Flowers in the Dark

by Susan Tejada, author of In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Summer. Time to cultivate one’s garden.

Even in prison.

“Officials from San Quentin in California to Rikers Island in New York have turned dusty patches into powerful metaphors for rebirth,” the Washington Post reports in a recent story on horticultural therapy. Inmate-garderners find purpose and a measure of inner peace, learning to grow something in dirt that will feed others or simply flourish in beauty.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, prisoners themselves nearly a century ago in Massachusetts, would have known this instinctively.

As a youth growing up in southern Italy at the start of the twentieth century, Nick was already close to the land. He helped tend a family vineyard and garden, watering plants at sunrise and shooing wandering animals away at night, when he sometimes slept in the vineyard. Come morning, he carried baskets of fruits, vegetables, and flowers back to his home in town, straying off the beaten path to search for his mother’s favorite roses. The countryside, he would later recall in idiosyncratic English, was an “enchanted scene of beautiful.”

Sacco came to America in 1908. After he had been here a while, acquired job skills, started a family, and settled in a rented cottage on the property of Michael Kelley, his boss in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Nick’s inner horticulturalist emerged. He planted a garden by the cottage. He was there among the plants, Kelley later recalled, “at four o’clock in the morning, and at the factory at seven o’clock, and in his garden again after supper and until nine and ten at night, carrying water and raising vegetables beyond his own needs, which he would bring to me to give to the poor.”

Vivid memories of time spent working the soil sustained Sacco during seven years in the “terrible hole” of a cramped dark cell in Dedham Jail. If he ever spotted a familiar flower from childhood—in a doctor’s buttonhole, in a supporter’s bouquet, from afar through a jailhouse window—he felt a momentary sense of solace. He enjoyed hearing the latest seasonal crop news from Folly Farm, the experimental nursery where Cerise Jack, his English tutor in prison, lived with her botany-professor husband. He wished he could be free, he wrote her, “to help you to gather all the peaches [hanging] on the trees.” Eventually, overwhelmed by prison and separation from his family, Sacco had a nervous breakdown, but recovered in no small part due to farm work outdoors on the grounds of a prison psychiatric hospital.

Lacking Sacco’s practical gardening experience, Bartolomeo Vanzetti nonetheless took deep delight in the beauty of flowers. From his cell at Charlestown State Prison, he reminisced about his childhood in northern Italy, where wildflowers bloomed, nightingales sang, and “the nearby hills are all a fruit-garden.”

Seven years in prison did not diminish Vanzetti’s appreciation or curiosity. He thanked one visitor for bringing him mayflowers, which reminded him of Plymouth “and of the woods which I love so much.” He peppered Cerise Jack with questions about the large bouquet she had brought him: what were the English names for the yellow star flowers, for the white flowers “with petals bent backwards as wings of butterflies,” and for “that little funny blue thing alone among your flowers”? It reminded him, he told her, of his father’s garden. Kind people had brought him so many flowers and so much fruit, Vanzetti wrote another supporter, that he could open “a beautiful fruits-flowers stand in Boston.”

Such a happy prospect would, of course, never materialize. On August 23, 1927, as summer blossoms withered in Massachusetts, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died, executed for crimes which most people believe they did not commit. The men had long before abandoned the religious beliefs of their childhood years, but they never relinquished their spiritual need for the beauty of the natural world. In his cell, Sacco dreamed of seeing a “little sweet space of the nature” through iron bars. Vanzetti described sitting in prison and being able to look outside and see “a fragment of a meadow, a bush, three fragments of flowers, hedges among the thick dark foliages, gleaming under the sun….”

Treasured but barely seen, such fragments of nature comforted Sacco and Vanzetti until the end.