How the Story Ended . . .

Sacco (left) & Vanzetti

Earlier this summer I copyedited a book about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I’d known the basics for many years. In 1921 Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of killing two men during a 1920 payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After years of appeals, both men were executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on August 23, 1927. The verdicts, the conduct of the trial, and the executions have been controversial ever since.

Reading page after well-researched page evoking the time, the place, the characters, and the events, I was sure that the story was going to end differently this time. Given the contradictory evidence, how could anyone not have a reasonable doubt? How could anyone not see how prejudiced the judge was? In what idiotic legal system would the trial judge also be the appeals judge — the one who got to rule on whether the trial judge had been fair or not? In this book Sacco and Vanzetti would not die.

In my manuscript, of course, the story turned out the way it does in every other telling: Sacco and Vanzetti died.

Nisa

I had Sacco and Vanzetti on the brain when I learned earlier this summer about Ben Ramsey and Nisa Counter’s struggle to come to amicable terms with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) over a disputed piece of Chilmark land. Ben and Nisa weren’t on trial for their lives — what was at stake for them was their land and their intended home — but the forces arrayed against them were formidable. Not the state this time, but a Vineyard conservation group with almost $6 million in the bank and ample connections to power. It quickly became clear that neither island newspaper was interested in their side of the story, and one, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, seemed to be going out of its way to misrepresent them, and to silence anyone who called attention to its errors and omissions.

Ben

The end of the story hadn’t been written back in July, but there was handwriting on the wall. Having resisted all attempts to resolve the issue by negotiation or mediation, SMF brought suit in Massachusetts Land Court against Ben and Nisa. The first skirmish went so well for our side: Judge Sands’s ruling indicated that SMF’s claim to the land was nowhere near as clear as SMF thought it was. Two Vineyarders unrepresented by counsel stood up to a couple of high-powered, high-priced lawyers and — pretty much — won.

You would not, however, have inferred this from the M.V. Times story, which implied that the round had gone to SMF. (This is discussed in some detail in “What’s Up with the M.V. Times?”)

But the campaign ahead promised to be long, emotionally grueling, and very, very expensive. Yesterday, September 9, Nisa and Ben posted an open letter to their friends and supporters, explaining why they have decided not to continue the battle. (For a copy of the letter, see “Turning Point.”) SMF seems to have won on a technicality: it has more money. Has it proved its right to this piece of property? It has not.

We will all be dealing with the backwash and repercussions of this for quite a while. Earlier today, Jackie Mendez-Diez, among the most active of Ben and Nisa’s supporters,  wrote: “I thank them for exposing the real SMF, the newspapers, and the individuals who abetted this injustice. This was an important and revealing happening within the workings of the Vineyard social structure, and we are all better off knowing where our trust and faith are deserved.”

Yes indeed. Yet part of me wishes I did not know what I know now, especially about the M.V. Times. I worked for the Times from 1988 to 1993 and again from 1996 to 1999. It was one of the best teams I’ve ever worked on. We knocked ourselves out every week trying to produce the best paper we could. I loved my job.

Whenever Betty Ann Bryant (1938–1994) came through the front door, I knew I was about to learn something about Martha’s Vineyard. Betty Ann, a native islander, was a one-woman social services agency. When regular channels didn’t work, she’d carve her own, enlisting the assistance of whoever she thought could get the job done. Not infrequently this involved the Times. “Where’s Gerry?” she’d ask while making a beeline for his desk in the far corner of the newsroom.

Gerry was Gerry Kelly, dubbed by a fellow journalist “the greatest one-man band in the history of journalism.” Gerry turned out prose like yard goods: news stories, editorials, art and book reviews, food columns, personal profiles, and more. If a stringer was late with a story, Gerry could fill the hole in about 30 minutes. Gerry might come across as crusty and gruff, but he was the softest touch on the staff and Betty Ann knew it. She’d explain who needed what, Gerry would make a few phone calls and maybe write a story, and pretty soon help would be found.

A dozen times this summer I’ve thought, If Gerry Kelly were still sitting at the corner desk, the Times would have covered this story very differently. But Gerry died in 1996, a year and a half after Betty Ann.

Another incident from the early 1990s: after the father of two small children was killed in a construction accident, a Times reporter covered and supported a community effort to complete the house he was building. The paper won a community service award from the New England Press Association for its coverage of the story.

The Times as well as the times seems to have changed. Will anyone give the paper an award for its coverage of this story? Probably not. Being celebrated at Chilmark cocktail parties for keeping Chilmark safe for the affluenza will have to do.

By the way, Jackie Mendez-Diez and I are still blocked from posting to the Martha’s Vineyard Times website under our own names.

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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7 Responses to How the Story Ended . . .

