It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The 1920’s was a great time in America. Business was booming, cars were everywhere, there were daring new fashions, and happy jazz music to listen and dance to. Despite all the good things happening, there were some very dark times. During the early 1920’s and there was much tension and fear of foreigners in America. Foreigners were often associated with communism and anarchism (Stark 1). These radicals were being deported daily for fear of riots and rebellion. Raids were led against communists and over 10,000 suspected of communism were arrested, many times without proper warrants. Also during this time, there was a string of bank robberies and the police were on the lookout for bandits that were on the loose. Then on April 15, 1920 two men were shot to death and $15,766 was stolen. The two murderers were said to be Italian immigrants (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). In panic, the police searched for two anarchist Italian immigrants to blame the murder on. Twenty days later, on May 5, 1920, the unlucky duo of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested while picking up a car connected with the murder (“Sacco-Vanzetti Case”). The two men were tried and found guilty under circumstantial evidence (Stark 1). There was obvious proof that witnesses were lying and that Sacco and Vanzetti could not have committed the murders, but because the trial was filled with such hatred toward the foreign radicals, they were sentenced to the electric chair. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were the victims of an unfair trial based upon their background and beliefs.
It is important to know just who Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were. Bartolomeo Vanzetti when arrested was“[…] 34 years old. He was a student and a prize scholar in a Catholic School in Italy, and came to this country at the age of 20. He is a philosophical anarchist and was described as a dreamer and idealist type. He is a frequent contributor to Italian radical papers, and once wrote that as a result of reading St. Augustine and “the Divine Comedy,” “humanity and equality of rights began to afflict my heart”” (Stark 2). Vanzetti’s occupations in America were fish peddler and a casual laborer (1). Vanzetti seems like a harmless citizen. He was described as “a dreamer,” basically saying he would never commit a crime. He believed strongly in what he believed in, but did not look like a person that would cause any problems.
Nicola Sacco when arrested was “[…] 28 years old. He came to this country at the age of 17 and learned the trade of edge trimmer in a shoe factory. His employers gave him a good character. He named his son Dante “because Dante is a great man in my country.” In his spare time he took part in strike agitations and in radical meetings.” Sacco also seems like a good person. He was a hard worker and took what he could from life. He had a strong remembrance for his home country, and that would make his seem suspicious to the authorities.
Both men had no criminal records before the incident (Downey). Vanzetti had been discriminated against and had a hard time in America (Sacco 3). Both men were active in the anarchist political movement (Sacco Trial), and they even led a few protests (Sacco 4). The fact that Sacco and Vanzetti went the Mexico to flee the draft made them even more unlikable (3). They were not bad people at all, but because they were radicals, immigrants, and they fled the draft, that caused suspicion and hatred toward them.
It is also important to get a little better sense of the times when the men were arrested. “Hatred of foreign radicals approached hysteria in April 1919 when anarchists plotted to send thirty dynamite bombs to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, capitalists J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.” (Sacco, Nicola 1). This caused the Palmer and Red Raids, where about 10,000 suspected Reds and Anarchists were arrested. In 1920, Red raids were still being pursued (Stark 1). Communists and extreme radicals were constantly deported without warrants. Radicals were all “shamefully abused and maltreated.” It was a disgraceful time in America.
Sacco and Vanzetti were also arrested during a time when the authorities were alert for the bandits on a string of robberies. There was prejudice from the beginning because they were foreigners, radicals, and slackers (for evading the draft). Vanzetti said, “We were tried during a time that has now passed into history. I mean by that, a time when there was hysteria of resentment and hate against the people of our principles, against the foreigner, against slacker […]” (Vanzetti). In the opinion of radicals and immigrant union members, Sacco and Vanzetti were being persecuted because of their beliefs (“Sacco Trial“), but “members of the established power structure saw them as dangerous foreigners out to subvert the American way of life.” Sacco and Vanzetti really symbolized the growing class struggle in America after World War I.
