We Know the Truth About Sacco and Vanzetti


Mr. Newby, Associate Professor Emeritus of English, Illinois State University, is the editor of Kill Now, Talk Forever: Debating Sacco and Vanzetti (Author House 2008).

            In The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial, Moshik Temkin says (p. 2): “ . . . [W]e are no closer to a resolution now than we were  in the 1920s.”  On p. 7 he says:  “ . . . the truth about the 1920 crime in South Braintree is not known (and never will be) . . . “  Temkin fails Ira Berlin’s test of excellence, “[A]t its best, history is a detached and disinterested weighing of all the evidence.”  See Journal of American History (March 2004, p. 1265).

Here are some inculpatory items Professor Temkin omits in his selective history.

            Temkin edits out Edmund M. Morgan’s review of Herbert B. Ehrmann’s book The Untried Case: The Sacco-Vanzetti Case and the Morelli Gang in the Harvard Law Review (Jan. 1934).  Here Morgan states: “Mr. Ehrmann’s publishers advertise his book as furnishing proof of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti and of the guilt of the Morelli gang.  Of course it does nothing of the kind (p. 546).  Morgan, a colleague of Felix Frankfurter at Harvard Law School, also states that Sacco “told a number of deliberate lies upon material matters, including an assertion that he had never been in South Braintree” (p. 538).  (See Transcript, pp. 1904, 1912-1913.)  Temkin also omits Morgan’s five reminders in The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti  (1948 book by Louis Joughin and Edmund Morgan) that Vanzetti did not testify at his Plymouth trial for the Bridgewater crime: pp. 10, 43, 46, 55, 148.  In The Legacy Morgan justifies the Plymouth verdict and calls Judge Thayer fair (pp. 55-56).  Finally, Morgan says (pp. 48-49):  “And it must be said that . . . Vanzetti makes statements both in this trial and the trial of himself and Sacco at Dedham which are not sustained by the printed record.  He attributes low motives to witnesses against him and virtue to all who favored him.  His readiness to ascribe corruption to all who did not support him seriously impairs the value of all his assertions about the Plymouth trial.” 

            Temkin omits judgments in “The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Reconsidered,” James Grossman’s review of Robert Montgomery’s 1960 book Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, in Commentary (January 1962). Grossman says (p. 37) Goddard’s 1927 ballistics test confirms Sacco’s guilt.  He dismisses (pp. 37-39) defense attorney William G. Thompson’s allegation that the prosecution used false exhibits at the Dedham trial.  He rejects (p. 39) Ehrmann’s claim that Joe Morelli and his gang murdered in South Braintree; and he derides (p. 36) Ehrmann’s romantic portrait of convicted murderer Celestino Madeiros.   Whereas Grossman published in Partisan Review and the Nation, journals of the left, he says liberals, misreading human nature, must understand that  “Sacco as a killer” puts him in the company of Conrad’s Kurtz (p. 44).  (In the September issue (p. 255) Grossman honors “. . . the authenticity of the [#3] bullet [described] in Francis Russell’s book.”)

            Similarly, in his chapter on Sacco and Vanzetti in Redeeming theTime, Volume 8, A People’s History of the 1920s and the New Deal, historian Page Smith chides the defendants’ supporters (p. 141):  “They could not imagine that the ‘good’ might be tainted with ‘evil’ or that idealists might use criminal methods to achieve their noble ideals, although there was a mass of evidence to the contrary, going back to Alexander Berkman’s attempt to perform an attentat, or assassination on the person of Henry Frick. . .”  

