What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not . . .
—Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
Walking along the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius in the distance, I see my shadow on ancient rocks, just as my ancestors once did. Our shapes in shadows, evidence of our lives. I’ve come to Naples to feel closer to those no longer casting shadows anywhere on this earth. Their hometowns are nearby where they lived as children before making the crossing, becoming Americans, and forgetting everything about their pasts, or, at least, trying to forget. Of course, that is not possible. Their history is held in the blood of the children. And so we live our lives, this blood whispering to us, telling us things we hardly understand. Yet, the stories will be told because, until then, there is no rest.
It is the story of my great-uncles Erasmo and Giuseppe Perretta that pulses.
In his cell, Erasmo prepares to write his letter to Governor Marcus H. Holcomb. I picture him sitting down at a small wooden table pushed up against the back wall of his cell. High above him is a barred window that, during the day, lets in only a small ray of sunlight. Now, a bare electric bulb screwed into the socket in the ceiling dimly lights the room. In twenty-four hours, Erasmo and Giuseppe will climb Eli Giddings’s hanging machine. Erasmo has been trying to hide his fear, but he is growing frantic after exhausting all legal remedies, all appeals, all pleas. He must remain calm. He must focus on the task at hand: the letter.
A stack of prison paper sits before him on the desk. There are very specific rules about its use at the top of the first page. Write only on ruled lines. The inmate must confine himself to family or business of his own. Erasmo knows he will write many pages. There is so much to be said, so many injustices, so many things presented incorrectly. He must make the governor understand. This letter is his last chance to be heard.
He smooths the writing paper against the rough surface of the desk and picks up the fountain pen the guard has given him. He carefully dips it into the inkwell. Using his fingernail to pull the lever away from the barrel, Erasmo watches the bubbles form as the black ink is absorbed into the two little holes in the nib.
The guard watches to be certain the pen does not become a weapon. Erasmo thinks, let this pen be my sword.
His heart is beating fast, as it did the night of his arrest. If Governor Holcomb is an honorable man, he will see, by this letter, that two brothers have been falsely accused.
Erasmo writes tentatively—he wants no mistakes. The pen makes its first marks, a number one with a raised, small zero next to it, underlined twice in the middle of the first line. Erasmo pauses. This first mark is good, written in a steady hand. He is not an educated man, but he is writing to His Excellency so the writing must be clean and neat. Erasmo must use proper language; he cannot use the dialect of his village. The interpreter who will prepare the letter in English for His Excellency must see that Erasmo is not a peasant, but a man with a trade, a shoemaker, with a home and a business of his own, with a wife and three babies. Erasmo and his brother are not murderers. Erasmo must make the interpreter, the Honorable Governor Holcomb, and anyone who will read this letter, see the brothers’ innocence.
Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb:
I have decided to write this fateful letter regarding the unexpected, cruel sentence inflicted upon us, the innocent. Your Excellency, Governor, if what we write does not seem true, it is because they have made you understand that we are very murderous. We assure you we are two innocent men and that our death sentence is based on all lies inflicted upon us. We were in bed when this happened. Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb. Don’t give your permission to make us two innocent victims. Be brave. Do everything you can to give us a new process, without injustice.
Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb, make an investigation and you will find that Frank Palmese, the victim, did not say “Erasmo shot me and Giuseppe cut me.” There were two nurses present who can tell you the truth.
Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb, on the morning of June 3, 1918, my house was surrounded and the officers who entered declared that I was under arrest, demanding if I knew anything about their questions, but I knew nothing of their questions because a man who sleeps knows nothing of what happens in the streets. Then my brother and I were handcuffed and taken to the hospital.
The injured man was lying on the bed deprived of his senses, and he supposedly gets Erasmo by the arm and says, “He shot me and Giuseppe cut me.”
Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb, the interpreter asked him if he knew us; and Frank Palmese responded yes. And the interpreter asked him again if he had any quarrel with us, and Palmese said no.
Who will protect us from these lies?
Also, I have seen in the court, policemen who were never in my house, and yet they were on the stand testifying as if they had been there. And yet, the one officer who was at my house, Officer Dolan, was not in court. Why wasn’t he allowed to testify? Because he would have told the truth, that he was the only one on night duty, on the beat, and at my house that night, and with his own mouth told me, “Don’t worry, from 10:30 p.m. tonight, I have not seen you in the street.” And this is all true, because anyone can tell you Officer Dolan was on the beat that night, and he can tell you what I am saying now.
This shows we were all framed up.
Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb, I again beg you; use all your influence; don’t let two brothers die so cruelly. Someday, Your Excellency, Governor Holcomb, our innocence will be discovered and made known. Then it will be too late.
You will know all if you investigate.
Final regards from the brothers Perretta.
His letter goes on for many pages. Erasmo knows what he wants to say, that the judicial system is determined against him and his brother and has been from the start.
On June 9, 1919, the board of pardons hears the brothers’ plea to have their death sentence commuted to life in prison. The brothers’ counsel brings the case for commutation forward. They argue on the flimsiness of the circumstantial case, the insufficient evidence, the weak motive, and the ignored eyewitness testimony.
