VANZETTI'S LETTER

(WOODY GUTHRIE) (1945-'46)

Governor Alvin T. Fuller

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND | SONG LYRICS


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Celestino F. Madeiros, a young Portuguese with a bad criminal record, was in 1925 confined in the same prison with Sacco. On November 18, while his appeal from a conviction of murder committed in an attempt at bank robbery was pending in the Supreme Court, he sent to Sacco through a jail messenger the following note:
"I hear by confess to being in the South Braintree shoe company crime and Sacco and Vanzetti was not in said crime.
CELESTINO F. MADEIROS"....
The various affidavits given by Madeiros and the deposition of one hundred pages, in which he was cross-examined by the District Attorney, tell the following story.

In 1920 Madeiros, then eighteen years old, was living in Providence. He already had a criminal record and was associated with a gang of Italians engaged in robbing freight cars. One evening..., some members of the gang invited him to join them in a pay-roll robbery at South Braintree.... Accordingly a few days later, on April 15, 1920, the plan was carried into execution. In the party, besides Madeiros, were three Italians and a "kind of a slim fellow with light hair," who drove the car. In order to prevent identification they adopted the familiar device of using two cars. They started out in a Hudson, driving to some woods near Randolph. They then exchanged the Hudson for a Buick brought them by another member of the gang. In the Buick they proceeded to South Braintree, arriving there about noon. When the time came the actual shooting was done by the oldest of the Italians, a man about forty, and one other. The rest of the party remained near by in the automobile. As the crime was being committed they drove up, took aboard the murderers and the money, and made off. They drove back to the Randolph woods, exchanged the Buick again for the Hudson, and returned to Providence. The arrangement was that Madeiros should meet the others in a saloon at Providence the following night to divide the spoils. Whether this arrangement was kept and whether he got any of the Braintree loot Madeiros persistently refused to say.

This refusal was in pursuance of Madeiros's avowed policy. From the outset he announced his determination not to reveal the identity of his associates in the Braintree job, while holding back nothing which seemed to implicate himself alone. To shield them he obstinately declined to answer questions and, if necessary, frankly resorted to lies. Thus, examination could not extort from him the surnames of the gang, and he further sought to cover up their identity by giving some of them false Christian names. Madeiros showed considerable astuteness in evading what he wanted to conceal. But in undertaking to tell the story of the crime without revealing the criminals he set himself an impossible task. In spite of his efforts, a lawyer as resourceful as Mr. Thompson was able to elicit facts which, when followed up, established the identity of the gang and also strongly corroborated the story of Madeiros.

Madeiros said that the gang "had been engaged in robbing freight cars in Providence." Was there such a gang? There was the Morelli gang, well known to the police of Providence and New Bedford as professional criminals, several of whom at the time of the Braintree murders were actually under indictment in the United States District Court for Rhode Island for stealing from freight cars.

Five out of nine indictments charging shoe thefts were for stealing consignments from Slater and Morrill at South Braintree and from Rice and Hutchins, the factory next door. In view of their method of operations, the gang must have had a confederate at South Braintree to spot shipments for them. The Slater and Morrill factory was about one hundred yards from the South Braintree railroad station and an accomplice spotting shipments would be passed by the paymaster on his weekly trip. It will be recalled that the pay roll was that of the Slater and Morrill factory and that the murder and the robbery occurred in front of these two factories. The Morellis under indictment were out of jail awaiting trial. They needed money for their defense; their only source of income was crime. They were at large until May 25, when they were convicted and sent to Atlanta.

