Bill Bryson: No Pity for the Poor Immigrants

Robert Knox

Bill Bryson, one of America’s premier nonfiction writers, begins his account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in his recent book “One Summer: America 1927” (Anchor Books, 2013) by noting the absurd way that the profiling of immigrants with unpopular political opinions resulted in the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti for the payroll robbery of a shoe factory in Braintree and the killing of two men.

As Bryson tells it, “Chief Michael Stewart of the Bridgewater Police decided, for reasons unattached to the evidence that the culprits were Italian anarchists. He discovered that a man of radical sympathies lived near where the get-away car was found and for that reason made him the chief suspect. As ‘The New Yorker’ archly noted, Stewart concluded ‘that after a hold-up and murder, the murderer would naturally abandon the car practically in his own front yard.’”

This is a good beginning. But after pointing out the farcical basis for fingering two Italian immigrants with radical political views for a gangland crime most likely the work of professionals, Bryson somehow works himself around to the conclusion that the two men were “probably guilty.”

It’s an astonishing misjudgment, given that Bryson also tells his readers that the prosecution’s case against Sacco and Vanzetti in their 1921 trial, based on shaky eye-witness testimony and a dearth of physical evidence, “was pretty dubious.” Bryson later notes that the celebrated American law professor (and later Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter “systematically and persuasively demolished” the prosecution’s case in a widely read national magazine piece.

But when he writes about the end of case in 1927 — now an international cause inspiring massive demonstrations, mountains of petitions, worldwide protests and pleas for clemency by everyone from the Pope to the Harvard Law School faculty — Bryson seeks to minimize the case’s importance while evincing more sympathy for the ordinary American’s annoyance at the all international attention given to the case than for immigrant Italian laborers who worked long hours in appalling conditions for miserable wages and yet somehow failed to learn English. In the minds of native speakers, he writes, Sacco and Vanzetti’s failure to speak fluent English despite having lived in the US for a decade confirmed the stereotype that Italians were either stupid or lazy. Bryson does not challenge that view.

And he is guilty of at least one incredible “howler” — the scholar’s term for an egregious error of fact.

With the execution two weeks away, Bryson writes, Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller granted a brief stay of execution to allow “the condemned men’s defense team — which was essentially the lone, harried lawyer Fred Moore — twelve days to find a court prepared to grant a retrial to hear new evidence.”

How wrong is this? Fred Moore had officially withdrawn from the case three years before (and ceased acting for the defense the year before that) after Sacco refused to speak to him any longer. In 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense was led by the prestigious William G. Thompson, widely regarded as Boston’s top lawyer, a thoroughly Brahmin establishment figure who took Sacco and Vanzetti’s case because the obvious flaws in their trial offended his sense of justice (and after the defense committee raised his $25,000 fee).

And defense counsel Fred Moore was never a “lone” anything. An active Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee raised funds first to hire both Moore (a California labor attorney who proved a poor choice to command respect in a Massachusetts courtroom) and a team of assistant attorneys. The Defense Committee later provided funds for Thompson, his assistants, and other expenses. No “lone, harried” defender, but a team of lawyers chased US Supreme Court justices around the county looking to convince a judge to hear their pleas for a new trial and save their clients’ lives. Bryson dismisses this effort as if it were a Keystone Cops episode.

His ignorance of who was representing Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 is not a minor point.

The international clamor for “justice for Sacco and Vanzetti” was a top-of-the-page headline story in the summer of 1927, regarded as a moral crusade by millions from Boston society figures (some of whom regularly visited Vanzetti), to well-known writers and intellectuals (John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Edna St. Vincent Millay), and worker organizations across the political spectrum. Petitions demanding a new trial were signed by the graduating classes of all the Ivy League universities. Poet Millay carried a sign at the Statehouse and was arrested with hundreds of others on the weekend before the Aug. 22 executions.

Any source account of the famous case’s last year consulted by an author planning to write about it would necessarily include both Thompson’s name and the efforts by him and his assistants to convince the governor, the governor’s special commission, the state’s courts, and eventually federal justices to hear their pleas for a new trial. That Bryson doesn’t know who represented the defendants — and contents himself with a slighting and wholly inaccurate reference to a supposed one-man “defense team” — undermines the credibility of his account of the final days of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Further, both the tone and content of his discussion of the end of the case reveals a slapdash approach more interested in siding with the American-born majority’s view that the defendants got what they deserved than in historical accuracy or depth.

