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Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case I - Page 3 of 4

In February, 1923, almost two years after the guilty verdict, the defense brought a new firearms expert into the case. Judge Thayer had already denied two motions for a new trial, and the defense was now in the process of drawing up a new motion that attacked the heart of the prosecution's case – the evidence that bullet III had been fired from Sacco's gun.

It seems that Captain Proctor, from the very beginning, had had serious doubts regarding Sacco's and Vanzetti's guilt. In a 1962 article about the case, Fred J. Cook writes: “Even during the trial, he (Proctor) had remarked that Katzmann (the prosecutor) was trying the wrong man. And, on another occasion, he told his friend, Harry C. Attwill, Attorney General of Massachusetts, ‘They've got the wrong men.’“10 Since Proctor probably realized that he wasn't a real firearms expert, he didn't have the confidence to testify directly that Sacco's gun had fired the fatal bullet. After the trial, Proctor's doubts intensified. He was reported to have said, “I have been in the game too long, and I'm getting too old to see a couple of fellows go to the chair for something I don't think they did.”

On October 20, 1923, Proctor signed an affidavit for the defense in which he completely repudiated his testimony on behalf of the prosecution:

. . . at the trial the District Attorney did not ask me whether I had found any evidence that the so-called mortal bullet passed through Sacco's pistol, nor was I asked that question on cross-examination. The District Attorney desired to ask me that question, but I had repeatedly told him that if he did I should be obliged to answer in the negative. . . . Bullet Number III, in my judgment, passed through some Colt automatic pistol, but I do not intend to imply that I had found any evidence that the so-called mortal bullet had passed through this particular Colt automatic pistol and the District Attorney well knew that I did not so intend and framed his question accordingly. Had I been asked the direct question: whether I had found any affirmative evidence whatever that this so-called mortal bullet had passed through this particular Sacco's pistol, I should have answered then, as I do now without hesitation, in the negative.11

Backing up a bit, the new defense firearms expert who had entered the case in February, 1923, was none other than Dr. Albert Hamilton, the phony whose testimony in 1915 had almost sent the innocent farmhand, Charlie Stielow, to the gallows. Stielow's life had been saved by Charles Waite who uncovered the fact that the alleged murder weapon hadn't been fired in years.

The defense could not have made a worse choice than Hamilton. They were obviously unaware of the Stielow fiasco and the fact that Hamilton's doctorate was self-awarded. The coroner in Hamilton's hometown of Auburn, New York considered the druggist and concocter of patent medicine a liar, and the local district attorney referred to Hamilton as a “professional expert . . . whose testimony should not be accepted in any court of record, and should receive no credence at the hands of a judge or jury.”12

The defense was also unaware that Hamilton, without solicitation, had earlier offered his services in the case by writing a letter to Judge Thayer. Hamilton had advised the judge that he knew a method of evidence analysis that would reveal the truth once and for all. Thayer did not bother to reply.

A shameless self-promoter, Hamilton had published in 1908 a brochure about himself entitled, “That Man from Auburn.” In this piece of self-advertisement, Hamilton described himself as a qualified expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting, ink analysis, typewriting, photography, fingerprints, toxicology, gunshot wounds, guns and cartridges, bullet identification, gunpowder, nitroglycerine, blood and other stains, causes of death, embalming, and anatomy.13

After being asked, by letter, to examine the Sacco-Vanzetti evidence, Hamilton, without bothering to respond in same, took a train to Massachusetts. After his examination of the evidence, Hamilton announced that he had found as follows:

  1. Bullet III had not been fired from Sacco's Colt automatic pistol.

  2. The cartridge cases found at the scene and the ones in Sacco's pocket didn't correspond.

  3. None of the empty shell casings at the scene had been struck by the firing pin of Sacco's gun.

  4. Vanzetti's revolver had not been fitted with a new firing pin. (Thus eliminating the possibility that Vanzetti, at the time of his arrest, was in possession of the dead bodyguard’s revolver.)

