• Email
  • Print

Sacco and Vanzetti: An Exchange

In response to:

Clinching the Case from the March 13, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

For about twenty-five years, ever since the publication of his Tragedy in Dedham, Francis Russell has unceasingly argued that Nicola Sacco was guilty of the robbery and murder at South Braintree, Massachusetts, for which he was convicted and executed. Now, claiming to draw on new evidence—a statement by Ideale Gambera, and some new firearms discoveries—he restates this claim, arguing that the case is now closed [NYR, March 13].

We do now have a great deal of new firearms evidence relating to the case—indeed, a wealth of new evidence illuminates virtually all the aspects of the case—but Mr. Russell ignores almost all of it. The new evidence is the basis for Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), which I co-authored with the late William Young. It shows not that Sacco was guilty, but that both he and Vanzetti were almost certainly completely innocent of the South Braintree murders.

I shall confine myself here to the points raised by Mr. Russell Mr. Russell argues that bullet III, introduced at the trial as one of four bullets removed from the body of the guard Alessandro Berardelli, and shell W, introduced as having been found at the scene of the crime, have been shown to have been fired by the pistol Sacco was carrying at the time of his arrest—and that these exhibits must be genuine. In fact, virtually conclusive evidence shows that they were not genuine.

To begin with, the testimony of eyewitnesses to the crime, combined with the autopsy report of Dr. George Burgess Magrath, a pioneer in forensic medicine, indicates that bullet III—the only bullet fired from a .32 Colt automatic such as Sacco carried—could not have been fired from a different gun than that which fired the other three bullets that struck Berardelli. The three best witnesses to the crime all saw the murderer stand over a crouching and already wounded Berardelli and fire at least two shots into him. Dr. Magrath’s autopsy report confirmed that two of the four bullets he removed had been fired from above Berardelli and slightly to his right. One of them was the original bullet III. Based upon the testimony of the witnesses, who saw only one gun, these two bullets must have been fired from the same gun. The bullet III introduced in evidence, then, cannot be genuine. The shot some witnesses saw fired at Berardelli’s body from the bandit car, after he was already lying on the ground, could not have taken the track of bullet III. (In his new book, Francis Russell simply ignores Magrath’s autopsy and states, without any evidence, that the bandit standing over Berardelli hit him only once.1 )

This is not all. Prosecution papers at the Harvard Law School Library and state police files released in 1977 allow us to trace the preparation of the prosecution’s case. These papers could have proved the authenticity of bullet III and shell W, but they do the opposite.

Taking shell W first, Mr. Russell states, “Just after the Braintree shootings a workman picked up four spent shells from the gravel near the guard’s body.” No one ever said this. The machinist James Bostock testified that he found “three or four” shells, and even this statement is suspect. Bostock had to be prompted by Assistant District Attorney Harold Williams to say this, and he had told his story on two earlier occasions without mentioning any shells.

The pre-trial notebook of Assistant District Attorney Williams indicates that Bostock did, indeed, lie. Writing in January or February 1921, Williams noted, “Shay picked up three shells where Ber[ardelli] fell and gave them to Sherlock.” John Shay was a police officer helping to investigate the case. A subsequent entry repeated that Shay had found the shells. Bostock was apparently induced to perjure himself because Shay would not testify to having found four of them. The evidence we have, then, shows that there were originally only three shells—not four.

As for bullet III, an equally important passage occurs in the proceedings of the Grand Jury that indicted Sacco and Vanzetti in September 1920. Dr. Magrath described removing the four bullets from Berardelli’s body, and noted that he had given them to Captain Proctor, the police firearms expert, more than a month earlier. He then told Prosecutor Frederick Katzmann that he had “an opinion that they all may have been fired by the same gun,” and added, “They looked exactly alike.” Moments later Katzmann asked, “You have personally been in consultation with me on experiments as to the type of gun from which the four bullets were discharged? You did not personally experiment to see?” “No, I did not,” replied the doctor.

