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Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case I - Page 1 of 4

Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case
Part I. The Phony Experts
By Jim Fisher

In the afternoon of April 15, 1920, a factory paymaster (cashier) and his bodyguard were shot to death in South Braintree, Massachusetts. As the paymaster and his guard were leaving the factory where they worked, they were ambushed by two bandits. One of the attackers pulled a gun and fired into the guard while the paymaster was gunned down as he turned to run. The paymaster had been carrying two metal boxes containing $16,000 in cash. After the shootings, the killers climbed into a car that had pulled up to the scene with three men in it. When the get-a-way car drove off, the shooters were gone – and so was the money.

The guard had been shot four times and the paymaster twice. Four empty cartridge cases were found on the street near the guard's body, and all six bullets had been fired from a 32-caliber automatic pistol. Five had been fired from a gun with right-hand rifling and one from a barrel with left-hand spirals.

Of the four bullets in the guard, the fatal bullet, marked by the police with the Roman numeral III, had gone through the victim's right lung, tore open his pulmonary artery, and came to rest at his hipbone. This slug, referred to as bullet III, or the fatal bullet number 3, had been slightly flattened but was suitable for analysis and comparison.

Sacco and Vanzetti would be tried for the murder of the guard and bullet number 3 would play a vital role at their trial.

On May 5, 1920, when Sacco and Vanzetti were picked up for questioning, both were carrying 32-caliber automatic handguns. Sacco's gun had left-hand rifling, and Vanzetti's had the opposite. At the time of his arrest, Sacco was employed in a shoe factory. He told the police he possessed the gun because of his second job as a security guard. Vanzetti was a fish peddler who said he needed his gun to protect his cash proceeds. Both men were active in Italian anarchist groups and were considered by the police to be radicals.

Both suspects had alibis. Sacco claimed that on the day of the murders he was in Boston applying for a passport at the Italian Consulate. The clerk at the consulate remembered this because Sacco tried to use a family group photograph as a passport photo. Vanzetti said he was selling fish at the time in Plymouth, Massachusetts. A merchant who sold Vanzetti some cloth would come forward to verify his alibi.

At this point, the evidence against the two anarchists was very weak. The police had merely established an association between Sacco and Vanzetti and a man named Boda who the police had connected to a stolen Buick believed to have been used in the crime. Sacco and Vanzetti met the general eyewitness descriptions of the gunmen, and when arrested, were armed with 32-caliber handguns. Of course the fact that they were radicals and lied to the police when initially questioned didn't help their case.1

Several eyewitnesses went to the police station to identify Sacco and Vanzetti as the killers. One of the witnesses took a look at the two Italians and flatly stated they weren't the gunmen.

The police had found a cap at the scene of the crime that they believed belonged to Sacco. The hat had a hole in it which the police believed corresponded to a nail at the factory where Sacco hung his cap. Sacco denied the hat was his, and the police could never positively establish that he was lying.

In a 1962 article by Fred J. Cook entitled, “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints..,” the author states that in July of 1927, about a month before Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, a journalist named Tom O'Connor learned from the then ex-chief of the South Braintree Police Department, Jeremiah F. Gallivan, that the so-called Sacco cap had been given to him two days after the murder.2 According to O'Connor, the tear or hole in the back lining of the hat had been made by Gallivan when he was looking to see if there were any identifying marks on the underside of the lining.

In his article, Cook states that Gallivan was convinced that the hat had no connection with the murder. Gallivan, testifying before the Lowell Committee, the committee appointed to look into the case for Governor Fuller shortly before the executions, stated:

Can any of you gentlemen make me believe that the hat lay there for thirty hours, with the state police, the local police and two or three thousand people there? . . . So you mean to tell me that the hat lay on the ground for thirty hours with the state police looking for shells, prints and anything else they could find.3

According to Cook, when Sacco tried the hat on in the courtroom, it was tight, it sat perched on top of his head, an obvious poor fit.

Although Sacco wasn't exonerated because the hat wasn't his, Cook's information, if correct, suggests a prosecution that was, at best, overzealous.

When arrested, Sacco had twenty-three rounds in his gun and in his pockets. The rounds were of the same type, caliber, and series as the shells found near the dead bodyguard. Early on, the police theorized that Sacco and Vanzetti had pulled the robbery and murder to finance their political activities, specifically, to pay for anarchist propaganda.

