The Land of the Free

H.L. Mencken
January 12, 1925


Carlo Tresca is the proprietor of a small Italian paper in New York, by name Il Martello. He runs to Liberal ideas, and when the Fascisti came into power in his native country, and began Ku Kluxing their opponents, he denounced them in his paper, and called upon the Italians in America to repudiate them. His articles were vigorously written, and quickly attracted attention. A great many Italians began to incline toward his views.

That was early in 1923. In July of the same year certain persons in New York gave a public dinner to Judge Elbert H. Gary, chairman of the board of directors of the United States Steel Corporation. Judge Gary, for his services to the Cause of Humanity in America, had been made an honorary member of the Fascisti organization, and one of the guests who came to the dinner to do him honor was Prince Gelesto Caetani, then and now the Italian Ambassador at Washington. Prince Caetani was naturally called upon to make a speech. He made one bitterly denouncing the opponents of Fascismo among the American Italians, and arguing that "a certain Italian paper in New York: ought to be suppressed."

The assembled apostles of Human Liberty knew that he meant Il Martello, and applauded him heartily. That there was no law in the United States forbidding a newspaper to criticize a foreign government did not trouble them; they had been through the late war, and knew what could be done. So did the Department of Justice, then still in command of the eminent Daugherty, and the Postoffice Department. Word was conveyed to Washington, and then back to New York. On July 21 the whole issue of Il Martello was held up in the mails. Tresca demanded to know why. The Postoffice Department gave him no answer. He kept on denouncing the Fascisti.

Three weeks later, on August 10, he was suddenly arrested. The charge was that he had printed an article three months before, attacking the Italian monarchy. No such crime, of course, is known to American law, but Tresca was nevertheless arrested. He got out on bail, and kept denouncing the Fascisti. The charge was allowed to drop. On August 18 the whole issue of Il Martello was held up because it contained an account of a raffle; two other Italian papers, containing precisely the same account, went through the mails unmolested. On September 8 it was held up because it contained a two-line advertisement of a book on birth control. On October 27 it was held up because it printed an account of how the Fascisti had forced an Italian woman to swallow an immense dose of castor oil; all the American newspapers printed the same story, but were not molested. On November 10 it was held up because it printed a letter from a reader predicting that Mussolini would come to the same end as Rienzi; other papers had made the same prediction without challenge. On November 24 it was held up for charging Mussolini with misappropriating funds.


Meanwhile, Tresca kept on denouncing the Fascisti, and the Italian Ambassador, it may be safely presumed, kept on nursing the conviction the Il Martello ought to be suppressed. The war, unfortunately, was over, and so it was not easy to accomplish the business. Holding up the paper day after day, and subjecting it to heavy and arbitrary losses- this was apparently easy, but it was impossible, under the law, to suppress it altogether, and very difficult to get Tresca into jail and keep him there.

Finally, however, juridic science solved the problem. The little two-line advertisement of September 8, announcing a book in Italian on birth control, showed the way. Experienced witch-hunters from the Department of Justice were rushed to New York, Tresca was indicted for advertising a means of preventing conception, and his trial was called in hot haste. He appeared before Goddard, J., in the United States District Court, on November 27. The evidence showed some strange things. Tresca, it appeared, had actually never sent a single copy of the offending issue through the mails. The instant he heard that the Postoffice had held it up he withdrew it, and reprinted a new issue without the two-line advertisement. It appeared, indeed, that other charges were mixed up with the complaint. One was the he had printed an article entitled "Down With the Monarchy." This was plainly not illegal, but the prosecution made much of it. Finally, the assistant district attorney offered to drop the whole case if Tresca would leave the country, i.e., go back to Italy, where the Fascisti could deal with him. He refused, and was convicted. Judge Goddard sentenced him to a year and a day at Atlanta.

This was an appallingly heavy sentence- the heaviest ever heard of. In nearly all previous Federal cases the culprit had been simply fined. In none of the State cases had a sentence of more than six months been inflicted, and the average for all of them was less than a month. There was no evidence that Tresca had ever seen the advertisement before it got into his paper. On the contrary, it was shown that the man who brought it in and inserted it was one Vella, the paper's advertising agent. The actual advertiser was one Nieri, an Italian bookseller. He, too, was arrested and convicted. He got four months in jail. But Tresca, who was only constructively guilty, got a year and a day in Atlanta Prison.

And there he sits no, for the Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld his conviction.


Such episodes- and they are by no means rare, despite the common superstition that Palmerism has been squeezed out of the Department of Justice and Burlesonism out of the Postoffice- give the student of American history powerfully to think. What becomes of the old notion that the United States is a free country, that it is the refuge for the oppressed of other lands, that here they may voice their grievances and call for help? There was a time when such rebels against tyranny came here as a matter of course, and were received with open arms. The name of Kossuth is even in the school books. But what would happen to a Kossuth today- if the Hungarian Ambassador could convince Judge Gary and company that he ought to be in jail?

Also, what becomes of the old notion that a peaceable man, in this great Republic, should be unmolested- that the Polizei should not pursue and harass him day and night, and try by dodge after dodge to get him into their clutches? The Postoffice tackled Tresca at least five times before it finally fetched him. Every one of those times, it must be obvious, he was innocent of any wrongdoing, else he would have been railroaded to jail forthwith. It took six shots to bring him down- and then he was caught on a childish technicality. Every American editor who prints any reference to a book on birth control, even if it be a review denouncing it, is quite as guilty as he was, and perhaps even more guilty. And consider his punishment! The man who offered the book for sale got four months; Tresca, for merely printing two lines about it, got a year and a day!

I attempt no long sermon on the text; it is eloquent enough of itself. The facts, so far as I know, are not disputed by anyone. There was a time when their publication would have caused an uproar; today they go almost unnoticed. The great agencies of Americanism will let Tresca rot in prison before they lift their hands to help him, just as they are letting his fellow Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti, rot in prison. The American Legion, though it still sweats and moans for human liberty, will not protest; on the contrary, it is more likely to pass a resolution urging that the wop be kept behind bars, guilty or not guilty. The Sons of the Revolution will maintain a magnificent silence. Kiwanis and Rotary will not be heard from.


So far, indeed, but eight persons in all the United States have gone to Tresca's aid. Four are Italian-American politicians. One is a Liberal pastor. Two are old and battle-scarred libertarians, already marked with the scars of a hundred defeats. The eighth is La Sanger, the birth control agitator, herself an experienced goat of the New Jurisprudence. No one else will take any interest in the case.