...in 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to death in the state prison in Charlestown. A jury convicted them of murder and robbery in 1921, but a long struggle was waged to save their lives. The trial occurred during a period of intense prejudice against immigrants and radicals. Sacco and Vanzetti were both. Many people who followed the case believed that the pair were tried for their ethnicity and their politics, not because the evidence supported the charge. Numerous appeals were filed, another man confessed, the case became an international cause celebre all to no avail. With a large and angry crowd gathered outside, at midnight the lights in the prison flickered. Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair.
On an April afternoon in 1920, as the paymaster of an East Braintree shoe company and his bodyguard returned to their factory with a $15,776 payroll, two gunmen opened fire, killing both men. The assailants grabbed the money, ran to a waiting car, and made a clean escape.
What little evidence police could find was entirely circumstantial. They speculated that the getaway car had been concealed before the robbery in a nearby shed, where another vehicle was also stored. When the Italian immigrant who owned that car took it to a repair shop, police moved in. They searched him and two friends who had accompanied him Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker from Stoughton, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler from Plymouth. Both men were carrying guns and ammunition; on the basis of this scanty, circumstantial evidence, they were arrested and charged with the Braintree robbery and murder.
No one in the state's large Italian immigrant community would have been surprised. Eastern Massachusetts was an uncongenial place for Italian immigrants in 1920. For the three previous decades, the area had absorbed tens of thousands of impoverished Italian peasants. A minority responded to the poverty and exploitation they found here by espousing radical, even revolutionary ideas; a few became anarchists people who believed that the only way to achieve social justice was to eliminate every form of authority, even if it meant using violence. In 1919 Italian anarchists had bombed buildings in Boston and Newtonville.
This violence came on the heels of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Like the rest of the nation, Massachusetts was caught up in what came to be called the "Red Scare." The radical movements that so many immigrants joined appeared to threaten the very survival of American democracy. Authorities repressed, harassed, and hounded anyone suspected of being a radical. Many ordinary Americans viewed not just radicals but all immigrants with fear and suspicion, no group more so than Italians. When Sacco and Vanzetti arrived at the Dedham courthouse in June of 1921, it was obvious that they would be tried not just for their alleged crimes but for being radicals and aliens.
The judge, a deeply prejudiced man, boasted about what he would do "with those anarchistic bastards." He allowed the prosecutors to make Sacco and Vanzetti's radical politics central to the case. The D.A. repeatedly attacked the men's loyalty and appealed to the jury to defend native values against immigrants and the ideas they espoused. He browbeat and coached witnesses who were initially unsure until they claimed to be "certain" about their testimony. He may also have tampered with ballistics evidence.
Sacco and Vanzetti did not help matters by lying to the police after their arrest or choosing as their attorney a brilliant but avowed radical who played into the public's and the jury's perception that the defendants were dangerous revolutionaries. Sacco and Vanzetti had alibis, but since they were backed by other Italians, the jury disregarded them. Years later, an analyst summed up the trial this way: "Against a masterful and none too scrupulous prosecution was opposed a hopelessly mismanaged defense before a stupid trial judge."
After six weeks of testimony, the pair was convicted and sentenced to death. Then a new drama began, as outrage swept first the national, then the international scene. Sacco and Vanzetti's supporters waged a six-year struggle for a new trial, based first on charges that the prosecutor's behavior was duplicitous and unethical, then on new evidence that might have exonerated the pair. But the judge rejected each motion. Even when another man confessed that he and an organized crime gang well-known in the area had committed the crime, the judge dismissed the confession because he considered the man untrustworthy.
A public outcry prompted the governor to convene a blue ribbon panel to investigate the conduct of the trial judge. It found that the judge held strong opinions regarding the defendants but concluded that his attitude "did not affect his conduct at the trial or the opinions of the jury. . . . "
As time for the execution approached, Harvard Law School Professor Felix Frankfurter, who would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, published a book charging that the trial had been hopelessly flawed and calling the verdict a miscarriage of justice. The book further aroused Sacco and Vanzetti's supporters. Demonstrators marched in the streets of Boston, while over 600,000 people signed a petition for a new trial. It was all for naught. On the night of August 22, 1927, a large crowd gathered outside the state prison in Charlestown. Despite their protests, Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair.
The guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti is still debated today. Both men won a degree of public admiration for their genuine idealism, quiet dignity, and courage. In broken English, Vanzetti told the court: "You see me before you, not trembling. . . . I never commit a crime in my life." Indeed, no evidence has ever been found that either man had been involved in a violent incident before the alleged murders. But neither man denied being an anarchist, and anarchists did advocate the use of violence. Ballistics analysis done in the 1980s indicates that one of the bullets introduced as evidence did indeed come from a gun owned by Nicola Sacco, but it seems likely that an unscrupulous prosecutor planted the evidence.
Fifty years after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed August 23rd Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day. "Any stigma and disgrace shall be forever removed from their names." The trial proceedings, he declared, had been "permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views." Dukakis did not speak to Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt or innocence, but he acknowledged that the men had paid with their lives for being radicals and aliens.
Kill Now, Talk Forever: Debating Sacco and Vanzetti, ed. by Richard Newby (Author House, 2008).
Sacco and Vanzetti, by Eli C. Bortman (Commonwealth Editions, 2005).
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. Prefatory essay by William O. Douglas (Mamaroneck, N.Y.: P. P. Appel, 1969).
The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents, by Michael Topp (Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2005).