Bias and Vanzetti

July 5, 2008 at 2:13 pm (Bad Science, Law) (, , , , , , , , , , )

We all know that bias is a problem for scientists and we know that in order to design a good study, a scientist must find ways of eliminating potential biases where possible. But bias is a problem in many areas – even if it sometimes seems that the only ones who care are scientists. Selection bias is something that scientists must be careful of when selecting subjects or looking at what studies or data to use and recall bias is a common problem when using human subjects (say, when asking people about their diet or the amount of exercise they take in order to find out more about relationships between nutrition and health or between exercise and health). Recall bias can often be a problem in certain other fields.

One possible example of recall bias is from the Vanzetti trial of 1920. The Pinkerton detective agency interviewed four witnesses to the botched hold-up Vanzetti was later found guilty of, three of whom had been in the payroll truck when the attempted robbery took place. The following are summaries of the descriptions given by the witnesses to the Pinkerton agency. Paymaster Alfred Cox described the suspect thus: 5’8″, 150 pounds, dark complexion, 40 years old, closely cropped moustache which might have been slightly grey. Didn’t identify the car. Driver Earl Graves gave this information: dark complexion, black moustache and looked like a Greek. Believed the car was a Hudson. Police officer Benjamin Bowles and bystander Frank Harding were the other witnesses interviewed. Bowles: black closely cropped moustache, red cheeks, slim face, black hair and was either Italian or Portuguese. Offered no description of the car. Harding: 5’10” and thin. Did not get a good look at his face but thought he was a Pole. He identified the car as a black Hudson #6 auto.

So far then, we have a suspect who is 5’8″ to 5’10” with dark complexion and a black, closely cropped moustache, of Greek, Italian, Polish or Portuguese nationality. We also have a car that is not identified at all by two of the witnesses and is described by the other two as a Hudson. An Italian man named Vanzetti with a big, bushy moustache (and who had been linked to a Buick owned by another Italian man) was later indicted with this crime. Here’s what happened next.

At the preliminary hearings, Harding (who “did not get a good look at the suspect’s face”, remember – and neglected to furnish any description of the suspect’s face to the Pinkerton agency) decided that the man had a dark moustache and high cheekbones and was ‘swarthy’, adding that there was “no question in [his] mind” that Vanzetti was the one (he “didn’t get a good look at his face” originally – how the hell can he be in no doubt as to the man’s guilt?). He also changed his description of the car from a “black Hudson #6 auto” to… a Buick. Bowles, meanwhile, reaffirmed that the suspect had a short, croppy moustache – but then pointed to the heavily moustachioed Vanzetti (whose barber later testified in court that he never cropped Vanzetti’s moustache – it was always big and bushy). Cox was asked to identify the man and asked the court “how do you want it worded” he went on to say “I think it is this man behind the rail, the man with the moustache” and finally “I think he looks enough like the man to be the man”. It’s meant to be an identification of an actual person, not a Tom Jones look-a-like contest at Butlins.

At the actual trial Cox gave more details when describing the suspect, including the ‘high cheekbones’ that had appeared in none of the original descriptions – but did appear in Harding’s revised description at the preliminary hearings. If Cox failed to give this detail on the first two occasions on which he was questioned, how was he suddenly able to add it to his description now? Bowles, who had up until this point remained silent as to the type of car involved (and remember, this is the third time of asking) suddenly remembered it as a dark-coloured Buick. Which is in line with Harding’s revised description of the car as given at the preliminary hearings – but does not tally with the two original descriptions of the car as being a Hudson. Harding had originally been fairly specific in regards the car used in the failed heist and said it was a black #6 Hudson. This black #6 Hudson had become a “large car, dark car either blue or black, I should say, a seven passenger Buick” by the time of the trial. Bowles originally knew nothing about the car, Harding (like Graves) thought it was a Hudson. Both their stories changed and the car became, in both cases, a Buick. Bit of a coincidence, that. The jury was never made aware of the preliminary hearing or Pinkerton witness statements and the Pinkerton statements were only made known to the defence in 1927.

A suspect’s moustache being ‘bushy’ rather than ‘croppy’ and a misidentified car might not seem all that significant, but the identification of Vanzetti by these witnesses and the identification of the car by these witnesses were important for the prosecution case. Vanzetti was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Following a related criminal trial, he and a man named Sacco were sentenced to the electric chair – by the same Judge who had presided in the 1920 Vanzetti trial. They were executed two months after the Pinkerton evidence was made known in 1927.

