“Riffraff”

“Riffraff”

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: http://www.onlineprimo.com/.

 

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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Certainly Not a Bright Spot

Certainly Not a Bright Spot

Headline in the January 3, 1920 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript reports on roundups in New England.

January 2, 2013. You and I still have time to make our New Year’s resolutions.

On a different January 2, however—January 2, 1920—only one resolution mattered for thousands of people across the United States: the resolution to get out of prison. On that date, police rounded up and arrested two to four thousand people attending meetings that had been organized by undercover government agents. The chaotic roundups struck thirty-three cities in twenty-three states.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (FBI photo).

The raids were a response both to a wave of bombings that had terrified Americans the previous year and to the failure of law enforcement to nab the bombers. U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose own house had been bombed, was under tremendous pressure “to do something and do it now, and do it quick.”

Palmer’s solution was the deportation roundups which, according to the FBI’s own version of events, “turned into a nightmare.”

The Palmer raids targeted Communist Party and Communist Labor Party members. It soon became clear that the dragnet had swept up people who were not Communists at all. Some detainees “did not so much as know the difference between bolshevism and rheumatism,” one congressman said. Worse, subsequent rulings found that membership in neither party justified deportation.

A May 1920 report documented the illegality of the Palmer raids, concluding that the Dept. of Justice had been a bigger threat to the country than the radicals rounded up in the raids.

In a detailed report on the raids published a few months after they occurred, twelve prominent lawyers documented charges against the attorney general and his agents of cruel and unusual punishment, arrests without warrants, unreasonable search and seizure, entrapment, misuse of office, and the compelling of self-incrimination.

The raids “were certainly not a bright spot,” according to the FBI, although they did teach “important lessons about the need to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights.”

For more about this dangerous time in history, read In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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Six Dollars a Week

Six Dollars a Week

In New York, Vanzetti said, “my language meant little more…than the pitiful noises of a dumb animal.” (photo source: Lower East Side Tenement Museum)

The American stories of long-ago immigrants come alive at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on—where else?—New York’s Lower East Side (www.tenement.org). In a gutsy feat of urban archaeology, planners restored 97 Orchard Street to the way it was at the turn of the twentieth century, when the neighborhood was said to be the most densely populated place on earth. Visitors can enter the rooms where immigrant families once lived—the Gumpertz and Baldizzi families, the Levine and Rogarshevsky families—and hear their stories of hard times and survival.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti came to America in 1908. He landed in New York and stayed there for about a year before striking out in search of work elsewhere. Laboring in a New York restaurant kitchen that year, he earned about six dollars a week washing dishes twelve to fourteen hours a day, with five hours off every other Sunday. He bunked in a garret so hot that he said he preferred to sleep outside in a park at night. To him, 97 Orchard Street would probably have been paradise.

The immigrant lives of Sacco and Vanzetti will be the subject of a Tenement Talk at the museum on November 27. Filmmaker Peter Miller and I will share stories about the men and their controversial criminal case. If you can’t be there in person, watch the event as it’s livestreamed at 6:30 p.m., or catch it later at www.tenement.org/vizcenter_events.php.

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The Pull of the Past

Nancy Drew cracks another case.

I asked: What books influenced you when you were growing up?

You replied:

Nancy Drew mysteries. “I wanted to be a detective. Now I’m an art historian and art appraiser—an art detective!”

Under the Lilacs. “I wanted a standard poodle for 25 years after reading that book, and finally I got one!”

Also: Black StallionIsland StallionMy Book HouseLittle House on the Prairie, and the Oz books.

Plus: Anything by Lucy Maud Montgomery or Louisa May Alcott (besides Under the Lilacs).

Finally: Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, and a series about an “entwined set of families on military bases (can’t remember the author, but one of the characters was named Tippy).”

The responses would have differed if I’d heard from more guys—Treasure Island, anyone? The Hardy Boys? Encyclopedia Brown? Or if I’d heard from younger readers—Harry Potter, Harry Potter, and Harry Potter.

The books we loved as kids, we never forget. Excuse me. I think I have to go jump on the running board of the roadster now.

