The anarchists next door: Book uncovers the saga of New London’s forgotten Italian radicals

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"Facing Toward the Dawn: The Italian Anarchists of New London"
By Richard Lenzi
SUNY Press, 296 pages

The Fort Trumbull neighborhood in New London secured its place in history through its destruction. It will endure as a symbol of eminent domain and its excesses.

But the vanished community had another story, one so tightly held that, for years, few seemed aware of it. Those who were had little to say.

A Connecticut author’s deep dive into Fort Trumbull’s secrets has produced a remarkable surprise: For much of the 20th century, the little cluster of homes was a hive of political radicalism.

“Facing Toward the Dawn: The Italian Anarchists of New London” is unlike anything in the literature of local history. It’s the biography of a place built and sustained on shared beliefs at an extreme end of the political spectrum. The believers were militant and occasionally violent, yet somehow they managed to stay under the radar.

Shunning most others, they organized their lives around a cherished hope: that one day the capitalist order would collapse, paving the way for a classless society.

Richard Lenzi has mined a trove of anarchist newspapers, Italian government files and stories from The Day to reconstruct a way of life that existed in isolation from its surroundings.

Spurred by an interest in labor and radical history, Lenzi, a New Britain native, looked into Italian radical activities in Connecticut and found New London mentioned more than any other place. Around the time he was learning about Fort Trumbull, the neighborhood was flattened by the New London Development Corp.

But its disappearance wasn’t his only obstacle. The descendants of those who lived there were vague on their forebears’ politics or reluctant to talk.

The story was there but buried in an obscure place: extinct publications like “Cronaca Sovversiva” and “La Questione Sociale,” which counted New London anarchists among their subscribers and reported on their struggles.

The anarchist movement in New London began in the 1880s and 1890s with a wave of immigrants from the Marche region of northern Italy, most from the city of Fano, an anarchist stronghold. They clustered on the Fort Trumbull peninsula, displacing the neighborhood’s Irish majority.

By the turn of the century, they had formed an association, which was a microcosm of the movement’s major fault line. Anarchists were split into two camps: those who favored organizing political parties and labor unions, and those who rejected contributing to the societal structure they were fighting to destroy.

Initially the New London group supported organizational tactics espoused by leaders like Errico Malatesta, whose 1899 visit helped inspire the group’s formation. Perhaps not coincidentally, Malatesta was the subject of an unfinished play by Eugene O’Neill.

But local sympathies gradually shifted to the anti-organizationist school personified by the fiery orator Luigi Galleani. He was a frequent visitor, captivating crowds at the New London Opera House, a Bank Street venue later known as the Empire Theater.

Largely builders, tradesmen and shopkeepers, the local anarchists had surnames that could fill a New London phone book even today, including Ballestrini, Bartolucci, Benvenuti, Camillucci, Facchini, Menghi and Pasqualini.

They disdained government, the Catholic church and religion generally as corrupt, and they tolerated wider society only when they had to, preferring to rely on one another for their needs.

The information available to the author was fragmentary, and he paints a well-researched but incomplete picture of a community that held its own wedding ceremonies, gathered for picnics, engaged in ideological infighting and hovered on the margins of labor unrest.

The first two decades of the 20th century were their golden age, a time brought to an end by World War I and the Red Scare, when anarchists were targeted by the government. Galleani was deported after his followers launched a campaign of bombings, including one on Wall Street that killed 38 people and was the Sept. 11 of its day.

In New London, anonymous bomb threats were mailed to officials or posted in public to protest deportations and the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Two local anarchists were arrested in a wartime roundup, but authorities didn’t realize they were part of a community that numbered in the dozens.

The anarchists were distinct from New London’s other Italian community, whose members hailed mostly from Sicily and Naples. The two groups, “Shaw Street” and “the Fort,” are recalled today as friendly rivals who played a football game every Thanksgiving.

If their relations were congenial in later years, Lenzi makes clear that their early differences were bitterly political. With the rise of Benito Mussolini in 1922, the Shaw Street Italians largely supported his fascist government. Think how well Democrats and Republicans get along today, then imagine two groups separated by a much wider gulf.

For the anarchists, the 1920s saw tensions with fascist sympathizers, but also an intrusion on their turf. In the midst of the neighborhood, a rival organization, the Italian Mutual Aid Society, took root. Neither fascist nor anarchist, it filled a void by offering social services the anarchists spurned, and it threatened to lure residents away from the fold. When the new group’s building was destroyed by fire shortly after it was built, suspicion fell on the anarchists.

Around the same time, the anarchists also erected a headquarters, a pink stucco edifice called the Italian Dramatic Club, built facing aloofly away from the neighborhood.

Decades later, when Lenzi surveyed the blank real estate left by the NLDC, this was the one building still standing. It was supposedly spared through its members’ political ties, something unthinkable to those who created it.

Tensions with the Shaw Street community boiled over on a day meant to showcase Italian national pride, which was anathema to the anarchists. On Oct. 12, 1928, the Columbus statue at Bank and Howard streets was unveiled.

As blackshirts prepared to march in the parade, they were ambushed on Steward Street and beaten savagely with pipes and clubs. The attack was a rare joint effort between anarchists and other elements of the Italian left. Six were arrested, but the attackers were described only as “anti-fascists.”

A week later, the body of one of the blackshirts was found floating in the Mystic River. After that, the fascist headquarters on Shaw Street was torched, but neither case was ever solved.

If 1928 was a violent high point for the Fort Trumbull anarchists, it also marked the start of their decline as a group united by ideology. Some had already drifted away, and the two great crises that followed — the Depression and World War II — pushed Americans to band together, not stand apart.

Lenzi’s research shows that the Fort Trumbull group was unusual among Connecticut anarchists for its longevity, with elements surviving into the 1970s. The neighborhood’s relative isolation helped, he believes.

But they were a one-generation phenomenon, and the children of those who remained showed no inclination to take up the struggle. One by one, the aging radicals met their ends, and with each funeral, their dream died a little, until it was gone and forgotten.

But was it really forgotten, or just suppressed? Lenzi’s probing of local Italian memory reveals hints of what was going on at the Fort, but they carry a whiff of denial. “It was like an early commune,” one person said.

Consider this quote from a 1996 book called “New London: A History of its People”:

“Although they were labeled anarchisti, they were not politically oriented. After all, anarchism was illegal and cause for deportation at that time. Their opinions were … often misinterpreted by non-members.”

Maybe that’s how Fort Trumbull’s second generation wanted to remember things. If so, “Facing Toward the Dawn” has upset the apple cart by unearthing as much of a buried story as possible.

Now there’s no more forgetting. We should be grateful for that, and no one would be more pleased than those long-ago believers in a radical dream.

j.ruddy@theday.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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