Chicago-based Theodore Grippo is the author of With Malice Aforethought, a book that explores the controversial trial of Sacco and Vanzetti of the 1920s. Known as "the trial of the century" the Sacco-Vanzetti case illuminated many societal issues. Ted talked to us about the case, his book and life in Chicago.
Tell us about your book. What can people expect when they open it up?
With Malice Aforethought is the story of one of the most tragic and controversial cases in American history. It takes place in a Boston suburb during the height of Red Scare hysteria of the 1920s.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant workers and members of a detested local anarchist group, were tried for the murder of a bank guard that occurred during a payroll robbery. On all accounts, the trial was grossly unfair, conducted before a biased judge and a hostile jury, and prosecuted by a district attorney who fabricated evidence, suppressed exonerating information and suborned perjury. The two Italians were convicted of murder and executed after six years of failed appeals, despite proven misconduct of the judge and prosecutors and the confession of a participant in the crime who swore that the two were not involved.
After Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, world-wide protests erupted. Millions claimed they were innocent and were executed for their political beliefs.
I take the reader through what became known as "The Trial of the Century," disclosing and examining newly discovered documents and other evidence establishing a conspiracy to frame Sacco and Vanzetti for murder.
Edmund Wilson, noted American writer and critic, observed that the case "...revealed the whole anatomy of American life with all its classes, professions and points of view...and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system."
The case illuminates today’s issues of immigration, terrorism and war. Herbert Ehrmann, appellate co-counsel for the two Italians, declared it "the case that will not die."
Many books, movies, and articles have previously looked at the Sacco and Vanzetti case. What makes your treatment unique and why did you decide to write about them now?
My treatment of the Sacco-Vanzetti case is unique in two ways. First, I provide the reader with a comprehensive description of the historical background that gave rise to the social and economic conditions that prevailed in America at the time of the trial, including the origins of the Red Scare hysteria that had a significant influence on the judge and jury’s attitude towards the two Italians. I also provide details and trial excerpts regarding not only the Dedham murder trial, but the earlier trial of Vanzetti in Plymouth for an attempted holdup and the trial of a court interpreter who attempted to extort $50,000 from the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee.
Second, the most unique aspects of my book are the new documents and other evidence that I discovered that no other author or observer of the case has found. This new evidence establishes that Judge Thayer either participated in or condoned an obstruction of justice (a crime) in the removal of important court documents from the Record of the case. This obstruction was done in order to avert further inquiry or any appeal regarding previous actions taken by conspirators to replace the genuine fatal Bullet III with a counterfeit in order to connect it to Sacco’s gun, and thereby, convict him of murder.
My decision to write about the case came about in the following way. When I was ten years old, I asked my father about Sacco and Vanzetti. I had heard their names, probably on the radio, in connection with the tenth anniversary of their executions. I still remember the look on my father’s face as he explained that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been sentenced to death for robbery and murder, but many believed they were innocent.
Over the years, I learned bits and pieces about the trial until I felt compelled to learn all that I could about the case. However, I had to defer my research until I approached retirement. I was then able to spend the time required to research and write about the Sacco and Vanzetti story. When I discovered the new evidence, I was determined to finish the book.
Do you think most people today know about the case?
I believe many students of the law and American history buffs are aware of the Sacco-Vanzetti case – particularly those who either grew up in the Boston area or live there now. The number of books and articles written about the case in the last twenty years indicates that interest in the case continues. However, there is no question that a majority
of the public are not aware of what was labeled "the trial of the century."
I attribute this paucity of knowledge about the case to these facts. The execution of the two Italians occurred in 1927. It was followed by ten years of the Great Depression and the gathering storm that led to World War II and the Korean War. And then, the developing civil rights movement followed. These events were of such a magnitude that the Sacco-Vanzetti case got a bit lost.
Are there any parallels with today’s political and legal climate?
As I indicated earlier, the Sacco-Vanzetti case illuminates today’s issues of immigration, terrorism and war. It also brings into focus the proper role of the public prosecutor and the judge in criminal cases. The prosecutor’s role is not to obtain convictions at any cost, but to seek justice at all costs. And judges must be free of prejudice for even those who espouse alien ideals. I consider the Sacco-Vanzetti case the "mother of all wrongful convictions."
As a member of the Advisory Board of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of the Northwestern University Law School, I’ve become aware of hundreds of prisoners who have been found wrongfully convicted of crimes ranging from robbery to rape and murder. In today’s America, the lessons learned from the Sacco-Vanzetti case stand as sentinels of our liberty.
What’s one thing about this case that people don’t know, but ought to?
One important aspect about the case that should be known is William Thompson’s dedication to the defense of the two Italians.
Thompson became appellate counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti after they were convicted of murder in a trial that failed to meet minimum standards of justice. He was an outstanding and most distinguished member of the Boston Bar, a Harvard College and Law School graduate who carried the Phi Beta Kappa key. He was a Brahmin of the highest order, tracing his family to the Mayflower.
He sacrificed everything – he was scorned by the judge and the Establishment, he suffered financial loss and even ill health to defend two immigrant anarchist workers who were without wealth, power or standing in the community because he believed in their innocence and because they were so badly treated by the court and prosecution. William Thompson lived up to the highest and noblest traditions of the law in his defense of the two Italians.