Temkin focuses narrowly (p. 260) on the letters between Harold Laski and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, concluding that “ . . . he [Holmes] may not have realized that the last sentence of his letter [to Laski, July 10, 1930]  could itself have justified nixing the Sacco-Vanzetti verdict.”  Other letters, however, correct Temkin’s distortion and clarify Holmes’s judgment of Sacco and Vanzetti .  Consider, for example, the letter which Holmes’s secretary, James Henry Rowe, Jr. wrote and sent at Holmes’s request to Herbert Ehrmann.  (Recall that Frankfurter, in a letter dated Oct. 8, 1934, informed Holmes his next secretary would be  “young Rowe” from Montana.”   And recall Robert M. Mennel’s reminder  in Holmesand Frankfurter: Their Correspondence, 1912-1934 (p. xvi) that “Frankfurter annually selected Holmes’s secretary from the [Harvard] Law School’s graduating class.”)  Here is Rowe’s letter dated October 29, 1934.

Dear Mr. Ehrmann:

Mr. Justice Holmes has asked me to write to you to thank you for your kindness in sending him a copy of your book.  His delay in answering you was deliberate rather than negligent as he wished to read the book before replying.  “The Untried Case” was finished yesterday.

            The Justice, as you may possibly have heard, is, as he admits, inordinately fond of detective stories.  He wished me to say that in years of reading thrillers he has come across no such engrossing a tale as your search for evidence against the Morelli gang.

            As a documentary account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case in one of its manifold phases, the Justice wants to tell you that he feels the book is essential for any understanding of that cause celebre in which he has always shown the keenest interest.

            He deeply appreciated your inscription on the flyleaf.  Again thanking you for him, I am  Sincerely, (s)  James Henry Rowe, Jr. (Secretary to Mr. Justice Holmes)

            This 1934 letter is on the back cover of Ehrmann’s Second Edition (1960) of “The Untried Case.”  Musmanno, in his review of Russell’s Tragedy in Dedham  in the Kansas Law Review, first quotes Rowe’s third paragraph (Musmanno, mistakenly, calls Rowe ”Howe”) and then scolds Russell:  “Nor, . . . did Mr. Russell have the fairness to show in what high regard Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held the results of Ehrmann’s investigation.”

            Musmanno misreads not only Rowe’s letter--had Musmanno never heard of Erasmus or Lucian?--but also District Attorney Frederick Katzmann.  On p. 488 in the Kansas Law Review Musmanno writes:  “I am satisfied that Katzmann was thoroughly aware of  the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti long before the end of the case.”  Temkin says (p. 212) Musmanno “wrote spirited critiques of Russell’s book in the New Republic, . . . and in the Kansas Law Review” (May 1963).  He ignores Musmanno’s misreading of Rowe’s letter.

            Holmes’s first letter to Frankfurter on Frankfurter’s book The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen (March 18, 1927) is, as Liva Baker notes, “terse and unforthcoming” (Baker, The Justice from Beacon Hill, p. 606).  Holmes’s second letter (Sept. 9, 1927) imitates the first.  But Holmes’s letter to Lewis Einstein (May 19, 1927) decries “the row that has been kicked up, Frankfurter potently abetting, over the trial of Sacco & Vanzetti some years ago, . . .”  (Peabody, The Holmes-Einstein Letters).

            Ignored by Temkin is the letter of March 31, 1986, that Judge Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr. sent to Francis Russell.  Wyzanski writes: “I myself am persuaded by your writings that Sacco was guilty.”  (Temkin complains, p. 213, that Russell’s Tragedy in Dedham ”contains no citation or notes, . . .”)   Temkin omits the author’s letter to the editor in the Journal of American History (June 2000, p. 321), which states:   “Justice Frankfurter’s campaign to get Wyzanski appointed to the federal bench is carefully documented in Bruce A. Murphy’s book, The Brandeis-Frankfurter Connection, pp. 315-316.”  Wyzanski says “Brute” (quotation marks are Wyzanski’s) Ehrmann was his friend from boyhood.  See Charles E. Wyzanski Papers at Harvard Law School Library, especially this:   “Justice Frankfurter was one of Judge Wyzanski’s teachers at Harvard Law School.  They maintained a close friendship until the Justice’ [sic] death.”  

