Excerpted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti
Forecast at 8 a.m. for Boston and its vicinity—Unsettled
U.S. Weather Report, April 15, 1920
Looking back, it would seem that suspicious-looking characters had been skulking around all over South Braintree, Massachusetts that day.
Five men driving a car through the square looked like a tough bunch, Harry Dolbeare said. Two nervous men were acting “kind of funny,” sitting “beside the gent’s toilet” at the train station, according to William Heron. Two “light complexioned boys” sitting on a fence, attracted Hans Behrsin’s attention. William Tracy was annoyed to see two strangers in dark hats slouching against a building that he owned. A dark man and an emaciated man were hanging around a car, Lola Andrews recalled. Shelley Neal spotted a man with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks standing in a doorway.
It was Thursday, April 15, 1920.
Less than fifteen miles away, at Fenway Park in Boston, it was opening day for the Red Sox. A few months earlier, the Sox had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in a “good deal,” the Boston papers claimed, since the Sox “probably never would win a pennant with the slugger in the lineup.” On April 15, as the Sox won their season opener a day after Ruth and the Yankees lost theirs, it seemed that the prognosticators were right, and getting rid of the Babe really had been a brilliant move.
Bostonians blasé about baseball had other amusements on that April 15. “Thousands of fishermen” cast their lines into nearby streams and brooks on the first day of trout season. Music lovers shopped at the Jordan Marsh Company, buying tables for their Victrolas and some “very high class vocal and instrumental records” by Gluck, Caruso, and Heifetz. Thrill-seekers went to the moving pictures, no less racy for being black-and-white and silent. In Terror Island, spellbound Bostonians watched Harry Houdini rescue a damsel in distress from a locked safe sunken in the South Seas, and in the boldly named Sex, they watched screen siren Louise Glaum steal other women’s husbands.
Enticing as the diversions of the city were, it’s unlikely that workers at the Slater & Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree took the day off to enjoy them. Thursday, April 15, was their payday. They used to get paid on Wednesdays, but the factory had recently altered the schedule, and the shoemakers—the skivers, vampers, cutters, and stitchers; the trimmers, turn lasters, cementers, and assemblers—were looking forward to having more money in their pockets at the end of the day.
Horses still shared the roads with cars and trucks in 1920, and computers and automated payrolls were still a dream undreamt. Thus, on paydays, people in South Braintree relied on Shelley Neal. It was the American Express agent’s job to drive his horses and wagon to the town railroad station, pick up the iron safe arriving by train from Boston, and deliver the thousands of dollars in payroll money it contained to factories with payrolls to meet that day. On April 15, Neal hoisted the safe onto the wagon and “started for the office.” There, he said, he backed the team of horses “up in front of the door, took out the safe, took it into my office, broke the seal on it, took the key that we have that comes in a sealed package, opened the safe and took Slater & Morrill’s payroll out. [Then I] locked the safe up, leaving the other [factory’s] payroll in there.” Around nine thirty in the morning, Neal delivered $15,776.51 in bills and coins to Margaret Mahoney, a paymaster at Slater & Morrill.
Mahoney spent the next few hours carefully dividing all that cash into the exact amounts due each worker for the week. She put the wages into some five hundred envelopes, the envelopes into wooden boxes, and the wooden boxes inside two heavy steel boxes. A few minutes before three o’clock, she locked the boxes and gave them to assistant paymaster Frederick Parmenter and security guard Alessandro Berardelli to deliver to another Slater & Morrill factory down the street. She did not go with them on their route, as she often did.
Parmenter had been with the company for twenty years. Berardelli was a new hire. A former barber and private detective, he had started working for Slater & Morrill in the fall of 1919. A third man, Harold Lewis, usually accompanied them on their delivery route, but Lewis had recently quit Slater & Morrill. A fourth man, James Reynolds, paymaster for a neighboring factory, also usually accompanied them on a portion of their route, but on April 15 Reynolds was delayed.
