The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Here are some notes of my conversations with my policeman during our several journeys under the August sun, down the rocky road to the Joy Street Station:

  He: “What good do you think you’re doing?”

  I: “I hope a little. . . I don’t believe they had a fair trial. That is all I want for them, a fair trial.”

  He: “This is no way to go about getting it. You ought to know you’ll never get anywhere with this stuff.”

  I: “Why not?”

  He: “It makes people mad. They take you for a lot of tramps.”

  I: “We did everything else we could think of first, for years and years, and nothing worked.”

  He: “I don’t believe in showing contempt for the courts this way.”

  I: “Neither do I, in principle. But this time the court is wrong.”

  He: “I trust the courts of the land more than I do all these sapheads making public riot.”

  I: “We aren’t rioting. Look at us, how calm we are.”

  He (still mildly): “What I think is, you all ought to be put in jail and kept there till it’s over.”

  I: “They don’t want us in jail. There isn’t enough room there.”

  Second day:

  He (taking my elbow and drawing me out of the line; I go like a lamb): “Well, what have you been doing since yesterday?”

  I: “Mostly copying Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s letters. I wish you could read them. You’d believe in them if you could read the letters.”

  He: “Well, I don’t have much time for reading.”

  Third day:

  The picket line was crowded, anxious, and slow-moving. I reached the rounding point before I saw my policeman taking his place. I moved out and reached for his arm before we spoke. “You’re late,” I said, not in the least meaning to be funny. He astonished me by nearly smiling. “What have we got to hurry for?” he inquired, and my scalp shuddered—we moved on in silence.

  This was the 23rd of August, the day set for the execution, and the crowds of onlookers that had gathered every morning were becoming rather noisy and abusive. My officer and I ran into a light shower of stones, a sprinkling of flowers, confetti, and a flurry of boos, catcalls, and cheers as we rounded the corner into Joy Street. We ducked our heads and I looked back and saw other prisoners and other policemen put up their hands and turn away their faces.

  I: “Can you make out which is for which of us? I can’t.”

  He: “No, I can’t, and I don’t care.”


  He: “How many times have you been down this street today?”

  I: “Only once. I was only sent out once today. How many times for you?”

  It was now late afternoon, and as it turned out, this was the last picket line to form. The battle was lost and all of us knew it by then.

  He (in mortal weariness): “God alone knows.”

  As we stood waiting in line at the desk, I said, “I expect this will be the last time you’ll have to arrest me. You’ve been very kind and patient and I thank you.”

  I remember the blinded exhaustion of his face, its gray pallor with greenish shadows in it. He said “Thank you,” and stood beside me at the desk while my name was written into the record once more. We did not speak or look at each other again, but as I followed the matron to a cell I saw him working his way slowly outward through the crowd.

  The same plain, middle-aged, rather officious woman with a gold front tooth always came and put me in a cell and locked the door. Sometimes I was alone in the foggy light and stale air, being forbidden to smoke and wishing for something to read. Sometimes there would be other women, though never once a soul I knew, and we would begin at once to talk, to exchange our gossip and rumors and ideas, for, being in the dead center of this disturbance, it was quite hard to find out what was really happening. After a time, usually two or three hours, the matron would come with her keys, open the door, and say, “Come on out.” Out we would come, knowing that Mr. Edward James, Henry James’s nephew, was there again, putting up our bail, getting us set free for the next round. Helen O’Lochlainn Crowe, who had trained with Jim Larkin as his disciple and mistress in the Irish Trouble, tried to refuse bail, insisted on staying in prison, and was finally hauled out and set on the sidewalk. Not roughly, just firmly and finally. She was, her jailers told her, bailed out whether she liked it or not, and this was very ungrateful behavior to Mr. James who was only trying to help.

  Mr. James was a thin, stiff, parchment roll of a man, maybe sixty years old, immaculately turned out in tones of expensive-looking gray from head to foot, to match his gray pointed beard and his severe pale gray eyes with irritable points of light in them. He left the hall once with several of my group, and the dark young Portuguese boy who always came with him walked beside me. He was a picture of exuberance, with his oily, swarthy skin, his thick, glistening black hair, the soft corners of his full red mouth always a little moist; his young, lazy fat heaving and walloping at every step. I asked him what organization they were working with, for by now I knew too well that this whole protest was the work of a complicated machine or a set of machines working together, even if not always intentionally or with the same motives, and we were all of us being put rather expertly through set paces by distant operators, unknown manipulators whose motives and designs were far different from ours. “Oh, Mr. James and I,” said the smiling, eupeptic being trundling along at my side, his red silk scarf necktie flapping, “we have our own little organization. I’m Mr. James’s secretary,” he said in his childish voice, “and we are perfectly independent!” He gave a coy little bounce and wiggle. He was as contented and unconcerned as a piglet in clover.

  “That’s charming,” I said in a breath of relief from the distrust and fright growing in my mind as if I had breathed an infection from the air, “it’s nice to know someone is acting on his own!”

  “Mr. James and me, we’ve been working on this for years!”

