Sacco and Vanzetti: Guilty After All?

Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were a cause celebre of the 1920s, convicted of murder and executed after a trial many felt was a farce. Author Upton Sinclair wrote extensively about the case. Newly discovered letters reveal his suspicions that the men were guilty. Debbie Elliott gets the details from Sinclair biographer Tony Arthur.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

A California man browsing through boxes at an auction unearthed a fascinating discovery, a dusty letter dated 1929 from famed muckraker Upton Sinclair. Sinclair had just published a novel called Boston about the murder trial of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Sacco and Vanzetti were a cause célèbre during the 1920s. Left-leaning intellectuals, including Sinclair, championed their innocence. Their eventual execution in 1927 touched off riots in Paris and London. Upton Sinclair's letter reveals he knew more than he let on about the case. We've invited Upton Sinclair's biographer, Anthony Arthur, to tell us about it.

Hello.

Mr. ANTHONY ARTHUR (Upton Sinclair's Biographer): Hello, it's nice to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So in this letter, Sinclair describes a meeting with Fred Moore, who was Sacco and Vanzetti's lawyer at the time. They're meeting at a hotel in Denver. And he writes, quote, "Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth. He then told me that the men were guilty and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."

So what does this tell us about what Sinclair knew about this case that was different from what he wrote in his book?

Mr. ARTHUR: Well, what it tells you is that he had confirmed by an independent source who was involved in the case the doubts that he had come to have himself. He was writing a novel about two men who were charged with a crime. He was certain of their innocence when he went into it. He became doubtful of their innocence as he went along. And according to this, he became convinced of their guilt by the conclusion.

Like many of us, he will say different things at different times about the same thing. But I have to admit that this sounds as though he was more knowledgeable and more certain about the guilt than he appeared to be in his published statements and, indeed, in his private communications as well.

ELLIOTT: And it almost sounds like he found it very troubling. He writes, quote, "I face the most difficult ethical problem of my life," at that point. You know, he says, I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case, and then he later writes, But it's much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, because this is what readers expect.

Mr. ARTHUR: He did indeed. I think he cut some corners on this. He thought that a larger truth was that there was repression in America and that that was his subject and that innocent people sometimes were found guilty. I think that he showed a similar kind of ethical lapse later on when he was very hesitant in the late 1930s and early 1940s to condemn Stalin.

ELLIOTT: What do you think was going on, culturally, that made him slow to acknowledge these things?

Mr. ARTHUR: He'd been concerned through most of his life, which, he was born in 1878, so he grew up in a period of enormous turmoil, and he was concerned that there was going to be a war, a literal war, not a figurative one, between labor and capital. So even if the men were guilty, I think he felt that the climate of opinion and the representation of their foreignness, they were Italian, and their political beliefs, which were anarchism, had almost condemned them out of hand before they had a chance at a fair trial.

ELLIOTT: How do you think people read his novels? Did they look at this as a fictional account of something or did they expect him to be giving a true account of what happened?

Mr. ARTHUR: He called it a documentary novel. He rather anticipated what Truman Capote was doing later on with In Cold Blood, and he was fairly scrupulous about representing all sides. If you go to the novel, which is about 700 pages long, it's huge, he gives all of the evidence that has been compiled against Sacco and Vanzetti.

So I think he was fair in his representation of the evidence and the case. Even if the men were guilty, he felt that the larger context of the world in which they were living rendered their guilt perhaps less important than it might have been otherwise.

ELLIOTT: Anthony Arthur has written Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, a soon to be published biography. He joined us from our NPR West facility.

Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. ARTHUR: Thank you.

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