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Name That Book

N.C. Wyeth cover illustration

“What books influenced you as a child?”

Good question. I’d never really given it any thought, so when someone asked me that recently, I didn’t have a ready answer.

Then I remembered Mrs. Babcock, the librarian at the Rochambeau Branch Public Library in Providence. She rescued me when I was at that awkward age—too old for Nancy Drew and Jo March, too young for Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. With some trepidation, Mrs. Babcock directed me to “boys’ books”—sports biographies and adventure stories.

Thank you, Mrs. Babcock!

Now I understand which books were important to me then—The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, because it was the first book I read that made history (or a fictionalized version of it) come alive; and the biographies of Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese, because until I read them, I had no idea that non-fiction could be exciting.

Tell me: what books influenced you when you were growing up?

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Where Bookivores Gather

Contemporary Life or Family Storytelling? It's advisable to peruse the program before making a decision.

I love ink on paper.

On two spectacular fall days last weekend, thousands of others who feel the same way I do turned out for the 2012 National Book Festival. There was something for everyone. More than 100 authors spoke on subjects ranging from presidents to puppies.

Speaking about In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

It was my privilege to speak about Sacco and Vanzetti. To tell the truth, it was a big crowd, I was nervous, and the time seemed to go by in a blur. I’m told that Patricia Cornwell, who had spoken earlier that day, was in the audience, taking notes.

In 2006 best-selling author John Grisham took up non-fiction to write The Innocent Man, the true story of a wrongful conviction in Oklahoma. Could Cornwell be contemplating a similar move? The more than 250 prisoners exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence since the 1980s would surely agree that shining a spotlight on the subject of wrongful convictions would be a good thing.

Flanked by the History & Biography Pavilion, the U.S. Capitol, and the Smithsonian Castle (behind the trees), bookivores gather for the 2012 National Book Festival.

 

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Echoes

The Boston Herald, September 17, 1920

As I remember 9/11 (not that I could ever forget), I also recall 9/16, an earlier day of violence and tragedy in the financial district of New York.

Just after noon on September 16, 1920, a huge explosion created bloody chaos on Wall Street, burning passers-by, blowing office windows into dagger-sharp smithereens, toppling cars. Thirty-three people were killed that day. More died of their injuries later.

The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1920

The source of the carnage? A horse-drawn wagon laden with dynamite, the progenitor of all truck bombs.

A massive and top-priority investigation by the federal Bureau of Investigation failed. No one was ever charged with the crime.

According to hearsay, the man behind the deadly blast was a lone wolf named Mario Buda. His best friends were his imprisoned fellow anarchists, Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and the bombing was said to have been Buda’s retaliation for his friends’ indictment, five days earlier, for robbery and murder.

Learn more about the 1920 attack on Wall Street in In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World.
For still more  details, I recommend The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror, by Beverly Gage.

The New York Times, September 17, 1920

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Heaven on the Mall?

The amazing (and free!) National Book Festival starts in in 18 days, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it this year. I’ll be speaking about In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 22, in the History & Biography Pavilion on the National Mall.

They call it a book festival but — with 10-plus genres and more than 100 authors (http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/authors/) over 2 days – I call it book heaven.

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One Midnight in August

Eighty-five years ago next week, on August 23, 1927, Nick Sacco, age 36—husband, father, shoemaker, anarchist—was strapped down into the Massachusetts electric chair and executed for murder, a crime of which he had been convicted despite questionnable evidence and a trial now universally seen as unfair.

Moments after Nick died, his friend Bartolomeo Vanzetti, age 39, suffered the same fate for the same reasons under the same circumstances.

In each of the libraries where I did research for my book, In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, magical thinking invariably overcame me when I examined documents from the summer of 1927. Could this library be the one where things turned out differently, where new evidence led directly to a new trial?

Never happened, of course. Magical thinking is no match for reality.

So I strained for professional detachment as I reconstructed the final hours of men about whom I had come to know so much—Sacco and Vanzetti, “dead men walking” just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Photo collage by Meagan Healy

 

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Makes Sense to Me, #2
Quotations That Resonate

“If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew….It is a strange thing, picking up friendships with the neglected dead….”

— Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

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