Hamilton claimed that by using a Bausch & Lamb Compound microscope, he was able to see definite discrepancies between the marks on the test bullets and the markings on bullet III. Hamilton found that the land and groove widths in the barrel of Sacco's gun indicated it wasn't the barrel that had made the marks on the fatal bullet. Hamilton also concluded that bullet III was not manufactured at the same time as the six Winchester rounds found in Sacco's pockets when he was arrested. As for Vanzetti's revolver, Hamilton maintained that it had not been fitted with a new hammer, because an essential screw did not show marks of having been removed. Since the bodyguard's revolver had been recently fitted with a new firing pin, the gun Vanzetti had could not have been taken from the dead man.

Augustus Gill, a professor of technical chemical analysis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been hired by the defense to assist Hamilton. Unlike Hamilton, Gill was a real scientist, however, he didn't know anything about firearms identification. Gill studied the evidence under different conditions and although his conclusions varied somewhat from Hamilton's, he agreed that the fatal bullet had not passed through Sacco's gun.

Shortly thereafter, on April 30, 1923, the defense made what was called the Hamilton-Proctor motion for a new trial. The motion was based primarily on the strength of Hamilton's findings.

To counter the Hamilton-Proctor motion, the prosecution had no choice but to turn to the firearms expert still loyal to his original testimony, Charles Van Amburgh.

Van Amburgh had since obtained a microscope and had learned about microphotography. Using his new equipment, he photographed bullet III and the test bullets from all sides. He took twelve pictures of each bullet and pasted them together to make one strip. He then compared the strips and was this time absolutely certain that bullet III had been fired from Sacco's pistol. He was also sure that the Winchester shell casings found near the dead men had been struck by the firing pin in Sacco's automatic Colt. In his affidavit, Van Amburgh was much more positive than he had been at the trial. He stated, “The facts which I have found from my entire investigation are so clear that, in my opinion, they amount to proof.”14

Van Amburgh's findings were confirmed by Merton Robinson, a ballistics engineer for the Winchester Arms company. Robinson not only maintained that bullet III had been fired from Sacco's gun, he rejected Dr. Albert Hamilton’s argument that the mortal bullet and those found on Sacco were of a different date of manufacture. As for Hamilton's photographic evidence to prove that the hammer in Vanzetti's revolver had not been replaced, it would have been quite possible, according to Robinson, for an expert repairman to have inserted a new screw, or to have removed and replaced the old one, without leaving marks on the screw head.15

Judge Thayer held hearings on the Hamilton-Proctor and the four other motions for a new trial in October and November, 1923. As for the Hamilton-Proctor motion, it was a matter of whose firearms experts the judge decided to believe. Captain Proctor's affidavit had been taken, but he had died before he could testify in court on behalf of the defense.

During the hearings on the Hamilton-Proctor motion, the defense expert, Dr. Albert Hamilton, conducted an in-court demonstration involving two brand new Colt 32-caliber automatics and Sacco's gun of the same make and caliber. The new handguns belonged to Hamilton. In front of Judge Thayer and the lawyers for both sides, Hamilton disassembled all three pistols and placed the parts in three piles on the table. He then explained the functions of each part and demonstrated how they were interchangeable. After reassembling the handguns, Hamilton placed the two new weapons back into his pocket and handed Sacco's gun to the court clerk. But before Hamilton could leave the courtroom, Judge Thayer asked him to leave the new guns with the court.

10. Cook, Fred J., “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints..” (The Nation, December 22, 1962) p 448
11. Russell, Francis, Tragedy in Dedham, (NY: McGraw Hill, 1962) p 243. Some believe that Captain William Proctor went over to the other side because the prosecution had refused to pay him the $500 he had requested for his work on the case.
12. Russell, pp 233-4
13. Russell, pp 234
14. Russell, p 235
15. Russell, p 235

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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