Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Tragedy in Dedham: Review by Steven Powell

Steven Powell:  
Francis Russell's Tragedy in Dedham

Recently I sat down to read one of those great award-winning books that was a major hit upon publication but has been largely forgotten today. Tragedy in Dedham is Francis Russell’s account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime in 1963. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s names have become shorthand for how easily a miscarriage of justice can occur when xenophobia and prejudice are at work. The two men were Italian anarchists who emigrated to the United States in 1908. Living in Boston, at the time a hotbed of political radicalism especially among the Italian community, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with armed robbery and murder after a guard and a paymaster were killed during a holdup of the Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree in 1920. Their subsequent trial was widely viewed as unfair and tainted by anti-Italian and anti-immigrant bias. They were convicted and sentenced to death in 1921, and finally executed in 1927, by which time their case had become a cause célèbre with protest marches being held in major cities on every continent. In the Soviet Union, the case was used as propaganda to highlight the brutality of the capitalist system the two Italians had opposed. Today, few commentators would claim that Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial, but that still leaves the question open -- were they innocent?

Author Francis Russell was a man of letters, a noted wit, and a fashionable Bostonian of a bygone age. He served as a captain in the Intelligence Corps of the Canadian army during World War II, and later became a historian of some repute. As an author, he had an uncanny ability to make himself a character in the text. This is evident in his acclaimed biography of Warren Harding, The Shadow of Blooming Grove. While researching the book, Russell had come across 105 previously unseen letters between Harding and his mistress Carrie Phillips. Excited by such an important historical discovery, Russell made the mistake of handing them over to the Ohio Historical Society which he soon found was more interested in protecting Harding’s reputation and its own privileged status than it was in historical scholarship. Outraged by the letters erotic content, the OHS with the connivance of Harding’s nephew, succeeded in blocking Russell from publishing them. Russell devotes the final chapter of the biography to this affair, and his running battles with the Society read like a gripping legal thriller. The letters still appear in the book, only with blank spaces in the text where he had originally quoted from them. The letters were finally published in 2014, with the racy relationship between Harding, Carrie and ‘Jerry’ exposed in all its sordid glory.

Russell begins Tragedy in Dedham in similarly personal tones. He devotes the first two chapters to his initial thoughts and research on the case. He makes it clear that it is impossible to view the case without some degree of bias:

‘One’s view of the case depended on one’s status in the community. If one was middle-class and Republican and read the Herald mornings and the Transcript nights, one thought Sacco and Vanzetti guilty [...] But if one was a university liberal, one tended to think the trial unfair, and if one read the Nation or New Republic one was sure they were innocent.’

Russell was inspired to write the book after serving on a jury in the same Dedham courthouse where Sacco and Vanzetti had been condemned years earlier. While researching the case, there were numerous people still around who remembered the events or were involved somehow. Russell would soon discover how opinion on Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt or innocence was divided along political lines, and was fairly unshakeable at that, when he was warned against writing a book by a lawyer who was trying to publish his own book on the trial, ‘If you tell the truth you’ll never find a publisher. Because if you really go into the case you can only conclude that those two Italians were guilty. And you’ll never get a hearing on that. Why? Because their innocence has become a liberal trademark.’

By chapter three, Russell begins to unfurl events in chronological order: the robbery at Braintree, the subsequent arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti after they were found carrying guns connected to the crime, and finally - the show-trial. Vanzetti was first convicted for an earlier robbery which had happened in Bridgewater, a conviction which was seen as helpful in securing a guilty verdict on the Braintree robbery, where the evidence against him was weak. In the public mind he was already guilty. The Galleanist philosophy which Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed to was looked upon with palpable fear and hatred. A wave of bombings was terrorising the US, and the presiding Judge Webster Thayer made several outbursts against the defendants and their anarchist beliefs which were later used to argue he had not been impartial during the trial. Russell is at his best in his witty caricatures of the principal players in the affair. Of the sixty-two-year-old Thayer he writes, ‘the leathery texture of his face made him seem a decade older. He was about five feet two inches tall, with the edgy vanity of many short men, and a voice that easily turned petulant. On the bench he looked the part of a judge. He had a high forehead, a sudden little hawk nose bridged by pince-nez, thin gray hair and mustache, dark-circled eyes, and a narrow Yankee line of mouth.’ Thayer’s house was bombed five years after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. He was unhurt but lived the rest of his life under police protection.

Russell handles other characters sympathetically, such as Fred Moore the socialist Californian attorney of Sacco and Vanzetti. Moore had enjoyed a number of successes championing labour causes. Unfortunately, his eccentric West Coast ways proved completely out of place in the ‘colonial backwater’ of Dedham, and he made an enemy of Judge Thayer and, surprisingly, the two defendants. Sacco dismissed him in a letter he signed, ‘Your implacable enemy, now and forever’. Russell humorously and movingly describes the diminished Moore’s return to California:

‘He left Boston for good in the old Dodge touring car that was his sole permanent acquisition from the case, alone, in his frayed suit and cracked boots, and with three hundred borrowed dollars in his pocket. His immediate wish was to get back to California, to that land of brighter sunshine and wider horizons, three thousand good miles away from the mongrel English city where even the anarchists seemed affected by the constrictions of the Puritan heritage. Stacked behind him in the Dodge were several dozen packages of little tin signs, for attaching to rear license plates, that read: IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE TOO DAMN CLOSE. By selling these at filling stations and garages he hoped to cover his expenses on the way back.’

These little moments add profundity to the text and presage the concluding tragedy of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s execution. Russell’s final view is that Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was not. His thesis fits the temperament he identified in both men. Sacco was the fiery revolutionary who had no compunction in committing murder for the anarchist cause. Vanzetti was the quiet, intellectual anarchist to whom violence was anathema but, through loyalty to his friend and ideology, condemns himself to the electric chair.

Sacco and Vanzetti, guilty or not, became emblematic of the injustices of their time. As for Francis Russell, I think of him as the nearly Great man of American literature. Philip K. Dick had vivid dreams about The Shadow of Blooming Grove, but when he sat down to read the book he found it a bore. James Ellroy planned to write a novel about President Harding based upon his reading of Russell’s biography, but he eventually jettisoned the idea. The irony of Russell’s literary career is that while he was at his best making himself a character of past events, he has been almost entirely written out of literary history. Just as Russell was once warned, ‘If you tell the truth you’ll never find a publisher’, so too does it seem that being a damn fine writer is no guarantee of a posthumous reputation.

I, for one, have always admired Russell as an author, and would love to see a revival of interest in his work. Tragedy in Dedham is a grand place to start.

Steven Powell is a crime fiction scholar and, in the words of Andrew Pepper, 'the authority on James Ellroy'. His book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) was nominated for the HRF Keating Award for Best Biographical / Critical work. He is also the editor of the anthologies Conversations with James Ellroy (University Press of Mississippi 2012) and The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy's Noir World (Bloomsbury 2018). He edited the anthology 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is a member of the Crime Writers Association. He blogs about crime fiction at Venetian Vase.

No comments: