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The Italian Job 

Recalling a bloody chapter in Barre's radical past

Published October 29, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

On October 3 a centenary passed in Barre without fanfare, though not for lack of remembering. In the Granite City's Italian-American community, the same date in 1903 has the resonance of, say, Pearl Harbor Day, or Pres. Kennedy's assassination. That was the day the tragic murder of stonecarver Elia Corti disturbed the quiet, industrious self-regard of the city.

Miraculously, the scene of the crime is still standing. If you turn south off North Main onto Granite Street, passing the Armed Forces recruiting center on the right and the mint-green mass of TCS Memorials on the left, you soon come to a hulking red-brick structure just a few yards from the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River. A set of rough-cut granite steps leads up to black double doors in front. Over the entrance hangs a granite medallion, on which are carved the letters SLP -- for the Socialist Labor Party -- and an arm-and-hammer that looks to be emerging from a sea of leaves, like Aphrodite from her shell.

This is Barre's Old Labor Hall, one of a handful of surviving reminders of our state's radical past. It was here a century ago that Corti, a gifted artist and a partner in the granite-carving firm of Novelli and Corti, was shot during a fracas between the socialists and anarchists among the Italian stoneworkers.

Elia Corti had emigrated from northern Italy 12 years earlier, in his late teens, as Barre's granite industry was gearing up. Throughout the 1890s, the city and its surrounding towns had attracted thousands of Italians, mostly skilled stoneworkers from northern Italian quarry communities like Carrara, Lake Como and Varese. Corti's home village of Viggiù provided the Vermont granite sheds a thousand men -- almost a quarter of its workforce.

This population had little in common with the devout and largely illiterate southern Italians who were pouring into eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia. The Barre Italians were overwhelmingly literate, and they were well paid for their skill in working Barre's somber gray granite into Civil War monuments, headstones and tombs.

The stonecutters were also highly radicalized. Their fealties were divided between the anarchists, who sought a complete overthrow of every established order, and the socialists, who were more amenable to gradual reform. But almost without exception, they hated both the opera-buffa monarchy that occupied the throne of Italy and the Catholic Church.

In his bachelor days, Corti had been an active anarchist, one of the founders of a cell that commanded great respect in anarchist circles. But in later years, with a wife and three small daughters to support -- and some political discomfort at finding himself in the role of padrone at his new business -- he had fallen away from "the faith."

The night of October 3, Corti had no intention of getting involved in a political donnybrook. He had attended a funeral supper on nearby Howard Street, a few blocks from the Labor Hall. At a little after seven in the evening, he left the mourners. But rather than going straight to his home on Blackwell Street, he crossed back over the river to the Labor Hall.

Everyone in the politically divided Italian community knew about the meeting that night at the hall. Handbills had circulated around the shops and mills where the immigrants worked: Men of every political persuasion -- anarchist as well as socialist -- were invited to a lecture on "The Methods of Socialist Struggle," to be given by G.M. Serrati, editor of New York's Il Proletario newspaper. Corti knew that his younger brother and his wife's two brothers had been planning to go. He was almost certainly trying to keep them out of trouble.

A crowd of about 45 men had gathered at the hall, waiting for Serrati at the advertised hour of seven o'clock. The socialists in the crowd shared Serrati's sympathies, and they had the advantage of home turf. But they were badly outnumbered. Later estimates put the socialists at four or five, the anarchists at 40.

Tensions between the two groups had been on the rise since the opening of the Labor Hall in 1900. For Barre's anarchists, the hall itself was a provocation, brick-and-mortar evidence that the socialists were better organized and better funded than the more individualistic -- many would say pie-eyed -- anarchists. With a capacity for hundreds in its main room, the hall allowed the socialists to win political converts by sponsoring dances, insurance schemes and a food co-op.

Relations between the two groups were further poisoned by vituperative editorials volleyed between their respective newspapers -- Il Proletario for the socialists and Cronaca Sovversiva, printed in Barre by the anarchist editor Luigi Galleani. By the fall of 1903, tensions between the two sides had become explosive.

