Flowers in the Dark

yellow flower
Summer. Time to cultivate one’s garden.

Even in prison.

“Officials from San Quentin in California to Rikers Island in New York have turned dusty patches into powerful metaphors for rebirth,” the Washington Post reports in a recent story on horticultural therapy. Inmate-garderners find purpose and a measure of inner peace, learning to grow something in dirt that will feed others or simply flourish in beauty.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, prisoners themselves nearly a century ago in Massachusetts, would have known this instinctively.

grapes 2

Grapes in a vineyard.

As a youth growing up in southern Italy at the start of the twentieth century, Nick was already close to the land. He helped tend a family vineyard and garden, watering plants at sunrise and shooing wandering animals away at night, when he sometimes slept in the vineyard. Come morning, he carried baskets of fruits, vegetables, and flowers back to his home in town, straying off the beaten path to search for his mother’s favorite roses. The countryside, he would later recall in idiosyncratic English, was an “enchanted scene of beautiful.”

Sacco came to America in 1908. After he had been here a while, acquired job skills, started a family, and settled in a rented cottage on the property of Michael Kelley, his boss in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Nick’s inner horticulturalist emerged. He planted a garden by the cottage. He was there among the plants, Kelley later recalled, “at four o’clock in the morning, and at the factory at seven o’clock, and in his garden again after supper and until nine and ten at night, carrying water and raising vegetables beyond his own needs, which he would bring to me to give to the poor.”

Vivid memories of time spent working the soil sustained Sacco during seven years in the “terrible hole” of a cramped dark cell in Dedham Jail. If he ever spotted a familiar flower from childhood—in a doctor’s buttonhole, in a supporter’s bouquet, from afar through a jailhouse window—he felt a momentary sense of solace. He enjoyed hearing the latest seasonal crop news from Folly Farm, the experimental nursery where Cerise Jack, his English tutor in prison, lived with her botany-professor husband. He wished he could be free, he wrote her, “to help you to gather all the peaches [hanging] on the trees.” Eventually, overwhelmed by prison and separation from his family, Sacco had a nervous breakdown, but recovered in no small part due to farm work outdoors on the grounds of a prison psychiatric hospital.

Lacking Sacco’s practical gardening experience, Bartolomeo Vanzetti nonetheless took deep delight in the beauty of flowers. From his cell at Charlestown State Prison, he reminisced about his childhood in northern Italy, where wildflowers bloomed, nightingales sang, and “the nearby hills are all a fruit-garden.”


Mayflowers in bloom.

Seven years in prison did not diminish Vanzetti’s appreciation or curiosity. He thanked one visitor for bringing him mayflowers, which reminded him of Plymouth “and of the woods which I love so much.”  He peppered Cerise Jack with questions about the large bouquet she had brought him: what were the English names for the yellow star flowers, for the white flowers “with petals bent backwards as wings of butterflies,” and for “that little funny blue thing alone among your flowers”? It reminded him, he told her, of his father’s garden. Kind people had brought him so many flowers and so much fruit, Vanzetti wrote another supporter, that he could open “a beautiful fruits-flowers stand in Boston.”

Such a happy prospect would, of course, never materialize. On August 23, 1927, as summer blossoms withered in Massachusetts, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died, executed for crimes which most people believe they did not commit. The men had long before abandoned the religious beliefs of their childhood years, but they never relinquished their spiritual need for the beauty of the natural world. In his cell, Sacco dreamed of seeing a “little sweet space of the nature” through iron bars. Vanzetti described sitting in prison and being able to look outside and see “a fragment of a meadow, a bush, three fragments of flowers, hedges among the thick dark foliages, gleaming under the sun….”

Treasured but barely seen, such fragments of nature comforted Sacco and Vanzetti until the end.


Mourners carrying floral wreaths lead the funeral procession for Sacco and Vanzetti. The press reported that spectators—more than 200,000 by one estimate—tossed so many flowers as the funeral cortege passed by that “the streets became red with the blossoms.”



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Definitely Not Bert and Ernie

The story of Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti has inspired historical and legal analyses, not to mention opera, ballet, folk songs, paintings, a graphic novel, documentary films, even musical comedy.

And now comes the multimedia puppet show.

Send for the Million Men, by Joseph Silovsky, uses animatronics, robotics, puppetry, and handmade projectors for a “captivating history-rethink” of the anarchists’ executions.

A HERE Resident Artist and Dream Music Puppetry Production, December 3-13, 2014, at HERE, 145 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10013.

