Wednesday, August 23, 2017

They Had "A Connection to the Case": Sacco and Vanzetti at 90


            One of his ancestors was called to serve on the jury, a man told me. For one of those trials.
            He was at the gates when the getaway car went through, another man on another night told me of his family member's connection to the case. The words spoken with a rueful laugh. They didn't try to stop them. He told the police what he saw. So did a dozen other guys. "They all said different things."
            Her ancestor, a woman told me after my talk, was "a very well known doctor." At Harvard. "He was involved somehow in the case." She spoke quietly, as others filed out of the room. The name was McGrath.
            "The house was just down this way." He pointed to a part of West Bridgewater where an anarchist lived in 1920. Back then the 'house' was called Puffer's Place. Johnson's garage was still there too when he was growing up, the same person, a knowledgeable senior citizen, told me.Till some time in the Fifties, he thought. You could still see the sign: Johnson's Service Station.
            The woman stopped us as we came out of the Kingston senior center door. Is it over? she asked. She wanted to hear the author speak. I told her, happily, that I was the author. And, yes, the program was over, but I would gladly sell her a book if she had come to buy one. We spoke in the dark and I gave her my email address. Her family was connected to the case, she said. She gave me a name. Gardner. He worked for the Boston Globe too. He also worked for the defense committee, because they needed him when they began to get all that publicity. She told me who he was related to, and what he had done in the rest of his life after the case was over. I recognized the name, though his connection to the case was all I knew about him.

            A member of her family was one of the witnesses. I grew up on the street, she said. The case is special to me.
            I've always been interested in this subject, a man said. I've read about it.
            Anything about this case, another man said. I always want to come.
            I live in the shadow of the Plymouth Cordage Company. And look upon the chimney stack built by an ancestor of mine, daily.
            One of my husband's ancestors was a fish peddler too and told the story of meeting these men in North Plymouth, even on Christmas
            She said her grandmother never believed them. They said they were selling fish on Christmas. "But we never got any fish on Christmas," she said, so that's how she knew they were lying.
            He said they were terrorists. He said anarchists were responsible for bombings and killings all over the world. He said an anarchist even killed an American president. They killed the king of Italy. He said anarchists started World War I. Terrorists! How I could make them out to be victims?
            Later I looked for the name McGrath, which I recalled from my research, and found I was spelling it wrong. It was George Mcgrath. This is what I was trying to remember: The highly regarded medical examiner Dr. George B. Mcgrath performed the autopsy and said the four bullets fired into the body of payroll guard Berardelli were identical, hence fired from the same gun. This was a crucial point because the prosecution claimed that one of the bullets (called bullet number 3) was fired from a gun belonging to Sacco. The defense refuted this claim by pointing out that bullet 3 was a different kind of bullet from the other three, and therefore likely a substitution for the original bullet 3. Mcgrath repeated his testimony: the four bullets in the murdered man's body were of the same kind. This question is discussed at length in the book "Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti" (1985) by William Young and David E. Kaiser. "The custody of evidence was weak."  
            I never found Puffer's Place, where the anarchist Mario Buda was living and from which he fled the local police. Or the house and garage of mechanic Simon Johnson, where Buda had left his car and where Sacco and Vanzetti, joined by Buda and a fourth anarchist, journeyed to pick up Buda's car on the fateful night when they fell into the Bridgewater police trap and were arrested. Held over night. Charged in the morning. Put on trial a year later; convicted. Executed seven years later in one of history's most infamous and long-running criminal cases.
            I found her family name on the witness list for the defense.
            The ancestor who did not receive fish for Christmas perhaps did not order any, since numerous other North Plymouth residents testified in court to receiving eels on Christmas Eve, a crucial piece of Vanzetti's defense in his Plymouth trial.
              The jury -- no immigrants, no people of Italian descent, no intellectuals, and no one who admitted to reading books; no African-Americans, and of course no women -- deliberated for 10 minutes before bringing back a verdict of guilty. The foreman said later that he didn't know if they were guilty of this crime but commented, "We oughta hang the whole lot of them."
            President McKinley was in fact killed by a professed anarchist, born here of Polish parentage. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the proximate cause of World War I, was carried out by Serbian nationalists. Whether you consider it terror or not, political assassination has always been the weapon of the disenfranchised and it almost always backfires. But Sacco and Vanzetti were not on trial for a bombing or an assassination, but for a gangland style robbery of a shoe factory workers' payroll with accompanying murders, an act they would have regarded with horror and which they did not commit.
            The Globe reporter Gardner Jackson was hired by the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1927 to manage publicity as the threat of execution grew near and the whole world was watching. After the executions Jackson gathered "The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti" for publication in 1928, a lasting contribution to the case's history, since the collection still available today as a Penguin classic edition.