The basic case was that “[…] two men had been killed in Braintree, Massachusetts” (Sacco Trial). Frederick Parmendelli and his guard were killed, and there was $15,766 in missing money (Stark 1). Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on May 5, 1920 for armed robbery. The murderers were supposedly Italian, and the two men matched that description. Sacco and Vanzetti had gone to claim a car supposedly connected with the murder, so they were arrested (“Sacco-Vanzetti Case”). They were originally charged of the two murders, theft of money, unsuccessful murder, and hold-up (Stark 1).
Before the trial, there were basically two stances; people were either “anti-radical” or thought that the trial was a “frame-up” (Stark 1). Most people were “anti-radicals.” The trial was called a Mooney case, which is a case “judged in advance by people who did not know the evidence […]” The Department of Justice spread propaganda “designed to excite public opinion against radicals.” Newspapers printed their biographies with their radical opinions and how they fled to Mexico to avoid the draft. They also printed that Sacco and Vanzetti had loaded revolvers when arrested. The judge, Judge Thayer, told the jurors to have “courage,” which was interpreted by the jurors as “courage to convict.” Before the incident even happened, the Department of Justice wanted to deport the two for being radicals, but that was not very easy to prove (Russell 2). They would do anything to get rid of Sacco and Vanzetti. If that meant tainting their appearance to the public to help find them guilty, the government would do that.
The trial lasted 35 days (Streissguth 2). Sacco and Vanzetti entered the court in manacles and they were patted down to search for weapons (Stark 1). They were tried in a steel cage, which was used in many courts in Massachusetts. These first impressions on the jurors obviously did not help the defendants at all. “The court referred from time to time to the duty of the jurors to serve as did the soldiers on the battlefields of France” (2). The jurors’ opinions of Sacco and Vanzetti were swayed greatly during the trial. The case questioned the fairness and objectivity of the American justice system and it became an international affair (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). A headline in a newspaper read “Promoters of Propaganda to Aid Condemned Italians get Little Response in America” (“Final Plead…”). Almost all Americans were being swayed into going against the foreigners and radicals. Sacco and Vanzetti did not have much of a chance to win the trial the moment it started.
There were almost 180 witnesses and there was a sharp disagreement on almost every key point (Stark 1). Judge Thayer said, “It is one of identity,” referring to the case, but “There was absolute disagreement between the witnesses on both sides on the question of identity.” Some witnesses said they saw Sacco selling fish far away from the crime (Stark 1) and an editor of an Italian newspaper claimed to see Sacco in a restaurant in Boston the day of the murder (“Sacco Trial…”), yet the prosecution said the defendants were present at every scene of the crime (Stark 1). They also said Sacco and Vanzetti tried to shoot the officers. One witness said Vanzetti was driving the getaway car, while the prosecution even admitted that it was not Vanzetti driving. People within 10 feet of the car could not identify either man in it. Yet somehow, a woman who from a second-story window claimed to see Sacco driving by at 20 mph. She described him in perfect detail while only seeing him for about one second. She gave this description of him: “[He] was slightly taller than I, weighed about 140-145 pounds, had dark hair, dark eyebrows, thin cheeks and clean shaven face of a peculiar greenish-white. His hair was brushed back, and it was, I should think, between two and two and a half inches long. His shoulders were straight cut, square. He wore no hat. He was clean cut. He wore a gray shirt. He was a muscular, active looking man and had a strong left hand, a powerful hand.” When the woman had seen Sacco 13 months earlier at a preliminary hearing, she could not positively identify him. Another women could not identify Sacco earlier, but did later at the trial. She said, “I felt sure in my own mind, but hated to say so and stand out.” Cleary, some people were inventing stories because of the fear and paranoia caused by the circumstances.
