Several newsletter readers asked about the picture of a tombstone that I used a few days ago in another newsletter article. It is a picture of me standing beside the elaborate tombstone of Elia Corti in the Hope Cemetery in Barre, Vermont. Pam Cerutti, editor of this newsletter, was the photographer. I am reproducing the photo again here, and you can click on it to view a larger image.
I didn't know anything about Elia Corti before I saw his tombstone. I immediately became interested in this man. I wondered why a man who was obviously a laborer had such a large and elaborate tombstone. It is an outstanding piece of memorial art. I decided to learn more about Elia and soon found that he was a murder victim. I also found that the lives of immigrants in the early 1900s were difficult, sometimes harsh, and even occasionally violent.
First, Elia Corti was a very talented stone carver, considered one of the best of his time. His artistry is evident today in the bas-relief panels on the Robert Burns Monument that stands at the Vermont History Center, the former Spaulding Graded/High School. However, he did not carve his own tombstone as his was a sudden death at the age of thirty-four. Elia's tombstone was actually carved by his brother, William Corti, and his brother-in-law, John Comi. The three men were some of the partners in the granite-carving firm of Novelli and Corti.
A newspaper article published a few days after the tombstone was put in place, written by a reporter who knew Elia Corti well, stated that the statue is a “remarkable likeness of the man.” Mr. Corti’s figure is seated in front of a large, partially carved stone. His hand rests on a shortened column. It is complete in every detail, showing the seams in his coat, the folds of his tie, the creases in his trousers, and the buttons and button holes down to the last thread. The tools of his trade—calipers, chisel, square and hammer—are at the foot of the shortened column. The palm leaf on the other side symbolizes Spiritual Victory.
At the turn of the 20th century, Barre was the home of many immigrants who worked in the town's granite business. Some men worked in the quarry, extracting granite from the earth. Others worked in the factories in all sorts of positions. However, the most skilled workers were the stone carvers. Almost all of them were Italian immigrants who had learned their trade as young apprentices in Italy, creating statues from Italian marble.
NOTE: Barre (pronounced BARE'ee), Vermont, is famous for the high-quality granite found there. Barre Gray granite is considered to be the finest granite available; it resists acid rain and other chemicals that often cause the deterioration of other types of granite. Barre Gray is excellent for tombstones as well as for public buildings. Barre granite is found in cemeteries all over the U.S. as well as in the U.S. Supreme Court building and many other public buildings. The tombstone firm of Rock of Ages today is based in Barre.
After 110 years of exposure to the elements, including harsh Vermont winters, the granite tombstone of Elia Corti shows almost no deterioration. The “buttons and button holes, down to the last thread,” still are clear and distinct. The granite used for the tombstone came from a quarry only a mile or so from Corti's final resting place.
Elia Corti was one of the Italian stonecutters who had worked his way up. He was skilled enough that he quit his employment at the factory and started his own firm, along with several partners. He soon became well-known within the local Italian community, both as a leading businessman of the town and for his political views. Many accounts note that he was well-liked by all and had no enemies.
Political views in the early 1900s were tied closely to the workers' lives. More than 90 percent of Barre's workers belonged to one of fifteen local unions. They primarily were opposed to the harsh working conditions and long work hours at the several nearby granite producers. However, the unions were politically and philosophically divided; both Anarchist and Socialist factions sought change, but they differed strongly in their proposed methods and speed of action.
In this climate Elia Corti started out as an active Anarchist. His views moderated once he had a wife and three small daughters to support and became a member of the Socialist Labor Party, along with many of his fellow immigrants.
Union members completed the building of Barre’s Socialist Labor Party Hall in 1900. The building was simple inside, but the exterior had several ornaments made of Barre granite. Perhaps the most important of these is a carved medallion depicting an arm bearing a hammer, the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party, and the initials, SLP. Corti or his partners may well have helped carve this ornamentation.
The Hall was the location of many union meetings and political rallies. From 1900 to 1936, the building held the offices and meetings of the Granite Cutters International Association, the largest local union of granite workers in the country at the time. Labor leaders Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers are known to have visited Barre and probably spoke at the Hall, which still stands today.
On the night of October 3, 1903, a well-known Socialist of the time, G.M. Serrati, editor of New York's Il Proletario newspaper, was slated to speak at the Socialist Labor Party Hall. As the meeting time approached, two different gatherings occurred outside the hall: a small group of Socialists and a larger crowd of their opponents, the Anarchists. The scene soon deteriorated with verbal insults being traded, along with some pushing and shoving between the two opposing groups. According to the Barre Daily Times of October 5, "The gibes back and forth increased in vehemence."
Elia Corti had attended a funeral supper on nearby Howard Street and made his way to the meeting. Given his known character, some believe he hoped to keep his younger brother and his wife’s two brothers out of trouble. In any case, he came upon the hostile scene at the worst possible moment. Corti ascended the front steps of the hall and raised his hands for calm as one man pulled a knife and another picked up a chair.
Then a socialist tool-sharpener named Alessandro Garetto reached for a gun in his pocket. Garetto fired three shots. Two of them sank harmlessly into furniture and clothing, but the third bullet hit Elia Corti in the stomach. Corti died a day later. While some feel that Garetto intentionally killed Corti, others maintain that his shots were random.
Corti's death sent shockwaves of sadness throughout the community. His funeral was one of the best attended in Barre's history, with 52 wagons following the hearse up the hill to Hope Cemetery. Socialists and Anarchists alike paid their respects.
Murderer Alessandro Garetto, himself an Italian immigrant, was found guilty of the crime and was sentenced to serve ten to twelve years in the state prison. Upon his release, Garetto seems to have disappeared. He probably went back to Italy.
Little remains today of the memory of Elia Corti, other than some yellowing newspapers in the Barre Library and an elegant tombstone in the Hope Cemetery. His fine carvings in Barre and elsewhere are perhaps the most fitting memorial to the life of this gifted artisan. Thanks to the Internet, anyone can now find more information about Elia Corti on a number of web sites. Start at: http://goo.gl/NSakC.