The state’s position, as set forth by the prosecuting attorney, argues that the defense had never before questioned the evidence. “Besides,” he proclaims, “as both brothers are anarchists, the state does not require a decided motive for the killing.” He goes on to exhibit pistols and knives and steel-jacketed cartridges that miraculously appeared in the brothers’ home on Cherry Street in New Britain the night of the murder—after the brothers had been whisked away, under arrest. No pistols, knives, or cartridges had been found during the initial search, when the brothers had been at home. The board of pardons rules against the brothers.
On June 27, 1919, at midnight, the death sentence is upheld.
Erasmo’s widow, Amelia, stayed in New Britain with her babies. She stayed in their house and took in boarders. The house and shoe repair shop on Cherry Street gave way to the major highway that runs through the old Italian quarter. Amelia, who lived to be ninety-four, and her children with Erasmo have all died. No one in my family spoke of Erasmo and Giuseppe unless prodded, and never comfortably. No one seemed to know anything about anarchists.
The summer my husband and I went to my father’s hometown of Saviano, we stayed at a hotel in Naples, right on the bay, looking across to Vesuvius. The water in the bay sparkles as though it is electric. No matter what time of day, the boys of Naples dive from the rocks and float on their backs in the sun.
We are there in late June. I get up early in the morning of June 28. I quietly leave the bedroom and in the bathroom, push open the shutters of the window. The moon is still casting its light on Vesuvius in the distance. Far off, I hear the strays of Naples barking. My thoughts are of Amelia, Erasmo, and Giuseppe.
I see Amelia in a darkened bedroom with the door shut. On the other side, family caring for her children. Cousins, aunts, nieces, and nephews try to quiet their own sorrow, listening for any call from Amelia for comfort, but she is beyond comfort, beyond remedy. She lies curled on top of their bed, the one she shared with Erasmo. The only movement she makes is in her hands, as she wrings Erasmo’s handkerchief, the one he gave her the night of the snow, the coldest night of the year, December 31, 1917.
The snow that night was horizontal, pelting the windows. The revelers in their best party attire, sipping wine from small green glasses, were beginning to tire of the wait. Word had begun to circulate that Raffaele Schiavina, who was to speak to the group, had been caught outside of town in the storm and could not get through. Trapped now themselves, the amiable group was growing restless, and the wine was running out, still hours before the toast to herald in the new year. Schiavina was to calm the group, to assure them all would be well in spite of the fearful fever sweeping this new land in which they were viewed as aliens. The Herald recently reported that an anarchist cult had been found in the midst of New Britain.
Now, here they were celebrating in a new undisclosed location, safe from discovery, they hoped, and away from their own neighborhood where they normally held meetings and listened to lectures. Cantate per noi, the crowd begins to call, gesturing toward Erasmo and Amelia. The husband and wife know all the operas. Everyone in their families did. Erasmo and Amelia look at each other, and shrug their shoulders. Va bene. They will sing.
Al tuo fato unisco il mio, son tuo sposo, he sings.
E tua son io, she sings.
Dilegua, o notte!
Vincerò! Vincerò! Erasmo sings.
Aria after aria, they sing. Outside, the storm rages. Raffaele Schiavina never arrives.
When the applause begins to fade and the shouts of “bravo” wane, Erasmo takes Amelia’s hand, and they venture out onto the covered balcony.
At that moment, the snow stops. Fast-moving clouds reveal a thin path of clear sky. Perhaps, for a second only, a star shines on them before retreating behind advancing clouds. “Who knows when we will be this happy again,” Erasmo whispers in her ear. He covers her shoulders with his coat, and they return to the revelry inside. Glasses and voices raised. Her shining body pressed to him. The lovers are enveloped in the clamor of the new year.
But tonight, the night of his death, she is in despair. From time to time, she mumbles imprecations against the land that is taking her life from her, her breath, her heart, her soul. She curses the lawyers, the judge, the jury. She calls on special powers, granted to her by the enormity of her affliction, and casts a most malignant curse on His Excellency, the Honorable Governor Holcomb: maledizione.
Not far away, in his cell, Erasmo is in a stupor. He is rocking back and forth. He cannot be relieved of the image in his head, Amelia’s last kiss. His sons holding onto her as she stumbles, nearly dropping his infant son. His family being led away. “I lose my brain, I lose my brain,” Erasmo repeats as he rocks. The hours pass. There will be no midnight reprieve.
Erasmo is led up the scaffold to the noose.
He is wearing a brown suit and a striped shirt with a white collar and a black bow tie. He is offered the crucifix as the black hood lowers over his head. He pushes the cross away with both his tethered hands. He pays no attention to the priests praying on either side. His tie is removed. His collar is loosened. The rope is adjusted around his neck. Erasmo feels a sudden pull. He is released into the air. He soars. Then, with a crack like thunder, he flies away home.
Giuseppe, praying with the priests and kissing the cross, follows.
In Naples, it is dawn. I hear the low, mournful tolling of bells somewhere in the distance, six in all. Whitman’s words come to me in this foreign land that is my ancestral home.
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
The mystery remains suspended. Ancestors who came before us keep their secrets permanently planted within us. “Be at peace, be at peace,” I pray. Great or small, we furnish our parts toward eternity; we furnish our parts.