Berardelli pocketed his own pay, $27.60. Then he and Parmenter set off on foot, walking down Pearl Street, carrying the steel boxes. “Many times” they had driven the short distance in the boss’s car, but on April 15 Mr. Slater “would not let them take an automobile.” They passed James Bostock, a mechanic, walking up the street. “Bostock,” said Parmenter, “when you go . . . into the other factory [building,] . . . fix the pulley on the motor.”
Then, said a witness, “all of a sudden, bang bang bang.”
Two gunmen charged into the street, firing wildly. Parmenter fell, shot in the back. Berardelli fell, and when he did one of the gunmen stood over his crouched body, pumping more bullets into it, then swung around and fired two shots wide at Bostock. The gunmen seized the money boxes, threw them into an approaching getaway car that had three accomplices inside, jumped into the car themselves, and tore off, still shooting.
From first shot to getaway, the crime took less than a minute.
Berardelli, 44, died on the spot, there in the street. “I wiped his mouth out, and he lay in my arm,” James Bostock recalled, “and as he lay in my arm I thought he died in my arm.”
Berardelli was survived by his wife and two young children, Jacob and Ida.
Parmenter, still breathing, was carried in a horse blanket to a nearby home, then rushed to Quincy Hospital. Doctors removed a bullet from his body, but it was too late to save him. Parmenter, 45, died early in the morning of the following day. He, too, left behind a wife and a young son and daughter, Richard and Jeannette.
The bandits in the getaway car sped off, taking “the corner on two wheels, they were going so fast.” The driver wanted to dash across the railroad tracks in South Braintree, but a train was coming and the crossing gate was down. “[T]he first thing I knew, there was a revolver pointed . . . at my head,” the gate tender, Michael Levangie, recalled. Levangie quickly raised the gate, and the car zipped across ahead of the train. Later the car encountered a similar obstacle at another railroad crossing, this time in Matfield, where a more determined guard planted himself by the tracks and held up a stop sign to block the car from the path of another oncoming train. “[T]hey did not seem to want to stop . . . ,” the guard said. “[O]ne of them in the automobile asked me, ‘What to hell I was holding him up for?’” The train passed, the car sped across the tracks and disappeared, only to reappear minutes later, retracing its path.
From the open windows of the speeding getaway car, the bandits tossed tacks into the road. They had modified the tacks to fall upright to puncture the tires of pursuing vehicles. They needn’t have bothered. Only one driver attempted to pursue them, and he quickly lost their trail. Not all law enforcement officials had cars in 1920, or even knew how to drive. Sometimes they relied on loaners, or on trains or hired horse-and-carriage teams. Eleven more years would pass before the Braintree Police Department acquired its first car, in 1931.
It was a scandal, really. “Without the automobile,” said one judge, “most of the great and small of the more daring robberies would never be attempted.” Criminals were leaving police in their dust. The Boston Evening Transcript demanded that officials study this serious new problem of the “bandit on wheels.” On April 15, the only witnesses to the escape from South Braintree, beyond those at the immediate crime scene, were a few scattered bystanders along the route.
One day after the crime, on Friday, April 16, in a short article buried on an inside page, the Transcript reported that police were searching in several states for the “yeggs.”
Two days after the crime, on Saturday, April 17, a couple of friends from Brockton went horseback riding. Charles Fuller and Max Wind were trotting along a bridle path in the woods when, to their surprise, they came upon an abandoned, damp and dusty seven-passenger Buick. “The path was so narrow that we had to get off our horses and lead our horses by,” Fuller said. The license plates had been removed from the Buick. The rear window had also been removed and was lying on the floor. Two sets of tire tracks marked the ground—those made by the Buick, and another set of tracks made by a different car. Fuller and Wind galloped to a nearby house and called the Brockton police.
