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Clinching the Case

After increasing differences of opinion with Sacco, whose reactions were often paranoid, Moore left the case. But before he did he had come to doubt the innocence of his clients. Heading west again, he returned to California. Shortly after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti he spent an evening talking with Upton Sinclair. He had, he told Sinclair, come to the reluctant conclusion that Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti possibly guilty. Sinclair kept the story to himself for a quarter of a century and only then released it to the relative obscurity of the Institute of Social Studies Bulletin. But at the same time he also confided it to his communist friend Robert Minor in New York. Minor telephoned him in a panic. “Upton,” he pleaded with him, “you must not say it, you must not say it! You will ruin the movement! It will be treason!”

The cause that Moore created, and that Felix Frankfurter made intellectually fashionable six years later, has remained a cause. In 1948 G. Louis Joughin could write in The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti that “prosecutors, judges, and the hostile public majority have not in twenty years found a single literary defender of their position.” After my Tragedy in Dedham came out with its conclusion that Sacco at least was guilty, I happened to be talking about the case with a young woman, an instructor in creative writing in one of the smaller Ivy League colleges. “Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent,” she told me challengingly.

Have you read my book?” I asked her.

No,” she said, “but they had to be innocent.”

In intellectual circles generally Sacco and Vanzetti have had to be innocent. A local legislator who in 1959 sponsored the unsuccessful bill for a posthumous pardon for Sacco and Vanzetti remarked somewhat more crudely that a mouse with one eye could see it wasn’t a murder case, it was a fix-up by the politicos.

When one comes to the very core of the case, with Gambera, with Moore, with Tresca, belief in Sacco’s innocence dissolves. In 1941 Tresca was murdered in New York by a gunman—hired by the NKVD or the Mafia or perhaps both. Tresca was saying openly that Sacco was guilty and in refusing to admit his guilt had murdered a good comrade, Vanzetti. This he expressed loudly to a group at Norman Thomas’s. John Roche, who was present, said that Thomas did not react. Tresca continued to mention Sacco’s guilt to a number of others, among them the socialist writers Max Eastman, James Rorty, and Isaac Don Levine. He talked angrily and compulsively. Yet two years earlier on meeting a Pennsylvania judge, Michael Musmanno, he had reiterated his belief in the innocence of both Sacco and Vanzetti According to his daughter, Beatrix Tresca Rapport, who saw much of him in the Twenties, he had never wavered in this belief.

How does one interpret Tresca’s astonishing volte-face? To my mind one can only conclude that someone close to him had recently given him irrefutable evidence of Sacco’s guilt. Professor Nunzio Pernicone has tried to explain away Tresca’s admission by attributing it to old rumors that he had picked up from Moore and that had preyed on his mind after continued attacks on him by the Galleanisti. Sacco and Vanzetti were, like Gambera, members of Boston’s Galleanisti inner circle to which Tresca remained an outsider. Pernicone is right in saying that it was inconceivable for Tresca to have shared any secrets of the Boston circle. But he is wrong in doubting the existence of the unknown informant I had earlier predicated. That man, in my view, could only have been Giovanni Gambera. According to Ideale Gambera, Tresca was an intimate of his father, a frequent visitor at his house.

Gambera lived in Boston for over thirty years. Then in 1941 he moved with his family to California. Before that final uprooting he may well have met his old friend whom he knew he might never see again—and in the sense of loss that parting often gives, he could have broken his silence.

Gambera never happened to tell his son of any last meeting with Tresca. Nor did his son ever think to ask. But to me at least this seems the most logical explanation for Tresca’s belated, sudden change of mind. He was a man of stout opinions, not easily swayed, certainly not by vague rumors and suspicions. In any case, Sacco was guilty. Gambera said so, and Gambera knew.

Gambera’s statement that Vanzetti was innocent reinforced what I had earlier come to believe. Only one witness testified to having seen Vanzetti at the scene of the crime, and he placed him as the driver of the car, although Vanzetti could not drive. Other witnesses stated that the driver was pallid and fair-haired, while Vanzetti was swarthy and dark-haired. Unlike Vanzetti, the two gunmen were cleanshaven. So weak was the evidence against Vanzetti that Moore thought that if he could have tried him separately, he might have got him acquitted.

When writing my first book, I visited Alfonsina Brini and her married daughter Le Favre in the same house where Vanzetti had boarded with them. Both had testified that Vanzetti had come to their house twice on the day of the crime. They remembered the day exactly because Alfonsina had visited the doctor the day before and the day after. They showed me letters Vanzetti had written them and told me intimate details about his kindness to them; they answered every question I put, still convinced of their old friend’s innocence, as they were at his trial. I could not doubt their honesty or their accuracy. And Vanzetti’s last words in the death chamber are hauntingly eloquent, with the ring of truth. Facing the electric chair, after shaking hands with the warden and the guards, he told them quietly: “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins but never a crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one, but all, of all.”