Madeiros did not name the gang, but described the men who were with him at South Braintree. How did his descriptions fit the Morelli gang? The leader of the gang was Joe, aged thirty-nine. His brothers were Mike, Patsy, Butsy, and Fred. Other members were Bibba Barone, Gyp the Blood, Mancini, and Steve the Pole. Bibba Barone and Fred Morelli were in jail on April 15, 1920. According to Madeiros there were five, including himself, in the murder car, three of whom were Italians, and the driver "Polish or Finland or something northern Europe." The shooting was done by the oldest of the Italians, a man of about forty, and another called Bill. A fourth Italian brought up the Buick car for exchange at Randolph. As far as his descriptions carry, Madeiros's party fits the members of the Morelli Gang. But the testimony of independent witnesses corroborates Madeiros and makes the identification decisive. One of the gravest difficulties of the prosecution's case against Sacco and Vanzetti was the collapse of the Government's attempt to identify the driver of the murder car as Vanzetti. The District Attorney told the jury that "they must be overwhelmed with the testimony that when the car started it was driven by a light-haired man, who gave every appearance of being sickly." Steve the Pole satisfies Madeiros's description of the driver as well as the testimony at the trial. To set the matter beyond a doubt, two women who were working in the Slater and Morrill factory identified Steve the Pole as the man they saw standing for half an hour by a car outside their window on that day. Two witnesses who testified at the trial identified Joe Morelli as one of the men who did the shooting and another identified Mancini. The Morellis were American-born, which will explain the testimony at the trial that one of the bandits spoke clear and unmistakable English, a thing impossible to Sacco and Vanzetti.

Plainly the personnel of the Morelli gang fits the Braintree crime. What of other details? The mortal bullet came out of a 32 Colt; Joe Morelli had a 32 Colt at this time. Mancini's pistol was of a type and calibre to account for the other five bullets found in the victims. The "murder car" at the trial was a Buick. Madeiros said a Buick was used; and Mike Morelli, according to the New Bedford police, at this time was driving a Buick, which disappeared immediately after April 15, 1920. In fact, the police of New Bedford, where the Morelli gang had been operating, suspected them of the Braintree crime, but dropped the matter after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti. Shortly after the Braintree job, Madeiros was imprisoned for five months for larceny of an amount less than $100. But immediately after his release he had about $2800 in bank, which enabled him to go on a pleasure trip to the West and Mexico. The $2800 is unaccounted for otherwise than as his share of the Braintree booty. Joe Morelli, as we know, was sent to Atlanta for his share in the robbery of the Slater and Morrill shoes. While confined he made an arrangement with a fellow prisoner whereby the latter was to furnish him with an alibi, in case of need, for April 15, 1920, placing Morelli in New York....

Let us compare the two hypotheses. The Morelli theory accounts for all members of the Braintree murder gang; the Sacco-Vanzetti theory for only two, for it is conceded that, if Madeiros was there, Sacco and Vanzetti were not. The Morelli theory accounts for all the bullets found in the dead men; the Sacco-Vanzetti theory for only one out of six. The Morelli explanation settles the motive, for the Morelli gang were criminals desperately in need of money for legal expenses pending their trial for felonies, whereas the Sacco-Vanzetti theory is unsupported by any motive. Moreover, Madeiros's possession of $2800 accounts for his share of the booty, whereas not a penny has ever been traced to anybody or accounted for on the Sacco-Vanzetti theory....

Can the situation be put more conservatively than this? Every reasonable probability points away from Sacco and Vanzetti; every reasonable probability points toward the Morelli gang.

Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, Atlantic Monthly, March 1927.



Lyrics as reprinted in liner notes for "Ballades de Sacco & Vanzetti" (French edition of "Ballads of Sacco & Vanzetti", Folkways/Le Chant du Monde, LDX 74467, 1960s); minor corrections by Manfred Helfert.


The year, it is 1927, an' the day is the third day of May;
Town is the city called Boston, an' our address this dark Dedham jail.
To your honor, the Governor Fuller, to the council of Massachussetts state,
We, Bartolomo [sic] Vanzetti, an' Nicola Sacco, do say:

Confined to our jail here at Dedham an' under the sentence of death,
We pray you do exercise your powers an' look at the facts of our case.
We do not ask you for a pardon, for a pardon would admit of our guilt;
Since we are both innocent workers, we have no guilt to admit.

