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Who Killed Carlo Tresca?

All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca

by Dorothy Gallagher
Rutgers University Press, 321 pp., $24.95

If Verdi were to reappear today he might well find in Dorothy Gallagher’s book on Carlo Tresca material for an admirable libretto. Indeed opera is perhaps the medium best-suited to capture Tresca’s majesty and bravura: an impetuous and brave revolutionary, touched with nobility and venial weaknesses, and ripe for catastrophe, he played out his life in a setting of crowds, secret meetings, killings, kidnappings, trials, and confrontations. Dorothy Gallagher’s own cool, almost laconic, recital of his flamboyant career, immensely interesting and cunningly framed as it is, is anything but operatic; in fact, it reads like an inspired police report. Yet her restraint serves to enhance the violence and passion of the events she recounts.

Tresca, one of the most remarkable figures of the American left, was shot to death in New York on the night of July 11, 1943, as he stood talking to a friend on the corner of Fifteenth Street and Fifth Avenue. His murderer escaped in the darkness. The mystery of who plotted Tresca’s death and why remains to this day. That mystery is the real subject of Gallagher’s book.

Two theories have gradually gained credence. One attributes the killing to the Fascists, the other to the Communists. Nobody has yet been able to prove with absolute certainty who arranged the assassination, but now, after ten years of research, during which she has retraced the course of a botched and possibly corrupt investigation and has read virtually everything she could find pertinent to the case in police reports and government files, in interviews, letters, and the testimonials of his friends and enemies, Gallagher has come up with a persuasive solution of her own.

The center of the case, Carlos Tresca himself, was born in the Abruzzi in Sulmona, Italy, ninety miles east of Rome, in 1879. As a child, Gallagher writes, he was “exuberant, disobedient, bold, and boastful,” and these traits can be discerned in his personality throughout his life. Like others of his generation faced with bleak prospects, at odds with Italy’s repressive regime, and aroused by Marxist prophecies of the coming class struggle, Tresca became a socialist and a revolutionary. The direction of his career seemed determined as much by his temperament as by circumstances. With no hope of getting a university education after the Tresca family lost its property in the economic slump of the 1880s, he studied briefly at a seminary from which he emerged an enthusiastic atheist and anticleric. By his mid-twenties, he had acquired some notoriety as a priest baiter, a headstrong exposer of social iniquities, and an effective organizer of peasants. In 1904, charged with libel and sentenced to a year in jail, he fled to New York by way of Lausanne, where he encountered, for the first and only time, a fellow socialist, Benito Mussolini.

Trésca realized his ambitions in the United States. By 1912, he had shifted his alliances away from socialism to anarchosyndicalism, a shift Gallagher attributes to his disillusionment at watching socialist trade unionists help to break a strike of unorganized Italian workers. Thenceforth until his death, Tresca’s life was a recurring cycle of protest, arrest, and imprisonment. As a journalist writing for Italian trade union papers, beginning with Il Proletario, the paper of the Italian Socialist Federation, he attacked with particular force the padrone system of contract labor and the priests and gangsters, whom he lumped together as conniving in the dirty scheme of capitalist exploitation.

In conducting his crusade, Tresca’s tactics were sometimes bound to offend anarchist sectarians. He early incurred the distrust of Luigi Galleani, the editor of the largest and most influential anarchist newspaper, whose proponents shunned affiliation with trade unions or indeed any organization “that might harden into hierarchical and authoritarian shape.”1 When Tresca in 1912 espoused the “One Big Union” program of the IWW anarchosyndicalists, he alienated the purists. The Galleanisti found him useful on occasion but never stomached his readiness to collaborate with trade unionists, bourgeois reformers, and even agents of government if he thought it might help his cause of the moment. To some of them he was at best an opportunist, at worst “a counterrevolutionary, a police spy.”

