Sacco and Vanzetti, Case Closed?
December 29, 2005 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Sacco and Vanzetti are guilty. (LA Times link, reg. required/bugmenot) At least according to a letter that recently surfaced in California. The letter saying this was apparently written by none other than famed muckraker Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle. What's more, after supposedly learning of their guilt from the pair's lawyer, Sinclair went ahead and wrote the novel Boston, which helped popularize the view that the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was a matter of injustice, and the notion the two were innocent. This is not the first time their guilt has been asserted, either. In 1961, Max Eastman, famous leftist-turned-McCarthy supporter, wrote an article which alleged that the shadowy anarcho-syndicalist, Carlo Tresca, had told him that Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent.
posted by Heminator (33 comments total)
Since I had no idea what this post was about, here's some background info.
posted by Firas at 7:16 AM on December 29, 2005

It's interesting that Sinclair would "go ahead and write" the novel even if he thought that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty (of what, I don't know, since the article is on a reg-only link). It's a novel, after all.

BTW -- anybody got a non-reg link? LAT apparently clears registrations after a time, which makes me loathe to re-register....
posted by lodurr at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2005

Firas, did you not notice the same link in my post?
posted by Heminator at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2005

Maybe I'm supposing too much here, but if you followed some of the links many of these things would be explained.

As for registration, try here.
posted by Heminator at 7:32 AM on December 29, 2005

Also here.

The article also notes that Gambera said that Sacco was one of the killers. It sounds more like they were conspirators, but not the actual killers, since Celestino Madeiros admitted to the crime. Still revealing though.
posted by destro at 7:47 AM on December 29, 2005

None of the bugmenots worked for me, but if you search for Sacco and Vanzetti in Google News you will find a link to the story that works.

What is this post about? Anarchists and the muckraking author who lied for them. Sinclair's novels were more truth than fiction, journalism essentially, except that perhaps this one was more fiction than truth.
posted by caddis at 7:48 AM on December 29, 2005

The controversy isn't settled by this letter. It's been generally accepted by researchers that Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent. The trial was a farce. So the defense attorney framing an alibi for Vanzetti doesn't really settle anything.

Paul Avrich's Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background is a very important piece of research on the anarchist movement at the time. It doesn't go too deeply into the case, but does cast a great deal of light on what was going.

These are deep waters and have not been fully explored yet. Sinclair's letter is a valuable source, but it is not (and cannot be) dispositive of the question of Vanzetti's guilt or innocence.
posted by warbaby at 7:49 AM on December 29, 2005

And the bookfinder results for Avrich's book.
posted by warbaby at 7:54 AM on December 29, 2005

am I the only one that smells bullshit when a letter comes out 70 years later and is written by someone famous? forgable evidence on fragile media that survives the larger part of a century and just happens to be written by one of the luminaries of 20th century activism and literature is just too much for me to swallow. but then, "too much for me to swallow" shouldn't be the yard stick by which we measure credibility.
posted by shmegegge at 7:55 AM on December 29, 2005

A thumbnail history of the case.
posted by warbaby at 7:58 AM on December 29, 2005

shmegegge writes "am I the only one that smells bullshit when a letter comes out 70 years later and is written by someone famous?"

Well maybe, but I haven't exactly noticed a resurgence in discussion about S&V. I would be more suspicous if the issue at hand were something a bit more topical.

There's some decent stuff, including soundclips from Woody Guthrie's album Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti at this awful geocities page.
posted by OmieWise at 8:01 AM on December 29, 2005

I also meant to say that this is an interesting FPP. I just finished reading USA by Dos Passos, and the S&V case runs like a kind of undisclosed secret all through it. The number of serious artists concerned with the case and working for the defense was huge. It wasn't just Sinclair, but also Guthrie, Porter,'s hard to imagine anything getting a comparable or sustained response from today's artists.
posted by OmieWise at 8:04 AM on December 29, 2005

This is neat, but the case will never be closed.
posted by bardic at 8:09 AM on December 29, 2005

shmegege, it may be worth writing to the archives indeed with that query
posted by By The Grace of God at 8:15 AM on December 29, 2005

shmegege's awesome psychic powers notwithstanding, is there any evidence at all to backup this devastating new development in the case?

Nice derail, you conspiratorialists. Not only have you injected some useless noise into the thread, you've also made groundless defamatory accusations against Paul Hegness. Way to go.

This is why we can't have nice things.
posted by warbaby at 8:25 AM on December 29, 2005

"am I the only one that smells bullshit when a letter comes out 70 years later and is written by someone famous?"

Long lost items by famous someones do turn up from time to time. And as said above, this is hardly earthshattering, albeit somewhat embarassing to the author. We're not talking Hitler's diary here.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:03 AM on December 29, 2005

I found this letter written by Noah to one of his carpenters that the whole Flood thing was merely a scheme to defraud local governments of lucrative Angry God Defense contracts.