In his s account of the case’s final months Bryson tells us that Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, who “appears to have been a thoroughly decent man,” sought to grant the defendants clemency but couldn’t find a reason to do it. To other commentators, Fuller appears in a considerably different light: a political opportunist who was seeking the Republican nomination for President, tested the wind on which decision would win him more favor, and concluded that most voters wanted to see these Italian radicals dead.

Bryson tells us that Fuller “read every word of the transcript” and yet failed to find evidence of the prejudice and partiality that Frankfurter and so many other students of the case found there. He tells us that Fuller visited the prisoners and spoke to Sacco for five minutes (another error, since Sacco refused to see him) and to Vanzetti for much longer. As Bryson notes, correctly, Fuller was greatly impressed by Vanzetti; yet somehow that impression did not carry the day once the wealthy governor returned to the company of his own kind.

Here’s an excerpt from Bruce Watson’s book “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind” (Penguin, 2007). When (Watson writes) attorney Gardner Jackson told Fuller that sixteen witnesses swore that Vanzetti had sold them eels on the date the state accused him of taking part in another crime, “Fuller answered, ‘Oh Mr. Jackson, those are Italians. You can’t accept any of their words.’”

So Bryson, who increasingly takes on the role of establishment apologist as his account of the case draws to a close, finds Governor Fuller “a thoroughly decent man.” By his own words Fuller shows himself to be, like most of his WASP establishment contemporaries, a man of his times and class: a thoroughly decent bigot.

Italians, plus some non-Italians, also testified that they saw Vanzetti in Plymouth on the day of the Braintree robbery and murders. Their testimony was discounted. Bryson is apparently all right with that because when he sums up the question of the defendants’ innocence of guilt, he reports only views that incline toward their guilt. He writes that Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, the head of the three-man commission appointed by Fuller to review the trial and an open believer in the ‘racial’ superiority of WASPs to immigrants — as any serious research into the case would show: he was vice president of the Immigrant Restriction League — hoped to find the men innocent “but had been persuaded of their guilt by the evidence.”

What evidence was that? The evidence that, as Bryson points out in earlier pages, had been “demolished” by Frankfurter and other critics.

Speaking in his own voice, Bryson then adds, “A dispassionate examination of the record indicates that the jury [was] not obviously bigoted and that Justice Thayer, whatever his beliefs outside the court, conducted a fair trial.” In fact, even a superficial examination of the record indicates that Judge Thayer always ruled in favor of the prosecution, always ruled against Defense, and allowed prosecutor Frederick Katzmann to “badger the witness” (as courtroom dramas have trained us to say) to his heart’s content. Thayer’s “outside the court” statements include his famous remark to a Dartmouth classmate, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”

As for that fair-minded jury, Bryson’s own earlier pages on the case include the statement by the jury’s foreman in response to a question of the defendant’s possible innocence,”Damn them, they ought to hang anyway.” This attitude should not be surprising given the government campaign (known to history as “The Red Scare”), backed by big business and their newspapers, to scare Americans into believing that political radicals posed a serious threat to the stability of their country. In truth, it would have been hard to find a jury of native-born citizens who did not harbor prejudice against any defendant who was an immigrant and a radical, especially an Italian one. Sacco and Vanzetti’s jury of “peers” included no Italians, no women, no minorities of any sort.

Bryson follows this judgment with the wholly inaccurate claim that historian Paul Avrich, in his highly regarded 1991 book “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background,” states that Sacco and Vanzetti were “almost certainly involved” in the Braintree robbery-murder. Bryson writes:

“In his 1991 book, historian Paul Avrich asked rhetorically whether Vanzetti could have been involved in the South Braintree holdup, and wrote: ‘Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.’”

The actual quote (page 150) is this:

“Was Vanzetti himself involved in the conspiracy? Though the evidence is far from satisfactory, the answer almost certainly is yes. The same holds true for Sacco.’”