Each of the men were carrying guns when arrested. Sacco was found with a loaded 32-calibre colt with 2 extra cartridges (Stark 1). Vanzetti was found with a 38 Harrington and Richardson loaded. Vanzetti was also found with three shotgun shells in his pocket. The murderer also used a shotgun. Sacco had a gun because his employer advised it. He had it for protection working and traveling at night. Revolver experts for the prosecution said the bullets from the victim matched Sacco’s gun. On the other hand, the defense experts said the bullets did not match. Officers also didn’t agree on which pocket they took Vanzetti’s gun out of. There was a bit of confusion about the guns because each side’s experts disagreed about whether the bullets matched their guns. There was also a cap found by a victim that supposedly belonged to Sacco. His employer said it belonged to him, but Sacco denied owning it.
The prosecution said that Sacco and Vanzetti gave false answers when first questioned and that they lied freely. They said that they also reached for a revolver when questioned. They apparently kept speaking when they didn’t have to. The Commonwealth said they were full with guilt. One of their friends had been under police suspicion and fled. Sacco and Vanzetti fell into a police trap set for their friend, so they also fled feeling guilty, said the prosecution. A passport was found on Sacco, supposedly to be used for sailing to Italy, but deportation would have been a free trip home if they had been under enough suspicion of being anarchists, so it didn’t make sense to have a passport. The prosecution also said the court agreed not to talk about how Sacco and Vanzetti were radicals, as not to taint the jury, yet this were a prevalently known fact, emphasized from the beginning of the trial. “Word got around that a man’s house might be burned by the “Black Hand” if he found the defendants guilty.” This could have been spurred up by the prosecution.
Sacco and Vanzetti pleaded innocent (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). The defense said they lied because they were afraid of being arrested because of their beliefs and for skipping the draft (Stark 1). They said Sacco was in Boston to get a passport on April 15, 1920 when the murders happened. “There was, the defenders claimed, evidence secreted in the Bureau’s files that would have established their innocence, but both the Bureau and the prosecution were ready to go to any lengths of fraud and deceit to get rid of two troublesome radicals” (Russell 2). Bartolomeo Vanzetti pleaded:
“I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself […] I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earth — I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of […] I have fought against crime and I have fought and have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes the law and the church legitimate and sanctify. I have never stole and I have never killed and I have never spilt blood […] not only have I struggled all my life to eliminate crimes, the crimes that the officials and the official moral condemns, but also the crime that the official moral and the official law sanctions and sanctifies — the exploitation and the oppression of the man by man […] I am not only innocent of all these things, not only have I never committed a real crime in my life — through some sins but not crimes […]” (Vanzetti).
Vanzetti was very genuine about the situation. He pleaded of his innocence and let all his emotions out. He expressed how he was a peaceful person and would not harm anybody.
People all over the world were outraged at the court‘s decision. “Protests and demonstrations were held in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, and appeals to spare their lives came from all over the world” (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). Specifically, there were radical demonstrations in Italy, France, Spain, and South America (Stark 1). Italians in Philadelphia met to protest, but the police showed up to disperse them (“Havana Terrorists…”). People all over the world cared about Sacco and Vanzetti. Unfortunately home in America, most people were being corrupted with propaganda making radicals and immigrants look like bad people.
The verdict came in only five hours (Stark 1). Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of all charges except for the murders and were sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, but then they were later found guilty of the murders and were sentenced to the electric chair. People sympathized for them as their execution neared (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). “The two men faced their fate with calm and fortitude.” Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were finally executed in Charlestown, Massachusetts on August 23, 1927.