These statements are significant because the key difference between the bullet III we have today and the other three Berardelli bullets is obvious to the naked eye. Because it came from a Colt, the grooves left by the rifling marks on the barrel slant to the left, while the groves on the other bullets slant to the right. We do not know if Magrath would have noticed this difference, but we know from Proctor’s trial testimony that Proctor surely would have. And although at the time Katzmann asked his questions Proctor had had the bullets for more than a month, Katzmann was still proceeding upon the assumption that the four Berardelli bullets had come from the same weapon, as shown particularly in his use of the phrase, “the type of gun from which the four bullets were discharged.” And when Assistant District Attorney Williams asked Magrath to identify the bullets at the trial, he did so in such a way that Magrath never got the opportunity to see more than one of them at a time.

This evidence indicates that shell W and bullet III were fraudulent, and that a new bullet III was substituted for the original after having been marked, as Magrath’s was, with three scratches upon its base. The switch, in my opinion, was perpetrated by one or both of the two police officers who prepared the prosecution’s case: Michael Stewart, the Chief of Police of Bridgewater who arranged Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest, and state police officer Albert Brouillard. Stewart had access to Sacco’s pistol during his investigation, and at the trial Williams rather pointedly refrained from asking Proctor whether he had had continuous custody of the bullets. The reason that Katzmann offered before the trial not to argue that a particular bullet had come from a particular gun—and the reason that Proctor and Charles Van Amburgh gave very tentative opinions on the stand—is that they knew they were not competent to match a particular bullet to a particular gun. Russell’s picture of a less competent Proctor and a “more capable” Van Amburgh is utterly without foundation. The testimony of both men, as well as that of the defense experts, was shown fifty years ago to be entirely worthless.2

Mr. Russell then points out that the thirty-two cartridges which Sacco had in his possession when arrested included three types of cartridges also found at the scene of the crime, including Winchesters whose manufacture had been discontinued. He also notes the more recent discovery that some of Sacco’s Peters cartridges were struck with the same tool as cartridges found upon the scene. His argument that these findings tie Sacco to the crime is based on faulty information and logic.

The four shells introduced as evidence included two Peters shells, one UMC, and one old Winchester—shell W, which was probably fraudulent anyway. Sacco’s thirty-two shells included the old Winchester type, some Peters, some UMC, and some US cartridges. But all this proves in itself is that both Sacco and the bandit had obtained mixed lots of cartridges. Sacco’s possession of the same three types is only evidence of his guilt if a random selection of thirty-two. 32 cartridges of different makes would NOT have contained those three makes. And in fact, these were all very common types of cartridges.

A similar argument applies to the 1983 finding that six of Sacco’s sixteen Peters cartridges were made on the same machine that made the two Peters cartridges found at the scene. We cannot evaluate the significance of this finding without knowing how many different machines the Peters company had making. 32 cartridges in the years before the crime, and whether cartridges from different machines were mixed together before sale. If they had fifty machines, this evidence might be significant; if they had two, or five, or eight, it would not, since a random collection of sixteen cartridges might very easily contain six from one machine. Since we lack this information, there is no basis for Francis Russell’s statement that this evidence “links Sacco to the crime.” It has nothing to do with the issue of the authenticity of bullet III.

The “obsolete” Winchester cartridges found upon Sacco, which were of the same type as bullet III, were actually about as obsolete as a 1983 penny is today. They had been manufactured until 1917, when Winchester discontinued civilian production, and the new type was less than two years old. Only one of the four firearms experts who testified at the trial even tried to find any old Winchesters, and his testimony suggests that his efforts were quite halfhearted. The pre-1917 Winchester cartridges actually took a very long time to disappear from circulation. A firearms expert hired by Herbert Ehrmann found several of them for sale in 1962.

Mr. Russell argues, finally, that neither Katzmann, the prosecutor, nor Williams, his assistant, “was of a character to have committed a fraud.” In fact, Postmortem shows beyond any doubt that they used evidence they knew to be false in order to convict Sacco and Vanzetti of murder. The most spectacular instance of this was their claim that Vanzetti’s revolver had been taken from Berardelli during the robbery. State police files show that Michael Stewart had discovered that Berardelli’s revolver was actually of a different caliber and serial number than Vanzetti’s. The prosecution nonetheless used this claim to send Vanzetti to the electric chair. Mr. Russell’s new book argues that Berardelli had gotten a different revolver from Thomas Fraher, but state police files prove that this was not so.

