Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Garden of History: Memorial Plaque Needs a Place in the Sun


           At two public programs on "Susso's Lane" last week participants at the Crane Library in Quincy and the Center for Active Living in Plymouth shared their reasons for having an enduring interest in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants executed in 1927 largely because of their radical political beliefs. One man in Quincy told me he had read all the books he could find on the subject and still remained open to be convinced one way or another on the issue of their guilt.
            In Plymouth a woman told me the story that came down to her from her mother. Her mother told her a relative (an aunt, I believe) who lived in the North Plymouth had fish delivered to her home by Vanzetti on the day of the crime for which he was accused. Vanzetti was making a living selling fish from a pushcart in 1920. Her relative wanted to testify to this face in court, but she spoke only Italian, and Sacco and Vanzetti's defense attorneys told her her testimony would be without value if she could not give it in English.
            No courtroom interpreters in those days. Not much concern for the presumption of innocence either when the defendants are made to sit inside a metal cage in the courtroom.
            Another person at the Quincy talk told me that the lower level of the Dedham, Mass. courthouse (where the trial was held) houses a photo of Sacco and Vanzetti sitting inside the cage in the courtroom — along with a third person. Who was the third person? he asked me.
            I didn’t know. I’ll try to find out. There’s always something new to learn when it comes to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Several historians have called it “the case that will never die.”
            Historian Robert D'Attilio attended the Quincy library and spoke during the question period on the proposal made by a group he is part of -- The Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society -- to install a memorial Sacco-Vanzetti plaque plaque (created almost 90 years ago by a famous sculptor) in a fitting public place.
            D'Attilio left us with a handout titled "Working Paper for the Installation of the Borglum Sacco Vanzetti Plaque in the North End in Boston."
            Here are some facts from this paper. The two men were executed in Boston in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison on Aug. 23, 1927. Their funeral took place on a Sunday, Aug. 28, from Langone's Funeral Home in the North End, a largely Italian neighborhood. "According to newspaper accounts," the paper states, "it attracted more than 200,000 people, the largest public gathering in Boston in the 20th century." Many mourners marched the 8.5 miles to the Forest Hills Cemetery, where the two were cremated.
            The executions did not put the case to rest. Books, articles, essays, poems, dramas, films, and other works centering on the case were produced in the years afterward, and some keep coming. Novels, even (can you imagine that?). The entire legal transcript, six volumes, were published and remain available. The working paper states, "The Sacco Vanzetti case became indelibly known as the 'Case That Will Not Die.'"
            A volume of the letters that Sacco and Vanzetti wrote from prison were also published a year after their death. These letters moved readers all over the world, and that volume is still in print in a Penguin Books edition.
            Words from Vanzetti's last letter were included on a memorial plaque. The defense committee and Felix Frankfurter, who had written widely on the case and would become a Supreme Court justice, approached famous memorial sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the man responsible for the Mount Rushmore presidential memorial, with the idea of a memorial plaque.
            Borglum incorporated these words from Vanzetti's last letter (written to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana) into his design: "What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain." 
             He created a plaster model in 1928; the bronze plaque was cast a year later.             Borglum's plaque was offered to the state governor and the Boston mayor repeatedly over the years and refused by the authorities, with an umbrage that implied that Sacco and Vanzetti were common criminals and murderers. After the bronze plaque was rejected in 1957 it disappeared, and was probably destroyed. The plaster cast was displayed in the Community Church in Copley Square in 1971 and then donated to the Boston Public Library as part of a scholarly collection relating to the case, where it has been kept on the library's 3rd floor, a poor placement for a piece of public art.
            In 1977, the 50th anniversary of the execution, Gov. Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that the two men had been unfairly tried and that no stigma should be attached to their names. An attempt was made to rebuke the governor in the state Senate, testifying to the enduring unwillingness by many in state government to accept that the trial was flawed and unfair.
On the 70th anniversary, in 1997, Mayor Thomas Menino and acting Gov. Paul Cellucci "formally" accepted the plaster plaque at the library for the city and state. But the plaque remains to this day upstairs in the library.
            The Sacco-Vanzetti Commemorative Society, formed in 2006, seeks to connect the case "under its real aspect and being" -- to quote from Vanzetti's last letter -- and "to draw connections between the struggles of Sacco and Vanzetti and similar struggles today. "
            Because of the importance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case to the Boston Italian-American community, the committee believes that the best site for permanent public display of the memorial plaque at the head of Hanover Street on the Greenway "at the precise spot where the funeral of Sacco and Vanzetti passed."
            The group seeks the support of the community, according to the working paper, to respond to "Vanzetti's final words: 'I wish and hope you will lend your faculties in inserting our tragedy in the history under its real aspect and being.'"