Michael Musmanno

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Michael Musmanno
Michael Angelo Musmanno, 1897-1968.jpg
From a 1960 court photograph
Born Michael Angelo Musmanno
(1897-04-07)April 7, 1897
Stowe Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Died October 12, 1968(1968-10-12) (aged 71)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Occupation jurist, politician, naval officer and author

Michael Angelo Musmanno (April 7, 1897 – October 12, 1968) was an American jurist, politician, and naval officer. Coming from an immigrant family, he started to work as a coal loader at the age 14. After obtaining a law degree from Georgetown University, for nearly two decades from the early 1930s, he served as a judge in courts of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Entering the United States Navy during World War II, he served in the military justice system. After the war in 1946 he served as a governor of an occupied district in Italy. Beginning in 1947, he served as a presiding judge for the Einsatzgruppen Trial in US military court at Nuremberg.

In 1951 he was elected as a justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, where he served until his death in 1968. He set a record for the number of dissenting opinions filed. In addition to his long judicial career and postwar contributions in Europe, he wrote sixteen books and many articles related to his court cases and professional career. In his writing he expressed sympathy for working men and deep interest in the Italians in the United States.

Viewed as a "maverick on the court",[1] Musmanno was known for defending Sacco-Vanzetti, as well for anti-Communism and support for civil rights.[2] At the time of his death he was regarded as "one of Pennsylvania's most respected and colorful figures".[3]

Early life and education[edit]

Musmanno was born into an ethnic Italian family in Stowe Township, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, an industrial neighborhood a few miles west of Pittsburgh. He worked with his father in the coal mines before going to college and law school. He became a labor lawyer and always kept a sympathy for the working man.[4]


Politics and judiciary[edit]

After entering law practice in 1923 as a lawyer in his native Stowe Township, Musmanno got also involved in politics. In 1926, he ran and lost elections to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Republican ticket. As he was genuinely interested in the plight of the working man and was sympathetic to the Italian Americans and other ethnic minorities, who worked in great numbers in Pennsylvania industries, Musmanno volunteered to serve as an appellate attorney during the Sacco-Vanzetti case and moved to Boston. The men were convicted in 1921, in an atmosphere of anti-immigrant feeling. The appeals upheld the lower court decision, and Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in 1927. Haunted by the conduct of the trial, Musmanno wrote After Twelve Years (1939),[5] a book about the case, as well as two articles in 1963, published in The New Republic and the Kansas Law Review.

After returning, Musmanno was elected in 1928 as a Republican state legislator for Pennsylvania serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.[4][6] He was reelected in 1930.

When a miner Mike Shemanski was beaten to death in Imperial, Pennsylvania in 1929 by the Coal and Iron Police during a strike, Musmanno was outraged and, as a state legislator, introduced a bill to banish this private police force.[4] The bill was vetoed by a Republican Pennsylvania governor, which led to Musmanno's resignation.[7] He published a short story about the case, entitled "Jan Volkanik." This was adapted in part as the basis of the film Black Fury (1935), starring Paul Muni as a coal miner, and with a screenplay written by Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson. It was directed by Michael Curtiz.

In 1931, Musmanno became the youngest judge in the county court of Allegheny County; he was nominated by both Democrats and Republicans and endorsed by the labor organizations. He switched to the Democratic Party in 1932 while canvassing for Franklin D. Roosevelt as a president. In 1933 he served as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County.[7]

In 1943 he took a leave from his judicial duties to take part in WWII.[7] After returning to Pittsburgh in 1948, he was appointed as a judge in the common pleas court, where he served until 1951.[4]

World War II[edit]

During World War II, Musmanno entered in 1943 the United States Navy Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG), where he rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. He served as Allied Military Governor of Sorrentine Peninsula, a regional military governor of the Sorrentine Peninsula in Italy.[8]

In 1946, he was appointed head of the three-person Board of Soviet Repatriation of Displaced Persons in 1946 in Austria. He opposed the forcible repatriation of Cossacks and refugees to the Soviet Union, many of whom did not want to be "repatriated." He was successful in aiding some of these people. Later it was learned that Stalin's government persecuted many of these returnees, condemning many to internal exile or the harsh labor camps of the gulag in Siberia, where they died.

Michael Musmanno as presiding judge during Einsatzgruppen Trial

Beginning in 1947, Musmanno was presiding judge at the Einsatzgruppen Trial of the United States Nuremberg Military Tribunal, held in Nuremberg for men charged with killing more than a million people behind the front lines, including Jews, Poles, and minorities.[9] He also served as a member of the court during the military trials of Milch and the Pohl. In 1961 Musmanno testified as a prosecution witness in Jerusalem in the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In 1948 Musmanno conducted interviews with several people who had worked closely with Adolf Hitler in the very last days of WWII. These served as the basis of his book, Ten Days to Die (1950). These interviews were filmed but were lost to history until early 2013.[10]

Postwar career[edit]

Musmanno tried to enter politics, running unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor in 1950. He resumed his judicial career.