And now, Ideale Gambera.

I recently talked with Ideale Gambera myself, and he put his father Giovanni’s story in a clearer context. Ideale Gambera was an infant when Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. He told me that he never heard the other anarchists he mentions discuss the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and he first discussed the case with his father in the 1960s.

Like any other accusation or confession, Giovanni Gambera’s story can only be accepted if it includes facts which can be independently corroborated, and preferably by evidence of which the speaker was unaware. Gambera’s statements do not pass this test. They provide no new information about the crime itself—who else was in it, why it took place, what happened to the money, etc. Gambera does not claim to have participated in the crime himself, or even to have been a close friend of Sacco’s. We cannot even tell how he claimed to know that Sacco was guilty.

Indeed, independent evidence undermines Gambera’s story. Francis Russell concedes that Gambera garbled the De Falco incident. Mrs. De Falco did not offer the defense deportation in lieu of trial; instead, she said that she could arrange to fix the jury. In Mr. Russell’s forthcoming book, Gambera speaks as if he was present in meetings with Mrs. De Falco. Fred Moore, however, took depositions from three participants in these meetings immediately after they took place. These depositions all list those present, and none list Giovanni Gambera. Russell will no doubt reply that Gambera always insisted upon preserving his anonymity, but in fact, this is not so. Gambera’s deportation file (INS file 54379/353) includes a signed letter written by Gambera to Luigi Galleani’s paper, Cronaca Sovversiva, in November 1917. He bitterly attacks the leadership of the group for having canceled an anarchist meeting at which he had apparently hoped to discuss retaliating against the government’s anti-anarchist campaign. Had the government been able to find Gambera, this letter would have led to his deportation.

Gambera’s statements hold up much less well than those of Celestino Madeiros, a young Portuguese criminal who in 1925 confessed to having taken part in the South Braintree crime and added that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been there. Madeiros stated that two cars had been used in the robbery, and that the gang had switched getaway cars in Randolph. And indeed, while witnesses north of Randolph saw the bandit car’s license plate on its front, south of Randolph others saw the plate on the back. I am thereby convinced that Madeiros either participated in the crime or was intimately acquainted with someone who did. Oddly enough, Francis Russell states in his new book that he saw a description of the South Braintree crime left behind by Giovanni Gambera. The details of this description would enable us to make a better evaluation of Gambera’s credibility—but Mr. Russell does not provide them.

In short, there is at this time no reason to believe Gambera’s statements unless, like Francis Russell, one is already determined to believe that Sacco is guilty. And indeed, Mr. Russell admitted this, in effect, on David Brudnoy’s Boston radio talk show on the evening of Monday, December 9, 1985, when both he and I appeared on it. After Mr. Russell told the story of his new informant, David Brudnoy asked him whether he would have believed him if he had said that Sacco was innocent. He replied, with commendable frankness, “No.”

This is not the first time that Francis Russell has tried to put the case to rest with the help of a new informant. In a 1970 article entitled “Sacco-Vanzetti: The End of the Chapter,”3 he described a letter from a British bus inspector who in turn recounted conversations with an Italian-American, Victor Tortalini. Tortalini claimed to have participated in the South Braintree crime. Like Gambera, he corroborated Russell’s conclusion that Sacco was guilty but that Vanzetti was not. This letter, Russell wrote, “may be the key to the Sacco-Vanzetti case.” In 1980, when I was beginning my own researches, I discussed this story with Francis Russell on the telephone. He said—I think I remember his exact words—“I eventually lost faith in that guy. I decided he was a fantasist.” He had not shared his loss of faith with the public.

I hope that interested readers will order both Mr. Russell’s new book from Harper and Row, and our Postmortem from the University of Massachusetts Press. I also hope that The New York Review will turn both books over to a reviewer for an independent evaluation. In the meantime, as I hope to have made clear, the case is not “clinched.” I myself am willing to examine any new evidence, but nothing in Mr. Russell’s article changes my conclusion, as reported in Postmortem, that the overwhelming probability is that both Sacco and Vanzetti were completely innocent of the South Braintree murders.

