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Clinching the Case

In writing about the Sacco-Vanzetti case I have long been struck by the thought that there were those still living who knew the truth, who knew the identity of the two killers who shot down the paymaster and his guard on that long ago April 1920 afternoon in South Braintree, Massachusetts, knew who the other three men were who sped away with them and the payroll money in the getaway car. Elderly people now—as I wrote in the foreword to the 1971 edition of my Tragedy in Dedham, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the trial—they were “still tenaciously prepared to carry the weight of their secret to the grave.” Barring a sudden revelation by one of them, I did not see how any more clarity could be added to the case.

Then on a snowy afternoon in 1982 the revelation came. At our Cape Cod post office the woman behind the counter said there was a registered letter for me. I signed, and she handed me a brown envelope with a California return address and the name Ideale Gambera in the upper left-hand corner. Nobody I had ever heard of. Probably another crackpot letter, of which I had had my share. But when I got back to the house and read it I sat for some minutes stunned. Here was the ultimate answer that had so long eluded me:

My father, Giovanni Gambera died in June, 1982, at the age of ninety-three. He was one of those “elderly people now still tenaciously prepared to carry the weight of their secret to the grave.” Except that he left some of his secret to me. My mother, Signorina Monello, niece to Angelo Monello, still alive and alert, has always substantiated all my father recounted. But my father demanded the strictest secrecy and no one would ever dare challenge his authority.

This letter is based on my appraisal of your work Tragedy in Dedham which I consider the definite text about this case. Everyone [in the Boston anarchist circle] knew that Saccco was guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual participation in the killing. But no one would ever break the code of silence even if it cost Vanzetti’s life. My father was with the case from its beginnings but is never mentioned because that is the way he wished it. He commanded great respect and loyalty amongst the anarchists combined with an aura of deadly intent. He was the head of a family of six and he was involved in so many activities of dubious nature that he made sure no disgrace or notoriety would touch us.

I think you would appreciate a bit of dramatic irony in this case. Before it all became public, there was a committee of four who represented Sacco and Vanzetti. These four were Aldino Felicani, Professor Guadagni, Lucia Mancini and my father. The prime purpose of this committee was to decide what should happen to Sacco and Vanzetti. Katzmann the prosecuting district attorney had proposed that he would guarantee deportation as undesirable aliens back to Italy for Sacco and Vanzetti if he were given $35,000 cash. Felicani and Mancini visited Sacco, and my father and Guadagni visited Vanzetti with this proposal. Both men left it up to the committee to decide. Three members of the committee, excluding my father, voted for the trial. Their argument was that this would bring great publicity for the anarchist movement and that there was every chance that the men would go free. My father was vehemently opposed and stated that they would send these men to their doom. My father was always the most astute and intelligent thinker of them all.

For added color, you may be interested in knowing that Fred Moore [the chief defense counsel] was an inveterate cocaine addict and my father kept this going by providing the necessary amount needed. My mother still remembers well the many nights that Moore would call the house at any hour of the night and my father would leave and not return for days at a time. And my mother specially remembers the scandal of Rosina Sacco’s affair with another man during the last few years of the case.

I, too, recall vividly the great political arguments with my father, Guadagni and Felicani—frightening in their intensity and loudness. I still see the two—Felicani very tall for a Sicilian, who had a crush on my mother—and Guadagni, with his distinguished goatee and pot-belly devouring enormous plates of pasta. My father also published an Italian weekly called Il Pungolo The Spur at 6 Beacon Street, an independent journal of some repute to the anarchists.

I do hope this letter brings you some added ease and satisfaction for the research you did…. Between you and me, this is the last word.

It could indeed be called the last word. That Sacco was guilty I had long accepted. But there had never been proof ample enough to satisfy the embattled partisans. Those few among the anarchists who knew otherwise continued to guard their knowledge. The whole super-structure of the great case was made possible by their silence, a mixture of loyalty and fanaticism. Now the silence had given way to this voice beyond the grave.

The Boston Public Library’s edition of the 1979 Sacco-Vanzetti conference includes a snapshot of eight anarchists at a picnic in Philadelphia in 1915. (See photograph on this page.) Felicani is in the center. Seven of the group have their names inked in. The eighth, a thin, hawknosed young man with a high forehead and receding hairline, is not identified. He is—as I learned subsequently—Giovanni Gambera, even then intent on his anonymity.

