Sinclair Letter Turns Out to Be Another Exposé
# Note found by an O.C. man says 'The Jungle' author
got the lowdown on Sacco and Vanzetti.
By Jean O. Pasco, Times Staff Writer
Ordinarily, Paul Hegness wouldn't have looked twice at
Lot 217 as he strolled through an Irvine auction
warehouse, preferring first-edition books and artwork
to the box stuffed with old papers and holiday cards.
But then, he wouldn't have stumbled upon a confession
from one of America's great authors. Inside the box,
an envelope postmarked Sept. 12, 1929, caught his eye.
It was addressed to John Beardsley, Esq., of Los
Angeles. The return address read, "Upton Sinclair,
"I stood there for 15 minutes reading it over and over
again," Hegness said of the letter by the author of
"The Jungle," the groundbreaking 1906 book that
exposed unsanitary conditions at slaughterhouses.
The last paragraph got the Newport Beach attorney's
attention. "This letter is for yourself alone," it
read. "Stick it away in your safe, and some time in
the far distant future the world may know the real
truth about the matter. I am here trying to make plain
my own part in the story."
The story was "Boston," Sinclair's 1920s novelized
condemnation of the trial and execution of Nicola
Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants
accused of killing two men in the robbery of a
Massachusetts shoe factory.
Prosecutors characterized the anarchists as ruthless
killers who had used the money to bankroll
antigovernment bombings and deserved to die. Sinclair
thought the pair were innocent and being railroaded
because of their political views.
Soon Sinclair would learn something that filled him
with doubt. During his research for "Boston," Sinclair
met with Fred Moore, the men's attorney, in a Denver
motel room. Moore "sent me into a panic," Sinclair
wrote in the typed letter that Hegness found at the
auction a decade ago.
"Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell
me the full truth," Sinclair wrote. "
He then told
me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every
detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."
Hegness paid $100 for the box containing Sinclair's
confessional letter and tucked it away in a closet
where it gathered dust. Now, after stumbling upon it
again, he plans to donate it to Sinclair's archives at
Indiana University, where it will join a trove of
correspondence that reveals the ethical quandary that
confronted Sinclair papers that even some scholars
of the author weren't aware of.
"This is a stunning revelation," said Anthony Arthur
of Los Angeles, a retired literature professor and
author of the recently released biography, "Upton
Sinclair: Radical Innocent."
"I've never heard of this," added Lauren Coodley, a
professor of history and psychology at Napa Valley
College who edited a recent Sinclair anthology. "It's
one of those amazing things. That's why history is so
fascinating, because we keep revising it."
Upton Beall Sinclair was a giant of the nation's
Progressive Era, a crusading writer and socialist who
championed the downtrodden and persecuted. President
Theodore Roosevelt, who pushed through the nation's
first food-purity laws in response to "The Jungle,"
coined the name for Sinclair's craft: muckraker.
Sinclair wasn't alone in believing Sacco and Vanzetti
were innocent when he began researching the book that
fictionalized their case. On Aug. 23, 1927, the day
they were executed, 25,000 protested in Boston.
The men have been viewed as martyrs by the American
left ever since. Historians agree that prosecutors in
the case were biased and shoddy, and that the two men
failed to receive a fair trial.
On the 50th anniversary of their execution,
Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis all but pardoned
the pair, urging that "any disgrace should be forever
removed from their names." But the fearless Sinclair
was left a conflicted man by what Sacco and Vanzetti's
lawyer and later others in the anarchist movement
"I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life
at that point," he wrote to his attorney. "I had come
to Boston with the announcement that I was going to
write the truth about the case."
Other letters tucked away in the Indiana archive
illuminate why one of America's most strident truth
tellers kept his reservations to himself.
"My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I
believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement
and may not live to finish the book," Sinclair wrote
Robert Minor, a confidant at the Socialist Daily
Worker in New York, in 1927.
"Of course," he added, "the next big case may be a
frame-up, and my telling the truth about the
Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the
He also worried that revealing what he had been told
would cost him readers. "It is much better copy as a
naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is
what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90%
of my public," he wrote to Minor.
Sinclair was born in 1878, and his upbringing in New
York City was framed by his parents' poverty and his
grandparents' wealth. He entered college at 14 and
paid for school by writing stories for newspapers and
magazines. His first novel was published in 1901.
He moved to Southern California in 1915. In 1926, he
ran as a Socialist for California governor, getting
60,000 votes. He took another stab in 1934, during the
Great Depression, this time winning the Democratic
primary with a platform of ending poverty. He got
nearly 900,000 votes.
In 1943, Sinclair won a Pulitzer Prize for "Dragon
Teeth," a novel that dealt with Hitler's rise to
power. He died in a small town in New Jersey in 1968
at the age of 90, having never publicly disclosed his
doubts about the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Ideale Gambera, whose father was a Boston anarchist in
the 1920s, said he could empathize with Sinclair's
angst about revealing his doubts.
Gambera, 80, said there was a strict code of silence
to protect the group and hide the nature of their
activities. He said his father, Giovanni Gambera, a
member of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, told
him before he died in 1982 that Sacco was one of the
"They all lied," said Gambera, a retired English
professor living in San Rafael. "They did it for the
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The writer and his subjects
Upton Sinclair: American author born in Baltimore in
1878, best known for his 1906 novel, "The Jungle," an
account of conditions in the meatpacking industry in
Chicago that began a style of exposé writing that came
to be known as muckraking. His novel, "Boston,"
chronicling the Sacco and Vanzetti case, was published
in 1928. An unsuccessful Socialist candidate for
California governor, he died in 1968.
Nicola Sacco: An Italian immigrant and self-proclaimed
anarchist who was arrested, tried and executed in
Massachusetts in 1927 for murdering a shoe factory
paymaster and his bodyguard during the robbery of
$15,766.51 from the factory's payroll.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti: Arrested with Sacco for the
murders and robbery. The two were executed amid
Sources: Upton Sinclair archives, Lilly Library,
Indiana; published materials. Graphics reporting by