Beyond Gambera and Tresca there are of course other trenchant indications of Sacco’s guilt, perhaps the most convincing being the ballistics evidence. When Sacco was arrested he had a loaded 32-caliber Colt automatic tucked in his belt. In the pistol chamber or on his person were thirty-two cartridges. These, he explained to the police, he had bought some months before in a sealed box. But by the time of his trial a year later he had learned that the cartridges were of four different makes: sixteen Peters, three Remingtons, seven US, and six Winchesters of a type no longer manufactured. He now testified that he had bought his cartridges during the war and because of wartime shortages the storekeeper had filled an already opened box with whatever cartridges he had on hand. Pressed by the district attorney to answer why he had first said he had bought an unopened box, Sacco could only reply, “I don’t see how I could answer that.”

Just after the Braintree shootings a workman picked up four spent shells from the gravel near the guard’s body. Two were Peters, one a Remington, and the fourth an obsolete Winchester. The Winchester, later known as Shell W, had been fired from a Colt, the others from a different weapon.

The medical examiner removed four bullets from the guard’s body, scratching a Roman numeral on the base of each. Bullet III was the fatal bullet. It was an obsolete Winchester and had been fired from a Colt automatic. The other three bullet wounds would not have been mortal. These bullets had been fired from a Stehr or a Harrington & Richards, as had the two bullets taken from the paymaster’s body.

All the ballistics evidence was placed in charge of Captain Proctor of the Massachusetts State Police, then a small investigative body. When asked at the trial by Assistant District Attorney Harold Williams if he had an opinion whether Bullet III was fired from Sacco’s Colt, he replied—as he had told Williams earlier he would do—that it was “consistent with being fired from it.” “Consistent” is a word commonly used by lawyers to express possibility when they are not certain. Williams—who handled most of the trial ballistics evidence—explained in a 1962 interview that Proctor “knew very little about bullets and he used the word ‘consistent’ because he wasn’t competent to say—he wasn’t saying that this particular bullet came from Sacco’s pistol.” The prosecution’s second expert, Charles Van Amburgh, had been brought from Connecticut to testify. More capable and assured, he pointed out to the jury a number of similar marks on Bullet III and on test bullets. Yet even he would go no further than to say that he was “inclined to believe that Bullet III was fired from this Colt automatic pistol.” Two defense experts were much more positive, both stating flatly that Bullet III had not been fired in Sacco’s Colt.

By the time of the trial Proctor was a man with a grievance, for originally he had headed the investigation of the South Braintree crime and he had never forgiven the district attorney for removing him. After the trial he was even more disgruntled when he submitted a bill of five hundred dollars for his services and the district attorney, on the advice of the judge, refused to pay it on the grounds that Proctor’s testimony was part of his official duties. Meeting the district attorney after this, Proctor refused to speak to him. But Proctor’s resentment really boiled over when he was passed by as head of the newly established State Police Ballistics Laboratory in favor of the more qualified Van Amburgh.

Two years later Proctor took his revenge. He signed an affidavit that would be submitted in support of a fifth supplementary motion for a new trial. In it he stated that he had never found any evidence that Bullet III had passed through Sacco’s Colt and that knowing this the district attorney had framed his question accordingly. “Had I been asked the direct question,” Proctor concluded, “whether I had found any affirmative evidence whatever that this so-called mortal bullet had passed through this particular Sacco pistol, I should have answered then, as I do now without hesitation, in the negative.”

Of course if Proctor had been asked if he had found any evidence that the mortal bullet had not been fired from Sacco’s Colt, he would also have had to answer in the negative. One way or the other, he did not know. But his affidavit has produced one of the most enduring claims that the Dedham trial was unfair. According to Governor Dukakis’s legal secretary, it was the basis for the governor’s issuing his proclamation in 1977 removing “any stigma or disgrace” from the names of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Not until 1927, two months before Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, was the comparison microscope brought into their case. Its inventor, Colonel Calvin Goddard, brought it to Boston and requested permission to demonstrate the effectiveness of his instrument by testing the Sacco-Vanzetti evidence. The comparison microscope is really a double microscope that fuses the image of a suspect bullet or shell with that of a test bullet or shell. Minute striations on each gun barrel, scorings on each breechblock are as unique to a particular weapon as are fingerprints to a person. When a suspect bullet and a test bullet or a suspect shell and a test shell match in their myriad markings, they must have been fired from the same weapon.

