Ninety Year after the Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti: They had ‘a connection to the case’

One of his ancestors was called to serve on the jury, a man told me. For one of those trials.

“He was at the railroad gates when the getaway car went through”, another man on another night told me of his family member’s connection to the case. The words spoken with a rueful laugh. “They didn’t try to stop them. He told the police what he saw…. So did a dozen other guys.

“They all said different things.”

Her ancestor, a woman told me, was “a very well known doctor.” At Harvard. “He was involved somehow in the case.” She spoke quietly, as others filed out of the room where I had given my talk. “His name was McGrath.”

I spoke often about the Sacco-Vanzetti case last year because of the novel I had written (“Suosso’s Lane”), which took its departure point from Vanzetti’s arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, as a poor laborer looking for work. Many books have been written about Sacco and Vanzetti, the biggest story of its time. But very little about Vanzetti’s life in early 20th century, industrial era, immigrant-rich North Plymouth, before he was charged with a crime that would forever be connected to his name.

“The house was just down this way.” He pointed.

Lively and hairless and full of the past, the dedicated library patron described the part of West Bridgewater where an anarchist lived in 1920. Back then the little house was called Puffer’s Place. Simon Johnson’s garage was there too when he was growing up, my informant told me, till some time in the Fifties. You could still see the sign, Johnson’s Service Station, for years afterwards. People like me would find that interesting. Most of the world had forgotten. But some of us, he told me, still remembered.

A little agitated, a touch breathless — she had been lost; there was no sign — a well-dressed woman stopped us as we came out of the Kingston senior center door into the night. “Is it over?” she asked. She wanted to hear the author speak. But something else had run late, and delayed her. I told her that I was the author. And, yes, the program was over, but I would gladly sell her a book if she had come to buy one.

We spoke in the dark, and I signed a copy of my book, and gave her my email address. Her family was connected to the case, she told me. “We called him Gardner.” He worked for the Boston Globe too, but he also worked for the defense committee. They needed him when they began to get all that publicity. She told me more about her family, and ‘Gardner’s’ family, and what he had done in the rest of his life, for Roosevelt and others. I knew, or guessed, who she was talking about, but his connection to the case was all I knew about him.

A member of her family was one of the witnesses, a woman from Plymouth she told me. I grew up on the street, she said, her eyes glancing away. The case is special to me.

“I’ve always been interested in this subject,” a man said. He was on the tall side, and thin. A reader. “I’ve read about it.”

Anything about this case, another said. I always want to come. He came; he listened. He did not ask questions.

“I live in the shadow of the Plymouth Cordage Company,” someone who knew things about the way the town used to be wrote me. “And look upon the chimney stack built by an ancestor.”

She knew the street better than I did. Many of them did. It was a book title for me. Suosso’s Lane. I knew how the street looked today. I imagined the past.

“One of my husband’s ancestors was a fish peddler too and told the story of meeting these men in North Plymouth,” another correspondent wrote about the old neighborhood. “On Christmas.”

In another town, a woman assured me that her great-aunt never believed them. They said they were selling fish on Christmas. “But we never got any fish on Christmas, she said. ‘No fish!’ she said. Whenever anyone brought up anything about that whole thing, she just said, ‘No fish!’ So that’s how we knew they were lying.”

He wore black-rimmed glasses, stared without smiling, and waited for his chance to speak. He said they were terrorists. He said that anarchists were responsible for bombings and killings all over the world.

“An anarchist even killed an American president! They killed the king of Italy. Anarchists started World War I. They’re terrorists! How can you make them out to be victims?”

Are there any other questions? I asked. But no one wanted to say anything.

Later, I looked for the name McGrath, which I recalled from my research and found I was spelling it slightly wrong. It was Mcgrath. And she was right; he played a part in the case.

A highly regarded medical examiner, Dr. George B. Mcgrath performed the autopsy on the victims of the 1920 Braintree shoe factory payroll robbery and murders, and concluded that the four bullets fired into the body of the payroll guard Berardelli were identical, hence fired from the same gun. This was a crucial point because the prosecution claimed that one of the bullets (called bullet number 3) was fired from a gun belonging to Sacco. The defense refuted this claim by pointing out that bullet 3 was a different kind of bullet from the other three, and therefore likely a substitution for the original bullet 3. McGrath repeated his testimony: the four bullets in the murdered man’s body were of the same kind. Those who have studied the evidence of the bullets agree on one point: “The custody of evidence was weak.”

I never found Puffer’s Place, where the anarchist Mario Buda was living and from which he fled the local police. Or the house and garage of Simon Johnson, where Buda left his car, and where Sacco and Vanzetti, joined by Buda and a fourth anarchist, journeyed to retrieve it on the fateful night when they fell into the Bridgewater police trap and were arrested. Everything followed for the two Italian immigrants from that highly dubious circumstance: Questioned on their political beliefs, held over night. Charged in the morning with the Braintree crime; which astonished them. (They thought they were being deported, as other anarchists had been). Convicted after a biased trial, in which the defendants’ failure to serve in World War I was held against them. Executed in 1927 despite international protests.

I found her family name on the witness list for the defense.

The great-aunt who did not receive fish for Christmas perhaps did not order any, since numerous other North Plymouth residents testified in court to receiving eels on Christmas Eve from Vanzetti, a crucial piece of his defense in a separate case in which Vanzetti was convicted of attempted robbery on wholly trumped-up evidence.

The jury — no immigrants among its twelve members, no people of Italian descent, no intellectuals, no one who admitted to reading books, no African-Americans, and of course no women — deliberated for 10 minutes before bringing back a verdict of guilty. The foreman said later that he didn’t know if the two men were guilty of this crime but commented, “We oughta hang the whole lot of them.”

President Willian McKinley was in fact killed by a professed anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, born in the USA of Polish parentage. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the proximate cause of World War I, was carried out by Serbian nationalists. Whether you consider it terror or not, political assassination has always been the weapon of the disenfranchised, and it almost always backfires. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Italian anarchists did carry out bombings (almost always failing to harm their target) aimed at American government officials and captains of industry. However, Sacco and Vanzetti were not on trial for a bombing or an assassination, but for a gangland style robbery of a shoe factory workers’ payroll and the murder of two payroll officials, an act two men dedicated to improving the life of workers would have regarded with horror and did not commit.

The one-time Globe reporter recalled by her descendant on a spring evening in Massachusetts, Gardner Jackson, was hired by the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1927 to manage publicity as the threat of execution grew near and the whole world was watching. Most of that watching world reacted with horror when the executions were carried out, though the state’s Anglo-Saxon establishment expressed satisfaction that justice had at last been done.

Those who remember its historical background and suspect that the case still has lessons for us, especially given the anti-immigrant fervor of the last election season, commemorated the 90th anniversary of the executions last week, on Aug. 23.

After their deaths, Jackson gathered “The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti” for publication in 1928, a lasting contribution to the case’s history, since this collection still available today as a Penguin classic edition.

Robert Knox is the author of “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel of Plymouth and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The book is available at www.web-e-books.com/index.php#load?type=book&product=suosso