|Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco on their way to court.
In the wake of the mass suppression of radical organizations during the Red Scare following World War I. left wing organizations—what was left of them—were forced to go on the defensive. For much of the following decade a lot of their organizational effort went into raising money and consciousness around for the legal defense of scores of martyrs and for the support of the families of jailed militants. The same pattern happened after the McCarthyite suppression of the 1950’s and in the backlash to student radicals, the anti-war movement, and militant Black and other minority movements in the early ’70’s.
But no case in any of these three eras attracted as much attention, indignation, and world wide support as the case of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two immigrant Italian anarchists who were executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on August 23, 1927.
On April 15, 1920 an armed gang attacked a payroll shipment destined for the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, the ancestral hometown of John and John Quincy Adams. Frederick Parmenter, a paymaster, and security guard Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed and more than $15,000 cash—a major haul—was stolen.
The crime was part of an increasing wave of brazen robberies by armed gangs that spread across America in the years after the war. Police set a trap for suspects using a 1914 Oakland automobile believed to be used in the robbery as bait. Sacco and Vanzetti accompanied two other men, both known members of their anarchist circle in attempting to reclaim the car from a garage. The other suspects escaped.
Sacco and Vanzetti were soon arrested on a street car. Each was carrying a pistol—which was both common and legal at the time. Fearful that they were being targeted for deportation as many other members of their Italian anarchist community had been, both men originally lied to police about their political connections, which would later be used against them. Amid sensational publicity, the two men were indicted for the crime.
Sacco and Vanzetti both arrived in the United States from their native Italy in 1908 and settled in the Boston area, home of large and growing immigrant community that provided hands for major local industries including textile and shoe manufacturing. Sacco, then a 17 year old from Torremaggiore, Foggia got work as shoemaker. Twenty year old Vanzetti from Villafalletto, Cuneo became a fish monger.
Both experienced the hostility and prejudice of New England Yankees to poverty stricken Italian immigrants and knew of the harsh conditions in mills and plants. Each became a part of the loose knit anarchist community around Luigi Galleani’s Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), which advocated violent direct action against capitalists and the state. Some members of the organization were known to make and use bombs as well make other attacks. Others supported the actions philosophically.
Sacco and Vanzetti did not meet each other until working in support of a 1917 strike. They became close friends and comrades. Neither was considered a leader in the anarchist circle, although the more articulate Vanzetti sometimes was a speaker at meetings. And neither had a criminal record, but both were known to local police for their activity as strike supporters and in demonstrations of the unemployed.
During the suppression of radicals that began during the War, Luigi Galleani and his followers were top targets of the Bureau of Immigration for hasty deportation. Galleani and dozens of others were sent packing. Cronaca Sovversiva was banned from the U.S. Mail for advocating the overthrow of the government and opposing the Draft. Sacco and Vanzetti were among a number of group members who went to Mexico during the war, allegedly to avoid the draft. But the two claimed that they were only trying to avoid deportation to Italy and looking for a way to get to Russia to join the Revolution there.
At war’s end they returned to the U.S. and found their revolutionary comrades were driven largely underground and operating quietly in the Italian neighborhoods in something like secret cells.
In preparation for the major case, Vanzetti was separately brought to trial in an earlier robbery in Bridgeport. Virtually no evidence was presented tying him to that crime and a strong alibi supported by many witnesses, he was found guilty. Most of Vanzetti's witnesses were Italians who spoke English poorly, and their trial testimony, given largely in translation was discounted by the American jury. Vanzetti was given the unusually harsh sentence of 10-15 years in prison.
The success of that case encouraged prosecutors to pursue the Braintree case. And it became apparent that a fair trial would be next to impossible with prosecutors signaling that they were going to try the men more on their anarchism than on the evidence.
Enter Carlo Tresca, the best known Italian anarchist in America. Tresca was an anarcho-syndicalist whose views were both more sophisticated and whose strategies relied on mass labor action rather than violent propaganda of the deed. But he sympathized with his fellow Italians and, as he came to know them, admired them personally. Tresca had been a leading Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the landmark Lawrence Strike of 1912 and had organized the defense of indicted Wobblies Arturo Giavanitti and Joe Ettor which had famously led to their acquittals of inciting a riot in which a young Italian mill worker was shot and killed by police.
Drawing on that experience, Tresca set out to organize mass support for the two men via newspaper articles, tracts and pamphlets, street corner oration, and mass demonstrations. He also brought in the successful IWW lawyer from the Lawrence cases, Fred H. Moore. To finance these operations he mobilized the IWW’s General Defense Committee which raised funds from workers nationwide by the sale of inexpensive emergency defense stamps for their membership cards. The Committee was already well established and already very busy with the follow up the mass trials of IWW leaders by the Federal government and ongoing persecution by states.