David E. Kaiser

Carnegie-Mellon University

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Francis Russell replies:

In his response to my article as well as in his book Postmortem, David Kaiser maintains that Sacco and Vanzetti “were almost certainly completely innocent of the South Braintree murders.” By his definition Sacco was framed through the manipulation of ballistics evidence in which a test bullet, surreptitiously fired from Sacco’s pistol, was substituted for a fatal crime bullet fired from another weapon. The revolver found on Vanzetti at his arrest was claimed by the prosecution to have been taken from the body of the murdered guard, although, according to Kaiser, District Attorney Katzmann and the assistant district attorney in charge of the ballistics evidence, Harold Williams, knew well that this was not the case. These assertions form the substance of Mr. Kaiser’s argument: knaves and cheats in a frame-up.

Such frame-up charges are a common reflexive reaction to awkward facts. As Daniel Bell remarked recently in a letter to me:

Frame-ups, as one can see from the Moscow trials, are extraordinarily difficult to construct even when one has huge resources at one’s command. In that respect, much of US labor history has to be rewritten, given the number of alleged frame-ups against radicals such as Tom Mooney, Haywood, and Sacco and Vanzetti. I distinguish between “frame-ups” and miscarriages of justice. Certainly there have been many of the latter; of the former, few, if any.

In establishing his frame-up charge, Mr. Kaiser has produced what he calls a wealth of new and illuminating material. But what he has unearthed turns out to be no more than a reshuffling of the various files, neither new nor illuminating. Employing tangential and often trivial data, he claims to show “beyond any doubt that they [Katzmann and Williams] used evidence they knew to be false in order to convict Sacco and Vanzetti of murder.” This is a monstrous accusation against two honorable men.

Frederick Katzmann did not achieve the later larger career of Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Harold Williams, but he did remain all his life a local lawyer of unblemished reputation, highly thought of in his community. Those who knew him well agree that however aggressive he may have been as a prosecutor he was not a man who would have stooped to using false evidence. The liberal-minded former Massachusetts commissioner of probation, Eliot Sands, who lived next door to him for a number of years, told me it was impossible for him to have done such a thing. And the recently retired justice of the superior court, Paul Reardon, who knew both Katzmann and Williams, describes Katzmann as “a bit of a rough diamond, but a thoroughly upright man. The talk of his plotting to switch bullets is nonsense.” Jerry McAnarney, an associate defense counsel at the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, who stayed with the defense until the last days and never—unlike Moore—lost the confidence of the defendants, remained Katzmann’s close friend all his life. He never would have done so if he had thought Katzmann guilty of murdering his clients. Jerry McAnarney kept his professional silence but his brother Thomas, a district court judge who had advised him during the trial, admitted privately many years later that Sacco was guilty. About Vanzetti he was not certain.

For Mr. Kaiser the arch-villain of his melodrama is Harold Williams, who as assistant district attorney prepared and presented the ballistics evidence at the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and whom Kaiser accuses of conniving to convict the defendants on tainted evidence. To maintain his position Mr. Kaiser has been forced to libel and malign the late Justice Williams, a distinguished member of the Massachusetts bar, a man of probity and sterling integrity, of whom—for anyone who knew him—it is impossible to conceive such villainy.

Yet it is Kaiser’s central contention—on the truth or falsity of which his whole position is based—that the mortal bullet (known as Bullet III) taken from the dead guard Berardelli’s body and a Shell W picked up at the scene of the crime, both offered by Williams in evidence as having been fired in Sacco’s Colt automatic pistol, were in reality sleight-of-hand substitutes and that the original Bullet III and Shell W had been fired in another weapon.

When Berardelli and the paymaster Parmenter were shot, Jimmy Bostock, a factory mechanic, was only forty feet away. He ran to Berardelli and held him until he died, then picked up several spent shells from the gravel, “three or four,” he said in his court testimony. These he handed to the factory superintendent Thomas Fraher. Fraher in turn testifed that he had received “four empty shells” and an hour or two later had handed them over to Captain Proctor of the state police. No one ever questioned this until over half a century later an amateur of the case came across Williams’s pretrial notebook in which he had jotted down the entry about Shay and three shells. Shay did not arrive until several hours after the shooting. Bostock was there at the time. In assembling his initial data Williams was simply misinformed, a fact he soon discovered. But out of this inconsequent note Mr. Kaiser elaborates the hypothesis that Shell W was a fake addition and that Bostock, Fraher, and Williams were perjurers. Of course if there really had been only three shells to start with, anyone tampering with the evidence would have substituted one of the three rather than added a superfluous fourth. The solid evidence remains with Bostock and Fraher: four shells.

