More on Sacco-Vanzetti
To the Editor:
I thoroughly enjoyed. . . James Grossman’s article . . . [“The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Reconsidered,” January]. I have been making a study of the case and his article has helped considerably. It was my first experience with the magazine and because of it, I will continue reading COMMENTARY.
(Miss) Evan J. Evanson
To the Editor:
Your May 1962 issue [“Letters from Readers”] publishes a letter about the Sacco-Vanzetti case from Mr. R. Hugh Uhlmann which singles out a piece of evidence supposed to be “very indicative of Sacco’s guilt.”
The letter repeats an old argument concerning the so-called “No. 3” bullet put in evidence by the Commonwealth as the mortal bullet which killed one of the victims. The bullet was of Winchester make. The letter states that this bullet was “of a type so obsolete that neither the defense expert nor the state expert could find a matching bullet to fire through Sacco’s gun for comparison purposes” and that “several of the obsolete Winchester type which nobody could find” were among the bullets in Sacco’s pockets. The letter further states that this was “one point not in dispute.”
This recital of supposed facts and the inference which Mr. Uhlmann draws from them are both inaccurate.
In the first place Mr. Uhlmann’s letter assumes that his “point” was made at some stage of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and was not disputed. This is not so. From the beginning to the end of the Sacco-Vanzetti case this “point” was not raised by anyone. Mr. Katzmann, the very astute prosecutor who seems to have overlooked nothing in the preparation and trial of the case, never mentioned the claim. Judge Thayer, in his several opinions setting out his selection of evidence supposed to prove the guilt of the defendants (even including nonexistent testimony), did not include the point. During the many days of our hearings before the Governor’s Advisory Committee (sometimes referred to as “The Lowell Committee,” after its Chairman, Abbott Lawrence Lowell), no member of this body suggested in any way that such a claim would be made. The Assistant District Attorney made no such argument before the Committee.
The idea that the “point” made by Mr. Uhlmann was proof of the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti made its first appearance in the report of The Lowell Committee. This was also the first appearance of the word “obsolete” to describe the No. 3 bullet. It was then too late to bring out the actual facts and to show that the claim was without merit.
The actual facts were as follows:
- Winchester bullets of the type of No. 3 were far from “obsolete” during the years immediately preceding the date of the South Braintree murders (April 15, 1920) when the bandits must have bought their ammunition. The Winchester Company had stopped making this type in August 1917, but all of its new ammunition had gone for war purposes during this period. The only Winchester bullets which could have been purchased from dealers at this time, certainly prior to 1919, were of the older type.
- Sacco bought his bullets on Hanover Street, Boston, in 1917. The dealer did not have in stock any new boxes of cartridges, but assembled a lot of loose bullets of mixed make. Sacco had the gun as night watchman in his employer’s shoe factory where he worked as an edge-trimmer by day. Any private purchaser of cartridges about this time, including the bandits, would also have had to take whatever remained of a dealer’s stock during that period.
- Even if it were true that the older Winchester type could not be found in June 1921 (when the trial was held), this would not indicate that it was a scarce item in the years prior to April 15, 1920.
However, it is not true that the No. 3 type could not be found in 1921. Even as late as 1923, defense expert Hamilton obtained and used six cartridges of this type.
At the trial, no one testified that the No. 3 type was “obsolete.” Apparently the misconception indicated by the Lowell report arose from a foggy recollection of what defense expert Burns stated at the trial. Mr. Burns produced and used six cartridges of “U.S.” make, instead of Winchester. On cross-examination by Mr. Katzmann, Mr. Burns stated that he had tried to get Winchesters of this type “between here [Dedham] and Lowell.” He did not say what stores he tried on this highway or how many. He did not even try the Winchester factory. He also pleaded lack of time. Mr. Katzmann cross-examined Mr. Burns to show how little real effort the expert had made to get the Winchester type. To the prosecutor at the time of the trial, Mr. Burns’s production of U.S. cartridges instead of the Winchester type in evidence merely indicated lack of diligence on the part of Mr. Burns. The Lowell Committee members apparently forgot the actual testimony as well as Mr. Katzmann’s view of the incident. As in other instances, they found new proof of guilt by substituting their unreliable memories for the record.
I have dealt at some length with the “point” of Mr. Uhlmann’s letter because it is typical of the kind of “proof now being used to establish the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti. It is noteworthy that most of these efforts now tend to pass over the evidence which led to their execution. Identification, consciousness of guilt, and expert ballistic opinions relied upon to support the final judgment are now rarely treated seriously. Resort is now had to statements and happenings never subjected to the safeguards of the judicial process.
Of course, some of this material may, nevertheless, be significant, but, like the “obsolete” bullet, the most critical scrutiny by students of the case is necessary before acceptance of the alleged “facts” or the inferences to be drawn from them.
The very fact, however, that “proof” outside of that in the record is now needed, suggests that there was much that was wrong about the proceedings which ended in the execution. Indeed there was. To me, the proceedings against these men constitute one of the most bizarre and unbelievable prosecutions in modern history. I hope to tell why this is so in a book that will supplement my recently reissued The Untried Case.
Herbert B. Ehrmann