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In Memoriam

In Memoriam

August 23, 1927
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

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Some of the country’s best-known artists created patriotic posters—including this one by August Hutof—to support American involvement in World War One. George Creel called the poster campaign the “battle of the fences.”

Some of the country’s best-known artists created patriotic posters—including this one by August Hutof—to support American involvement in World War One. George Creel called the poster campaign the “battle of the fences.”

“One White-Hot Mass”

It happened fast.

In April 1917, within a week of joining its allies to fight what was by then already a two-year-old war against Germany, the United States established the Committee on Public Information—the country’s first-ever effort, in the words of historian John Maxwell Hamilton, “to systematically shape public attitudes.”

George Creel, the experienced journalist who took the helm of the new Committee,  set out to win hearts and minds at home and overseas. In the process he virtually invented the modern global media campaign.

As Creel saw it, World War One differed from all previous wars in the “recognition of Public Opinion as a major force”:

“This ‘vast enterprise in salesmanship’ had one goal: to ‘weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination.’

“The reach of the CPI would be the envy of any modern publicist. The Committee distributed more than seventy-five million pamphlets in the United States. It established a nationwide speakers’ bureau of volunteers who, Creel claimed, addressed more than 130 million people. Creel arranged for foreign journalists to go on press tours in the United States, and for American reporters to go on inspection tours of the front lines in Europe. The CPI poured ‘a steady stream of American information into international channels of communication.’ And the ‘best work of the best artists’ delivered patriotic messages from CPI-commissioned posters.”
(Excerpted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, Chapter 6, “Conscription Was Upon Them”)

Today, information warfare uses social media and other new technologies but, notes Hamilton, virtually all concerns about government propaganda tactics are rooted in measures that originated during World War One.

 To learn more about the lasting influence of the war, and about events to mark its centennial, visit The United States World War One Centennial Commission at And to learn more about the connection between World War One and the Sacco-Vanzetti case, read In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

by Charles E. Chambers

by Charles E. Chambers


by Macinel Wright Enright

by Macinel Wright Enright


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Bad Day at Braintree

Bandits @ B'tree - Version 3
In 1920—on today’s date, April 15—the lives of four men changed forever.

Fred Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli crumpled and fell in a hail of bullets, mowed down by gunmen who seized the payroll cash the victims had been bringing to the factory that employed them in South Braintree, Massachusetts.

Laborers Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of the murders. They were executed in 1927. Their guilt was, and remains, doubtful.

From the gunmen’s first shot to their escape in a getaway car, the crime in Braintree took less than a minute, but it was a minute with repercussions that would never end. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti would last seven weeks; their imprisonment, seven years; and the debate over their fate, 85-plus years and counting.

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Fred Moore

Fred Moore

Fred Moore, lead defense attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti, began to politicize their case months before the trial started. He ended up antagonizing almost everyone—the trial judge, the treasurer of the defense committee, even his own clients. And his personal life was as controversial as his professional conduct.

Would the outcome of the case have been different if someone else had been in charge at the outset? I explore this question in “Fred Moore: Renegade Defense Attorney for Sacco and Vanzetti,” in the current issue of The Digest, law journal of the National Italian American Bar Association.


Digest coverLearn more about Moore—his radical background and complicated character—in In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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“Agent of Death” for Sacco and Vanzetti

Robert Elliott, beloved husband, father, Sunday school superintendent—and executioner.

Robert Elliott, beloved husband, father, Sunday school superintendent—and executioner.

Last year the Innocence Project recorded a milestone. A Louisiana man who had been on death row for fifteen years became the three-hundredth wrongfully convicted person to be exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence.

But science is not infallible. The Washington Post recently reported that the FBI is investigating at least twenty-seven death penalty convictions in which its own forensic analysis of hair samples “may have mistakenly linked defendants to crimes with exaggerated scientific testimony.” FBI officials will “disclose problems in capital cases even after a defendant has been executed.”

More than eighty years ago, long before modern advances in forensics, Yale Law professor Edwin Borchard wrote Convicting the Innocent, Errors of Criminal Justice, documentating sixty-five cases of wrongful convictions. Borchard’s study refuted the district attorney of Worcester County, Massachusetts, who, around the time of the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti, reportedly said, “Innocent men are never convicted. Don’t worry about it, it never happens. It is a physical impossibility.”

The eighty-sixth anniversary of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti will occur in less than two weeks, on August 23. On such an occasion, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the life of their executioner.