Soon mass demonstrations were erupting not only in the U.S. but around the world. And donations in support of Sacco and Vanzetti poured in. Other radical organizations, including the Socialist Party and the infant Communist Party, while attempting to distance themselves from the men’s anarchism joined in the defense as the case looked more and more like a railroad job.
Moore 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. He exposed the prosecution's hidden motive—the desire to abet the Federal authorities in suppression of the Italian anarchist movement.
After a six weeks long trial, presided over by a judge who referred to the defendants as “anarchist bastards” 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.
But that was just the beginning. A long stream of competing investigations lay ahead as well as blue ribbon panel made up of the toniest Boston Brahmins and endless court appeals. After the men were condemned to death on what increasingly looked like shaky testimony and doctored physical evidence, the international protest grew.
The writer Anitole France, a veteran of the Dryfus Affair defense and fresh from winning the prestigious Nobel Prize penned an Appeal to the American People in behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti.
In preparation for motions for a new trial Moore uncovered more damning evidence that the prosecution was a frame up. Three key prosecution witnesses stated that they had been coerced into identifying Sacco at the scene of the crime, but when confronted by they denied any coercion. One of them, nurse Lola Andrews told authorities that she was forced to sign an affidavit stating she had wrongfully identified Sacco and Vanzetti. She signed a counter-affidavit the following day. Another, Lewis Pelser, described how he had submitted to alleged prosecutorial coercion while drunk and signed a counter-affidavit shortly thereafter. These conflicting accounts should have cast doubt on the testimony.
Later it came to light that someone had switched the barrel of Sacco's gun with that of another Colt automatic used for comparison, rendering that key physical evidence suspect. Much later it was shown that the gun was outside of police custody for some time, disassembled and reassembled several times and that the shell casings and one bullet allegedly tying the gun to the robbery may themselves have been planted or switched.
More eyewitnesses were found bolstering both men’s alibis—Vanzetti that he was selling Christmas eels and Sacco that he was in Boston at the Italian Consulate renewing documents. The presiding judge at both Vanzetti’s first trial and the combined Braintree case, Webster Thayer, consistently barred new evidence and denied all motions for a new trial on October 1, 1924. His conduct during the hearings was so heavy handed that Boston Globe reporter Frank Sibley, who had covered the trial, wrote a protest to the Massachusetts Attorney General condemning Thayer's blatant bias.
Shortly after rejecting a new trial Thayer told a fellow attorney and Dartmouth alumnus, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while ... Let them go to the Supreme Court now and see what they can get out of them.” Public opinion was beginning to swing to Sacco and Vanzetti’s side, not because of sympathy for their politics, but because it became increasingly evident that they were being railroaded.
In 1924 Moore was replaced as chief defense council by William Thompson, a respected Boston lawyer with impeccable Brahmin connections. The courtroom strategy swung back to legal technicalities. On May 12, 1926 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling not on the evidence but on Thayer’s conduct of the trial, ruled that it found no error.
As Thompson turned to filing new appeals, support for the men continued to grow in radical, socialist, and now in respectable liberal circles. Felix Frankfurter, then a law professor at Harvard, did more than any individual to rally “respectable” opinion behind the two men.
Meanwhile the defense began to investigate a statement given in November 1925 by Celestino Medeiros, an ex-convict awaiting trial for murder, confessing to the Braintree robbery and absolving both Sacco and Vanzetti. In May of 1926 Judge Thayer again took a hearing for a new trial based on the Medeiros, the striking resemblance between Sacco and known strong-arm gunman and gang leader Joe Morelli, an associate of Mederios, and on Thompson’s frontal attack on Federal lawmen for withholding crucial evidence in the case. Predictably, Thayer denied a new trial.
The next day in a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial the Boston Herald called for a new trial. No other major papers followed suit. Frankfurter published his own forceful argument for a new trial in an influential article in the Atlantic Monthly. The Supreme Judicial Court held another hearing based on the Morelli testimony in January 1927 and ruled the following April against the appeal, upholding Thayer once again but, “not denying the truth of the new evidence.” In other words, Sacco and Vanzetti might be innocent but it made no difference because the judge acted legally.
Outrage was national and international as nothing now prevented the death sentence from being carried out. Biding their time away in Prison, Saco and Vanzetti became used to their new celebrity. They even began to regard their imprisonment was the work that they must to further their revolutionary cause. They impressed almost everyone who came in contact with them, ideological friend and foe alike, with their personal gentility and thoughtfulness.