Until 1912, Tresca directed his militant message chiefly to the immigrant Italian workers in the mining camps and factories of Pennsylvania, New York State, and New England. The Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike in that year and his association then, and in subsequent labor disputes, with the Wobblies brought him national attention. It’s hard to think of any major political or industrial upheaval that escaped his notice or involvement between 1904 and 1943. He was able to rally what he called his “band of free men” in the columns of the newspapers he wrote for and edited: Il Proletario, La Voce del Popolo, La Plebe, L’Avvenire, and, most important, Il Martello, newspapers with clarion names and small circulations. The featured speaker at gatherings to commemorate the “martyrs of the revolution,” he would preach the harsh, retributive gospel of an eye for an eye, blood for blood. He was clubbed by the police during the abortive strike of the Paterson silk workers in 1913. He led a demonstration in New York the next year to protest the unprovoked “massacre,” in Ludlow, Colorado, of striking miners and their families, whose tent encampment was torched by the state militia and John D. Rockefeller’s coal company guards.

A bitter critic of President Wilson’s repressive domestic measures during the war, the man whom The New York Times branded as “one of the most rabid of the IWW trouble makers” was charged in 1917 with conspiring to violate the Espionage Act. He was never brought to trial, but federal agents trailed his movements and tried to oblige their Italian counterparts (who were enraged by Tresca’s scatological defamations of Mussolini and “the Savoyan monarchy, dripping with blood and dirt”) by getting him deported. A spy planted in the Martello office turned up nothing incriminating, so in 1923 they had to settle for an “obscene mail” charge—printing a two-line advertisement for a book on birth control. He served four months of his clearly punitive year-and-a-day sentence (President Coolidge himself announced its reduction), and Tresca assured his readers that though he was persecuted by Mussolini’s American friends, “you will find me always the same—against god and the master, against the church and the state, and against the international bourgeoisie which always keeps hay at hand to satisfy the belly of its bailiffs.” Thereafter, Tresca maintained a relentless vendetta against Mussolini and the Fascist regime in Italy.

He was relentless, too, in his fight to save those “veterans of the movement for freedom,” Sacco and Vanzetti. He helped to select their first lawyer, Fred Moore, and remained close to the coordinator of the defense fund, Aldino Felicani. On the eve of the execution, he urged the huge crowd gathered at Union Square to launch a general strike. Years later he told a few friends that he had come to believe that Sacco was guilty, but he offered no evidence to account for his change of view.

Tresca also revised his opinion of the Communists. His attitude toward them before the Spanish Civil War had been guarded but not especially hostile—proof to the Galleanisti of deviationism. He had collaborated with them in the 1920s and briefly had shared a mistress with an orthodox Communist newspaper editor. But the murder of his anarchist comrades by Comintern agents in Spain turned him irrevocably against the Stalinists. He joined John Dewey’s commission to investigate Soviet allegations against Trotsky raised in the Moscow purge trials and made it his business to uncover Stalinist efforts at infiltration. The Party labeled him an arch “Trotskyite” and a slanderer of the Soviet Union.

At the time of his death Tresca was pursuing a campaign to bar both the “Muscovite company” and former pro-Fascists from membership in the militantly anti-Fascist Mazzini Society, which had been organized in the late Thirties by refugee Italian intellectuals, including the distinguished historian Gaetano Salvemini, and he was reflecting darkly on the war aims of the Allies. The same monopoly capitalism, he warned, “that gave birth to fascism and the present slaughter” would be prepared to stifle postwar revolutionary movements by withholding food and supplies. He died a worried and gloomy man.

In her concentrated and resourceful account of Tresca’s life, Gallagher refrains from subjecting him to psychological analysis. His impulsive character takes shape in the book through his actions and reactions, as he perceives and is perceived by friends, lovers, and enemies, and by a great many supernumeraries—lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, agitators, politicians, crooks, labor leaders, policemen, and government officials—whom she skillfully maneuvers in and out of the narrative.