The “conspiracy” Avrich refers to is not the Braintree holdup but a series of bombings (mostly in 1918–19) widely attributed to anarchists. Anyone looking at the quote on the page will come to the same conclusion. The sentence that Bryson twists to his own purpose directly follows Avrich’s lengthy account of how Italian anarchists turned to the use of bombs to strike back at the government and big business establishment that was persecuting them and, they believed, oppressing the poor. The “conspiracy” included planting a bomb at the home of the US Attorney General, an act that precipitated massive arrests of immigrants and deportations and — many historians have argued — the framing of known anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for the Braintree crime.

Those bombings, for whom no one was ever put on trial, and the Braintree shoe factory robbery-murder are entirely different cases. The only thing that puts the cases together is the government’s improbable theory that anarchists were responsible for both. Avrich may believe that Vanzetti and Sacco were “almost certainly” involved in some unspecified way in an anarchist bombing conspiracy. He clearly does believe that they were members of the same network as the anarchist figures he fingers as the principal conspirators (Carlo Valdinoci and Mario Budo). But when it comes to whether the two bore any guilt for the Braintree crime, Avrich states that his book “makes no pretense of settling the issue of whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of the crimes for which they were executed” (page 5). He explicitly states that the case against them “remains unproved… nor can their innocence be established beyond any shadow of doubt.”

It’s hard for me to believe that an author of Bryson’s stature could have bollixed this up so badly unless, perhaps, he was working from notes made by others. The representation of a respected historian’s judgment about one matter as his judgment on a distinctly different matter is not merely sloppiness, it’s the kind of academic wrongdoing that gets you kicked out of graduate school. In my opinion, it destroys Bryson’s credibility as a commentator on the case.

The bombings Avrich writes about are an indisputably relevant concern for anyone seeking to understand not only the “background” of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, but the tenor of American society and politics in the early decades of the 20th century. Given this atmosphere of fear and loathing, Sacco and Vanzetti’s jurors might have reasoned that if you believe the same things as the criminals who planted bombs at people’s homes then you deserve to die, whether or not you are guilty of the different crime for which you are now accused.

But that is not how the American justice system works.

You are tried for the charge you have been accused of, not for other actions you may have taken or for the company that you kept.

The research by Avrich (and others) showing that Sacco and Vanzetti were not as “innocent” as many of their defenders made them out to be — they were not saints or “pacifists,” or merely philosophical anarchists — has led some commentators such as Bryson to swing the other way and conclude, well if anarchists used bombs, and Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists, they “probably” killed people and robbed a workers’ payroll.

That’s not a logical inference. It’s a theory for which there is no reliable evidence. It was put to trial and found wanting by any “fair-minded” student of that trial with the possible exception of Bill Bryson.

Whether misled by careless research errors or not, Bryson’s account puts a sympathetic gloss on nativist American prejudice against foreigners, lynch mob justice, judicial bigotry, a fear-mongering abuse of state power, and a plutocratic defense of the status quo.

That sympathy for the devils we know may have lead to his errors and omissions. He states that Boston quietly shrugged off the executions (“city life returned to normal”), apparently unaware that the Boston funeral for Sacco and Vanzetti on August 27, 1927 attracted tens of thousands and was probably the biggest public gathering the city had ever seen up to that date. Likely he has never seen the newsreel footage of the funeral march, because the FBI suppressed it, telling theaters not to show it.

Other researchers into the case believe that the state’s prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti amounts to exactly that “substantial edifice of conspiracy” — Bryson’s derisive term for the suspicion — since instances of coerced testimony and suppressed evidence are on record. And to allegations of manufactured evidence explored in books such as “Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti” (1985) by William Young and David E. Kaiser, a book referenced in Bryson’s bibliography but not in his account.

Unfortunately, Bryson’s treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti case does not evince a similar sympathy with the millions of immigrants who “teemed” into the US in the first decades of the 20th century or with the oppressive conditions endured by laborers both foreign and native-born even in “prosperous” 1927. The systematic disregard of the miseries of American workers by the happy few (a theme echoed in our own day) turned Sacco, Vanzetti, and many others into political radicals. And that deep divide between rich and poor explains the passion and energy that transformed two anarchists into international symbols of the tyranny of the strong over the weak.

Unlike that era’s muckrakers who exposed the misery and neglect suffered by the poor, Bryson’s judgment on Sacco and Vanzetti comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted.

Robert Knox

Written by

Novelist, journalist, short story writer, poet, history lover, gardener, blogger. Author of “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel of the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case.

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