Goddard’s tests took place in the Dedham clerk of court’s office. Among those present were a posttrial defense expert, Professor Augustus Gill of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an associate defense counsel, Herbert Ehrmann. Goddard’s findings were that Shell W and Bullet III had been fired from Sacco’s Colt and could have been fired from no other, and he invited those present to look through his microscope. Gill, after looking, repudiated his earlier opinion that the bullet and shell had not been fired in Sacco’s weapon, and shortly afterward he broke with the defense. So did one of the trial defense experts. Ehrmann on looking through the microscope made no comment.

Goddard’s findings were challenged by the defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti, who dug up the fact that he had made a faulty diagnosis of several murder bullets some time earlier. The fault was not in Goddard or his instrument but in faulty labeling of several murder bullets by the police. However, for Ehrmann and others it was enough to discredit him. At the same time, during the hearings of the governor’s committee to review the case, Ehrmann brought up the possibility that test shells and bullets might have been fraudulently substituted for the original Shell W and Bullet III. Although he did not say so directly, he implied that Proctor—now dead—was the guilty agent.

Proctor had custody of the shells and bullets before the trial and was in a position to make a substitution. But in that case he would not have had to use the word “consistent” at the trial, for he would have known that the bullet offered in evidence had passed through Sacco’s Colt. If when he signed his affidavit he had confessed to having made a shell and bullet substitution, he would have disgraced the prosecution and brought about a new trial.

New tests in 1935 and 1961 merely confirmed Goddard’s findings, though Sacco-Vanzetti partisans refused to accept them as final. Ehrmann until his death in 1968 continued to question the validity of all the tests while at the same time espousing the theory of fraudulent substitution about which he wrote a book.1 I once wrote to ask him which theory he really held to, since the two contradicted each other, but he never gave me a straight answer.

If Sacco was indeed innocent, as some still claim, then either the ballistics tests were flawed or there was sleight of hand with the original evidence. In 1983 a new group of experts conducted the most elaborate tests yet of the Sacco-Vanzetti evidence. Their unanimous conclusion was that Shell W and Bullet III had been fired in Sacco’s Colt and could have been fired in no other weapon.

Present supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti have tended to concede the validity of the ballistics tests and fall back on the theory of fraudulent substitution. The most recent book on the case expounds this theory to almost Byzantine lengths in portraying Sacco and Vanzetti as “two innocent men, most probably framed for a murder they did not commit.”2 Such a deep-set belief, however well argued, is bound to be confronted by uncomfortable facts. When Sacco was arrested he had cartridges of four different makes in his possession. The shells found at the crime scene were of three of those makes. They could not all have been substituted. Sacco’s six obsolete Winchester cartridges could not be duplicated when prosecution and defense experts attempted to find others for test firing. Yet Bullet III and Shell W were of the same obsolete Winchester vintage.

Before the trial District Attorney Katzmann approached Moore to suggest that both sides agree not to try to prove that any particular bullet came from any particular weapon. Moore melodramatically refused. But why would Katzmann have made such an offer if he and the police had plotted a substitution? Though much maligned for his role in the trial, he led an honorable if circumscribed career before and afterward. Assistant District Attorney Harold Williams would later become a Massachusetts Supreme Court justice, so highly respected that even Herbert Ehrmann could say nothing more against him than that he had been wrong in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Neither man was of a character to have committed a fraud.

What finally eliminates any theory of substitution came out in the 1983 tests. Until recently it was not known that a machine manufacturing cartridges puts its distinctive mark on each one. The experts were able to determine that six of Sacco’s sixteen Peters cartridges were manufactured on the same machine as the two Peters shells found at the crime scene. Sacco and the other bandit must have drawn their ammunition from the same cache. The three varieties of shells picked up at the crime scene matched three of the four brands of cartridges found in Sacco’s pocket when he was searched. That these had been fraudulently substituted is, from the circumstances, not credible. That the two Peters shells and the six Peters cartridges were tooled in the same machine links Sacco to the crime and obliterates the theory of substitution.

With Gambera and with the 1983 bullet tests we come to the end of a chapter. In his second letter to me Ideale Gambera wrote:

My father always regretted and was saddened by Vanzetti’s death, but he could do nothing about it, He went to see Sacco in jail and tried to get Sacco to speak out, but he was not able to convince Sacco. My father and Vanzetti were very much alike—probably the purist idealists and intellectuals of the group.

And that should be the end of the Sacco-Vanzetti riddle, though opponents and proponents may continue to argue about the fairness of the trial. Sacco and Vanzetti died for a cause, Sacco as a soldier of the revolution, Vanzetti as an innocent man.


Sacco and Vanzetti: An Exchange May 29, 1986

  1. 1

    H.B. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die (Little Brown, 1969).

  2. 2

    William Young and David E. Kaiser, Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985).

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