Echo of a Rumble/ Letters to Sal:
One of the first cracks in the cement gates of Green Haven for Sal was an Op-ed piece published in the “New York Times” on January 29, 1975 with the title “Echo of a Rumble”– more than a year before the workshops. I wasn’t aware of the article in the 70’s, but in retrospect it presents a rather abstract, awkward summary of Sal’s terrible childhood and his terrible crime, with a more compelling few sentences about his rehabilitation.
Here are some excerpts:
“For a boy, as I was then, with the mentality of a twelve-year-old- child, during a time of social transition, without the proper guidance, there was not much that I could have done to prevent what occurred…
“Prison has been a hard life for me, but in spite of the system that it is, I have managed to use it to my advantage and betterment. Perhaps this is due to something that I learned while I was in the Sing Sing Prison Death Row, at the age of seventeen.
“During one of my highest spiritual moments, a time in which the soul is able to see the complete past of one’s existence or life, while facing the shadows of death, it occurred to me that one must do his best to take evil and turn it into good.”
The article generated an outpouring of public sentiment that provided a cross section of American attitudes towards those behind bars at the time. In fact, Sal got quite a few encouraging letters ranging from those just expressing support to those seeking to help him in various ways. Some of the more boosterish letters came from clergymen and educators.
Here are a few quotes:
“I read the piece about you in yesterday’s Times, most of it telling your story in your own words. It surely is a poignant story, and your way of telling it was beautiful and deeply moving.” (a clergyman)
“I have read your ‘Echo of a Rumble’ which appeared in The New York Times several weeks ago, and I am very favorably impressed with your case, and so are many of my students. If you tell me what sort of books you would like, I will see what I can do towards supplying them. I entirely agree, from the evidence at hand, that rehabilitation certainly seems to have worked in your case.” (Chairman of a college English Department)
But not all the letters were nearly as kind or sympathetic. Some of the examples are frankly horrific. The letter quoted below in nearly its brief entirety was actually dated Dec. 7, 1974, nearly two months before the “New York Times” piece, and written on pink stationery in blue ink by someone who remembered the original arrest in 1959.
“Brave Cape Man,
“… You must have felt very brave stabbing two boys to death, who couldn’t fight back! I’ll never forget the ‘wise-guy’ smirk on your face, as I saw it on T.V.
“You felt like a hero, didn’t you?! Why didn’t you fight with your HANDS? You came back to kill those 2 boys, with a knife! You dirty, rotten rat! Your helpers are as guilty as you are and they should be there with you, too.
“I hope the ghosts of the two boys you murdered will haunt you in your sleep. Their families should tear you to pieces, you scum. I hope you rot there until 1993!
The fourth letter below is unusual. It’s dated January 30, 1975, and was written in direct response to Sal’s own editorial in the New York Times:”Echo of a Rumble.” Just in case you’re wondering about the ending, this is the complete letter. I have left out nothing except the signature.
“Dear Mr. Agron:
“I read with interest your letter, or should I say, excerpts from your letter, which was published in the Times on 1/29/75. And captioned ‘ECHO of a RUMBLE.’ Your letter also was the subject of one of those N.Y.C. radio shows on the above date, where the announcer makes a comment on some current matter and different people phone in and agree or disagree with his point of view. I only listened to the show from 12 to 1: P.M. during my lunch hour, but since the announcer was critical of your letter, in that he stressed the point with regard to the victims in your case, the vast majority of people who phoned him during the short period I listened to the show thought as you do, how much time is enough and what useful purpose will society gain by further confinement, now that you are 31 years of age and have done a great deal educationalwise etc., perhaps you may have been listening to that particular radio program yourself.
“Now I had one other purpose in writing you this letter and it has to do with you or your companion in the case. In 1965 either you or your companion were confined in the ‘Tombs,’” (a prison in New York City) “…if I recall correctly on either the 7th or 8th floor, one evening at visiting time, two N.Y.C. so-called Correction Officers administered a brutal assault on whichever one of your were there, for no apparent reason, these two officers after wrestling you to the floor stomped you with their feet and after you lost consciousness, one of the officers still kept kicking you about the head and neck and stopped only when all the inmates awaiting their visits started screaming. Well, I reported this incident to the then Commissioner of Correction and went so far as to report the incident to the F.B.I. who contacted me and I made a signed and detailed statement of the incident, however, I was never called before any Grand Jury. Did you ever file any action relative to the above incident?
“Wishing you the best of luck.”