Men, not saints

Bruce Watson’s account of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti isn’t another hagiography of the “good shoemaker” and the “poor fish-peddler.” His detailed narrative, not just of the trial, but of the climate of the times, makes plain America’s divisions—country of origin, economic class, education, politics—and how those divisions led to a preservation of legal niceties at the expense of justice.

But perhaps the most interesting part of Watson’s book—and also the greatest difference between it and other examinations of the case—is his detailed portraits of the major players. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are usually portrayed as either completely innocent victims of political prejudice or as a jaded pair of thugs rightly convicted, depending on whether the writer is leaning left or right.

Instead, Watson shows us what interesting and complicated men were building the brave new century. Yes, Sacco and Vanzetti were working men. But they were also well-read, devout anarchists. By any reading of the evidence, they were at least accomplices in a string of bombings that resulted in the death of one of their comrades and the maiming of a black maid who mistakenly opened a package intended for her employer.

Further, they had close ties with Mario Buda, the Wall Street bomber and inventor of the car bomb. That connection alone would certainly have led them to be charged as accomplices after the fact, were it known at the time.

In short, Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of aiding and abetting terrorism. They were not, however, guilty of the robbery and murder of which they were convicted, and no matter what one’s attitude toward anarchism, Watson’s account of their trial makes the reader ashamed of American jurisprudence.

It’s not as if this miscarriage of justice was an isolated event. Watson recounts how, during the appeals process, one court decided that exculpatory evidence was not enough to warrant a new trial if the original trial had no legal errors. That’s the sort of ruling our current Supreme Court has made in capital cases, along with deciding that youth or retardation are no bars to execution. Then there’s the nothing-short-of-absurd moment in which a judge rules on the question of his own bias, which brings to mind Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision that he was not biased in favor of Vice President Dick Cheney. Our current crop of judges doesn’t make Judge Webster Thayer look too bad. In fact, he’d feel right at home.

Watson takes great pains to avoid romanticizing Sacco and Vanzetti; they are men, not saints. But there’s nothing he can do to rescue the reputations of men like Thayer, Massachusetts governor Alvin T. Fuller, and Harvard University president Abbott Lawrence Lowell from the bare facts of the case. Those men, as well as prosecutor Frederick Katzmann, were far more concerned with preserving the reputation of the courts than in seeing justice done.

And defense attorney Fred Moore, a flamboyant union lawyer, doesn’t end up with much of a reputation, either. The truly sad thing about the Sacco-Vanzetti case is that, at every step of the way, the defense and the defendants made the wrong decisions—starting with the men’s decision to lie about what they were up to when arrested. Certainly they thought it would look bad if they acknowledged that they’d gone out to gather up and hide anarchist literature (and possibly some dynamite), but we generally don’t put people to death for lying, do we?

The entire case can be summed up in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ answer to the clerk who asked him, after he’d refused to hear a last-minute appeal, whether justice had been done.

“We practice ‘law,’” Holmes told him, “not ‘justice.’”