From the Letters to the Editor column of the October 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
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Sacco and Vanzetti: History or Legend?
To the Editor:
As a historian, author of a book on the case, and a talking head in the film itself, I should like to comment upon the film Sacco and Vanzetti, which recently received the AHA’s John E. O’Connor Award. The Sacco-Vanzetti story is perfect in projecting the image of two Italian immigrants convicted of their idealistic beliefs for a common payroll robbery and murder doubled. Surely, one must think and feel, a conspiracy railroaded these proudly admitted anarchists to the electric chair.
In the film, three talking heads testified: David E. Kaiser, who completed the writing and research on a book begun by the original researcher, the terminally ill rare-book and art dealer William Young; Nunzio Pernicone, author of an article on the case; and I, author of Protest: Sacco and Vanzetti and the Intellectuals (1965). The first two eloquently expanded on overlapping theses of innocence betrayed. I was nearly decapitated, being permitted to make a few introductory remarks before consignment to the cutting room floor by Peter Miller, the producer, who had interviewed me at length.
That story of innocence legally murdered was still too good to be upset by the facts. The result is an ahistorical legend, the product of willed belief and efficiently organized propaganda, the film being another example, with those facts along with most of my head being trimmed away. No one, as I have ascertained, has credibly contradicted the following hard facts established in two trials (one of six and one-half weeks with full publicity) and other documentation: 16 eye witnesses putting Sacco or Vanzetti at one or the other of the two crimes at issue, ballistics evidence proving that Sacco’s pistol killed the payroll guard (one of the two fatalities, the other being the paymaster), Vanzetti’s possession of a revolver of the same make as the guard’s missing weapon, and the pair’s quest on the arrest evening, along with two disreputable friends, for an automobile that was eventually associated with the crime. Innocence makes a more dramatic film.
Professor of History Emeritus
City University of New York
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