A newspaper reporting after the trial said, “The agitation on behalf of the two men is attaining greater proportions daily, and it promises to continue” (Stark 2). Many observers felt the trial was unfair, even those who thought that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). Nicola Sacco wrote letters to his son Dante during the trial. In the letters, Vanzetti wrote to his son, “One day, you will understand. That day you will be proud of your father; and if you come brave enough, you will take his place in the struggle between tyranny and liberty, and you will vindicate his names and our blood.” These letters were made public after the trial. Many Americans were glad that Sacco and Vanzetti were dead and that news of them would die down. On the other hand, others were saddened by their deaths. They marched around with signs saying, “American honor dies with Sacco and Vanzetti.” Judge Thayer would not have a new trial because the radicalism of Sacco and Vanzetti had been introduced to the trial (Stark 2). The knowledge of their radical ways had been known since the beginning of the trial, and Judge Thayer had even helped to point out this fact. A conservative reporter said the evidence was not sufficient enough (1). Sacco missed hardly any days working from 1910-1917. He was the fastest worker. Why would he kill someone and return the next day? There was also no increase in his bank account. A different conservative reporter said there was sufficient evidence to convict and that they received a fair trial. Another reporter said there was not enough evidence. The bullet theories did not match. The witnesses could not have positively identified Sacco and Vanzetti either. “The question of the two men’s guilt or innocence is still a matter of historical controversy” (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). This statement certainly holds true today.
There is no way Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti could have been proven guilty. The juror’s opinions of them were swayed from the beginning of the trial. They were brought into court with manacles and handcuffs and tried in a steel cage, and this made them look barbaric and nonhuman. Before the trial began, their beliefs had become a big issue. During these times, this was a very big issue. People who were radicals or immigrants were considered bad people and they were not trusted. Sacco and Vanzetti epitomized the class struggle of the 1920’s. Jobs were in need, and people did not want foreigners taking their jobs. People did not want foreigners who could not speak English living in their neighborhoods. A hatred grew as time went on. The juror’s opinions of Sacco and Vanzetti had been swayed since the beginning of the trial. They probably did not trust them because they were foreigners and radicals. To them, this meant that they were not good people and were probably guilty. There was a lot propaganda that had brainwashed the jurors into believing this. Newspapers printed their biographies and their radical views. They also pointed out that Sacco and Vanzetti fled to Mexico to skip the draft. The witnesses were also tainted by the propaganda. They disagreed on everything and made up false recollections. Some witnesses could not identify either man when they were standing ten feet away, but a woman from a two-story building could describe Sacco in full detail. Some witnesses were obviously lying and their accounts should have been discredited. The matching of the bullets with the gun went both ways. The prosecution said the bullets matched the gun, but the defense said the bullets did not match the gun that belonged to Sacco. Lastly, the two men were very genuine when they spoke. They spoke about how there was a lot of unfair racism towards them, which led to their prosecution. Vanzetti specifically spoke about how he would not hurt anyone, not even an animal. He spoke his heart and seemed confused and afraid, as if he was saying, “How could this happen to me?”
There is not conclusive evidence to prove Sacco and Vanzetti guilty. It seems like they were guilty until proven innocent rather than innocent until proven guilty. When asked for a new trial, judge Thayer said they could not because the knowledge of their beliefs had been brought into the trial. Their beliefs were common knowledge throughout the trial. Judge Thayer knew this, and he even stressed those points. The government was determined to dispose of Sacco and Vanzetti any way possible. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were the victims of a biased trial filled with hatred for their background and beliefs.
Downey, Matthew T. The Roaring Twenties and Unsettled Peace. Vol. II. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
“Final Plead Friday for Sacco-Vanzetti.” New York Times 21 Nov. 1921: 1. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.
“Havana Terrorists Threaten Crowder.” New York Times 31 Oct. 1921: 2. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.
Russell, Francis. “The End of the Myth.” National Review 19 Aug. 1977: 4. MasterFile Premier. EBSCOhost. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>.
“Sacco and Vanzetti.” DISCovering Biography. Gale, 2003. Discovering Collection. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC>.
“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial.” American History. ABC-CLIO Schools Subscriptions Web sites. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://www.americanhistory.abc-clio.com/home>.
Sacco, Nicola. “Letter From Nicola Sacco to His Son, Dante.” American Decades Primary Sources. Ed. Cynthia Rose. New York: Gale, 2004.