A strong anti-Communist in the postwar years, Musmanno was an unofficial spokesman for the local Americans Battling Communism. He was noted for testifying for the prosecution in the 1950 anti-Communist sedition case against Steve Nelson, who was leading a regional branch of the American Communist Party.[11] The Communists had sold political tracts (available at any library[12]) for $5.75 to Musmanno, who declared their store "the equivalent of an advance post of the Red Army."[13] Nelson initially was sentenced to 20-years in prison, $10,000 in fines and $13,000 in prosecution costs. The Supreme Court of the United States ultimately threw out the case and the Pennsylvania and other state anti-sedition laws, saying federal law superseded the state law under which Nelson was prosecuted.[13][14]

Musmanno gained name recognition from his part in the Nelson trial. He was elected in 1951 as justice to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,[12] serving from 1952 to his death in 1968. During his long career on the bench, he "became known as an advocate for the underdog."[4]

He also was noted for his dissenting opinions; during his first 5 years on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he wrote more dissenting opinions than all of the other justices on the court had collectively written in the previous 50 years.[15] When asked if he read Musmanno's dissenting opinions, Pennsylvania Chief Justice Horace Stern said he was not "interested in current fiction."[16] Not long afterward, however, the court issued a ruling in which this Justice participated, and the wording was unquestionably similar to that in one of Musmanno's dissenting opinions.[17] In Perpetua v. Philadelphia Transportation Company, Musmanno wrote the dissenting opinion, while in Koehler v. Schwartz, he wrote the prevailing opinion, in which Stern joined him.[17] In a book about personal injury suits and these cases, the attorney Melvin Belli added that Chief Justice Stern "lived to regret" his insulting remark.[17]

In one case, because Musmanno had failed to circulate a dissenting opinion among the other justices before he filed it, the piece was not published in the official Pennsylvania State Reports. He sought a writ of mandamus to require its publication. The trial court denied the writ. When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the case, Musmanno represented himself as plaintiff; the Court affirmed the lower court's decision.[18]

While a controversial figure for such actions, Musmanno was noted as having wonderful "pro-labor credentials."[12] In addition, during the 1960s he supported civil rights marchers.[12]

Musmanno strongly dissented from a 1966 ruling that Henry Miller's book Tropic of Cancer was not obscene. He wrote:

"Cancer" is not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity. And in the center of all this waste and stench, besmearing himself with its foulest defilement, splashes, leaps, cavorts and wallows a bifurcated specimen that responds to the name of Henry Miller. One wonders how the human species could have produced so lecherous, disgusting and amoral a human being as Henry Miller. One wonders why he is received in polite society. . . ."[19]


Musmanno was a gifted narrator[20] and wrote a total of sixteen books, some reflecting his court cases. He described the sedition case in his book, Across the Street from the Courthouse (1954). Other works include a 30-page transcript of his 1932 debate with Clarence Darrow on immortality in Pittsburgh, The Story of Italians in America (1965), and Glory & The Dream: Abraham Lincoln, Before and After Gettysburg (1967). In 1966 he published a novel version of the 1935 film, Black Fury, by the same name.

He was very proud of his Italian heritage. Among the books he wrote was one arguing that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the New World. This was in reaction to scholarly research showing that the Vikings had reached the northeast coast of North America before Columbus' time.

The judge was a lifelong Catholic and attended the Mount St. Peter Church in New Kensington. On 11 November 1951, he was the first lay orator to read from the pulpit of the newly dedicated building.[21]

Musmanno was intensely religious. The last of his many dissenting opinions was against overturning an assault/attempted rape conviction in a case in which the trial judge instructed the jury to seek God's guidance in reaching their decision. He wrote in his dissent:

I was afraid it would come to this. It is becoming the fashion to make light of religious invocation. Books are being published asking whether God is dead. Well, God is not dead, and judges who criticize the invocation of Divine Assistance had better begin preparing a brief to use when they stand themselves at the Eternal Bar of Justice on Judgment Day.[22]

Justice Musmanno concluded:

"I am perfectly willing to take my chances with [the trial judge] at the gates of Saint Peter and answer on our 'voir dire' that we were always willing to invoke the name of the Lord in seeking counsel in rendering a grave decision on earth, which I believe the one in this case to be."

