Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Garden of What We Know: Thin Grounds for Sacco's 'Guilt'

            For thirty years anybody who knew anything about the Sacco and Vanzetti case contended that the two were innocent of the crime they were accused of and executed for -- the April 15, 1920 daylight robbery of a Braintree shoe factory payroll and the murder of two payroll officials. Then, in the anti-Communist Cold War fifties and sixties, the reaction set in. In fact, some theorists alleged, despite all that bleeding heart liberal sentiment to the contrary, the two Italian anarchists were actually guilty of these cold-blooded killings. Or, the more widely shared assertion, Sacco was guilty, though Vanzetti was not.
            Revisionist theories that appear to undermine settled, conventional views always win some converts.
            But after closely analyzing everything that Italian radical spokesman Carlo Tresca said or might have said about the Sacco-Vanzetti case over the course of 30 years, historian Nunzio Pernicone in his essay "Carlo Tresca and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case," published in "The Journal of American History," concluded that arguing for the guilt of Sacco on the basis of Tresca's unsubstantiated one-sentence remark in the early 1940s  amounts to "a serious misuse of the historian's craft."
            Why is this important? Because the revisionist theory that Sacco and Vanzetti were not innocent after all, and were not the sort of peaceful "philosophical anarchists" many supporters made them out to be, has been based almost entirely on what Tresca reportedly said to the American one-time socialist Max Eastman.
            A 'half-point' must be granted here. Sacco and Vanzetti were not simply "theoretical" believers in the political, social and economic philosophy of anarchy, which calls for the abolition of the state, the church, and all forms of institutional authority. They believed in taking action as well. They supported strikes, but not labor unions, believing that workers (and everyone else) should be free to form voluntary cooperatives to support one another's subsistence. Further, anarchists who were part of the same Italian-speaking network as Sacco and Vanzetti mailed and planted bombs to government officials and major capitalists in the year preceding their arrest. In fact, the widespread belief of native-born Americans that these two Italian-speaking radicals were just the sort of people seeking to promote revolution by planting bombs is probably the reason a jury of white, English-speaking, native-born men so quickly convicted them of the Braintree crime on evidence that was far from convincing.
            Almost nobody today -- or at any time in the almost century-long reconsideration of the case -- defends the notion that Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial.
            Historian Paul Avrich sums it up this way: "The trial, occurring in the wake of the Red Scare, took place in an atmosphere of intense hostility towards the defendants. The district attorney conducted a highly unscrupulous prosecution, coaching and badgering witnesses, withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, and perhaps even tampering with physical evidence. ... He played on the emotions of the jurors, arousing their deepest prejudices against the accused. ...The judge in the case likewise revealed his bias... He made remarks that bristled with animosity toward the defendants [including] "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?" When a verdict of guilty was returned, many believed that the men had been convicted because of their foreign birth and radical beliefs, not on solid evidence of criminal guilt."
            However, despite the trial's inadequacies, a number of voices in articles and books have maintained that one or both of the defendants were guilty -- as if the prosecution, despite lacking evidence pointing in their direction, had somehow stumbled on to the right men to charge with a heinous, high-profile, outrageous crime.... exactly the type of crime both the police and the public really like to see solved.
            Carlo Tresca, an Italian-American newspaper editor, orator, and labor organizer who played a prominent part in the Industrial Workers of the World, often served as the go-to guy for Italian radicals accused of crimes -- such as speaking out against American participation in World War I or the draft, actions that in 1917-18 constituted crimes. But although Tresca himself was Italian by birth and familiar with the Italian speakers who were members of the radical left, including anarchists, it does not follow that Tresca was intimate with members of these groups, knew their secrets, or held their trust. Anarchists who followed the teachings of theoretician and orator Luigi Galleani -- a network that included Sacco and Vanzetti -- may have sought Tresca's public support when needed, but they did not trust him or regard him as a true comrade. In fact Galleani's disdain for Tresca and his pro-union views was pronounced, and in the two decades that followed Galleani's deportation to Italy, his followers' attacks on Tresca and those whose ideology differed from the own grew increasingly bitter.
            After examining this history, Nunzio Pernicone concludes that believing that Carlo Tresca was likely to know some "inside story" about the crime at the origin of the Sacco-Vanzetti case amounts to a confession of ignorance of the anarchist and Italian left-wing movement. Tresca was at one time a member of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee "and frequently spoke in their defense at rallies [in New York City, where he was based] and in articles." At these rallies he declared without the slightest hesitation or doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti were entirely innocent of the crime they were charged with. This remained his position throughout the 7-year case and the following years.
            Pernicone then examines the theory of Francis Russell, and those who follow him that Sacco took part in the Braintree crime. Russell, who initially wrote an extensive study of the case back in the 50s, concluding at its end (along with almost everyone else who examined it) that Sacco and Vanzetti were not guilty. Russell then changed his mind, in an article and then an entire second book (ludicrously titled "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved"), based largely on rumor and suspicion.
            The initial suspicion comes from a statement by Upton Sinclair, who researched the case for his novel about it, "Boston." After talking to the Brini family, with whom Vanzetti lived in Plymouth, and finding them wholly open to his intentions, he was surprised by the cool reception given him by Sacco's widow, Rosina Sacco, who was not eager to speak to him. Personally, I can think of dozens of reasons why Rosina, an Italian speaking woman with two children who suffered the trauma of losing her husband to a miscarriage of justice, would not wish to review her tragedy yet again with an American reporter. Frankly, she may not have known who Sinclair was. Nevertheless, Sinclair's impression that Sacco's widow had something to hide apparently drove him to other suspicions. 