For Sacco anarchism was a driving passion, his dominating interest, his chief activity. He was a member of II Gruppo Autonomo di East Boston, anarchist militants who believed in and sometimes practiced violence. Once he had been identified as one of the men in the murder car, the others—later identified but out of range of prosecution—would fall into place. Vanzetti, theoretically a militant, was temperamentally incapable of violence and, as we shall see, he was never convincingly identified. Only someone in touch with the closed Boston anarchist circle to which Sacco and Vanzetti belonged could have written a letter with such corroborative details: the hastily organized defense committee’s first visit to Sacco and Vanzetti after their arrest; the mention of the otherwise unrecorded Lucia Mancini, the one woman on the committee; Moore’s drug addiction; the meetings in the Gambera kitchen; the long-forgotten Il Pungolo. Even the charge against District Attorney Katzmann becomes a left-handed confirmation, reflecting the fixed—though erroneous—anarchist belief that Katzmann had been willing to sell the case.

That story came about through the machinations of a Dedham court hangeron, Angelina de Falco, a go-between to whom Italians from the Dedham flat-lands colony turned when they ran afoul of the law. By recommending them to local lawyers, she would collect a finder’s fee that the lawyers themselves were probably unaware of. Something of the kind on a larger scale she had in mind when she went to the defense committee four months before the trial. She was, she told them, a friend of District Attorney Katzmann’s. Sacco and Vanzetti could be acquitted after a mock trial, but it would cost a lot of money and they would have to engage local lawyers including Katzmann’s brother Percy. In reality she had never met Katzmann and knew his brother only slightly. Moore saw through her trickery at once. While the committee members mulled over her offer, he had her arrested although all she could be charged with was attempting to solicit law business. Several years later she would serve six months in jail for taking money from a Dedham woman on the pretense of getting her husband out of state prison.

Fred Moore, a radical bohemian lawyer from the west, former general counsel for the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, had come into the case through Carlo Tresca, at that time the most conspicuous anarchist in the United States. Though Tresca was an anarchosyndicalist whom many of the militants—followers of the recently deported Luigi Galleani—disliked, anarchists of all dimensions turned to him when they were in trouble. He had friends and contacts everywhere, in the trade unions, among politicians, even among the police. He and Moore had met in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 during the great textile strike.

A year before the Dedham trial—though he was a victim of mistaken identity—Vanzetti was tried and convicted of taking part in an earlier holdup in Bridgewater in which nothing was stolen and nobody hurt. When Tresca, editing his paper Il Martello in New York, heard of this he was outraged at the bungling of the Boston comrades and sent Moore to take charge of the coming murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. A New York Socialist editor in Boston at the time saw Sacco and Vanzetti as merely “two wops in a jam.” But what to others passed as insignificant, Moore saw in all its complexities. He would make the two wops in a jam symbols of oppressed workers everywhere. This, he sensed, would be his great chance. Without him there would have been no Sacco-Vanzetti case as it became known. Without him two obscure anarchists would have died early and unnoticed, lacking the solace of martyrdom. Moore made their case into a cause. Through his radical connections across the country he stirred rising protest against a prosecution that he accused in advance of being unfair. Months before the trial the Dedham judge, Webster Thayer, was receiving more than seven hundred hostile letters a week, some of them death threats.

After the Dedham trial and the guilty verdict, Moore kept Sacco and Vanzetti alive by the energy and ingenuity of his delaying tactics, his various supplementary motions for a new trial. He was ruthless. “Moore had no conscience once he decided his client was innocent,” Eugene Lyons, the first publicity director of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, told the historian David Felix. “He would stop at nothing, frame evidence, suborn witness, have his people work on witnesses who had seen the wrong things—I pity anyone he went after.”

Moore’s search for the actual criminals went to extravagant and sometimes bizarre lengths. Yet after following many trails that turned out to be false, he came on a trail that seemed to lead to the anarchists themselves. “But when he got near the end of the trail,” Lyons wrote me, “the Italian anarchist members of the Defense Committee called him in and ordered him to ‘lay off.’ They wouldn’t say why, but the inference is that they feared his line of investigation.” Emilio Coda, the violent head of the committee, warned him that if he continued on that line he, Coda, would personally kill him.

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