Sacco and Vanzetti!
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants “accused of a most brutal holdup of a payroll truck, with murder, in
South Braintree, Massachusetts, in the early afternoon of April 15, 1920″ and ultimately sentenced to death by electrocution in a controversial and highly criticized trial, arguable one of the most infamous in modern US history. The case attracted attention world-wide as many supported the pair’s innocence due to egregious mishandling of evidence and strong anti-immigrant, anti-Italian, anti-anarchist, and anti-Communist sentiments held by the judge and jury.
Katherine Anne Porter supported Sacco and Vanzetti throughout their trial and appeals, sending money to their defense fund when she was able, picketing and subsequent arrest at the courthouse, and standing vigil outside the prison during the execution. Porter is photographed below with a protest sign reading “Governor Fuller! Why did you call all our witnesses liars?” According to Porter:
“Each morning I left the hotel, walked into the blazing August sun, and dropped into the picket line before the State House; the police would allow us to march around once or twice, then close in and make the arrests we invited; indeed, what else were we there for? My elbow was always taken quietly by the same mild little blond officer, day after day; he was very Irish, very patient, very damned bored with the whole incomprehensible show. We always greeted each other politely. It was generally understood that the Pink Tea Squad, white cotton gloves and all, had been assigned to this job, well instructed that in no circumstance were they to forget themselves and whack a lady with their truncheons, no matter how far she forgot herself in rudeness and contrariety.”Never Ending Wrong
50 years after the trial, Porter recounted the case and surrounding social climate in the last piece of writing she published, Never Ending Wrong. It was first published in Atlantic in 1977, and subsequently published as monograph that same year. It was an opportunity for Porter to reflect on her experiences and the tremendous changes the world witnessed in the 20th century. According to Porter,
There are many notes, saved almost at random these long past years, many by mere chance; they were scrambled together in a battered yellow envelope marked Sacco-Vanzetti, and had worked their way to the bottom of many a basket of papers in many a change of houses, cities, and even a change of country. They are my personal experiences of the whirlwinds of change that brought Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler crowded into one half a century or less; and my understanding of this event in Boston as one of the most portentous in the long death of the civilization made by Europeans in the Western world, in the millennial upheaval which brings always every possible change but one—the two nearly matched forces of human nature, the will to give life and the will to destroy it.Never Ending Wrong
Throughout Never Ending Wrong, Porter discusses the struggle between the different groups surrounding Sacco and Vanzetti, including Communists and anarchists who wanted them to die as martyrs, liberal idealists who still hoped for the execution order to be overturned, and the police who could handling protestors with both care and violence. The article is an interesting mix of her experiences, observations, and impressions as she sifts through memory and reflection. She writes:
It is fifty years, very long ones, since Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in Boston, accused and convicted of a bitter crime, of which, it is still claimed, they may or may not have been guilty. I did not know then and I still do not know whether they were guilty (in spite of reading at this late day the learned, stupendous, dearly human work of attorney Herbert B. Ehrmann), but still I had my reasons for being there to protest the terrible penalty they were condemned to suffer; these reasons were of the heart, which I believe appears in these pages with emphasis. The core of this account of that fearful episode was written nearly a half-century ago, during the time in Boston and later; for years I refused to read, to talk or listen, because I couldn’t endure the memory—I wanted to escape from it. Some of the account was written at the scene of the tragedy itself and, except for a word or two here and there in those early notes, where I have added a fine in the hope of a clearer statement, it is unchanged in feeling and point of view. The evils prophesied by that crisis have all come true and are enormous in weight and varietyNever Ending Wrong
In Never Ending Wrong, Porter created a piece that still feels familiar for current society. As with much of her writing, she describes with a literary precision, that feels both personal and almost dream-like, the haunting impact of the trial. Here is her description of being in the crowd at the conclusion of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair:
For an endless dreary time we had stood there, massed in a measureless darkness, waiting, watching the fight in the tower of the prison. At midnight, this fight winked off winked on and off again, and my blood chills remembering it even now—I do not remember how often, but we were told that the extinction of this light corresponded to the number of charges of electricity sent through the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti. This was not true, as the newspapers informed us in the morning. It was only one of many senseless rumors and inventions added to the smothering air. It was reported later that Sacco was harder to kill than Vanzetti—two or three shocks for that tough body. Almost at once, in small groups, the orderly, subdued people began to scatter, in a sound of voices that was deep, mournful, vast, and wavering. They walked slowly toward the center of Boston. Life felt very grubby and mean, as if we were all of us soiled and disgraced and would never in this world live it down. I said something like this to the man walking near me, whose name or face I never knew, but I remember his words—“What are you talking about?” he asked bitterly, and answered himself: “There’s no such thing as disgrace anymore.”Never Ending Wrong
You can read the full text from The Atlantic here.
Browse the finding aid to the Katherine Anne Porter papers and visit us in Hornbake Library to learn more! You can also explore digitized photographs of Katherine Anne Porter in our Digital Collections repository.
Mattie Lewis is a student in the Masters of Library and Information Sciences program and Graduate Assistant with the Katherine Anne Porter Collection at UMD.