            Temkin omits James E. Starrs’s key statements in “Once More Unto the Breech: The Firearms Evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti Case Revisited,” Journal of Forensic Sciences, April 1986, pp. 630-654; July 1986, pp. 1050-1078.  Starrs, professor of forensic sciences, reports the ballistics test of 1983 (p. 631):  “Although the Select Committee included three firearms experts, a fourth member, Dr. Henry C. Lee, although not a specialist in firearms identification matters, provided administrative support to the Committee, . .  .“   Starrs cites Postmortem, the book by W. Young and D. E. Kaiser and writes: (p. 650):  “The Young and Kaiser book, although the latest on the subject, is crippled by its failure to take into full account the findings of the 1983 Select Committee, of which this author informed Professor Kaiser well in advance of his book’s publication.  Another book, by the redoubtable Francis Russell, is understood to be under full sail at this time.”   Starrs writes (p. 1050):  “The author finds that the evidence and arguments militate against the bullet switching hypothesis.  A coda is attached which demonstrates, through the firearms evidence reevaluation, that Sacco can be linked to the crime, and even to the crime scene, through the cartridges found in his possession on his arrest.”

            Temkin omits Dexter, Maine, the origin of two documents confirming Vanzetti’s guilt.  Dexter is the hometown of defense witnesses on Vanzetti’s revolver:  Elbridge Atwater and Rexford Slater.  The first document is the letter of 17 June 1921 from Maine State police officer C. C. Palmer to the District Attorney [Frederick Katzmann], Dedham, Massachusetts. (Palmer’s letter is in Dudley P. Ranney’s file at the Harvard Law School Library, Sacco-Vanzetti Case Records, Box 23, Folder 2.  The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Papers were put on microfilm, as noted by Robert D’Attilio, in Microform Review, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Fall 1986), pp.  273-276.  Sally Vermaaten of HLS Library listed for the author libraries holding a copy of the microfilm.  Temkin cites the SV Case Records on pp. 225, 300.)  

            Palmer tells Katzmann that Slater and Atwater left Dexter on June 17 “to be in readiness to testify in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti.”  He says that Slater has been working in a shop in Norwood, Massachusetts, with “an Italian” and that Slater sold the Italian a revolver and that Slater and Atwater intend “to identify this revolver” when they take the witness stand.  Palmer says an Italian came to Dexter “[s]everal weeks ago” and tried to get Slater and Atwater to testify.  Both men refused.   Palmer says Mrs. Fred Moore, wife of a defense attorney, came to Dexter “several days ago” . . . “and labored with them until they agreed to go to Dedham.”  Palmer says “Slater told me to-day [June 17, 1921] that he would be unable to identify the revolver which he [allegedly] sold the Italian. . . .”

            The second Dexter document inculpating Vanzetti is the news item in The Eastern Gazette, March 5, 1964).  Here is document 2.

                                    Dexter Man Took Part in Famous Case

            Dexter--Quite possibly Elbridge Atwater of Dexter is the only living person in this state to have testified at the much publicized Sacco-Vanzetti trial.

            Atwater, who is a retired worker at the Fayscott Landis Machine Cohporation [sic] of Dexter, once owned the revolver with which the two men were accused of killing the paymaster and guard of a South Braintree, Mass., shoe factory.

            After the death of Atwater’s father-in-law, Frank Morgridge, Mrs. Morgridge went to visit a daughter and son-in-law, the late Rexford Slater at Norwood, Mass.  When she unpacked her trunk, the Harrington and Richardson revolver was at the bottom, so she gave it to Mr. Slater.  He in turn sold it to a man named Oceana [Orciani], who figured in the trial.  Oceana allegedly sold the weapon to one of the two accused men.  Both Oceana and the wife of the defense lawyer came to Dexter and finally persuaded Mr. Slater and Mr. Atwater, who had handled his father-in-law’s revolver many times, to go to Massachusetts three times: first to identify the revolver, next to testify at the trial and the third time . . .

