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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (5 page)

BOOK: 1920
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As evening approached, with authorities in Washington having been consulted and some already making their way to New York, a chain of command had been established. The federal Bureau of Investigation, or BOI, now took over. In a few years, the BOI would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the leadership of a youthful zealot named J. Edgar Hoover.

The BOI was issuing more orders almost before it hit the ground running. Among others, this batch included increased vigilance at all points of entry to or departure from the United States—but, once again, the immediate purpose seemed more a matter of busywork than crime-solving.
There was no reason to believe that the perpetrator remained in the United States. More likely, he had crossed the Canadian border or set sail for a destination from which he would never return to the scene of the crime.

But the perpetrator surely had not acted alone; and those who supported his deed, even those responsible for planning it, determined the BOI, might well have been Russians. In 1917, that country's revolution had overthrown the tsar and replaced autocrats with communists and socialists. The distinction between the latter two was minor and muddled, but together they were a major new force loosed upon the world, proud and ruthless followers of Karl Marx, who claimed to believe that all men were not just created equal: they
equal for the entirety of their lives, and were therefore entitled to equal shares of their nation's bounty. Any nation, anywhere. The communists' vision was a grand one, even grandiose, taking in the entire world, the party's success in Russia having given it confidence that similar success awaited it wherever it chose to attack next. Which it certainly would.

From the communist point of view, America represented everything that was most despicable about the notion of government, which is to say that it was inevitably ruled by plutocracy, men of great and unearned wealth who had purchased the legislative process and found it the best investment they had ever made. America was not, as it claimed to be, a democracy, but rather the whip of the capitalists over the backs of the masses, resulting in the unequal distribution of wealth and labor, status and leisure.

Actually, it proved a fair assessment in all too many cases, and an argument will be made for that viewpoint a few chapters from now.

As far as the United States was concerned, however, Russian revolutionaries posed the most extreme threat possible to the nation's way of life, a disregard of the very pillars upon which a just and decent society was built. There were numerous reports of communists heading for the United States, flowing through Ellis Island, America's main port of entry, and from there into the nation's bloodstream. Even worse, there were reports of communists already here, working in dank, dark basements; choosing targets and assembling bombs. And worse yet, some of the bombs had begun to explode before even September 16, 1920.

At first, communists were known as Bolsheviks, a Russian word that, literally translated, means “those in the majority.” The prefix “bolshe,” put most simply, is “more.” Less respectfully, especially in the United States, the new conquerors of Russia were known as Bolshies. Their uprising was the subject of a book by an American so sympathetic to the Bolshie cause that, when he died in 1920, he became the only non-Russian to be buried within the Kremlin walls, and remains so to this day. John Reed concluded his volume by quoting the following resolution from several factions of Bolsheviks after their victory. The first group to which the resolution refers is, in English, a mouthful known as the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies:

The joint session of the Tsay-ee-kah and the Peasants' Congress express its firm conviction that the union of workers, soldiers, and peasants, this fraternal union of all the workers and all the exploited, will consolidate the power conquered by them, that it will take all revolutionary measures to hasten the passing of the power into the hands of the working class in other countries, and that it will assure in this manner the lasting accomplishment of a just peace and the victory of Socialism.

Reed called his book
Ten Days That Shook the World
. It was too modest a claim. The West was shaken for much longer than that—for seventy-two years, to be precise, all the way through World War II, the haunting illogicality of the Cold War, and up to 1989, when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Only then could the West relax from the threat of communism, for it was not just the polar opposite of American ideals philosophically; it was a form of government, albeit one that never worked as planned, which advocated and proudly accomplished acts of violence.

It might have been Bolsheviks who set off the bomb.

anarchists, especially Italians like the shoemaker Nicola Sacco and the fishmonger Bartolomeo Vanzetti. On April 15, 1920, two men—one armed and one not—were murdered in an attempted robbery in the Boston suburb of South Braintree. Each of
the men was carrying a metal box for delivery to the main factory of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company. Inside the boxes was a total of more than $15,000 for the company's latest payroll.

Sacco and Vanzetti, two men whose names are yoked historically, did not live close to each other and did not know each other very well. In part for this reason, they were not the only initial suspects. Ferruccio Coacci, who owned the house closest to where the getaway car had been abandoned, became, ipso facto, the leading candidate for the crime. But for only the briefest of times. Unfortunately for law-enforcement officials, Coacci was living in Italy when the shoe company was victimized.

For the time being, he had turned over his dwelling to a friend named Mario Buda. When police first encountered him, Buda was in the company of two friends, Sacco and Vanzetti, and all were thought to have been involved in a failed payroll heist the previous Christmas Eve in the nearby town of Bridgewater. But even under the lax standards for punishing foreigners at the time, especially foreigners who believed that the United States had been oversold to them, Buda could not be tied to either the unsuccessful crime on Christmas Eve or the bloody Slater and Morrill theft four months later.

When authorities searched Sacco and Vanzetti, on the other hand, they “were found to be carrying loaded pistols and a good deal of ammunition, some of it for guns other than the kinds they carried. They also possessed an anarchist literature.” Still, “neither man had been arrested for anything before and though [Bridgewater, Massachusetts Police Chief Michael E.] Stewart had no evidence to suggest that either had been anywhere near South Braintree at the time of the murders, he had them charged.” Not for the crime that wasn't, but for the one that was, and therefore carried with it the death penalty.

In May, Sacco and Vanzetti were formally charged with murdering two payroll guards and stealing $15,776.51 from them. Eventually, they were tied by strong circumstantial evidence, eyewitness accounts almost as conflicting as those about the Wall Street explosion, and their firmly held and often-expressed anarchist views. The two men pleaded innocent and would never waver, not even on the day of their execution.

