President Lowell and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case

From new on, I want to knew, will the institution of learning in Cambridge, which once we called Harvard, be known as Hangman's House? --Heywood Brown   August 6, 1927

If Heywood Broun was not the least vitriolic commentator on the Sacco-Vanzetti case, neither was he the most impassioned. The conviction of the poor fish-peddler and the good shoemaker in 1921 shocked the liberals of the '20's to such an extent that it became their cause; hundreds of thousands of them picketed, wrote letters, gave money, and pleaded desperately for acquittal.

And when those who believed in the defendants learned that they were to die, they turned their wrath towards the mean who had brought about their death, and on none more strongly than A. Lawrence Lowell, then President of Harvard.

Lowell, had he wished, could have stopped the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; he was the leading member of a committee to advise the governor of Massachusetts on the case, and had he or any member of his committee failed to find the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, they would have been spared.

But the committee let the men be executed and the wrath of the Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers descended upon Lowell with incredible force. Vituperations flowed to him through the mail and over the telephone; bomb threats came daily. Every year, as long as he lived, Lowell knew he could expect a new pile of abuse to arrive on August 23, the anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.


Report and Reprisals

These reprisals may seem harsh but almost no one can read the report of the "Lowell Committee" without realizing that some facts have been misstated, others puzzlingly omitted, and still others accepted or rejected without any explanation whatever. The report of the Lowell Committee is not a convincing document.

The case had begun on April 15, 1920, when Fred Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli were shot down while carrying the payroll of a South Braintree shoe factory from the company offices to the plant. Their assailants grabbed the $15,000 payroll, leaped into a car which drew up alongside, and sped away.

Nicola Sacco and Bartholomeo Vanzetti were arrested when they fell into a trap laid for another Italian, Michael Boda, a bootlegger whom police suspected of being involved in the robbery. Both men were carrying guns at the time of their arrest; each told a number of lies to the arresting officer, who quizzed them about their associates and about their activities on the day of the Braintree murder.

Neither proved to have an ironclad alibi for the day. Sacco, a worker in a shoe factory, had taken the day off to go to Boston and get a passport for his trip to Italy. Vanzetti was a fish-peddler and could only rely on the word of his customers for an alibi.

The Trial in May

The men were indicted and brought to trial in May, 1921. The prosecution produced a number of eyewitnesses who said the men had been among the holdup gang; the defense produced a larger number who said they were not, and several others who attacked the reputations of the prosecution witnesses.

The Commonwealth introduced a cap found at the scene of the murder, which Sacco's employer said was similar to a cap Sacco often wore to work. Sacco said the cap was not his, and it did not appear fit him.

The state also tried to prove that a revolver found on Vanzetti when he was arrested was the same one that had been taken from Berardelli by one of the gunmen. Mrs. Berardelli testified that Vanzetti's gun looked like her husband's, and a ballistics expert testified that the gun had a new hammer; Berardelli had bought a new hammer for his gun shortly before the crime.

The lies Sacco and Vanzetti told on being arrested were brought out as evidence of "consciousness of guilt." The defense agreed that the men were conscious of guilt, but claimed they believed they were being arrested for their politics and not for murder. Their interrogation took place during the "Red Scare," when alien radicals were being deported and fear of "bomb-throwers" and foreigners was rampant in the East.