Turning to Bullet III, what are the facts? At the autopsy, Medical Examiner Magrath removed four bullets from Berardelli’s body and, using a surgical needle, marked each on the base in turn: I, II, III, IIII. The other three bullets were not fatal, but Bullet III severed the great artery issuing from the heart. Ending its course by striking the hipbone obliquely, the bullet was bent out of shape, its base oval rather than round. These bullets, plus two taken from Parmenter’s body and the four shells picked up by Bostock, remained in Captain Proctor’s custody until delivered to the sheriff and photographed at the opening of the trial. Bullet III happened to be a Winchester of a type no longer manufactured, as was also Shell W. No one was aware that they were no longer made until after the trial began, when prosecution and defense experts conducting joint firings with Sacco’s Colt were unable to locate any of the discontinued Winchesters.

Any switching of shells and bullets would have to have taken place while the exhibits were in Proctor’s custody, and to create a fake Bullet III two conditions would have had to be met. A discontinued Winchester cartridge would have had to be obtained, in itself not impossible. But the really formidable task would have been to duplicate the scratches and above all the unique deformation of the original Bullet III with an exactitude sufficient to deceive Dr. Magrath’s professional eye when he examined the simulacrum on the witness stand.

At the trial’s opening Katzmann offered to agree not to try to prove that any particular bullet came from any particular weapon, an offer he would most certainly never have made if he and Williams had rigged a bullet-shell fraud. Microscopic comparison of bullets had not been evolved and Proctor, as one of the two prosecution experts, did not believe it possible to identify a suspect bullet as having passed through a particular weapon. All he knew about Bullet III was that it had been fired from a Colt similar to Sacco’s. As to whether it had actually been fired from Sacco’s Colt he was not prepared to say. It might have been. It might not have been. He had found no sign that it was. He had found no sign that it was not. And this is just what he said in somewhat equivocal language both at the trial and later in an angry affidavit that he signed for the defense following a quarrel with the district attorney over his fee. Of course if he had made an underhand substitution he would have known that the Bullet III offered at the trial had been fired in Sacco’s Colt, and if—as I said in my article—he had confessed this in his affidavit, he would have destroyed the prosecution and brought about a new trial. But there was no substitution.

This question was never raised until Herbert Ehrmann brought it up before the Lowell Committee in 1927 following Colonel Goddard’s tests of the bullet in a comparison microscope. So unequivocal was Goddard’s demonstration of Bullet III matching test bullets fired in Sacco’s Colt that two defense experts repudiated their earlier position. Looking through Goddard’s microscope, Ehrmann refused to accept the evidence of his own eyes, but at the same time he claimed that Proctor, now conveniently dead, had been involved in bullet manipulations and that the scratches on Bullet III differed markedly from the scratches on the other three bullets. “I want to say at the start,” Ehrmann told the committee, “that I share your abhorrence and incredulity at the thought that the District Attorney or Dr. Magrath would be party to substituting any exhibit.” But after Katzmann, Magrath, and Williams were dead, Ehrmann’s abhorrence diminished markedly.

Seven years after the committee hearings, Professor Edmund Morgan, reviewing Ehrmann’s Untried Case in the Harvard Law Review, wrote that “until the hearing before the Lowell Committee there was no suggestion that Bullet III was not the fatal bullet, and there has not yet been disclosed anything that could reasonably be dignified as evidence to support any such suggestion.” Coauthor of the Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, which is sympathetic to the two anarchists, Morgan did not consider the trial fair and thought that guilt or innocence could never be finally determined.