Sacco's and Vanzetti's trial began on May 31, 1921 at Dedham, Massachusetts, and lasted thirty-seven days. Sixty-one witnesses testified for the prosecution, one hundred and seven for the defense. Nine of the prosecution's eyewitnesses identified either Sacco or Vanzetti as the killers, however, none of them were able to say they had seen both of them at the scene of the crime. Several other eyewitnesses took the stand for the prosecution but were unable to positively identify either Sacco or Vanzetti.

During the initial crime scene investigation, three eyewitnesses to the murder were questioned by the police. One of these witnesses advised that the gunmen were dark-skinned, another said they had light-colored hair. The third eyewitness thought the driver of the car had a mustache but then decided otherwise. After Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, these and several other eyewitnesses were asked to view the two of them at the jail.

At the trial, five of the prosecution's eyewitnesses identified Sacco and four identified Vanzetti. However, prior to the trial, none of these eyewitnesses had been certain that the men they had seen at the killings were either Sacco or Vanzetti. But when they took the stand, their identifications became quite positive. This change could possibly have been caused by improper police identification procedures at the jail. Suspects who are viewed by eyewitnesses have to be protected by strict rules and procedures in order to insure fairness and reliable identifications. At the jail, Sacco and Vanzetti were not picked out of a group of similar looking men. Moreover, the eyewitnesses had looked at their photographs so many times, Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s faces were probably imprinted onto their minds as the killers.5

In 1926, five years after the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, Tom O'Connor, a State House News Service reporter, discovered that private investigators from the Pinkerton Detective Agency had worked on the case prior to the arrests. The South Braintree payroll had been insured by the Travelers Insurance Company who hired the Pinkerton Agency to investigate the crime. When O'Connor read the Pinkerton reports he learned that the initial description of the gunmen by the crime scene witnesses conflicted greatly with their testimony at the trial.6 O'Connor became so engrossed in the case he quit his reporters job to work with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense without pay.

1. For a critical discussion of the initial phases of the investigation conducted by Chief of Police Michael F. Stewart of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the investigation that developed Sacco, Vanzetti, and three others as suspects, see: O'Connor, Tom, “New Light on an Old Story,” The Nation, (September 22, 1926). The three other suspects were: Mike Boda, Ferruccio Coacci, and Ricardo Orciani. Orciani was arrested then released when the police couldn't break his alibi. Coacci had been deported as an anarchist one week after the robbery/murder, and Boda had just disappeared, never to be found again. Chief Stewart's interest in Sacco and Vanzetti had to do with a bungled hold-up attempt in Bridgewater on December 24, 1919, in which four gunmen tried to ambush a payroll delivery truck. Stewart believed the same men had committed the robbery and murder at South Braintree.
2. Cook, Fred J., “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints. .,” The Nation, (December 22, 1962) pp 442-51
3. Cook, p 448
4. Vanzetti had been convicted in June, 1920 in connection with the attempt to hold up an armored car at Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The Bridgewater crime was committed in December, 1919. Sacco wasn't tried because he had an air-tight alibi. Vanzetti had been convicted on no evidence at all and sentenced to 10-15 years in prison. The Bridgewater conviction had paved the way for the convictions at Dedham
5. For a discussion of the eyewitnesses in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, see: Loftus, Elizabeth, Eyewitness Testimony, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979) and Busch, Francis X., Prisoners at the Bar, (London: Arco Publications, 1957), pp 53-141.
6. O'Connor’s findings are reported on page 445 of Fred J. Cook's article, “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints . .” Cook writes: “One witness, who had said originally he 'did not get much of a look' and couldn't describe the shotgun bandit's face, came into court and rendered a detailed and perfect description. Several others originally had described the distinguishing feature of the shotgun-sharpshooter's face as a black 'close-cropped' mustache. Now there was nothing close-cropped about Vanzetti's mustache; it was probably one of the most luxuriant exhibits of its kind ever grown, and it drooped well down to the corners of his lips.” (p 445) At the risk of detracting from the point Cook is making, it should be pointed out that neither Sacco or Vanzetti were in possession of a shotgun. The murder weapons were 32-caliber handguns. Tom O'Connor became secretary to the committee for the Vindication of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com