Serrati was late. According to the Barre Daily Times of October 5, the younger anarchists, including Corti's relatives, began to "'jolly' the socialists on his non-appearance. Some of their elders took up the 'jolly' and remarked to the socialists that it must be the speaker was not cominge The gibes back and forth increased in vehemence."

Taunts escalated to shouts. Shouts led to shoving. One man pulled a knife; someone else picked up a chair. Another, a socialist tool-sharpener named Alessandro Garetto, reached for his hip. Corti, who the moment before had ascended the front steps of the hall and slipped inside, raised his hands for calm. But Garetto, aiming his pistol seemingly at random, let fly three shots. Two of them sank harmlessly into furniture and clothing, but the third hit home.

As Corti collapsed, bleeding from the stomach, his assailant was flung down the steps of the Labor Hall by a posse of enraged anarchists, at which point he "ran for his life," according to the Daily Times reporter, and for the protective custody of the local judge. Corti was rushed to the hospital in Montpelier, where he lingered through the next day. But just after midnight on October 4, after a final request that no priest be allowed to attend his funeral, he slipped from consciousness and died.

The killing was a shock, a type of violent crime rarely seen in Barre. Corti had been well liked, a man with no enemies. Moreover, he was a true artist. Just a few years before, he had executed the bas-relief panels on the Robert Burns Monument that stands on the Barre common. It was a demanding commission, and the result was a triumph for Corti and his partner Sam Novelli, another immigrant from Lombardi. It is still regarded as one of the finest pieces of granite sculpture in America. The death of such a man shook the entire community. Corti's funeral on October 6 was one of the best attended in Barre's history, with 52 wagons following the hearse up the hill to Hope Cemetery. Political differences were set aside, albeit briefly, to honor a man who had brought pride to the whole city.

The shooting and the subsequent trial of Garetto opened a window into the Italian colony of Barre. The translators hired by the Washington County court gave voice, in English, to the stoneworkers' seething political rivalry. Neighbor testified against neighbor, and the ethnic group that the Anglo citizens may have viewed previously as harmless and happy-go-lucky was revealed as divided by dissention and angry as hell.

Witness after witness stoutly proclaimed himself an anarchist, a believer in the complete dismantling of the state, the trade unions, and indeed every form of organization to which a hierarchy might attach. It was an eye-opener that the wider community would not soon forget.

With the passage of a hundred years it is likely that Corti, Garetto and the entire radical past of Barre's Italians would have been forgotten had this not been a community of stonecarvers. When one of its own is taken, that brotherhood does not forget. It builds memories in the most durable stone known to science, fashioned by the best in the business.

In a sense, Corti has two monuments. One is his own work, the Burns monument. The other is an unforgettable masterpiece of the memorial art, erected to his memory in the middle of Hope Cemetery. It is the centerpiece and pride of a graveyard that boasts hundreds of extraordinary, even bizarre, monuments, designed from love and meticulously executed in Barre's granite sheds.

In his memorial, Corti appears in a suit and bow tie, about half scale, reposing at the left of a granite mass. His right elbow leans on a bent knee, and the fingers of his right hand toy meditatively with his mustache as he stares into the distance with an air of melancholy. His left hand rests on the top edge of a broken pillar, the symbol of a life cut short. Diagonally across the pillar, the carvers picked out his dates: Dec. 21, 1869 to Oct. 4, 1903. On the rough-chiseled background his name stands out in relief. At Corti's feet, almost hidden beneath a curving palm branch, lie scattered the tools of his trade: mallet, calipers, square and pneumatic hammer.

In the decades after Corti's death, the Socialist Labor Hall, like the socialists themselves, fell on hard times. Sold by the Cooperative Society in 1936, the building served in subsequent years as a bottling works and a coal distributor, among other things. It survived several fires. Its final commercial incarnation, as a warehouse for Vermont Pak Tomato, ended with that company's bankruptcy in 1994.

But in recent years, energetic locals have saved the place from the wreckers, renovating and reopening the hall as a community center. Now dances, union meetings and even weddings once again enliven the space where Elia Corti was shot. In a way, it constitutes a third memorial to a man, and an era, that might otherwise be lost to history.

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About The Author

Robin Ray


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