The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
As we crowded out to the street, a great mass of police all around us, one of the enterprising young reporters who had helped to get up the “little party” for the girls seized my wrist, calling out, “Was this a swell show, I ask you? Did it come off like a house afire? It was all my idea; I got the whole thing up!” His face was savage too, wild with his triumph. “I got Luigia out of bed to come here. She said she was too sick, but I got her up! I said, ‘Don’t you want to help your brother?’”
“She speaks English?” I asked in wonder at him. “What did she say?” I had rather liked him before. I have forgotten his name.
“Hell no!” he said. “She’s got an interpreter. She didn’t say anything; she just got up and came along.”
The most terrible irony of this incident of Luigia Vanzetti I learned later: that Mussolini wrote a personal letter to Governor Fuller of Massachusetts asking for mercy for the two Italians. I had known and talked with a number of the earlier refugees from Mussolini’s Italy of 1922 and onward in Mexico, and I knew well what his mercy was like toward anyone unlucky enough to displease him. But at that time, Mussolini had many admirers and defenders in this country—he was more than respectable; he was getting enormous flattering publicity. There was a group of Mussolini enthusiasts in Boston, picketing and working and going to jail and being let out, then putting their heads together in the evening to sing “Giovinezza.” No harm done. The Communists thought them beneath contempt, and the liberals, the true democrats as they believed themselves to be, were then in the heyday of practicing what they preached, and were ready to fight and die for anybody’s right to his own beliefs, no matter what—religious, social, or political. I thought wryly of Voltaire’s impassioned defense of an individual’s right to say what he believed, but all I could salvage at that time was that I disagreed with most of what some of these “liberals” were saying and I would defend to the death my right to disagree. “Ha,” said my little publicity inventor, listening a split second to the sweating, howling, cheering crowd—“Talk about free speech! How’s that? Their heads will be the first to roll.” This phrase was one of the Communist crowd’s favorites, and the very thought of rolling heads would bring a mean, relishing smile to even the dourest face.
After Mr. James had bailed us out for the last time, we returned to the hotel and got ready to go to the Charlestown Prison where the execution was to take place at midnight. It seems odd, perhaps, but I joined with a group of persons to go in a taxi to the prison and I cannot remember a name or a face among them. It is possible that they were all strangers to me. There were several hundred of us who had been picketing in relays all day, every day from the 21st and for four days, and their faces and names, perhaps known at that moment, have vanished; and yet, when the thing was done, I remember returning with persons well known to me and several incidents which happened later. The driver of our cab did not want us to go to the Charlestown Prison. Neither did the police stationed at regular distances along the whole route. They stopped our cab and turned us back half a dozen times. We would direct the driver to go a roundabout way, or to take a less traveled street. But at last, he refused to drive farther. We left him then, after making up the fare among ourselves. I was nearly penniless and I know now that a good many others among us were too. We walked on toward the prison, coming as near as we could, for the crowd was enormous and in the dim light silent, almost motionless, like crowds seen in a dream. I was never in that place but once, but I seem to remember it was a great open square with the crowd massed back from a center the police worked constantly to keep clear. They were all mounted on fine horses and loaded with pistols and hand grenades and tear gas bombs. They galloped about, bearing down upon anybody who ventured out beyond the edge of the crowd, charging and then pulling their horses up short violently so that they reared and their forehoofs beat in the air over a human head, but always swerving sharply and coming down on one side. They were trained, probably, to this spectacular, dangerous-looking performance, but still, I know it is very hard to force a good horse to step on any living thing. I have seen them in their stalls at home shudder all over at stepping on a stray, newly hatched chicken. I do not believe the police meant for the hoofs to strike and crush heads—it possibly was just a very showy technique for intimidating and controlling a mob.
This was not a mob, however. It was a silent, intent assembly of citizens—of anxious people come to bear witness and to protest against the terrible wrong about to be committed, not only against the two men about to die, but against all of us, against our common humanity and our shared will to avert what we believed to be not merely a failure in the use of the instrument of the law, an injustice committed through mere human weakness and misunderstanding, but a blindly arrogant, self-righteous determination not to be moved by any arguments, the obstinate assumption of the infallibility of a handful of men intoxicated with the vanity of power and gone mad with wounded self-importance.