-Miserere nobis Omnipotens Deus![22]

Justice Musmanno died the following day, October 12, 1968, Columbus Day.[2]

Musmanno's grave at Arlington National Cemetery

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Musmanno is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
  • His former home in Stowe Township has been designated a state historic landmark.
  • 1993, a historical marker was placed in his honor near his residence in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.[4]

Articles and books[edit]

Catalogue entries of his writings are available at Hathi Trust Digital Library.[23]

  • The Library for American Studies in Italy, [Rome], 1925.
  • Proposed Amendments to the Constitution (monograph), U.S. Government Printing Office, 1929.
  • After Twelve Years (about Sacco–Vanzetti case), Knopf, 1939.
  • The General and the Man (biography of Mark W. Clark), Mondadori, 1946.
  • Listen to the River (novel), Droemersche Verlagsanstalt, 1948.
  • War in Italy (autobiographical), Valecchi, 1948.
  • Ten Days to Die, Doubleday, 1950 (about Adolf Hitler).
  • Across the Street from the Courthouse, Dorrance, 1954.
  • Justice Musmanno Dissents (compilation), foreword by Roscoe Pound, Bobbs–Merrill, 1956.
  • Verdict!: The Adventures of the Young Lawyer in the Brown Suit, Doubleday, 1958.
  • The Eichmann Kommandos, Macrae, 1961 (about the Einsatzgruppen Trial), full text online.
  • The Death Sentence in the Case of Adolf Eichmann: A Letter to His Excellency Itzhak Ben-Zvi, President of the State of Israel, Jerusalem, [Pittsburgh], 1962.
  • "Man with an Unspotted Conscience: Adolf Eichmann's Role in the Nazi Mania Is Weighed in Hannah Arendt's New Book" (pamphlet), [New York], 1963.
  • "Was Sacco Guilty?", [New York]: The New Republic, March 1963.
  • "The Sacco–Vanzetti Case," Kansas Law Review, [Lawrence, KS], May 1963.
  • The Story of the Italians in America, Doubleday, 1965.
  • Black Fury (novel), Fountainhead, 1966.
  • Columbus Was First, Fountainhead, 1966.
  • That's My Opinion, Michie Company, 1967.
  • The Glory and the Dream: Abraham Lincoln, Before and After Gettysburg, Long House, 1967.


  1. ^ Justice Musmanno, Reading Eagle, October 16, 1968
  2. ^ a b Chris Potter, You Had to Ask: "I heard that Duquesne University's library has a Michael Musmanno room...", Pittsburgh City Paper, 12 May 2005, accessed 12 September 2013
  3. ^ Musmanno is Buried at Arlington, Gettysburg Times, October 18, 1868
  4. ^ a b c d e f "Michael Musmanno Historical Marker", Explore Pennsylvania History
  5. ^ Michael Musmanno. After Twelve Years. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1939.
  6. ^ Harold Cox-Wilkes University
  7. ^ a b c LaGumina, Salvatore J. The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub, 2000.
  8. ^ LaGumina, Salvatore J. The Humble and the Heroic: Wartime Italian Americans. Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2006, p. 227.
  9. ^ See: Earl, Hilary C. The Nuremberg Ss-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  10. ^ Documenting Hitler's dying day: A new documentary on the Nazi leader's death is based on testimony collected by Michael Musmanno, the legendary Pittsburgh judge, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 15, 2015
  11. ^ Korea gunfire started raid on reds here, Musmanno tells court, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 17, 1951
  12. ^ a b c d Philip Jenkins. The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania, 1945-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 1999. Quote: "Party leaders were facing long prison terms ... Musmanno was [elected to] the state supreme court."
  13. ^ a b Pennsylvania v. Nelson, 350 U.S. 497 (1956).
  14. ^ Chris Potter, You Had to Ask: "I recently read an obituary of John McTernan...", Pittsburgh City Paper, 18 August 2005, 12 September 2013
  15. ^ Jesse Dukeminier & Stanley M. Johanson, Wills, Trusts, and Estates 211 n.25 (4th ed. 1990).
  16. ^ New Republic, 3 February 1968, p. 14
  17. ^ a b c Melvin Belli, Blood Money: Ready for the Plaintiff! New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1956, pp. 285–287
  18. ^ Musmanno v. Eldredge, 382 Pa. 167, 114 A.2d 511 (1955). From Google Scholar. Retrieved on June 10, 2012
  19. ^ Commonwealth v. Robin, 421 Pa. 70, 91, 100, 218 A.2d 546, 556, 561 (1966). From Google Scholar. Retrieved on June 10, 2012.
  20. ^ Guberman, Ross. Point Taken: How to Write Like the World's Best Judges. New York, Oxford University Press, 2015.
  21. ^ Centennial Committee (2004). Mt. St. Peter Church Centennial - 100 years of faith, Pittsburgh, Pa: Broudy Printing Inc., p. 76.
  22. ^ a b Commonwealth v. Holton, 432 Pa. 11, 41, 247 A.2d 228, 242 (1968). From Google Scholar. Retrieved on June 10, 2012.
  23. ^ Author: "Mussmano, Michael Angelo", Hathi Trust Digital Library, accessed 12 September 2013

Further reading[edit]

  • Paul B. Beers, Pennsylvania Politics: Today and Yesterday: The Tolerable Accommodation, University Park: Penn State Press, 1980.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by
John Dent
Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania
Succeeded by
Roy Furman