The eventual verdict of historians would be that Sacco was probably guilty, Vanzetti probably not. That decision, however tentative though it is, would await the passage of many years; and in the first of those years, few people paid attention to the South Braintree murders. They were just one more crime, two more killings, and even more charges against anarchists in a country revered for granting freedom of speech. In 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death for the shootings, and in the six years of life behind bars that remained to them they gradually but surely became the greatest martyrs in the history of American anarchy, supported by an ever-growing number of celebrities and government officials in this country and abroad. On the other hand, they were reviled by the judge who presided over their case, the thoroughly reprehensible, “Dago”-hating Webster Thayer, who spoke about the trial in the locker room of his country club as coarsely and prejudicially as a less-educated man might speak of it in a low-rent speakeasy.

But having already been incarcerated, Sacco and Vanzetti could have had nothing to do with the explosion outside the Morgan Bank. Or could they? Later on, in a strange twist of fate, the two men would be integrally, if indirectly, tied to the violence, a few more strands in the year's menacing web of events.

Bureau of Investigation turned its attention to other Italians, among them the notorious Luigi Galleani, of whom Sacco and Vanzetti were among hundreds, maybe thousands, of dedicated American disciples. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was not alone in believing Galleani to be “one of the most notorious anarchists in the United States.” He might have been alone, however, in his risibly rococo oratory about Galleani's influence on the flames of anti-Americanism “licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society.”

Having grown up in the small town of Vercelli in northern Italy's Piedmont, Galleani was the son of a lawyer, expected to follow in his father's footsteps. In fact, when he was accepted by the law school at the University of Turin, his future seemed assured. But while studying law,
he determined that it was not the occupation it seemed; it was, in fact, not an occupation at all, but a means of indoctrination, his textbooks being really instruction manuals in servitude to unjust masters and their equally unjust principles. It was the role of revolution, Galleani concluded before long, to put law in its place. He dropped out of school and began a career of what he believed to be morally justified violence against everything for which the University of Turin stood.

Galleani arrived in America, which he had grown to revile from afar, in 1901. He was forty years old, eager to put his hatred into action. “With his neatly trimmed beard,” writes Susan Gage, “and balding pate, Galleani looked less like the stereotype of the wild-eyed anarchist than like the lawyer he had once intended to be. Appearances were deceiving.” They were also revealing. To look at photos of Galleani is to see a man who is not staring into the camera but through it, a man with a cold, lethal intentness about him. According to Paul Avrich, in his study
Anarchist Portraits
, Galleani was a zealot with a “hatred of capitalism and government [that] would burn with undiminished intensity for the rest of his life.”

Like those who shared his beliefs, Galleani swore by the “propaganda of the deed”—and if anarchists had ever had such a thing as a slogan, that would have been it, another way of saying that one should express his beliefs not by talking, but by acting. And that those actions should be made memorable, emblazoned into headlines, should become lessons for all who could not see the anarchical way: kill the tyrants who occupy the offices of government and industry, burn their structures to the ground, and overthrow the institutions that supported them. The world must be reformed, and if, paradoxically, mass destruction was the first step in the process of spiritual generosity and the desire to enrich those less fortunate, so be it. The shortcut to heaven, in the anarchist creed, is the enactment of hell.

Despite his reputation for terrorism in Italy, where he had served time in jail for organizing anti-government demonstrations, and despite anti-American sentiments both spoken and written and repeated ad infinitum from various forums, Galleani had no trouble gaining admission to the United States. No one at Ellis Island stopped him or even questioned him.
The Justice Department's William J. Flynn, head of the BOI, was baffled by the ease with which Galleani had been allowed to immigrate. Flynn not only shared Palmer's fear of him, but despised him above all others of his kind. His eloquence, the persuasiveness of his speeches, of which he gave many, made him a figure of magnetic appeal, Flynn believed. He regarded Galleani as “[o]ne of the most difficult individuals the United States secret service has ever had to deal with, because he was the brainiest.”

Soon after landing in America, Galleani began confirming Flynn's opinion of him, becoming a hero to all who shared his views. To name a few: Alexander Berkman, who would later try to murder industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the riots caused by a strike at the Homestead, Pennsylvania works of Carnegie Steel; Emma Goldman, who came to the United States from present-day Lithuania at the age of sixteen and, as the leading female anarchist of the time, as well as Berkman's occasional lover, helped him plan the Frick assassination attempt; and “Big Bill” Haywood, the chief of the country's largest pro-communist union, the International Workers of the World, or IWW, referred to by many as the “Wobblies.” All listened to Galleani's speeches, all read his writings, saw the truth of his vision.

It might have been anarchists who set off the bomb.

suspects, but important to an understanding of the unrest that plagued the United States in 1920 as it struggled to maintain its growth spurt and newly earned position of world prominence, was the Ku Klux Klan. Although founded in the post–Civil War era, a resurgence of the group, or, more properly, its third incarnation, was already engaging in its own perverse brand of vigilantism in 1920.

The KKK seemed on the surface a comical lot, as some of its original members, in the immediate post–Civil War era, went to bizarre lengths to seek a distinctive look for themselves. They raided a “Mrs. Martin's linen closet, draped themselves with sheets, pulled pillow cases over their heads and went out riding and caterwauling through the town [Pulaski, Tennessee] to the immense satisfaction of themselves and to the considerable curiosity of the locals.” Like children at play, they had passwords, secret handshakes, and nightmarish rumors swirling about them, which
they delightedly encouraged. The Klan meetings were supposedly held “in caves in the bowels of the earth, where they were surrounded by … rows of skulls, coffins and their furniture, human skeletons, ominous pictures copied from the darkest passages of the
Paradise Lost

BOOK: 1920
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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