Seven years after the murder and robbery of the paymaster and the security guard, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was still in the news. The execution date, postponed several times because of the flood of worldwide protest, was approaching fast. On June 1, 1927, Massachusetts Governor John Fuller appointed a committee of three men to look into the case. A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard University headed the committee.
By 1927 firearms identification was on the verge of becoming a recognized forensic science. Charles Waite, the ballistics pioneer who would later be considered the father of the science, had formed a private company in New York City called the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics. In partnership with Waite were two other scientists, Phillip Gravelle and John Fischer. A short time after the formation of the bureau, Dr. Calvin Goddard, a physician and native of Baltimore, had joined the organization. Because of his intense interest in firearms, Dr. Goddard had given up a promising career as a heart surgeon. He had transferred from the Medical Corps to Army Ordnance and had risen to the rank of Colonel. Shortly before Waite’s death in 1926, Fischer and Gravelle had left the Bureau, leaving Goddard as its head and sole owner.1 Goddard had studied the photographs of the Sacco-Vanzetti bullets taken in 1923 by Charles Van Amburgh when they appeared in the press. Goddard had been interested in the case and had followed it closely in the papers. By the spring of 1927, Goddard felt he had the knowledge, tools and technique to determine, once and for all, if Sacco's gun had fired the fatal bullet.
Meanwhile, the case was generating a new storm of protest and controversy. In September, 1926, another motion for a new trial had been rejected by Judge Thayer. In the spring of 1927, Justice Felix Frankfurter, then on the faculty of the Harvard Law School, came to Sacco and Vanzetti’s aid with an impassioned article of protest in the Atlantic Monthly. 2 Frankfurter also published a small book on the case.3 In these works Frankfurter harshly criticized Judge Webster Thayer for denying the new trial, making much of Captain Proctor's change of mind and resultant affidavit to that effect.4 Frankfurter couldn't understand why a new trial hadn't been granted on this point alone. His objections, however, were not restricted to the firearms evidence, he took exception to Judge Thayer's ruling on many grounds.
John Henry Wigmore, Dean of the Northwestern University School of Law, was angered by Frankfurter's criticism. Wigmore was the author of the renowned Treatise on Evidence and a tireless crusader for court acceptance of scientific evidence. He accused Frankfurter of undermining the orderly process of the court and violating Canon 20 of the American Bar Association's Code of Ethics.5 (Canon 20 prohibits newspaper publications by a lawyer about pending litigation.) Frankfurter and many other intellectuals felt that Sacco and Vanzetti hadn't been given a fair trial because they were radicals. The public dispute between these two giants in the legal field illustrates how passionately people felt about the Sacco-Vanzetti case.
Calvin Goddard couldn't remain on the sidelines any longer. On June 3, 1927, three days after the creation of the Lowell Committee by Governor Fuller, he offered his services to the defense. Without referring to Sacco's or Vanzetti's guilt or innocence, Goddard said he would make tests to determine if the fatal bullet had been fired from Sacco's gun.
The defense wasn't interested in Goddard's help. They were still holding to the opinions of their expert, Dr. Albert Hamilton. Although he was a phony, his findings best fitted their theory of the case. Why take a chance with a real expert like Goddard?
The defense attorneys' biased and naïve view of Dr. Hamilton is illustrated in this passage from a book written several years later by one of the Sacco-Vanzetti defense lawyers:
Albert H. Hamilton was a firearms expert, sixty-two years of age, who had thirty-seven years’ experience as a criminologist. In the course of his experiences he was employed in 164 homicide cases throughout the country. In ninety per cent of those cases he represented the Government. In connection with his work he repeatedly visited all the leading American cartridge, revolver, and pistol factories, inspecting the machinery used, their products, and the peculiarities of manufacture that gave individuality to a firearm or to cartridges.
It must be obvious that Hamilton was well qualified to pass opinion on questions of fact regarding firearms and cartridges. In April 1923 he made an examination of the so-called ‘mortal bullet’ in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. In this examination he used a compound microscope which could measure 1/100,000 of an inch. He came to the conclusion that the famous Bullet No. 3 had not been fired through Sacco’s pistol.6
The prosecution, however, welcomed Goddard's assistance. The examination took place on June 3, 1927, in the office of the clerk of the courts in Dedham with one of the defense experts, August Gill, present. Gill had never seen a comparison microscope but quickly realized its usefulness as an aid in comparing bullets and shell casings. Also present were four newspaper reporters and a stenographer.
1. The Bureau was a commercial failure, most law enforcement agencies at the time weren't sophisticated enough to take advantage of the Bureau's criminalistic services. It wasn't long before the organization was dissolved.
2. Frankfurter, Felix, “The Case of Sacco & Vanzetti,” 139 Atlantic Monthly, 409 (March, 1927)
3. Frankfurter, Felix, The Case of Sacco & Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1927). The book was reprinted with a new introduction by Edmund M. Morgan in 1954 and in 1962 by Grosset & Dunlap (Universal Library Edition).
4. Frankfurter, Felix, The Case of Sacco & Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen, (NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962), pp 76-91.
5. John Henry Wogmore (1863-1943) is most widely known for his Treatise on Evidence, the first edition appearing in four volumes in 1904-5. The second edition was published in 5 volumes in 1923 and a third in 1940 when the author was 77 years old. The third edition comprised 10 volumes. The edition was kept up-to-date by the use of pocket supplements. The work has gained recognition as the standard in the legal field and is cited more than any work of its kind. Wigmore wrote several other books and in 1929 helped organize the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory at the Law School at Northwestern University. For a discussion of the Frankfurter-Wigmore dispute, see: Roalfe, William R., “John Henry Wigmore Scholar and Reformer,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 53:3 (September, 1962) pp 277-300.
6. Mussmanno, Michael a., After Twelve Years, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), p 176. Musmanno, the author of several books, became a distinguished justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, The Sacco-Vanzetti case is discussed in a later book by Mussmanno entitled, Verdict!, (NY: Doubleday, 1958).