  I have only to sort out and copy these notes down here to realize how long fifty years are, not only in the life of an individual, but of a nation, a world—to realize again, not for the first time, how one sets out for a certain goal and ends at another, different, unforeseen, and too often dismaying. We need restored to us of course that blinded obscured third eye said once to exist in the top of the brain for our guidance. Lacking it we go skew-gee in great numbers, especially those of us brought up so believingly on Judeo-Greek-Christian ethics, prone to trust the good faith of our fellows, and therefore vulnerable to betrayal because of our virtues, such as they are; that is to say, our human weaknesses. There are many notes, saved almost at random these long past years, many by mere chance; they were scrambled together in a battered yellow envelope marked Sacco-Vanzetti, and had worked their way to the bottom of many a basket of papers in many a change of houses, cities, and even a change of country. They are my personal experiences of the whirlwinds of change that brought Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler crowded into one half a century or less; and my understanding of this event in Boston as one of the most portentous in the long death of the civilization made by Europeans in the Western world, in the millennial upheaval which brings always every possible change but one—the two nearly matched forces of human nature, the will to give life and the will to destroy it. So, at that time and after what I have learned since, it seems strange that I was not better informed at Boston about my committee until I arrived there and was seated at a typewriter copying the Sacco and Vanzetti letters to the world. However, I was not informed and I did not ask, and this is a story of what happened, not what should have been.

  After more than half a long lifetime, I find that any recollection, however vivid and lasting, must unavoidably be mixed with many afterthoughts. It is hard to remember anything perfectly straight, accurate, no matter whether it was painful or pleasant at that time. I find that I remember best just what I felt and thought about this event in its own time, in its inalterable setting; my impressions of this
occasion remain fast, no matter how many reviews or recollections or how many afterthoughts have added themselves with the years. It is fifty years, very long ones, since Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in Boston, accused and convicted of a bitter crime, of which, it is still claimed, they may or may not have been guilty. I did not know then and I still do not know whether they were guilty (in spite of reading at this late day the learned, stupendous, dearly human work of attorney Herbert B. Ehrmann), but still I had my reasons for being there to protest the terrible penalty they were condemned to suffer; these reasons were of the heart, which I believe appears in these pages with emphasis. The core of this account of that fearful episode was written nearly a half-century ago, during the time in Boston and later; for years I refused to read, to talk or listen, because I couldn’t endure the memory—I wanted to escape from it. Some of the account was written at the scene of the tragedy itself and, except for a word or two here and there in those early notes, where I have added a line in the hope of a clearer statement, it is unchanged in feeling and point of view. The evils prophesied by that crisis have all come true and are enormous in weight and variety.

  Books have been written by many illustrious persons who took part in that strange event—a lawyer who was to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Felix Frankfurter, and others; a lady who was to be American Minister to Norway, Mrs. J. Borden (“Daisy”) Harriman, was attending meetings there; celebrated faculty members from universities, such as Paxton Hibben; novelists such as John Dos Passos; poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay; all of whom the public knew well, at least by name. There were many politicians in full career, some of them risking their careers by their appearances in Boston—useless to name names, there were too many, all reputable and with good influence—all of them streamed sooner or later through that large but crowded room where I sat, among other members of my special committee, at the typewriter, doing what was called “kitchen police,” that is, all the dull, dusty little jobs that the more important committee members couldn’t be burdened with. This was my good luck. My work was not only the melancholy pleasure of copying Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s letters to their friends working for them on the outside, or even of composing propaganda in the form of news items which I doubt ever got printed. I did not see a newspaper the whole time. Now and then the pioneer lady Minister, pleasant Daisy Harriman, floated in all white, horse-haired lace garden hats and pink or maybe blue chiffon frocks, on her way to or from some social afternoon festivity. She sat beside my desk one day when I had just returned from my daily picketing and said, “One needs a little recreation, even in these terrible times. You should just go out and get a little breath of fresh air—a quiet walk by yourself.”

  I said, “My idea of recreation would be a nice long night’s sleep,” for the evenings, six of them, usually were spent at some fevered mass meeting or sitting about talking with the rather random groups that formed in one stifling hot hotel room or another. I said to her, “I sometimes wonder what we are doing really. The whole thing is losing shape in my mind, but I can only hope we may learn something we need to know—that something good will come of this.”

  She said very gently, “What good?—Oh, they’ll forget all about it. Most of them are just here for the excitement. They don’t really know what is going on; and they want to forget anything unpleasant.” Her broad, healthy face smiled reassuringly from under its flowering shade. Intoxicating perfume waved from her spread handkerchief when she dried her forehead. I repeated what John Dos Passos once remarked on the “imbecile” (or was the word “idiot”?) lack of memory of the human race, generally speaking.

  There was the charming good woman of great riches and even greater charity and sweetness of mind—Mrs. Leon Henderson—who had been a champion of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s from the first. I trusted her delicate, intuitional mind. She had been prodigal of all her resources, money and energy and imaginative stratagems and loving kindness. Now, at the end, when she rightly feared the worst, she was writing them letters to persuade them to break their fast, to save their strength for the new trial she was sure they would be given. She was a vegetarian and advised them to drink milk and fruit juice by way of easing themselves back into a regular diet.