A few foolish persons played a kind of game with the police, waiting until they had turned to charge in the other direction, stepping out defiantly into the center, rushing with raucous yells of glee back to safety when the police turned their horses and came on again. But these were only the lunatic fringe that follows excitement—anything will do. Most of the people moved back passively before the police, almost as if they ignored their presence; yet there were faces fixed in agonized disbelief, their eyes followed the rushing horses as if this was not a sight they had expected to see in their lives. One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horse’s hoofs beat over her head, she did not move, but stood with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognizing her, “That’s Lola Ridge!” and dashed into the empty space toward her. Without any words or a moment’s pause, he simply seized her by the shoulders and walked her in front of him back to the edge of the crowd, where she stood as if she were halfconscious. I came near her and said, “Oh no, don’t let them hurt you! They’ve done enough damage already.” And she said, “This is the beginning of the end—we have lost something we shan’t find again.” I remember her bitter hot breath and her deathlike face. She had not long to live.
For an endless dreary time we had stood there, massed in a measureless darkness, waiting, watching the light in the tower of the prison. At midnight, this light winked off, winked on and off again, and my blood chills remembering it even now—I do not remember how often, but we were told that the extinction of this light corresponded to the number of charges of electricity sent through the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti. This was not true, as the newspapers informed us in the morning. It was only one of many senseless rumors and inventions added to the smothering air. It was reported later that Sacco was harder to kill than Vanzetti—two or three shocks for that tough body. Almost at once, in small groups, the orderly, subdued people began to scatter, in a sound of voices that was deep, mournful, vast, and wavering. They walked slowly toward the center of Boston. Life felt very grubby and mean, as if we were all of us soiled and disgraced and would never in this world live it down. I said something like this to the man walking near me, whose name or face I never knew, but I remember his words—“What are you talking about?” he asked bitterly, and answered himself: “There’s no such thing as disgrace anymore.”
I don’t remember where we left Lola Ridge, nor how it came about that a certain number of us gathered in one of the hotel rooms, among them, Grace Lumpkin, Willie Gropper the cartoonist, Helen O’Lochlainn Crowe, Michael Gold, a man or two whose names I never knew—yet I recall that one of them said, “Damn it, I’m through. I’d like to leave this country!” Someone asked bitterly, “Well, where would you go?” and half a dozen voices called as one, “Russia!” in their infatuated ignorance, but it was touching because of its sincerity; there was a fervor like an old-fashioned A
Does all of this sound very old-fashioned, like the Communist vocabulary or the early Freudian theories? Well, it was fifty years ago and I am not trying to bring anything up-to-date. I am trying to sink back into the past and recreate a certain series of events recorded in scraps at the time which have haunted me painfully for life.
Somebody suggested that he would like a drink. Michael Gold said he knew where to find it and went out and bought a bottle of bootleg gin; and then, nobody wanted to drink after all except one girl I have not named—an Irish Catholic girl I had never known to be anything but tender and gentle, now strode up and down the room in pure hysteria, swinging the open bottle of gin and singing in a loud flat voice a comic old song about an Irish wake: “They took the ice from off the corpse and put it in the beer—your feyther was a grand old man—give us a drink!” and she would upend the bottle and take a swig with a terrible tragic face and try to hand it around. Somebody shouted the first line of the Internationale; someone else began “Giovinezza, giovinezza! Primavera di bellezza!” drowning each other out and the hysterical striding girl too—I was ashamed of it, for it was no moment for a low sense of humor to assert itself, or so it seemed to me, but I thought, “Suppose I started singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’? I bet I’d get thrown out of a window!” I felt a chill of distrust or estrangement—I was far from home, a stranger in a strange land indeed, for the first time in my life.
“No, don’t, darling,” said one of the men to the girl as she went on crying her tuneless chorus aloud, pouring the raw gin down her throat as she changed her tune to the gibberish of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,” she sang the silly words to the claptrap tune in march time, striding back and forth. The Communist sympathizers and the Jews alike flinched, offended, and all the faces turned sour, frowning.
“Jesus,” said Mike Gold, “leave Christ out of this!”
“With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me,” sang the girl, swinging the bottle and marching, her eyes blinded, her face as white as a frosted lantern.