“Sacco Trial Resumed.” New York Times 10 Jul. 1921: 1. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.
“Sacco-Vanzetti case.” Columbia Encyclopedia: 1. MasterFile Premier. EBSCOhost. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://search.epnet.com/>.
Stark, Louis. “Are Sacco and Vanzetti Guilty?” New York Times 5 Mar. 1922: 2. Proquest Newspapers. Proquest. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb>.
Streissguth, Tom. The Roaring Twenties. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.
Vanzetti, Bartolomeo. “Bartolomeo Vanzetti: Court Statement (1927).” 23 Aug. 1927. American History. ABC-CLIO Schools Subscriptions Web sites. 23 Sept. 2004 <http://www.americanhistory.abc-clio.com/home>.
This academia was first published 10 Feb 2005 and last revised 13 Feb 2016.Adam Cap is a sometimes raconteur, rare dingus collector, and webmaster probably best known for SixPrizes (serving as “El Capitan”) and PkmnCards (read: fine art purveyor). He scrapbooks yonder every minute or three.
At 3:00 P.M. on April 15,1920, a paymaster and his guard were carrying a factory payroll of $15,776 through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a small industrial town south of Boston. Two men standing by a fence suddenly pulled out guns and fired on them. The gunmen snatched up the cash boxes dropped by the mortally wounded pair and jumped into a waiting automobile. The bandit gang, numbering four or five in all, sped away, eluding their pursuers. At first this brutal murder and robbery, not uncommon in post-World War I America, aroused only local interest.
Three weeks later, on the evening of May 5, 1920, two Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, fell into a police trap that had been set for a suspect in the Braintree crime. Although originally not under
|Sacco & Vanzetti|
Contrary to the usual practice of Massachusetts courts, Vanzetti was tried first in the summer of 1920 on the lesser of the two charges, the failed Bridgewater robbery. Despite a strong alibi supported by many wit nesses, Vanzetti was found guilty. Most of Vanzetti's witnesses were Italians who spoke English poorly, and their trial testimony, given largely in translation, failed to convince the American jury. Vanzetti's case had also been seriously damaged when he, for fear of revealing his radical activities, did not take the stand in his own defense.
For a first criminal offense in which no one was hurt, Vanzetti received a sentence that was much harsher than usual, ten to fifteen years. This signaled to the two men and their supporters a hostile bias on the part of the authorities that was political in nature and pointed to the need for a new defense strategy in the Braintree trial.
On the advice of the anarchist militant and editor Carlo Tresca, a new legal counsel was brought in--Fred H. Moore, the well-known socialist lawyer from the West. He had collaborated in many labor and Industrial Workers of the World trials and was especially noted for his important role in the celebrated Ettor-Giovannitti case, which came out of the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike.
The arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti had coincided with the period of the most intense political repression in American history, the "Red Scare" 1919-20. The police trap they had fallen into had been set for a comrade of theirs, suspected primarily because he was a foreign-born radical. While neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had any previous criminal record, they were long recognized by the authorities and their communities as anarchist militants who had been extensively involved in labor strikes, political agitation, and antiwar propaganda and who had had several serious confrontations with the law. They were also known to be dedicated supporters of Luigi Galleani's Italian-language journal Cronaca Sovversiva, the most influential anarchist journal in America, feared by the authorities for its militancy and its acceptance of revolutionary violence. Cronaca, because of its uncompromising antiwar stance, had been forced to halt publication immediately upon the entry of the U.S. government into World War I in 1917; its editors were arrested and at war's end deported to Italy, in 1919. During this period the government's acts of repression, often illegal, were met in turn by the anarchists' attempts to incite social revolution, and at times by retal iatory violence; the authorities and Cronaca were pitted against each other in a bitter social struggle just short of open warfare. A former editor of Cronaca was strongly suspected of having blown himself up during an attentat on Attorney General Palmer's home in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 1919, an act that led Congress to vote funds for anti-radical investigations and launch the career of J. Edgar Hoover as the director of the General Intelligence Division in the Department of Justice. The Sacco-Vanzetti case would become one of his first major responsibilities. In 1920, as the Italian anarchist movement was trying to regroup, Andrea Salsedo, a comrade of Sacco and Vanzetti, was detained and, while in custody of the Department of Justice, hurled to his death. On the night of their arrest, authorities found in Sacco's pocket a draft of a handbill for an anarchist meeting that featured Vanzetti as the main speaker. In this treacherous atmosphere, when initial questioning by the police focused on their radical activities and not on the specifics of the Braintree crime, the two men lied in response. These falsehoods created a "consciousness of guilt" in the minds of the authorities, but the implications of that phrase soon became a central issue in the Sacco-Vanzetti case: Did the lies of the two men signify criminal involvement in the Braintree murder and robbery, as the authorities claimed, or did they signify an understandable attempt to conceal their radicalism and protect their friends during a time of national hysteria concerning foreign-born radicals, as their supporters were to claim?