In my reading of her book, three figures revolve fatefully around Tresca. The first and most important is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. All The Right Enemies is almost as much her book as Tresca’s; indeed her story is if anything more imaginatively presented than his. Born in New Hampshire and brought up in the South Bronx, Flynn absorbed the socialist ideas of her father, a civil engineer, and her feminist mother. By the time she was seventeen, she was a veteran of socialist forums and an accomplished soapbox speaker. The Wobbly poet Joe Hill recognized in her a kindred soul and wrote the poem “The Rebel Girl” about her after she visited him in prison in Utah shortly before his execution.

Tresca’s romance with Flynn began in 1912 when they met in Lawrence. By then she had married and divorced a Minnesota miner and had borne a son. Tresca himself had a wife and daughter, but the fateful encounter between the “Bull of Lawrence” and the “East Side Joan of Arc” dissolved their old attachments. Soon the two were being described in the press as “the trade-union lovers,” and for a decade they battled the class enemy in tandem. This period, the happiest years of Flynn’s life, ended painfully when she learned that Tresca, whose “roving eye” she was well aware of, had made her younger sister, Bina, pregnant.

Flynn’s discovery of Tresca’s betrayal didn’t result in an immediate rupture. She later attributed their separation to ideological differences, and he remained a presence throughout her life. Tresca always managed to carry on numerous casual affairs between his political activities and his prison stays, until he formed a lasting relationship with Margaret de Silver, a well-to-do widow long identified with liberal causes. Flynn, less resilient than Tresca, probably remained in love with him until she died. Once a remarkable beauty, she early lost her looks, took increasingly younger lovers, who abandoned her, and suffered a long and serious mental breakdown. She lived for several years in Portland, Oregon, with a reputedly lesbian physician, but in 1936 returned to New York and became a Communist party stalwart. In 1951 she was indicated under the Smith Act along with other Party officials, and served two years in a federal penitentiary. The disclosures of the Twentieth Congress and the Soviet invasion of Hungary troubled her but failed to undermine her faith, and she died in Moscow in 1964.

Men tend to dominate radical annals. The “rebel girls” seldom get, even from feminists, the serious attention and understanding they deserve. Gallagher writes with unusual sensitiveness about Flynn and the many other women in Tresca’s life. Tresca himself managed to remain a genial family man, who enjoyed cooking spaghetti on festive occasions and who treated his children affectionately. Although he appreciated women as long as he needed them, they tended to be expendable. For a while after their separation Flynn was an active colleague, but in time Tresca seems to have excluded her from his political life, too, and their relationship collapsed.

Gallagher makes much of the Stalinist zealot Vittorio Vidali who prowls about the margins of Tresca’s life. His part in the plot seems shadowy at best, although Tresca came to see him as an implacable antagonist. Twenty-three years Tresca’s junior, Vidali had come to the United States illegally in 1923 after serving a radical apprenticeship in Germany and Eastern Europe. In New York he edited the organ of the Communist party’s Italian branch and joined Tresca’s Anti-Fascist Alliance of North America, using the name of Ernea Sormenti. Four years later, in order to escape deportation to Italy, he claimed Russian citizenship and went to the Soviet Union, already a dedicated Leninist. Dostoevsky and Conrad would have appreciated the extraordinary letter in which he poured out his consecration to the Party. It is a chilling document, and one of immense historical interest:

And if, during the first days, I had some small, brief disillusionments in touching reality, I later felt that it was due to the petit bourgeois atmosphere that still had not disappeared from my soul…. But then, even this voice from the past…disappeared, torn away by larger horizons. And I saw the Red soldiers marching with their rebellious songs, with proud, intelligent faces; and the armed youth and the children who discuss politics: I like serious men. A new society, great, magnificent, raises its superb towers above the old and decrepit….

A Marxist has got to be a cold rationalizer. A Leninist must aim straight to his own goal…. Write for our newspapers…. Sacrifice your point of view for that of the Party…. Deserve the love of the comrades: it is not that difficult. In a few months you will see that all doors will open….