Judge Thayber, who (according to Lee and Labriola) was noted for xenophobia, had actually written to the Chief Justice and requested that he be given the appointment. He also presided over all six unsuccessful appeals. Vanzetti was under indictment for the second case when he was tried and convicted in the first case. The fact he was under indictment for the second case (a robbery-murder) may have been a factor in the outcome of the first case. The fact he was already convicted of an attempted robbery may have been a factor in the second case. Given that the same judge presided over both trials, we can be sure that whether or not he was affected by these factors he was most certainly aware of them. Vanzetti and Sacco were apparently anarchists. This being the 1920s, the Americans were just a tad anxious about communists, socialists and anarchists. I think this provides some useful information as to the context in which this case was seen by Americans at the time. Particularly those chauvinistic, patriotic Americans like lawyer Barry C Reed who described the defendants as “aliens, anarchists and draft dodgers”.

I think this case is a good example of how people and organisations can (whether by accident or design) fail to eliminate bias and thereby ensure that there will always be doubt as to the reliability of their findings. There is still doubt as to the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti and there is still interest in the trials. I know this because I was reading about it in Famous Crimes Revisited by Drs Henry Lee and Jerry Labriola earlier today. Frankly, I preferred the Michael Baden book about autopsies, but I did find the inconsistencies in the Sacco-Vanzetti witness statements fascinating. Also of interest is that the witness statements of 14 Italians who saw Vanzetti delivering eels on the morning of the botched robbery seem not to have been given the same credence as the contradictory and ever-changing statements of four Americans.

Links: The book is on Amazon and there is a page on Sacco-Vanzetti on Wikipedia. EDIT: There’s more here – Sacco e Vanzetti [includes letters written by Vanzetti and comments made by him to journalists] and there’s a Washington Post review of a book about the case here. Also, DrAust has left a comment that included this link. Yet more here.



  1. draust said,

    Ah.. Sacco and Vanzetti. A case with many later parallels (consider e.g. in relation to the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven… or to more recent events).

    The Wikipedia page is a good one. Also of passing interest is the song “Here’s to You” (Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti) written by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone, as unlikely a combination of musical partners as you could hope to find.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Thanks DrAust – the video of the Baez song has some pretty compelling imagery.

  3. draust said,

    Yes, it is a nice collection of contemporary images.

    An earlier case which the Sacco and Vanzetti one echoes in various ways is the conviction and execution of Joe Hill. But of course after the Russian Revolution in 1917 the view of “communist syndicalist anarchists” in the US was even less forgiving. People commonly make the mistake of thinking the US’s long-standing paranoia about leftists begins after WW2 with Joe McCarthy et al., but in fact it goes back well over a century

    Sacco and Vanzetti also had the disadvantage of being foreigners. Italian-Americans still cite the case as an example of anti-Italian prejudice in the US – e.g. several characters in The Sopranos refer to Sacco and Vanzetti in this context.

  4. draust said,

    PS For a recent American view of the S&V case which draws various kinds of contemporary parallels, see here

  5. jdc325 said,

    Apparently this is what Vanzetti told a journalist prior to his execution:

    If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belong to us – that agony is our triumph.

    These are the lyrics to the Baez/Morricone tribute song:

    Here’s to you, Nicola and Bart
    Rest forever here in our hearts
    The last and final moment is yours
    That agony is your triumph

  6. jdc325 said,

    @DrAust: “PS For a recent American view of the S&V case which draws various kinds of contemporary parallels, see here”

    Yes, it seems jingoism is always with us. I thought briefly about the plans for 42-days detention for terror suspects when I was writing about Vanzetti – and I think the way the US has treated ‘enemy combatants’ at Guantanamo is relevant too. In the case of Vanzetti the trial was unfairly conducted and undue weight was given to the dubious and inconsistent statements of a handful of white American witnesses, that evidence being favoured above the consistent witness statements of 14 Italians (not to mention the problems with the firearms evidence). In the case of Guantanamo, persons were held there for some considerable time without trial. In the 42-day detention scenario, it seems that we don’t need to hold a trial in order to lock someone up for a significant amount of time – in fact, we don’t even need to charge them.

  7. Political Scientist said,

    The parallels go deeper: Anarchists and Nihilists were, I believe, the first exponents of suicide bombings, and of course, President McKinley was murdered by an Anarchist.

    [If you like turn of the century short stories, you’ll be familiar with Saki – “dynamite outrages” are a theme in his work]

    Dr Aust:
    “But of course after the Russian Revolution in 1917 the view of “communist syndicalist anarchists” in the US was even less forgiving.”