Their new lawyer, Moore, completely changed the nature of the legal strategy. He decided it was no longer possible to defend Sacco and Vanzetti solely against the criminal charges of murder and robbery. Instead he would have them frankly acknowledge their anarchism in court, try to establish that their arrest and prosecution stemmed from their radical activities, and dispute the prosecution's insistence that only hard, nonpolitical evidence had implicated the two men in common crimes. Moore would try to expose the prosecution's hidden motive: its desire to aid the federal and military authorities in suppressing the Italian anarchist movement to which Sacco and Vanzetti belonged.
Moore's defense of the two men soon became so openly and energetically political that its scope quickly transcended its local roots. He organized public meetings, solicited the support of labor unions, contacted international organizations, initiated new investigations, and distributed tens of thousands of defense pamphlets throughout the United States and the world. Much to the chagrin of some anarchist comrades, Moore would even enlist the aid of the Italian government in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were still, nominally at least, Italian citizens. Moore's aggressive strategy transformed a little known case into an international cause celebre.
After a hard-fought trial of six weeks, during which the themes of patriotism and radicalism were often sharply contrasted by the prosecution and the defense, the jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder on July 14,1921. This verdict marked, however, only the beginning of a lengthy legal struggle to save the two men. It extended until 1927, during which time the defense made many separate motions, appeals, and petitions to both state and federal courts in an attempt to gain a new trial.
Presented in these motions were evidence of perjury by prosecution witnesses, of illegal activities by the police and the federal authorities, a confession to the Braintree crimes by convicted bank robber Celestino Madeiros, and powerful evidence that identified the gang involved in the Braintree affair as the notorious Morelli Gang. All were ruled on and rejected by Judge Webster Thayer, the same judge who earlier had so severely sentenced Vanzetti. Judge Thayer would even rule on a motion accusing himself of judicial prejudice. His conduct--or misconduct--during the trials and the appeals became another of the controversial issues surrounding the case, but it, too, would prove insufficient to bring about a new trial.
From the beginning, Moore's strategy of politicizing the trial in tradition-bound Massachusetts had been controversial and confrontational. His manner of utilizing mass media was quite modern and effective, but it required enormous sums of money, which he spent too freely in the eyes of many of the anarchist comrades of Sacco and Vanzetti, who had to raise most of it painstakingly from working people, twenty-five and fifty cents at a time. Moore's efforts came to be questioned even by the two defendants, when he, contrary to anarchist ideals, offered a large reward to find the real criminals. As a result, in 1924 he was replaced by a respected Boston lawyer, William Thompson, who assumed control of the legal defense for the last three years of the case. Thompson, a Brahmin who wanted to defend the reputation of Massachusetts law as well as the two men, had no particular sympathy for the ideas of the two men, but he later came to admire them deeply as individuals.