American and international intellectuals rallied to the cause. John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were all arrested in Boston protesting the sentence. Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells joined in petitioning the governor for a new trial. Demonstrations across the world stepped up, and there were some scattered reports of anarchist violence, particularly in Italy and among the large Italian immigrant population of Argentina.
On April 9 Judge Thayer pronounced the death sentence on both men. Bowing to public pressure for clemency Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three member “blue ribbon” Advisory Committee to study the case consisting of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, President Samuel Wesley Stratton of MIT, and Probate Judge Robert Grant. Blue bloods Lowell and Grant were social acquaintances of Thayer and on record as opposing radicals and being disdainful of immigrants. Grant had written several novels with ethnic slurs. The only non Brahmin, Stratton, kept his mouth shut and head down as the council reported that it could find nothing wrong with Thayer’s conduct of the case, although they could not dispute the truth of the new evidence. In other words, the defendants might not actually be guilty, but the verdict should stand because Thayer had not erred in his rulings.
The Governor did not issue any commutation orders. Tension mounted as the execution date entered. The home of one juror was bombed. Twenty thousand people jammed Boston Common for a massive protest rally on August 15.
The day of execution, Sacco went first. He quietly sat in the chair then shouted “Viva l'anarchia!” and “Farewell, mia madre.”
The gentle Vanzetti shook hands with the staff and thanked them for courteous treatment. He read a statement proclaiming his innocence and then, at the suggestion of his lawyer William Thompson said, “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
News of the executions set off sometimes violent demonstrations in Amsterdam, Berlin, Johannesburg, Geneva, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Strikes erupted across Latin America.
In Boston more than 10,000 viewed the men’s bodies in open caskets before a massive funeral parade. Police blocked the proposed route passed the State House and there was some fighting with police. After a brief ceremony at Forest Hill Cemetery the remains were cremated. The Boston Globe said it was, “one of the most tremendous funerals of all time.” Years later Motion Picture Production Code censor Will Hayes ordered all newsreel companies to destroy their footage of the funeral.
The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti were published in 1928 to world wide acclaim. Columnist Walter Lippmann wrote “If Sacco and Vanzetti were professional bandits, then historians and biographers who attempt to deduce character from personal documents might as well shut up shop. By every test that I know of for judging character, these are the letters of innocent men.” And that summed up the prevailing opinion for the next forty years.
The case entered American culture. Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and James T. Farrell drew upon the case in their novels. Maxwell Anderson’s play Winterset was based on the case. Musicians around the world wrote songs. A compellation of American protest songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was released by Folkways in 1960. Joan Baez recorded Here’s to You using words from Vanzetti’s letters. Marc Blitzstein was working on an opera when he died in 1960 which was completed posthumously by a collaborator and performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Anton Coppola premiered his opera Sacco and Vanzetti in 2001. There was an Italian film by Giuliano Montaldo in 1971.
On the 50th anniversary of the execution in 1977 Governor Michael Dukakis declared Nicola Sacco and Bartomomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day and said that, they had been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.” In retaliation, Republicans attempted to have the governor censured by the legislature.
The anniversary resulted in new interest in the case, and by the emergence of revisionist opinion that one or both of the men were actually guilty of the Braintree robbery. In 1961 Max Eastman, who had been active on the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee claimed that in the late 1940’s Carlo Tescla had told him, “Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent.” Because Eastman had taken a sharp turn to the right and the article in which he made the claim was published in the Conservative National Review, the claim was discounted by many.
But other aging anarchists later reported hearing similar rumors. This was countered by yet another confession, this time by gangster Frank “Butsy” Morelli, Joe's brother. “We whacked them out, we killed those guys in the robbery…These two grease balls Sacco and Vanzetti took it on the chin.”
Others revisited the gun evidence. Some concluded that Sacco’s gun was definitely used in the crime while others argued that problems with switching the barrels, the repeated disassembly and assembly of the gun without proper supervision and the ample opportunity to plant or switch the bullet and cartridges should discount reliance on the gun to connect Sacco to the crime.
Prevailing opinion seems to be that it was unlikely either man was actually at the robbery but that it may have been pulled off by anarchist comrades in conjunction with local toughs to finance the Galleani group’s bombing campaign. There is also a feeling that the men may have been connected in at least supporting that campaign.
Regardless of guilt or innocence, the trial was replete with class and ethnic prejudice and deeply flawed. In the end Sacco and Vanzetti were just two more victims of the war of the United States on dissent.