Not unexpectedly Vidali sided with Stalin against Trotsky. After a period in Mexico, the self-styled “iron revolutionary” and “executioner of justice” was sent by Moscow to Spain, where (now using the alias Carlos Contreras) he became a political commissar during the civil war. He acquired a debatable reputation as an intrepid military commander, and a less questionable one as a ruthless liquidator of anarchosyndicalists and Trotskyists.

After Franco’s victory, Tresca renewed his strong attacks on his former friend in Il Martello. “The tool of Stalin’s international police,” he wrote, was devising “new crimes” and plotting to infiltrate and control the Mazzini Society under the banner of the anti-Axis alliance. Were the Communists sincere, Tresca argued in 1942, he wouldn’t object, but their record of compromise with Fascist governments since the mid-Twenties made it impossible to trust them. Their real aim, he surmised, was to capture the Mazzini Society and ultimately the control of “the postwar Italian government.” He also believed that Stalin’s assassins were operating freely everywhere and that they had the habit of killing their enemies. A month before he died, Tresca allegedly told a trade union official that Vidali had been seen in New York and that he, Tresca, smelled “murder in the air.”

Generoso Pope, the sinister third figure in Gallagher’s ideological mystery, was a more visible public man, but he was a more elusive figure too, for he was also affable, rich, respectable, and powerful. Pope had arrived in New York the same year Tresca did, but his career took an entirely different direction. Within a short time he had become rich selling paving and building materials to the city and establishing profitable connections with Tammany Hall and the construction unions. By the 1930s he was Mussolini’s minion in the United States, the owner of those Italian-American newspapers with the widest circulation, and, so it was believed, working hand in glove with the Mafia. Tresca accused him in 1934 of employing “the same methods of gangster and racketeer against us and all antifascists” and of using “hired cutthroats” to intimidate his critics.

Notwithstanding his Fascist leanings, Pope’s ties with Washington and Albany protected him from the attacks of Tresca and the Mazzini Society. Only after the United States declared war did he stop defending Italy and Germany. Tresca clearly detested Pope, who had once sent his thug, Frank Garofalo, to warn him to stop attacking him or “expect the worst.” Until his assassination, Tresca was resisting the appeals of some of his friends to forgive his old foes and in the spirit of anti-Axis solidarity to invite Pope to collaborate with the anti-Fascistmovement of North America.2 Pope’s possible connection with the assassination was never investigated by the authorities, and this close associate of Fascists, gangsters, and politicians died of a stroke in 1950, leaving a fortune and covered with many honors.

The first section of All the Right Enemies begins and ends with Tresca’s murder. Having moved adroitly through the labyrinth of events preceding Tresca’s death, Gallagher in a short concluding section separates what she considers essential data from the fascinating but unsupported theories based on coincidence and conspiracy, to present her own case. She has no doubt about the identity of the killer. Carmine Galante, a criminal with a long police record, was the clear suspect from the start. Witnesses identified him with the murder car, testified to his proximity to the crime, and reported that he had admitted to the shooting. Picked up at the time for violating a parole warrant, he was held in custody for a year and then released despite the strong circumstantial evidence against him. The attorney general—probably for political reasons, Gallagher thinks—entrusted the case to a protégé of Generoso Pope and a Mussolini enthusiast, and the trail grew cold. Galante was later gunned down by unknown assailants.