In Ehrmann’s account, bullets “1, 2 and 4 were marked in clean parallel lines. No. 3 seemed obviously, even to the naked eye, to be marked by a clumsier hand and a blunter instrument…. The fact is that they are completely different—that is obvious.” It was not obvious to me when I examined the bullet bases during the 1961 bullet tests. My naked eye could not spot any differences. At Mr. Kaiser’s request, an expert in metallics, Professor Regis Pelloux of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted tests in August 1982 to determine whether the scratches on Bullet III differed from those on the other three bullets. He concluded that there were both differences and similarities, but that the differences “could be accounted for by the deformation of Bullet III and the indentation of its base.” In his measured words it is clear that Professor Pelloux considered Bullet III authentic.

Collateral ballistics evidence merely confirms this authenticity: the lies Sacco and Vanzetti told at their arrest about their purchases of weapons and ammunition, lies told not out of fear but out of ignorance; the varieties of cartridges found on Sacco’s person, and the same varieties (minus one) found in the shells at the scene of the crime; the fact that some of Sacco’s cartridges and two shells picked up from the ground were manufactured on the same machine. According to an official at the Remington arms company, which acquired the Peters company in 1945, only a few machines would have been involved in the manufacture of 32-caliber cartridges; but the dies had to be changed once or twice a day. Each change would result in different markings on the cartridge. In the Remington official’s view, the fact that the two Peters shells picked up at the scene of the crime and six of the Peters cartridges in Sacco’s pocket had the same markings is positive indication that Sacco and the other gunman had a common source of ammunition. Coincidence can only go so far.

Various witnesses testified that two bandits fired two guns, and one witness watched from a factory window while a second gunman fired a single shot into the wounded guard, the coup de grâce. Mr. Kaiser contends that because of the direction of the wounds in the guard’s body one bandit must have fired the four shots. Lieutenant McGuinness—the present head of the Massachusetts State Police Ballistics Laboratory—tells me he considers this view baseless, since it is not possible from the course of the bullets to determine whether one gun or two had been used. Such speculations are undermined by the possibility of a change in the position of the body after it was hit by one or more bullets.

In regard to Vanzetti’s revolver Mr. Kaiser states that police files show where and when Parmenter purchased the gun belonging to Berardelli and that it was of a different caliber and serial number from Vanzetti’s. But all the files really show is that Parmenter bought a revolver. There is no indication that Berardelli was carrying that particular revolver on the day he was killed. Parmenter had several revolvers and lent Berardelli whichever one the guard carried. In March, a month before his murder, Berardelli had taken his revolver briefly to a repair shop to have the hammer replaced. During the interval Parmenter, according to Berardelli’s widow, loaned him another that may well have been the weapon mentioned in the files. At the trial a gunsmith testified that Vanzetti’s revolver had had a new hammer.

The history of Vanzetti’s revolver is cloudy. At his arrest Vanzetti said he had paid eighteen dollars for it and at the same time had bought a sealed box of cartridges, all but six of which he had shot off at the beach. The remaining six he loaded in the revolver. But by the time of his trial a year later he had learned that his revolver was worth no more than five dollars, that it had five not six chambers, and that the cartridges in it were of two brands. He now testified that he had bought the revolver from his friend Falzini for five dollars, that it was loaded when he bought it, and that he had never fired it. Falzini testified that he had bought the revolver from Riccardo Orciani, one of the two men who had been with Sacco and Vanzetti on the night of their arrest. The other, Mike Boda, had disappeared. Although suspected of having taken part in the Braintree murders, Orciani was able to avoid indictment by producing a time-card alibi.4 Although he acted for a while as Moore’s chauffeur and often appeared in the courthouse, he declined to testify.

For Mr. Kaiser to dismiss the Gambera evidence as “no statements which we can test” is to defy facts. In a later letter to me Gambera’s son wrote that Carlo Tresca was “a very close friend of my father, and Mother recalls the many times he came to our house and had those great, noisy debates (I remember them with Felicani and Guadagni).” Though the son is not certain whether his father talked with Tresca before moving to California in 1941, it is about this time that Tresca began angrily to tell his acquaintances that Sacco was guilty.5 Tresca had defended Sacco and Vanzetti from 1920 to 1940. Why this 1941 reversal? There is no direct evidence, as I wrote, that Gambera in 1941 talked with Tresca, but someone must have. By all indications that someone was Giovanni Gambera.

