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Novelist's book about murder trial called into question

Last Updated: Saturday, January 28, 2006 | 4:28 PM ET

The integrity of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Upton Sinclair has been called into question after the discovery of a letter he wrote about the case of two men convicted of murder in 1927.

Sinclair, a crusading journalist, wrote a fictionalized account of the murder case of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, called Boston, published in 1928.   The two were convicted of the deaths of a shoe factory executive and a security guard as well as taking more than $15,000 US from the factory’s payroll.  They were electrocuted in 1927.

Their execution galvanized the Left, protests erupted across Europe and the U.S. and Josef Stalin denounced it.

Sinclair’s novel paints the pair as innocent and victims of political persecution.  But the recent discovery of a letter dated Sept. 12, 1929 from Sinclair to his attorney friend, John Beardsley, indicates the author may have known the two were guilty at the time he wrote the novel.

"He told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."—Upton Sinclair

In the letter, Sinclair describes a meeting he had with Fred Moore, lawyer for the two men:  “He … told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them … I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point, I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case."

The letter was found by California rare book collector Paul Hegness at the bottom of a box of letters he bought at an auction a decade ago.  Hegness says he forgot about the letter but his memory was jogged after doing an interview with a reporter on another topic.

In the three-page letter Sinclair admits to his friend he was "completely naïve about the case, having accepted the defence propaganda completely."

Sinclair has never divulged publicly the information he got from Fred Moore but did write a book in 1953 that detailed his thoughts on the case.  The book never found a publisher.

In the letter, Sinclair indicates that he doesn't trust Moore: "I had heard that he was using drugs.  I knew that he had parted from the defence committee after the bitterest of quarrels … Moore admitted to me that the men themselves had never admitted their guilt to him."

Sinclair tells his friend that his book would tell all sides and from the point of view that "the men had not been proved guilty and that their trial had not been fair."

In Boston, the heroine begins by thinking the men are innocent and ends up not knowing what to believe.

Sinclair gained fame after his 1906 book The Jungle exposed the horrors of the meat-packing industry and led to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.  It launched his career as a muckraker, exposing government and business scandals.  He died in 1968.

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