But if he pulled the trigger, who paid him to do so? The Communists had reason to kill Tresca, as did the Fascists, but how much weight should be given to hearsay or to fading recollections of survivors or to current opinion? Were the Communists so eager to silence an unforgiving and bitter opponent that Vidali himself took charge of the project? Gallagher rules him out as a likely candidate, although Tresca had been on Mussolini’s hit list. Not so Vito Genovese, the drug-dealing Mafioso who had been living in Italy since 1936. Before the Sicilian invasion, he was being used, with other criminals, by the US naval intelligence to prepare the way for the Allied landings by obtaining military information from the locals and cooperating with American agents already there. Tresca considered Genovese a crook and a friend of the Fascist regime and, thanks to his own information network, was in a position to leak Genovese’s espionage activities to the Italian authorities. No wonder rumors persisted that Genovese had arranged Tresca’s murder. And what of Generoso Pope and his enforcer, Garofalo? Tresca had never ceased his attacks in Il Martello. Indeed, he had thrown Garofalo out of his office and publicly insulted him and his girlfriend while the two were dining at a restaurant. As late as June 1943, he had spurned Pope’s efforts at conciliation.

Gallagher believes Garofalo had both the motive and the opportunity to murder Tresca. Galante was his weapon, Pope his abettor. She finds this the simplest and least suppositious explanation. And she makes good sense. Faced with a confusion of fact and fancy and the impossible task of reestablishing lost connections, as well as the overwhelming abundance of truths, false leads, and trivia, she resorts in effect to a literary solution: to eliminate the clutter and impose a design. She has done so intelligently and imaginatively.

Still, it’s fair to ask whether her unfamiliarity with Italian language sources hasn’t simplified her account of at least one phase of Tresca’s life. A consultant advised her “not to try to unravel the intra-anarchist feuds,” and she has heeded his advice. Outsiders who seek to unravel the tangle of Italian anarchism—to say nothing of appreciating its nuances—are in for trouble. By avoiding that mare’s nest, Gallagher clarified her task and kept her story coherent. Yet outsiders miss a good deal as well. For all of her perceptiveness, Gallagher isn’t deeply knowledgeable about the culture of American anarchism—its schools and celebrations and especially its press, which played a huge part in Tresca’s career. Such matters may be peripheral to her plot, but whatever his differences with various anarchist factions, he shared their anti-authoritarian spirit and their hope of planting, in Paul Avrich’s words, “little enclaves, little nuclei of freedom” within the capitalist system that “would spread and multiply and eventually engulf the entire country and the entire world.”

It takes an insider3 to recognize links and patterns undetected by the outsider, to read a police report, say, or a list of banquet guests with an educated eye. To misspell a few names (Il Lavatore for Il Lavoratore, Bertolotti for Bortolotti, Schiavini for Schiavina) hardly matters. Ideally, however, Tresca’s biographer should have an ear for the special music of anarchism.

Gallagher rightly sees Tresca as the bridge between the Italian-American community and his radical Americanborn friends whose names crop up in her book—not only Elizabeth Gurley Flynn but also Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Bill Haywood, Mary Heaton Vorse, and John Dos Passos. (The anarchist strain itself in American left culture has never been adequately studied.) All the Right Enemies splendidly illuminates the public Tresca—the actor, revolutionary tribune, consecrated anti-Fascist. It glides a bit too quickly past the Tresca who wasn’t always entirely scrupulous about his methods: the wheeler-dealer, the careless lover, the pragmatic idealist. This Tresca awaits further exploration.

  1. 1

    See Paul Avrich, “Italian Anarchism in America: An Historical Background to the Sacco-Vanzetti Case,” Sacco-Vanzetti: Developments and Reconsiderations—1979 (Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1982), p. 65.

  2. 2

    Tresca was only slightly less intransigent than Professor Salvemini on the forgiving-the-Fascists issue. Salvemini threatened to make “as great a scandal as possible” if Pope or Edward Corsi, another Fascist sympathizer, were admitted into the Mazzini Society. Tresca remained adamant about Pope but was willing to tolerate Corsi, whose father, long before in Sulmona, had seemed to him an exemplary figure.

  3. 3

    My model is Robert D’Attilio, an authority on Italian-American history and the Italian anarchist movement in the United States. He is currently writing a history of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I have relied heavily on his insights.

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