Mr. Kaiser doubts whether Gambera was present at any of the meetings with Mrs. De Falco, citing Moore’s depositions that make no reference to him. But Gambera in his brief memoranda devotes three pages to what he calls “The Mrs. De Falco Bribery Offer,” describing at length a meeting with her at which he, Felicani, and Guadagni were present along with Moore, who failed to grasp what was going on because he did not know Italian.

Challenges to Gambera’s credibility obfuscate two critical points: that Gambera was a member of the select group whose members would have been in a position to know the truth about the Braintree killings; and that he said Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti innocent. To disbelieve him one would have to believe he was deceiving his son about the central fact in question.

Shortly after my New York Review article appeared, the frame-up theory received another jolt in a call I had from John Meade, who told me that his great aunt, Margaret Mahoney, had been a friend of Sacco’s and Sacco had cautioned her not to go to work on the day of the crime. At the time of the Braintree murders she had been the shoe factory paymistress. The paymaster and guard had received the money from her on that April afternoon before walking down the street to their doom. She was, her nephew said, a striking-looking red-haired woman in her mid-thirties, and Sacco often visited her. I asked Meade if he would write me any information he had, and several days later I received a four-page letter. He wrote:

My father lived with Aunt Margaret, as his own mother and father had died during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Dad knew much about the armed robbery and shooting; for Margaret and Sacco were good friends. However, because this might have implicated Aunt Margaret, my father never said how much Sacco was involved in the robbery/murder. This much he did tell me.

Two days prior to the holdup Sacco called Margaret and warned her not to go to work on that day, that something was going to happen. However, Margaret being a very efficient worker decided to go to work on that day.

Now Margaret, according to my father, always accompanied the paymaster and guard along the route. On this day, however, Margaret, for the first and only time, announced when she got to the bottom of the stairs that she had mistakenly left the keys in the safe and had to return upstairs. She told the paymaster to go on without her. (Here lies the mystery as far as I’m concerned.) How much did Margaret know?

One clear implication of this is that Sacco thought enough of the paymistress and trusted her enough to warn her off. When she appeared as a witness at the trial she merely told how she had sorted the payroll money. “Usually you went down with the payroll, didn’t you?” the district attorney asked her. “Yes,” she said. “You did not this day?” “No,” she said, “I didn’t.” She was asked nothing more, she said nothing more. If she had then given the account her nephew related to his son, she would have exploded the defense’s case right there.

While writing my present book I learned by chance that Sacco before his arrest had been involved with an unidentified woman. Since this seemed irrelevant I did not mention it. But when I heard from Margaret Mahoney’s grandnephew, it suddenly did become relevant. She lived in North Easton, Sacco in South Stoughton, only a mile or so from each other, as I discovered from a map. Of this Meade was unaware. Their propinquity is a corroborating point, as is the quotation from the trial transcript. From my talks with Meade I have no reason to doubt his honesty or his accuracy. If what he wrote me is true—as I am convinced that it is—a strange speechless confrontation must have taken place in the Dedham courtroom, she looking at a man about whom she cared and giving no sign, he assuming the protective mask of indifference.

  1. 1

    Francis Russell, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved (Harper and Row, 1986).

  2. 2

    See J.D. and C.O. Gunther, Identification of Firearms from Ammunition Fired Therein with an Analysis of Legal Authorities (New York, 1935), which analyzed the testimony thoroughly.

  3. 3

    National Review (May 5, 1970), pp. 454–466.

  4. 4

    Though the district attorney doubted its authenticity, he decided not to prosecute.

  5. 5

    Through a proof-reading error, the date of Tresca’s death appeared in my article as 1941, not 1943. I should also correct the information in my article about the photograph published on page 32. The names in ink on the picture identified six of the eight men shown, not seven; and the identifications were made in 1974 by one of the anarchists shown in the picture. Thus Gambera’s name might not have been omitted because he was intent on anonymity. I thank Robert D’Attilio, who supplied the picture, for making these corrections in a letter to The New York Review.

  • Email
  • Print