By Jack Reibstein
Image: Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco (Dedham courthouse, 1923)
As a certified dead person, I can say with the utmost certainty that there is no triumph in agony. When the electric current traveled through my body and arrived at my brain, it boosted it like jumper cables would an engine, unlocking its full processing power before crashing it completely. I scanned through eternity like a panoramic photo while my scalp fried in that Charlestown jailhouse. I listened to it all at once: the thousands protesting on the Boston Common at the moment of my execution, the bombs detonating at United States embassies across the world in the days to come, the six shots that sent two innocent men to their death on a warm April night in 1921, and even a needle scratching a vinyl imprint of the 1970s Joan Baez + Ennio Morricone pop tribute, “Here’s to You (Nicola and Bart).” All of this within a fraction of a second.
In that song, Baez cantillates over a crestfallen church-organ:
Here’s to you, Nicola and Bart
Rest forever here in our hearts
The last and final moment is yours
That agony is your triumph.
But that last moment was not mine. I spent it begging for forgiveness from my dear sweet momma as I was strapped into the electric chair. Yes, I really was guilty. Still, I sat there cheated and broken, knowing that even if I were innocent, I’d still be in the same room, staring at the same blank wall, waiting for my life to end by the flip of a switch.
I wasn’t raised in a dirt hovel. In Italy, I never slept on the floor, ate moldy bread, or cupped my hands for spare change. My father made and distributed olive oil, and a bottle of the stuff sat on the kitchen shelf of every house in our little Apulian town. From a young age, my brother Sabino and I skipped school to shadow him at the farm. As far as I know, we’re the only ten year olds to ever operate an industrial sized olive press. When we learned at age sixteen that our parents had saved for years to ship my brother and I across the Atlantic, we were incredulous. We sought nothing beyond the daily gossip of the palazzo, the rich soil of the farm, and the heavenly sunsets on the dirt road that connected the two. But we went, because no matter who we asked, we were told that a better life was waiting out West. With each of us holding a suitcase and a fistful of lira, that meager currency, we made our way to a well-advertised freedom that neither of us ever enjoyed.
I did not like America, and the feeling was mutual. In Torremaggiore, I was Nicola, son of the olive oil merchant, a harmless neighborhood boy. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts ID’d me as another wandering dagowop, a backwards, half-brained mute that would, in due time, turn to petty theft and violence. Sabino and I earned a dollar a day picking up odd jobs around construction sites, scrounging off scraps of undesired labor. We fetched water, picked and shoveled dirt in vacant lots, and performed other basic tasks deemed suitable for a pair of dumb foreigners. The thankless work and constant insults levied against us from strangers on the sidewalk proved too onerous for Sabino. After two years of enduring this squalor, he surrendered, exchanging the few loose quarters and crumpled up bills stowed away in our apartment (it was more of a closet) for a ticket back home. In classic American fashion, my brother looked out for “number one,” saving his own ass and leaving me for dead. Is it any wonder, then, that I was drawn to radical politics, seduced by the whisperings of upheaval?
Anarchismo. I first heard the word muttered in beer halls, over the clanking of glasses and the scraping of stools against hardwood floor. What comes to mind when you hear it? Is it some bearded lunatic running off into the woods with his underwear on his head? Or perhaps a band of punks spray-painting a red, globular “A” in some London back alley?
For me, anarchy meant community. The other Italian men I toiled with at the construction yard were also, like me, disenfranchised vagrants. They blew their wages on cheap wine and, in their native tongue, cursed their parasitic families and unending stream of bad luck. At the other end of the bar were men of conviction, men who offered support and solutions for anyone who would listen. The anarchists, with their baggy suit jackets and hefty laughter, did not first strike me as a terrorist cell, but rather a social club, a group of gentlemen who batted off insanity by airing their grievances and decrying the systemic oppression that crushed them anew each day.
Over the course of several years, I was admitted into their fold, and shown how to defend my dignity and expand my mind. I no longer averted my eyes from passersby. Instead, I raged back when people accosted me in the street for being Italian. I spent my weekends in dusty recreation centers and crowded living rooms, plotting out, through debate with my new peers, how to upend the political machine and aid our working class brethren. With the extra money I made as a shoe trimmer, I could afford to dress like these firebrands that had helped me discover my own self-worth. I took their spots at the bar when they grew old and sick. At thirty years old with a wife and kids, I was as dependable as any Galleanist anarchist in Massachusetts. My standing in this circle emboldened me, and although I would never call myself American, I finally understood what it meant to be somebody in America.
So when they put bomb making pamphleture and a semi-automatic pistol in my hand, I didn’t ask questions. I stayed noble to the cause.
We were set to ambush a paymaster who was transporting a lockbox filled with cash. I failed to question my co-conspirators on their motives for this heist. Why steal the payroll of workers? And from a shoe factory, no less. My line of work. Didn’t this undermine our whole mission? Instead, I spun it as revenge against my own boss, payback for the stunted salary he dealt me each week. We set off into that April night, the first warm one of the year, with our pores reacclimating to the notion of midnight heat. Our guns clutched to our sides, we expected to score a few thousand dollars without contest, another small victory for our growing movement.
A word on Bartolomeo Vanzetti, to whom my name is forever tied: he had no part in this (there was a second man, but the question of his identity is not important. His name is lost to history. Though he was never convicted, carrying such crippling guilt is punishment enough). Bart never stood a chance at killing anyone, nor would he want to. “If you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.” Does that sound like something a murderer would say? Whether or not you buy into the veracity of that statement, murderers simply don’t speak like that. The “agony is your triumph” line that Baez used in her song? That came from Bart. The man gutted fish for a living, but he couldn’t have ever hurt another human being. He was a poet, not a criminal.
And that’s what troubles me the most. Bart, that mustachioed idealist, only wanted to make the world a better place. He was incapable of succumbing to the kind of pressure that consumed someone as weak-willed as myself. We used to spend long nights changing typefaces and swapping column ideas for the Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), a local underground anarchist publication. His appreciation for life was unmatched; he always marvelled at how, as a young boy, he blanketed himself with newspaper while sleeping on the street, never once imagining that he’d live to write for one. As much as I cherish these memories, I wish we never met. His association to me is what ultimately killed him.
Much has been made of our trial. Tampering of evidence, judgments of character, and false testimonies all managed to creep into the case. Some even assumed responsibility for the crime, but these confessions were ruled inadmissible. The whole affair may serve as a grand metaphor for injustice and the importance of a fair hearing, but that doesn’t make me any less guilty, or Bart any less dead. The court, the public, the history books: everyone wanted to make an example out of two Italian-American anarchists, though only one of them held a man at gunpoint in the backlot of a shoe factory. One of them saw a guard trailing the paymaster in the shadows. One of them saw the guard reach for his coat pocket, and unleashed a series of panicked bursts in response. One of them shot a man in the spine as he attempted to run away, watching him drop to the curb while his soul croaked out of his body. One of them drove off in a trance, hands tumbling over the steering wheel. And only one of them wished he were back in his motherland, shaking olives loose from their branches.