Thompson's defense no longer emphasized the political, but these aspects of the case, once they had been set into motion, could not be stopped and continued to gain momentum. Throughout America liberals and well-meaning people of every sort, troubled and outraged by the injustice of the legal process, joined the more politically radical anarchists, socialists, and communists in protesting the verdict against Sacco and Vanzetti. Felix Frankfurter, then a law professor at Harvard, who did more than any individual to rally "respectable" opinion behind the two men, saw the case as a test of the rule of law itself. Ranged against the defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti were conservatives and patriots who wanted to defend the honor of American justice and to uphold law and order. Many of them came to see these protests as an attack upon the "American way of life" on behalf of two common criminals.
On April 9, 1927, after all recourse in the Massachusetts courts had failed, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. By then the dignity and the words of the two men had turned them into powerful symbols of social justice for many throughout the world. Public agitation on their behalf by radicals, workers, immigrants, and Italians had become international in scope, and many demonstrations in the world's great cities--Paris, London, Mexico City, Buenos Aires--protested the unfairness of their trial. This great public pressure, combined with influential behind-the-scenes interventions, finally persuaded the governor of Massachusetts, Alvan T. Fuller, to consider the question of executive clemency for the two men. He appointed an advisory committee, the "Lowell Committee," so-called because its most prominent member was A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University. The committee, in a decision that was notorious for its loose thinking, concluded that the trial and judicial process had been just "on the whole" and that clemency was not warranted. It only fueled controversy over the fate of the two men, and Harvard, because of Lowell's role, became stigmatized, in the words of one of its alumni, as "Hangman's House." "Not every wop has the switch to the electric chair thrown by the president of Harvard."
Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927, a date that became a watershed in twentieth-century American history. It became the last of a long train of events that had driven any sense of utopian vision out of American life. The workings of American democracy now seemed to many Americans as flawed and unjust as many of the older societies of the world, no longer embodying any bright ideal, but once again serving the interests of the rich and the powerful. American intellectuals were powerfully moved by the case. In his epochal masterpiece, USA, John Dos Passos raged in one "Camera Eye" episode,
All right you have won ... America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out ... they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch . . . all right we are two nations . . .while Edmund Wilson coolly observed that the Sacco-Vanzetti case
revealed the whole anatomy of American life with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system.Up to the present, most writers have focused their attention on the legal, social, and cultural dimensions of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The legal dimension, in particular, has been rather exhaustively considered, and its two major issues--the fairness of the trial and the innocence or guilt of the two men--still dominates most of the literature about the case.
Earlier opinion almost unanimously felt that the two men were innocent and had been unjustly executed, but later revisionist points of view emerged: some totally, if implausibly, defending the verdict as correct; others more plausibly arguing that, based on new ballistics tests and words by Carlo Tresca and Fred Moore, Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent. No single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest, despite the two most recent books that have claimed to have done so, while arriving at almost directly opposite conclusions.
Surprisingly, although the Sacco-Vanzetti case is considered the political case par excellence, few accounts have taken the politics of the two men--their anarchism--very seriously and fewer still are knowledgeable about it. As in all great political trials, the figures of Sacco and Vanzetti have been transformed into passionate symbols, symbols that are often rather understood. A full and accurate account of the political dimension--and, in particular, the anarchist dimension--still remains to be written. The importance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case remains not only because it called into question some of the fundamental assump- tions of American society, but because it calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions of American history.
--written by Robert D'Attilio
- The Sacco-Vanzetti Case: Transcript of the Record of the Trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the Courts of Massachusetts and Subsequent Proceedings, 1920-7. 5 vols. with supplemental volume. Mamaroneck, N.Y.: P. P. Appel, 1969.
- D'Attilio, Robert, and Jane Manthorn, et alia. Sacco Vanzetti: Developments and Reconsiderations, 1979. Boston: Boston Public Library, 1979.
- Ehrmann, Herbert B. The Case That Will Not Die. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.