  1. Sara Crafts says:

    Since you agree with the Times (1), (or they agree with you…) Susanna, about the roundabout you’ll probably continue to get mentioned, at least in a tangential fashion, in their news articles pertaining to this travesty. It’s my guess that the Times is going to claim that further coverage of Counter/SMF is a violation of the judge’s silencing order (although that should be moot now). I’d like to know, BTW, will SMF step in and pay all the back taxes on that land and release the money that the Hancocks and relatives have paid for it? Or will SMF declare that to be a “contribution”? Hopefully we’ve not heard the last of this.

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    • I hope not too. Can’t wait to see how the papers cover Ben & Nisa’s withdrawal from the legal battle. IIRC, Judge Sands’s order to refrain from “arguing the case” in the press. At that point nearly all the arguing was being done by Sheriff’s Meadow — their charming lawyers actually presented the Aug. 18 issue of the M.V. Times as one of their support documents. In the following issue — after the judge’s order — the MVT story quoted Diane Tillotson, SMF’s lead attorney on the case. Uh, wasn’t that the kind of thing the judge had in mind?

      I don’t know how it works in Land Court. If the evidence supports the validity of Ben and Nisa’s quit-claim deed, and there’s no evidence that the parcel was donated to SMF, does SMF get the property anyway even if Ben and Nisa aren’t present? OTOH, I don’t think SMF cares if it owns the property or not. It just wants to make sure that Ben and Nisa don’t live there.

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  2. Roberta Bradford Mendlovitz says:

    Susanna has told this story well. Nisa and Ben make up the lifeblood of our small Island. Ben’s family has contributed for generations to the MV of today. I am optimistic that the courts will redress the grievances that have been showered on this young couple so that they may return to offer their talents, their loyalty and their family once again to Chilmark and Martha’s Vineyard. We need their energies, their visions and their talents if Martha’s Vineyard is to continue to grow into the unique and multi-talented society of which so many of us are so proud.

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  3. Jackie Mendez-Diez says:

    Niki, there’s been a blanket “block” on my letters to the editor (and on me, in general) at The Times since 2007. The Gazette publishes my letters, The Times does not. It’s been a few years, so maybe that’s changed. As an example, since 2007, there was a story in the Gazette and on WMVY when I was named Big Sister of the Year– The Times did not mention it. As an aside, in 2007 after I was blocked at The Times, my piggy painting was the Ag Society’s fair poster choice. The Times did print it all over the paper, including for the cover of their Ag Fair schedule insert. I guess they had no choice. The irony, (that only a few people at the time noticed), was that the inspiration for the subject matter of my poster, a very eager PIG, was a characterized portrait of a specific person who exemplified exactly this prettified greed and selfish agenda that we see in SMF and in all its colluders now. I know exactly what it feels like to have a clear wrong go aided and abetted by powers that gain too much by maintaining the status quo of pretense. It’s hard not to notice when someone outside the accepted social structure is silenced, or, like Ben and Nisa, HURT. Those within the accepted strata, or with the money to buy acceptance, get away with wrong-doing. The truth behind Ben and Nisa’s land was misrepresented and squelched by Sigelman at the Times because the real truth is too close to the bone of how things really work on the island. The Sacco-Venzetti case was, in no small way, about the American political intolerance of “outsiders”. The Vineyard’s intolerance of any exposure of its ugly underbelly of selling out to the highest bidder is palpable in Ben and Nisa’s story.

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  4. Niki Patton says:

    Very enjoyable reading, Susanna — also nicely laid out and easy visual on the eyes (that really makes a diff for me), and interesting content…I’m enjoying your entry into the blogosphere. I am concerned about the Times censorship and the reasons for it. Have they stated any reason for blocking you? Do they publish you if you send an email/ letter? I noticed your name was mentioned in the roundabout piece so it’s not a blanket “block.”

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    • I was indeed mentioned in the roundabout story. A letter to the editor I submitted after the first MVT story appeared on the SMF suit wasn’t printed. This was very unusual: in the past, when the editor didn’t like my letter, it got buried around p. 36, but it did get printed. Then, after I posted website comments correcting the facts and interpretation in the second story (Aug. 25), I was abruptly blocked from posting new comments to any story, and later that day all my earlier comments were erased. They haven’t stated any reason. I’m toying with the idea of calling Doug up and asking him, but I really hate watching people waffle and lie so I haven’t got around to it yet.

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  5. Sharon Stewart says:

    I salute both Jackie and Susanna for sticking their necks out in this fight for justice and honesty. Only those with integrity have enough guts to do the right thing. The cocktail cowards do not. And unless they grow a spine, they never will. For shame.

    Sharon in Ottawa, Canada

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