            This truncated news item has context.  Governor Fuller summoned Atwater and Slater to Boston and interviewed them, as reported in the Boston Herald, July 1,1927, p. 6, col. 6.  On Dec. 28, 2004, the author signed the Guest Book, Dexter Historical Society, to request information on Elbridge Atwater.  In 2005 Frank Spizuoco of Ripley, Maine, sent the author a clipping of this news item he got from Atwater’s cousin.  Slater testified on July 1, 1921 (Transcript, p. 1635) that his mother-in-law, Abbie Morgridge, visited her daughter and him in Norwood about January 1, 1918.  He said he paid his mother-in-law four dollars for Exhibit 27, Vanzetti’s revolver, and a holster (Exhibit M) and sold both gun and holster to Orciani (Transcript, p. 1638).  In his closing argument, defense attorney Jeremiah McAnarney describes an innocent H. & R. revolver.  He tells the jury:  “We have  gone back and faithfully brought that revolver from Maine. . . . Atwater . . . knew that H. & R. revolver, . . . knew it was in the family of the brother-in-law and testified to it.  Orcciani got it.  Orcciani sold it to the Italian fellow [Luigi Falzini], and the Italian fellow sold it to Vanzetti, a clean, straight transaction”  (Transcript, p. 2168).   In his closing argument, Katzmann says the H. & R. revolver which police took from Vanzetti on May 5, 1920, belonged to the slain guard Berardelli (p. 2183); and he reminds the jury four times that Orciani did not testify (Transcript, pp. 2187-2188, 2197, 2229, 2233).  The Dedham jury did not know of the 3:00 A. M. fire that gutted Frank Morgridge’s grocery on Feb. 1,1914.  Two newspapers reporting the fire (The Eastern Gazette and Bangor Daily Commercial) say Atwater and his wife narrowly escaped from Morgridge’s apartment over the store.  Frank died on Oct. 30, 1916.

            The Orciani in these Dexter documents is the very Ricardo Orciani that prosecution witness Ruth Johnson, testifying on June 16, 1921, identified as the motorcyclist who brought Mike Boda with him in his sidecar to meet Sacco and Vanzetti at the Johnson house in West Bridgewater on May 5, 1920 (Transcript, p. 683).  On this night, police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti on a streetcar.

            In his Postscript (p. 221) Temkin says his topic “. . . deserves . . . less detective work, more history. . . . more research.”  But his book reconfirms the defendants’ guilt.

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Hurds Nerdly - 12/26/2009

Demanding "much broader context" for the SV case misses the article's point: the question of S & V's guilt may be addressed apart from the political climate of the day. Of course there was a Red Scare. Regardless of the political mood du jour, though, some people continue to do bad things for their own purposes. To escape consequences, they plug into any convenient alibi, including charges of political oppression.

S & V's trial was a murder trial. They either did it or they didn't. Indeed, the cries for "context" have muddied the waters in this case, allowing some to depict as a political act what appears to have been a crime for personal gain.

Robert Goldstein - 12/21/2009

This article strikes me as totally incoherent. My sense is that the consensus now is that Sacco may well have been guilty, but that there is little concrete evidence against Vanzetti. However, my understanding is that the strongest evidence against Sacco is ballistics evidence but that the tests involved have recently been shown to be far less conclusive than originally thought. Just as the pretty clear evidence of the guilt of Alger Hiss doesn't really change anything about the basic historiography of the post-WWII Red Scare, however, whether or not Sacco and/or Vanzetti were innocent or guilty doesn't really shake the basic historiography of the post-WW I Red scare. In any case, most of this posting simply doesn't make any sense without some much broader context which the author doesn't supply.

Steve Williams - 12/21/2009

I found this article very interesting and informative. However there is one thing I didn't quite understand. I would like the author to explain the significance of the 1914 fire. Mr. Morgridge died 2 1/2 years after the fire on 30 Oct. 1916, Slater bought the gun just over a year after Morgridge's death, and the crime took place in 1920. The gun could have somehow survived the blaze or Morgridge could have obtained it after the fire.
The author seems more knowledgeable and well researched about the case than I am, so I hope he could explain how the fire fits in to the whole story of the testimony about the gun.