We are both born by parents in Italy, can't speak English too well;
Our friends of labor are writin' these words, back of the barsin our cell.
Our friends say if we speak too plain, sir, we may turn your feelings away,

Widen these canyons between us, but we risk our life to talk plain.

We think, sir, that each human bein' is in close touch with all of man's kind,
We think, sir, that each human bein' knows right from the wrong in his mind.
We talk to you here as a man, sir, even knowing our opinions divide;
We didn't kill the guards at South Braintree, nor dream of such a terrible crime.

We call your eye to this fact, sir, we work with our hand and our brain;
These robberies an' killings, were done, sir, by professional bandit men,
Sacco has been a good cutter, Mrs. Sacco their money has saved;
I, Vanzetti, l could have saved money, but I gave it as fast as received.

l'm a dreamer, a speaker, an' a writer; I fight on the working folks' side.
Sacco is Boston's fastest shoe trimmer, and he talks to the husbands and wives.
We hunted your land, and we found it, hoped we'd find freedom of mind,
Built up your land, this Land of the Free, an' this is what we come to find.

If we was those killers, good Governor, we'd not be so dumb and so blind
To pass out our handbills and make workers' speeches, out here by the scene of the crime.
Those fifteen thousands of dollars the lawyers and judge said we took,
Do we, sir, dress up like two gentlemen with that much in our pocketbook?

Our names are on the long list of radicals of the Federal Government, sir,
They said that we needed watching as we peddled our literature.
Judge Thayer's mind's made up, sir, when we walked into the court;
Well, he called us anarchistic bastards, said lots of other things worse.

They brought people down there to Brockton to look through the bars of our cell,
Made us act out the motions of the killers, and still not so many could tell.

Before the trial ever started, the jury foreman did say,
An' he cussed us an' said, "Damn they, well, they'd ought to hang anyway."
Our fatal mistake was carryin' our guns, about which we had to tell lies
To keep the police from raiding the homes of workers believing like us.

A labor paper, or a picture, a letter from a radical friend,
An old cheap gun like you keep around home, would torture good women and men.
We all feared deporting and whipping, torments to make us confess
The place where the workers are meeting, the house, your name, and address.

Well. the officers said we feared something which they called a consciousness of guilt.
We was afraid of wreckin' more homes, and seein' more workers' blood spilt.
Well, the very first question they asked us was not about killing the clerks,
But things about our labor movement, and how our trade union works.

Oh, how could our jury see clearly, when the lawyers, and judges, and cops
Called us low type Italians, said we looked just like regular wops,
Draft dodgers, gun packers, anarchists, these vulgar sounding names,
Blew dust in the eyes of jurors, the crowd in the courtroom the same.

We do not believe, sir, that torture, beatings, and killings and pains
Will lift man's eyes to a highest of view an' break his bilbos and chains.
We believe that you must struggle for freedom before your freedom you'll gain,
Freedom from fear, sir, and greed, sir, and your freedom to think higher things.

This fight, sir, is not a new battle, we did not make it last night,
'Twas fought by Godwin, Shelly, Pisacane, Tolstoy and Christ;
It's bigger than the atoms an' the sands of the desert, planets that roll in the sky;
Till workers get rid of their robbers, well, it's worse, sir, to live than to die.

Your Excellency, we're not askin' pardon but askin' to be set free,
With liberty, and pride, sir, and honor, and a pardon we will not receive.
A pardon you given to criminals who've broken the laws of the land;
We don't ask you for pardon, sir, because we are innocent men.

Well, if you shake your head "no", dear Governor, of course, our doom it is sealed.
We hold up our heads like two sons of men, seven years in these cells of steel.
We walk down this corridor to death, sir, like workers have walked it before,
But we'll work in our working class struggle if we live a thousand lives more.


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