  She invited me to lunch. I did not then know she was a vegetarian and when she asked me what I would like, I asked for broiled lamb chops. She shuddered a little, the pupils of her eyes dilated, and she gave me a little lecture on cruelty to animals, just the same.

  “I could not eat any food that had the taint of suffering and death in it; imagine my dear! Eating blood?”

  I retracted at once, in painful embarrassment, and ate a savory lunch of scrambled eggs and spinach with her, and things went on very nicely. Still, I could not avoid seeing her very handsome leather handbag, her suede shoes and belt, and a light summer fur of some species I was unable to identify lying across her shoulders. My mind would wander from our topic while, bewildered once more by the confusions in human feelings, above all my own, I gazed into the glass eyes of the small, unknown, peaked-faced animal.

  “We should be very wrong to despair,” she said as we were getting ready to go, “even if their lives are taken away from them; nothing can take away the truth of our wish to help them, the fact of their courage in the face of death; they have never despaired or become bitter.”

  I said, “Yes, and if they are innocent, it must be almost unbearable not to have had the chance to prove it. . .”

  She was shocked at this. “Do you mean you have a doubt of their innocence?” she asked.

  “I simply don’t know,” I told her. “I thought one of the questions in this whole uproar is just precisely that—that they have not had a fair trial.”

  “Fair trial or not,” she said—by now we were standing on the corner ready to separate—“that is not the point at all, my dear. They are innocent and their death will be a legal crime.”

  I have described that scene and the conversation from the notes I took when I got back to my desk at the hotel that day.

  Several of the more enterprising young reporters, who were swarming over the scene like crows to a freshly planted cornfield, had put out a few invitations to some of the girls in the various groups to something they called “a little party.” Rosa Baron, the head of my committee, went into action with the authority and prudence of a boarding school chaperone. “Just don’t go, that’s all,” she told her two or three eligibles, “just don’t be seen with them. That is the one thing we can’t afford—a scandal of that kind!” So we didn’t accept any invitations, and heard nothing more about them.

  I remember small, slender Mrs. Sacco with her fine copper-colored hair and dark brown, soft, dazed eyes moving from face to face but still smiling uncertainly, surrounded in our offices by women pitying and cuddling her, sympathetic with her as if she were a pretty little girl; they spoke to her as if she were five years old or did not understand—this Italian peasant wife who, for seven long years, had shown moral stamina and emotional stability enough to furnish half a dozen women amply. I was humiliated for them, for their apparent insensibility. But I was mistaken in my anxiety—their wish to help, to show her their concern, was real, their feelings were true and lasting, no matter how awkwardly expressed; their love and tenderness and wish to help were from the heart. All through those last days in Boston, those strangely innocent women enlisted their altar societies, their card clubs, their literary round tables, their music circles, and their various charities in the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. On their rounds, they came now and then to the office of my outfit in their smart thin frocks, stylish hats, and their indefinable air of eager sweetness and light, bringing money they had collected in the endless, wittily devious ways of women’s organizations. They would talk among themselves and to her about how they felt, with tears in their eyes, promising to come again soon with more help. They were known as “sob sisters” by the cynics and the hangers-on of the committee I belonged to who to
ok their money and described their activities as “sentimental orgies,” of course with sexual overtones, and they jeered at “bourgeois morality.” “Morality” was a word along with “charitable” and “humanitarian” and “liberal,” all, at one time, in the odor of sanctity but now despoiled and rotting in the gutter where suddenly it seemed they belonged. I found myself on the side of the women; I resented the nasty things said about them by these self-appointed world reformers and I thought again, as I had more than once in Mexico, that yes, the world was a frightening enough place as it was, but think what a hell it would be if such people really got the power to do the things they planned.*

  A last, huge rally took place the night before the execution, with Rosa Sacco and Luigia Vanzetti, Vanzetti’s sister, on the platform. Luigia had been brought from Italy and taken through Paris, where she had been photographed as she was marched through the streets at the head of an enormous crowd—the gaunt, striding figure of a middle-aged, plain woman who looked more like a prisoner herself than the leader of a public protest. Now they brought her forward with Mrs. Sacco and the two timid women faced the raging crowd, mostly Italians, who rose at them in savage sympathy, shouting, tears pouring down their faces, shaking their fists and calling childish phrases, their promises of revenge for their wrongs. “Never you mind, Rosina! You wait, Luigia! They’ll pay, they’ll pay! Don’t be afraid. . .!” Rosa Sacco spread her hands over her face, but Luigia Vanzetti stared stonily down into their distorted faces with a pure horror in her own. They screamed their violence at her in her own language, trying to hearten her, but she was not consoled. She was led away like a corpse walking. The crowd roared and cursed and wept and threatened. It was the most awesome, the most bitter scene I had ever witnessed.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via OnlineBooks