BTW Rosencrantz and Guildenstern WERE guilty.
posted by tkchrist at 9:21 AM on December 29, 2005

What warbaby said. The letter is interesting but doesn't prove anything or really add anything to the controversy that will (as bardic says) never end. (There's no reason to think it isn't genuine; it's consistent with things Sinclair said in other letters, quoted in the Times story.) The case is similar in some respects to that other great death-penalty controversy, the Rosenbergs; it seems now that Julius was guilty, Ethel wasn't, but the main point is that the trial was unfair and the executions outrageous, and the same is true for S&V.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on December 29, 2005

after supposedly learning of their guilt [...] helped popularize the view that the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was a matter of injustice

What makes you think this is a contradiction? Both these things can be true. Isn't it critical to a functioning judicial system that an Unfair Trial is Unacceptable - regardless of whether it turns out the accused were guilty or not?

Isn't any other perspective just a variant of "if you've nothing to hide, why worry about civil liberty?"
posted by freebird at 9:29 AM on December 29, 2005

I'm unclear on why skepticism about the letter or discussion of some conspiracy theory would be a derail. That seems to me to be what the thread is about -- if that wasn't its intent, then it certainly begs for those things. (Anyway, as derails go, this one is so small I can't even see it.)

What I was kind of hoping would materialise was a discussion of the "token debunk" phenomenon: When someone "debunks" a traditional presentation (Sacco and Vanzetti are innocent, Hauptmann was really involved with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Rosenbergs really were spies, etc.), it's taken as evidence that the cases are now meaningless, and all efforts to look at injustices relative to them are moot. Indeed, as people have pointed out here, there were clear injustices in the S&V case; similarly, Hauptmann was clearly framed, and the Rosenbergs were railroaded. Guilt is not mutually exclusive with injustice.

But we didn't see that. I suppose I should be relieved. (Maybe someone could bring it up, then my lack of faith in humankind could be restored..... )
posted by lodurr at 9:34 AM on December 29, 2005

posted by lodurr at 9:35 AM on December 29, 2005

Very true, languagehat.
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:39 AM on December 29, 2005

lodurr: the derail was a fabrication based on imagining a motive without any evidence whatsoever. Pseudo-skepticism would be a better description, since the doubt is entirely in shmegege's interior landscape without any reference to reality or any objective reason to support the assertion. So here we are, two hours later, still discussing shmegege's imaginary proposition.

Could we get back to what people know about the case, as opposed to imaginary possibilities?

The supposed confession implicating the Morelli gang has been generally discounted by historians, though I can't remember the details.

This sort of case is always hard to disentangle because of all the axe-grinding and false testimony. Some of the ballistics evidence implicated Sacco, but there was also fabricated testimony that falsely implicated Vanzetti.

Carry on.
posted by warbaby at 10:57 AM on December 29, 2005

the letter where JFK said he was going to provide hush money for Marilyn's mother wasn't half bad either
posted by matteo at 11:01 AM on December 29, 2005

Ahem, fabricated testimony by the prosecution's ballistics expert that falsely implicated Vanzetti.
posted by warbaby at 11:04 AM on December 29, 2005

I still don't see it. Schmegege cast aspersions on something that it was perfectly reasonable to cast aspersions upon. Those were dealt with. Why do you feel it so important to micro-manage the discussion such that some questions are pronounced to be legitimate and others not?
posted by lodurr at 11:07 AM on December 29, 2005

"Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking's a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That's why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they're arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you've got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place."
-Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse (1929)
posted by warbaby at 11:12 AM on December 29, 2005

I think that as we carefully examine the dry crusted-up blood smears left in the ancient concrete by the slow but inexporable roll of the Wheels of State, it is important to take careful note of the shape of the stain and to preserve samples for later genetic testing.
posted by freebird at 12:05 PM on December 29, 2005

"inexporable" pwns "inexorable"
posted by freebird at 12:06 PM on December 29, 2005

For that tenuous crimson Rivulet, trickling down from forest paths across cobblestones and onto the cold concrete of today, is all that binds History into anything more than a Litany of Inhumanities and the Sharpening of Knives.
posted by freebird at 12:12 PM on December 29, 2005

Earlier opinion almost unanimously felt that the two men were innocent and had been unjustly executed, but later revisionist points of view emerged: some totally, if implausibly, defending the verdict as correct; others more plausibly arguing that, based on new ballistics tests and words by Carlo Tresca and Fred Moore, Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent. No single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest, despite the two most recent books that have claimed to have done so, while arriving at almost directly opposite conclusions.

posted by destro at 12:29 PM on December 29, 2005

> -Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse (1929)

Thank you very much for that one, warbaby, I hadn't run into it before. fuller tips hat.
posted by jfuller at 2:52 PM on December 29, 2005

For what it's worth, my grandfather, now deceased, was on the legal defense team and spent quite a bit time with both of them.

His take is consistent with what many of you have already pointed out here:

-- Sacco, probably guilty. Vanzetti, definitely innocent.
-- Either way, fabricated evidence was introduced and the trial was a mockery of a sham.

It ain't adding much except to say that it was my grandfather's first-person take on the events as they were happening.

And I think that this is an excellent time to recall what happened then and the simple fact that two foreign-born US residents were killed by the state, using fabricated evidence because that happens. They were real people, and that gets lost as they become historical figures.

It's not to say that it happens all the time, it's just to say that there's nothing abstract about it. When things become difficult to imagine, they become difficult to believe, but this is a good example of something unimaginable being true.
posted by cloudscratcher at 8:42 PM on December 29, 2005

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