Robert Elliott came of age at the end of the nineteenth century fascinated by “electricity and its wonders.” As fate would have it, soon after the electric chair was approved as a so-called humane replacement for the gallows, Elliott began his career as an electrical engineer. He worked in New York prisons for many years, and later as an independent contractor.

His duties included executions. Yet Elliott opposed capital punishment. He believed it had no deterrent effect and “serves no useful purpose.”

“Each time I send a human being hurtling into eternity…, I realize that I am partly responsible for his death,” Elliott wrote in his memoirs, Agent of Death. “But my responsibility is no greater than that of any member of the society that demanded this person’s life.” His responsibility, he said, was certainly no greater than that of the district attorney, the jury, the sentencing judge, the pardon board, the warden, “and all the others upon whose shoulders rests the obligation of the state’s legal killings.”

Elliott believed that “man should not be permitted to destroy the one thing which cannot be restored—life.” By the time he wrote those words, he had thrown the switch on three hundred eighty-seven prisoners in six states.

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Boston’s Other Terrorists?


They were assimilated immigrants, self-radicalized followers of a firebrand philosopher who published bomb-making instructions.

So yes, as some have asked: similarities do exist between Sacco and Vanzetti and brothers Tarmelan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev of Boston Marathon bombing notoriety.

Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were not just philosophical anarchists, but supporters of influential anarchist Luigi Galleani. Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed to Galleani’s weekly journal, Cronaca sovversiva (Subversive chronicle), which could be compared to Inspire, the online al-Quaeda magazine said to be the source of the Tsarnaevs’ bomb-making knowledge.

In the pages of Cronaca and in his other writings, Galleani  promoted social revolution, endorsed the use of violence to win the “good war” against capitalism, and published practical tips for aspiring bomb makers—where to buy explosives, how to avoid arousing suspicion, how to build devices to injure the maximum number of people. Followers of Galleani were suspected of involvement in a wave of bombing attacks in the United States in 1919.

But comparing Sacco and Vanzetti to the Tsarnaevs doesn’t go very far. There is no evidence that Sacco and Vanzetti ever engaged in acts of anarchist violence themselves. The crimes of which they were convicted—payroll robbery and double murder—were not connected to radicalism. Most important, it is my conclusion after analyzing the evidence against them that the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti were almost surely wrongful convictions, and that the men paid with their lives for crimes they did not commit.

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Indie Gold

In 1927, in his last known letter, Bartolomeo Vanzetti thanked a supporter for his efforts and asked him to study the Sacco-Vanzetti case so that “our fate may…serve as a tremendous lesson.”

In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti is, I hope, but the latest step toward achieving that goal. On May 29 the book will receive the gold medal for True Crime from the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

My original objectives for the book were to write a double biography of Sacco and Vanzetti, and to view the men in situ, in the turbulent era before, during, and after World War One. Along the way, I was repeatedly surprised by new information I uncovered about supporting characters in the case. In the end, I hope readers will come away from the book with a fresh perspective on the difficult issues of immigration reform, workers’ rights, wrongful convictions, and the balance between civil liberties and homeland security. Along with Vanzetti, I hope that the case “may be understood.”

The “IPPY” Awards, established in 1996, annually recognize excellence in independent publishing. This year’s program drew more than 3,600 national entries in several categories.ippygoldjpeghr

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Italian immigrants to the United States faced fierce discrimination in the early 20th century. In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti tells part of that story.

Entertainer Jimmy Durante, on the cover of the new issue of Primo Magazine.

Primo Magazine—the magazine for and about Italian Americans—recently posted an interview with me about the book. Read the excerpt below, or see the entire interview and learn more about the magazine at Primo online:


Primo: You bring to life the prejudices and outright bigotry back then that a host of politicians, journalists, and community leaders displayed against Italian immigrants. Share with us some of the most egregious examples of anti-Italianism in the era of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Tejada: The most egregious example would have to be the largest mass lynching in American history, when eleven jailed Italians were killed in a single night in New Orleans in 1891. Five of them were awaiting trial for the murder of the city’s chief of police; of the other six, three had experienced a mistrial in the same case and three had already been acquitted. Another egregious example is the 1911 report by the U.S. Immigration Commission, stating that “certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race.”

Of course, Italians weren’t the only immigrants who experienced bigotry. Almost 70 percent of immigrants to the United States between 1900 and 1909 came from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, and nativists viewed them all as worthless riffraff, “the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans,” in the opinion of Madison Grant, the chairman of the New York Zoological Society.

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