            The single publicly stated claim that Sacco was guilty of the Braintree crime comes from Max Eastman's report that Tresca told him, "Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent." Eastman was a radical in the early decades of the 20th century who moved to the right during the Stalinist period. Like other socialists, he was dismayed by what the USSR had turned socialism into.
            After analyzing how little Tresca actually said to Eastman, Pernicone concludes that Russell "greatly exaggerated and misunderstood" Tresca's importance to Italian anarchists, assuming incorrectly that Tresca became the godfather of the Italian anarchist movement after Galleani's deportation. Given Galleani's "condescension and disapproval" of Tresca, Pernicone state, it is "unthinkable" that his followers would choose Tresca for a leader after Galleani's removal.
            Again, after analyzing the attitudes of anarchists toward stealing money for revolutionary purposes, Pernicone concludes that anarchists were loathe to commit acts that could not be distinguished from those of ordinary criminality. Pernicone writes that it is "inconceivable that Tresca would have inside knowledge" of an anarchist plot to rob a factory payroll for money.
           Examining the reliability of Tresca's claim of Sacco's guilt, Pernicone states that Tresca's close associate and partner in publishing ventures Luiggi Quintiliano asserted that Tresca did not believe that Sacco was guilty during the case or the immediate years after. Quintiliano himself visited Sacco in prison, who told him bluntly, "Continue to assert our complete innocence."
            But somewhere in the years to follow, Pernicone concludes, Tresca told at least two people something different. His own focus had changed from defending radicals to combating Italian fascists in America for leadership of the Italian community. In fact Tresca's murder in1943 is sometimes attributed to his fascist enemies.
            Why would Tresca, who had widely asserted Sacco and Vanzetti's were innocent in the 20s and thirties, change his view and tell Eastman that Sacco was guilty? Since no new "first-hand information" was available, and no evidence came to light to explain his change of mind, Pernicone attributes the change in his view to the impact of the deep personal attacks on him by the anarchists of the Galleani faction. Slandering one of theirs, that is, was a way of getting back at them.
            And, finally, Pernicone offers this assessment of Tresca's personality:  "He had a great need to be in the spotlight."

[Here's the link for Pernicone's article: