Well, a California collector has found a 1929 letter written by Upton Sinclair proclaiming his knowledge that the two men he so strongly defended were actually guilty.
The last paragraph got the Newport Beach attorney's attention. "This letter is for yourself alone," it read. "Stick it away in your safe, and some time in the far distant future the world may know the real truth about the matter. I am here trying to make plain my own part in the story."Sinclair was then writing a novel, Boston, that would dramatize the story. He faced a choice about whether or not to reveal what he'd learned about the two men's guilt.
The story was "Boston," Sinclair's 1920s novelized condemnation of the trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants accused of killing two men in the robbery of a Massachusetts shoe factory.
Prosecutors characterized the anarchists as ruthless killers who had used the money to bankroll antigovernment bombings and deserved to die. Sinclair thought the pair were innocent and being railroaded because of their political views.
Soon Sinclair would learn something that filled him with doubt. During his research for "Boston," Sinclair met with Fred Moore, the men's attorney, in a Denver motel room. Moore "sent me into a panic," Sinclair wrote in the typed letter that Hegness found at the auction a decade ago.
"Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth," Sinclair wrote. " … He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."
But the fearless Sinclair was left a conflicted man by what Sacco and Vanzetti's lawyer — and later others in the anarchist movement — told him.So, of course he decided to stay silent and let his public and allies all go on thinking that two innocent men had been put to death. Apparently, his position among other like-thinking leftists and his readers was more important.
"I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point," he wrote to his attorney. "I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case."
Other letters tucked away in the Indiana archive illuminate why one of America's most strident truth tellers kept his reservations to himself.
"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair wrote Robert Minor, a confidant at the Socialist Daily Worker in New York, in 1927.
"Of course," he added, "the next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims."
He also worried that revealing what he had been told would cost him readers. "It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public," he wrote to Minor.
This isn't the last time that leftist intellectuals have rallied to the cause of someone they feel has been unjustly sentenced by the government. Think of Alger Hiss. Jim Bass is thinking about the Free Mumia movement. And, of course, witness the latest brouhaha over Tookie Williams. The pattern of guilt being secondary to the political outcry and demagoguery continues.