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.
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.
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.