High Concept

The Refractory Ones

Sacco, Vanzetti, and Timothy McVeigh.

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in Massachusetts on Aug. 23, 1927, almost exactly 70 years ago. And if ever there was an argument against capital punishment, the double execution of these most unusual men was surely it. The two of them were Italians from humble backgrounds who had come to America and joined the old proletarian anarchist movement–the movement that dreamed of abolishing capitalism, government, religion, and every other oppressive obstacle to collective economics and individual freedom. They were accused of having held up a shoe-factory payroll in South Braintree, Mass., in 1920, and of participating in the murder of the paymaster and a guard.

The degree of bigotry shown them in the course of their trial was so marked that Judge Webster Thayer was literally heard to boast: “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while.” Yet, for all the outcry against the judge and the trial, the outcry against the two anarchists was vaster still. It was the sort of outcry that, in the psychobabbling rhetoric of our present age, would call for death penalties not in order to serve abstract justice but (this is the modern wrinkle) to provide “closure” and other emotional satisfactions to the families of the crime victims–exactly as has been demanded today in the cases of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber and a few others around the country. So the anarchists were put to death, and tremors of indignation and hatred went across the world, and in the years that followed, America paid dearly in lost prestige and social instability.

Did Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti commit the South Braintree holdup? My reading of the case leads me to conclude: Probably not. But there is more to be said. Italian-American anarchism during their time was a movement of several thousand working people who were divided into factions, one of which favored militant trade unions and the other of which was too revolutionary for words. Sacco and Vanzetti belonged to the latter faction.

Their group was led by a ferocious character named Luigi Galleani, who advocated terror. This view of his led the federal authorities, in 1919 and 1920, to close down the Galleanist newspaper; to deport Galleani and his right-hand man, Raffeale Schiavina, to Italy; and to round up a large number of other comrades, including Sacco and Vanzetti (who were accused of the fateful holdup only after being detained). And the Galleanists responded by more or less launching a war against the government.

I n 1991, the historian Paul Avrich published a book called Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton University Press), which attracted very little attention but ought to change public understanding of the affair. Avrich’s findings are astounding. In 1916 a Galleanist had already tried to poison the archbishop of Chicago and some 200 people at a banquet held in the archbishop’s honor (an overload of arsenic caused the banqueters to vomit up the poison instead of fatally digesting it). In 1919 the Galleanists mailed letter bombs to John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, three senators, and 25 other persons regarded as enemies of the anarchist working class (and in this respect, the Galleanists were predecessors of the Unabomber, except that the Galleanists mailed more bombs, which succeeded in injuring only a single person, a senator’s maid). One of the Galleanists accidentally blew himself up while trying to bomb the home of the United States attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer.

Another Galleanist planted a bomb on Wall Street on Sept. 16, 1920, to avenge the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the bomb killed a random crowd of 33 people–the worst terrorist atrocity in American history until McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Nor did the deportations and executions bring Galleanism to an end. Two years after Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death, Galleani’s assistant, Schiavina, smuggled himself back to New York and resumed the editorship of a revived newspaper, The Call of the Refractory Ones (L’Adunata dei Refrattari, in Italian), an oddly elegant journal full of charming woodcuts, which Schiavina kept up for the next 42 years–an amazing achievement by a strictly underground editor.

Ihave spent a few hours over back issues of The Call of the Refractory Ones. I used to be friendly with some of its readers and supporters in their elderly years, and I know that a good many of those ultra-militants, as they aged, came to esteem the ordinary, peaceable methods of social reform in the United States. But the terrorist impulse never did disappear entirely. As late as 1982, five years before his death, Schiavina, still underground, helped bring out an English translation of a pamphlet by Galleani that called for the assassination of tyrants–assassination partly as an aesthetic gesture, which is scary. In the early years after the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Refractory group kept up a certain amount of violence, too.

The worst of it was in Argentina, where The Call of the Refractory Ones’ Buenos Aires correspondent, Severino Di Giovanni (whose biography has been written by Osvaldo Bayer under the title Anarchism and Violence), launched a holdup-and-bombing campaign that began as a gesture of solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti and continued for several murderous years until he, too, was executed. But the striking thing is that, during the 1930s, Galleanist violence took aim mostly at European fascism, which does put the movement in a slightly more sympathetic light. According to still another historian of the movement, Robert D’Attilio, more than a score, though less than a hundred, of the American Galleanists went to Spain during the Civil War of the 1930s to fight against the fascists. And there was the attempt to assassinate Mussolini in 1931 (as has been described in a book called L’anarchico Schirru by the Italian journalist Giuseppe Fiori) by a Refractory comrade from the Bronx who went to Europe to do the deed. But he was arrested and executed in Rome. Which ought to make us reflect.

For when you look back on a complicated case after many years have passed, the black-and-white of a simple moral finality tends to blur into gray. In the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, the American justice system managed to produce a notable injustice–yet Sacco and Vanzetti’s movement was genuinely a menace, which is why the demand for electrocution was difficult to resist. The two anarchists were probably not holdup men–yet may well have participated in the mail bombings, Avrich suspects. Terrorism is always and in every instance a bad thing–yet it was a pity, everyone will agree, about the failure of the Refractory Bronxite who tried to rid the world of Mussolini.

Will today’s public bear in mind these sorts of ambiguities in thinking about McVeigh, the Unabomber, and a variety of other death-sentence cases of the present moment? Not a chance. People must have their closure.