Sacco and Vanzetti book collection nabs national honor for KU grad student
Megan Jones first saw a picture of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in a high school history textbook, but moved on after being told they wouldn’t be on the test.
As a sophomore at Indiana University, assigned to write about something in the university’s rare book library, she came across the intriguing figures again. This time she dug in, calling up the holding and writing about the library’s collection of letters the two men wrote from prison before being executed.
Now, Jones has her own collection of about 40 books about Sacco and Vanzetti, for which she recently won second place in this year’s National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest. She traveled to Washington, D.C., in October to receive her award at the Library of Congress, which included a $1,000 cash prize for herself and $500 for KU Libraries.
Jones, from Yukon, Okla., is currently working on her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Kansas.
To qualify to enter her collection in the national contest, Jones first won the graduate division of KU’s annual Snyder Book Collecting Contest in spring 2016.
She said she wrote her undergraduate thesis at Indiana about Sacco and Vanzetti, and that’s what she’s writing her master’s thesis on, too.
“Most of these books I’ve gotten because I needed them,” she said. “Some of them you could find in libraries. Some of them are a lot harder to find.”
“Now if I go to a used book store and I find one I don’t have, I just buy it.”
Sacco and Vanzetti, both Italian immigrants and known anarchists, were convicted of a 1920 double-murder and robbery in Massachusetts. They lost their appeals and ultimately were executed — via electric chair — in 1927.
Between the time of their convictions and executions, a defense committee formed, the men wrote letters from prison proclaiming their innocence, celebrities spoke and wrote on their behalf, and their cause attracted international attention. Advocates continued writing about their case decades after Sacco and Vanzetti died, with an additional flurry after Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis declared the trial unfair and reopened the case in 1977, the 50th anniversary of their executions.
“They were executed for a crime that they may or may not have committed,” Jones said. “They kind of became a martyr for the general, leftist working-class cause.”
Jones has a four-volume series of books containing the entire court trial transcript, publications of the men’s letters from prison and multiple books written by people attempting to prove their innocence. She does have at least one book by someone attempting to prove their guilt, and another arguing that Sacco is guilty but Vanzetti isn’t.
Jones has Sacco and Vanzetti books in Italian (she can read them with a dictionary) and one in French (she hasn’t read that one).
There’s even fiction: “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” is a historical novel about the case, and the creative “Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!” is a modern interpretation of them as vaudeville performers, Jones said.
Her most special book, she said, is a pamphlet written by novelist John Dos Passos and published by the defense committee, “Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreignborn Workmen.” It belonged to KU professor emeritus of English Melvin Landsberg, who died in March, and Jones got it from his estate manager. Landsberg was considered the world’s leading expert on Dos Passos, and the copy of “Facing the Chair” is a 1927 original, Jones said.
“Even in a technological age, the love of books and reading is at the heart of learning for many disciplines,” KU Libraries dean Kevin Smith said in a news release. “We are delighted to support this love with the Snyder Book Collecting Contest and are very pleased that Megan’s collection, which exemplifies the diverse and varied interests of KU students, placed so highly in the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest.”
Jones said that, yes, she did use some of her cash award to buy more Sacco and Vanzetti books.
“Of course, I couldn’t not,” she said. “I keep adding.”