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

Carlo Tresca
Carlo Tresca; drawing by David Levine

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…

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