destroys Bryson's credibility as a commentator on the case.