“We’ve got to stop her,” said a young woman—I don’t remember who but I remember the words—“This is dangerous!” and she must have heard them too, for she turned instantly and broke from the room and ran down the hall toward the window at the end. Several of us ran after her and two of the men seized her from the open window. She broke into submissive tears and gave way at once. They brought her back and we put her to bed, fully dressed, then and there; she slept almost at once. The rest of us sat up nearly all night, with nothing to say, nothing to do, brought to a blank pause, keeping a vigil with the dead in the first lonely long night of death. It was no consolation to say their long ordeal was ended. It was not ended for us—and perhaps I should speak for myself—their memory was already turning to stone in my mind. In my whole life I have never felt such a weight of pure bitterness, helpless anger in utter defeat, outraged love and hope, as hung over us all in that room—or did we breathe it out of ourselves? A darkness of shame, too, settled down with us, a most deplorable kind of shame. It was in every pair of eyes that met other eyes in furtive roving. Shame at our useless, now self-indulgent emotions, our disarmed state, our absurd lack of spirit. At last we broke up and parted—I remember nothing more of this incident. It dissolves and disappears like salt poured into water—but the salt taste is there.
In the morning when we began straggling out in small parties on our way to the trial, several of us went down in the elevator with three entirely correct old gentlemen looking much alike in their sleekness, pinkness, baldness, glossiness of grooming, such stereotypes as no proletarian novelist of the time would have dared to use as the example of a capitalist monster in his novel. We were pale and tight-faced; our eyelids were swollen; no doubt in spite of hot coffee and cold baths, we looked rumpled, unkempt, disreputable, discredited, vaguely guilty, pretty well frayed out by then. The gentlemen regarded us glossily, then turned to each other. As we descended the many floors in silence, one of them said to the others in a cream-cheese voice, “It is very pleasant to know we may expect things to settle down properly again,” and the others nodded with wise, smug, complacent faces.
To this day, I can feel again my violent desire just to slap his whole slick face all over at once, hard, with the flat of my hand, or better, some kind of washing bat or any useful domestic appliance being applied where it would really make an impression—a butter paddle—something he would feel through that smug layer of too-well-fed fat. For a long time after, I felt that I had sprained my very soul in the effort I had to make resisting that impulse to let fly. I shut my eyes and clenched my hands behind me and saw, in lightning flashes, myself doing ferocious things, like pushing him down an endless flight of stairs, or dropping him without warning into a bottomless well, or stringing him up to a stout beam and leaving him to dangle, or—or other things of the sort; no guns, no knives, no baseball bats, nothing to cause outright bloodshed, just silent, grim, sudden murder by hand was my intention. All this was far beyond my bodily powers of course, and I like to believe beyond my criminal powers too. For I woke when we struck the searing hot light of the August morning as if I had come out of a nightmare, horrified at my own thoughts and feeling as if I had got some incurable wound to my very humanity—as indeed I had. However inflicted, a wound there was, with painful scar tissue, left upon my living self by that appalling event. My conscience stirs as if, in my impulse to do violence to my enemy, I had assisted at his crime.
In the huge, bare, dusty room where the court sat, it was instantly clear that the Pink Tea Squad had been taken off duty for this round. We were all huddled in together—I don’t remember any chairs—and stood around, or sat on the grimy floor or on a shallow flight of steps leading I forget where; the place was as dismal and breathless as a tenement fire escape in August. Big, overmuscled, beefy policemen with real thug faces bawled at us senselessly (we were all of us merely passive by then), crowded in among us to keep us moving and generally hustled us around, not violently, just viciously and sordidly and impudently, by way of showing what they could do if sufficiently provoked. We were forbidden to smoke but I tried it anyway—the whole scene struck me as just second-rate melodrama, nothing to be taken seriously anymore. John Dos Passos, sitting near me, held a spread newspaper above me while I snatched a whiff, but we were seen and yelled at. I was sorry then to have involved him in such a useless disturbance, though he did not seem in the least to mind; he always had in those days—I have hardly seen him since*—a wonderful, gentle composure of manner, and I have never forgotten his expression of amiable distance from the whole grubby scene as I put out the cigarette and he folded his newspaper, while the greasy, sweating man in the blue suit stood above us and went on glaring and bawling a little longer, just in case we had not heard him the first time.
Mrs. Stuart Chase, who had been faithfully on the picket line and was now waiting trial with the rest, also had been one of the speakers