Officer William Hill responded. He drove the Buick to the police station. Neither Fuller, Wind, Hill, nor the city marshal who accompanied Hill noticed any bullet holes in the car, but when Hill reported for work the next day, several officers pointed out to him a bullet hole they said they had found in the car’s right rear door the night before. The Buick, it turned out, had been stolen. It was blue, the owner said later; green, said Wind; and black, according to Hill.
An inquest into the South Braintree murders was held at District Court in Quincy on April 17, the day that the Buick materialized in the woods. At this point the crime was only forty-eight hours old. Recollections of witnesses were fresh but contradictory.
James McGlone described how he and his brother had carried the wounded Parmenter to a nearby house, the home of a Maurice Colbert. Several doctors had rushed to the scene. Colbert testified that Parmenter had managed to give a brief description of the bandits to a doctor. One gunman was stocky, Parmenter had said; another was slim, and both were short. Three witnesses at the inquest were certain that the getaway car was a Buick; another, that it was possibly a Buick; another, simply that it was “not a Ford.”
Annie Nichols, a nearby resident, thought that the man she saw shoot Berardelli had spoken to him before killing him. Lewis Wade, a shoe worker at Slater & Morrill, also believed Berardelli knew his assassin. “I think so and will always think so,” Wade testified at the inquest. “It looks as though this fellow wanted him out of the way. . . . Berardelli was on the ground and why should this fellow want to turn around and want to kill him when the money box was [already] on the ground? I think they knew each other.” James Bostock would later say that he, too, thought Berardelli had spoken to the bandits: “He acted to them as though he knew the men and spoke to them.”
Thomas Fraher, a superintendent at Slater & Morrill, said that Parmenter and Berardelli usually carried weapons on the job, but he didn’t know if they had been armed on April 15.
Many witnesses at the inquest described a pale, sickly-looking man as one of the bandits in the getaway car. Some said this ghostly fellow was the driver, but others thought the driver was dark.
Some said only one car was involved in the crime, but others, including Shelley Neal, said they had seen two cars. A year later at trial, Neal would testify that he saw only one car; his inquest statement was unavailable, and the discrepancy would go unchallenged.
Two workers from Slater & Morrill said the windows at their factory were too dirty to permit anyone to get a good look at either the car or the bandits. Except for witness Lewis Wade, who was so close to the car he “could have stepped out and touched” it, and who also remained calm enough to describe what he had seen in detail, the witnesses at the inquest said they had been badly shaken. “It all happened in two seconds . . . and I am very sorry to think I [saw it],” Annie Nichols said. According to Maurice Colbert, “It was all done so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to see anything.” Edgar Langlois, a shoe company foreman, was thoroughly confused. “[W]hen I think about it,” he said, “I never have the same thought twice. . . . [A]t one time I thought there were four [bandits] and then only two. . . . I don’t think anybody could identify them, it was all so quick.” Langlois discussed the crime with a co-worker “[t]wo minutes after [it happened] . . . and he says one thing and I another.”
The vicious murders in South Braintree shocked one Massachusetts lawmaker into action. Five days after the crime, state senator David McIntosh of Quincy proposed authorizing a reward of up to twenty-five thousand dollars for the arrest and conviction of the killers. That was almost ten thousand dollars more than the stolen payroll. The large amount was necessary, McIntosh argued, because of the “deep feeling which has been stirred up by this brutal, cowardly shooting. Every resource of the State . . . should be utilized to apprehend the murderers.”
A crime wave was terrorizing his district. In addition to the South Braintree crime, the senator cited a bank robbery in Randolph and an attempted robbery in Bridgewater. Citizens were “wrought up” and “tormented by the failure of the authorities to run these men down.” Outlaws were taking over. They had to be stopped. “Talk about the Wild West!” cried McIntosh. “Conditions would seem to be wilder and more dangerous” right here in the suburbs of Boston.
(The images used above to illustrate Chapter 1 appear on the website only.)