    Quite so, although the American Communist Party and the Labor Communist Party were formed in 1999. Each claimed to be more Leninist than the other, and the Cominterm [the part of the communist state which was responsible for spreading the revolution abroad] refused to allow either to affiliate until they merged. It was all very “people’s front of Judea”

    After they finally merged (in 1921) as the Workers’ Party of America, they contested elections: in 1924, William Foster took 0.1% of the popular vote. This looks even worse when you recall that Debbs socialist party took 6% of the popular vote in 1912, suggesting that a combination of material prosperity and the news of the bloodshed in Hungary and Russia took the shine off of “scientific” Marxism.

    It would be interesting to know whether American attitudes shifted between the February and October revolutions in 1917 – I think the response to the 1905 revolution was quite positive.

  8. Dr Aust said,

    In the “dynamite outrages” line, the other thing one should mention as a classic English-language text (and of course specifically set in fin-de- 19th siecle London) is Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent”.

    Talking of 42 days, I was actually moved to write to my (long-serving) Labour MP pre the last election to tell him exactly why I wouldn’t be voting for him (Iraq and detention without charge, in a nutshell). Even got a reply.

    The American remark that springs to mind in connection with the post-9/11 security measures is Benjamin Franklin’s oft-quoted:

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    The point, obviously, being that Governments have to balance the needs of security and the right to liberty – personal and civil rights, in effect. Contemporary US and UK Govts have found it expedient to pander to well-whipped public fear by erring grossly on the side of security, IMHO.

    Which brings to mind another famous political quotation:

    “…the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

    Hermann Goering

    PS Since I’ve mentioned Founding Father Ben Franklin, is anyone else enjoying the spectacle of Dubya selectively quoting Thomas Jefferson by eliminating Jefferson’s expressed hope that mankind would abandon “monkish ignorance and superstition”?

  9. jdc325 said,

    “Contemporary US and UK Govts have found it expedient to pander to well-whipped public fear by erring grossly on the side of security, IMHO.”

    I’d agree with that. I remember a documentary series on BBC 2 a while ago called The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear.
    I think the word ‘appeaser’ is quite often misused by those engaged in the War on Terror. It may be dishonest – but I think it is quite an effective tactic.

  10. Martin said,

    You said: “I think the word ‘appeaser’ is quite often misused by those engaged in the War on Terror.”

    I was actually toying with the idea a while back of writing an article about words which have been “stolen”. I thought of quite a few back then, although many of them have escaped me since. Appeasement was one of the terms I had on my rough list, bu also:

    “Skeptic” (when used by denialists, e.g. climate skeptics)
    “Terrorism” (when applied selectively, i.e. only to the opposition)
    “Sympathizer” (when used to imply support, as in “terrorist sympathizer”)
    “Darwinism” (when used to imply religious faith)
    … and so on. There are loads, when you start thinking.

    PS: I’ve not commented here as often as I’d like, but I’ve added your site to the actual LayScience feed now so links to all your new posts automatically appear on the front page, so I’m keeping regular tabs. Actually there are a few things I’d like to talk to you about at some point, but that’s all off-topic and for e-mail.

  11. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for your comments Martin.

    I think your idea of a ‘verbal villainy’ article is a good one. I look forward to reading it. Re your comment about the use of the term ‘Darwinism’ to describe evolution: I’ve seen alties claim that, e.g., Pasteur denied germ theory on his deathbed or X recanted his atheism or Y claimed homeopathy worked (Y is actually Darwin again – the claim was made by Dana Ullman, a homeopath who pops up occasionally on blogs and forums spamming his book. There’s more about Dana and Darwin on the Quackometer blog). The funny thing is, some creationists seem to think the theory of evolution relies on Darwin’s authority – whereas it should stand or fall on its merits [at least as far as scientists are concerned]. One man changing his mind is not all that important – the evidence is. Homeopaths make the same mistake with Pasteur and germ theory.


  12. jdc325 said,

    Hawk-Handsaw had something on 42 days: here and more here.

  13. jdc325 said,

    Echoes of the 1920s American press coverage of anarchists in the current reporting of terrorists?

    The book I read referred to “Red hysteria, patriotism, journalism’s focus on gangsterism” as being part of the backdrop to this trial, while Boston newspapers ran stories about security measures against Reds and warned of a Bolshevik plot to conquer the US.

    EDIT: Oh yeah, I found something referring to stereotyping in the Sacco-Vanzetti case here: SSRN. Brilliantly, you can email yourself the full text as a PDF. The only thing is, it might take a while to read all 47 pages.
    Albert Frantello was questioned by Katzmann about Sacco and Vanzetti, but Katzmann didn’t use their names in the portion I read – he referred to them using a derogatory term for Italians.

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