• Email
  • Print

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

In response to:

America's Dreyfus Case from the November 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I was a shade surprised at Francis Russell’s hostility towards The Black Flag: A Look Back at the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti [NYR, November 5]. I apologize for getting the preposition wrong in the title of his own book on the matter, and will of course correct any anglicisms, errors, or literals that he points to, in the next American edition.

I could in turn point out that he gets my age wrong, etc. etc. But all this is utter trivia.

Everyone may have their opinion of guilt or innocence in this classic case. Mr. Russell is entitled to decide for guilt. I disagree; but no one could claim that the book—and it may be the final file on the case—prevents the reader from coming to his or her own varying conclusions.

What Mr. Russell overlooks in his eagerness for a verdict is that the Sacco and Vanzetti affair is not only a legal matter. That dimension has utterly changed since his own work in the fifties and early sixties. The case is not private property. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, after exhaustive legal enquiry, formally proclaimed on August 23, 1977, that there were “substantial, indeed compelling grounds” that they had not had a fair trial, and removed any “stigma and disgrace” from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

The information I produce, under the Freedom of Information Act, reinforces that decision. But the book—though one would not discern this in such a lengthy review—is not about that at all. It is about the passions and the politics of the case. For as an event, it transcends legality and poses moral questions that the United States overlooked in the war-weary twenties, again in the McCarthy years, and should be alert to in our own time.

I am not an anarchist. But I dislike being used as a peg for Mr. Russell’s style of argument. I make no apology for being European or for working on the case from Cambridge University twenty years after Mr. Russell.

What it all taught me was nothing to do with the complexities of law nor the convoluted confusions of ballistics. It reminded me of the right to dissent.

Brain Jackson

Routledge & Kegan Paul of America Ltd.

Boston, Massachusetts

Francis Russell replies:

Mr. Jackson fails to realize that the Sacco-Vanzetti case ceased to be a legal matter as long ago as 1921 when Fred Moore, the general counsel for the IWW, took over the defense. Moore transformed an obscure routine case to a cause that would, with Professor Frankfurter’s later assistance, echo round the world. Yet in the end he came to doubt the innocence of his clients.

Though an adequate writer, Mr. Jackson is simply out of his depth in dealing with the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. He has nothing to add to the “politics and passions of the case,” since these were dealt with far more ably and extensively in David Felix’s Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals. Somehow he attaches cosmic importance to Massachusetts Governor Dukakis’s 1977 proclamation declaring the unfairness of Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial and removing any “stigma and disgrace from their names.” Governor Dukakis’s was the minor gesture of a minor politician that neither added to nor altered the dimensions of the case. His proclamation was based on the recommendation of his legal counsel, Daniel Taylor, who in turn based his findings on the trial testimony of Captain Proctor, a most inexpert ballistics expert. Proctor did know that a bullet taken from a dead gurad’s body had been fired from a Colt automatic. Whether or not it had been fired from Sacco’s Colt he was not prepared to say—possibly it was, possibly it was not. So he said it was “consistent” with having been fired from Sacco’s Colt. On this word “consistent,” one of the motions for a new trial was based, as was Taylor’s recommendation. Felix rightly regarded the whole Proctor episode as of “too little substance for serious regard.”

When Mr. Jackson has Sacco and Vanzetti arrested in the wrong city by the wrong police, tried in the wrong court and executed in the wrong place, it is difficult to take the rest of his book seriously. One can scarcely consider his numerous errors of place and fact “utter trivia.” Rather they are ineradicable flaws. I was indeed in error about Mr. Jackson’s age, information furnished me by his publishers.

  • Email
  • Print