Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco (died 1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927), Italian-born anarchists, became the subject of one of America's most celebrated controversies and the focus for much of the liberal and radical protest of the 1920s in the United States.

The execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Boston in 1927 brought to an end a struggle of more than 6 years on the part of Americans and Europeans who had become convinced that they were innocent of the crimes of robbery and murder. For a sizable portion of the American intellectual community their case symbolized the fight for justice for ethnic minorities, the poor, and the politically unorthodox. The case had a catalytic influence on the subsequent development of leftist thought in America.

Sacco was born in Torremaggiore. When he was 17, he immigrated to the United States. He learned the trade of shoe edge-trimming and settled in Milford, Mass., working for a local shoe company. He married, fathered a son, and seemed to be building a stable and secure life.

Vanzetti, by contrast, was a bachelor and a wanderer. Born in Villafalletto, he went to the United States in early adulthood. He worked as a kitchen helper in New York, then at various menial jobs in the Boston area. There Vanzetti, already committed to anarchist principles, met Sacco. When the United States entered World War I, they fled to Mexico to escape military conscription. Within a few months Sacco returned to his family; Vanzetti traveled around the American Midwest for a year.

Returning to New England, Vanzetti worked at a succession of jobs and renewed his friendship with Sacco, who was employed at a shoe factory. Vanzetti spent much time reading and reflecting on prospects for the revolutionary transformation of industrial society. Sacco, though little interested in books and ideas, also accepted the anarchist vision of brotherhood, peace, and plenty without government. The two moved in a circle of anarchists and sometimes distributed revolutionary literature.

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Arrest, Trial, Conviction

Such were the ostensible circumstances of the two men's lives in May of 1920, when they were arrested and charged with participating in the robbery of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Mass., on April 15 and murdering the plant's paymaster and payroll guard. They were arrested shortly after going to a garage to claim an automobile which had supposedly been seen near the South Braintree crime. Both were armed but protested they knew nothing of the crime and had planned to use the automobile to distribute anarchist literature.

Vanzetti, also charged with taking part in an attempted mail truck robbery the previous December, was speedily indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 12 to 15 years' imprisonment. It was almost a year before Vanzetti and Sacco went on trial in Dedham for the South Braintree robbery and murders. Their trial turned into an extraordinarily vigorous and complicated legal struggle between the prosecutor and Fred H. Moore, who managed the Sacco and Vanzetti defense. After more than 6 weeks of listening to witnesses, to the presentation of ballistics evidence which supposedly matched a bullet from one of the victims with bullets from Sacco's pistol, and to grueling cross-examinations and closing speeches, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for both.

Posttrial Strategy

The Dedham trial received almost no publicity outside Boston while in progress; the anarchist issue was apparently of minor importance. But over the next 6 years Moore, William G. Thompson (who became chief defense counsel after Moore left), and the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee (an array of anarchists, Boston free-thinkers from prestigious families, and middle-class liberals and radicals) reshaped the public image of the case into a political and ideological rather than a legal controversy. The thesis of the defense's campaign was that the trial had been conducted in an atmosphere of fear and repression and that the jury and especially Judge Webster Thayer had been prejudiced against the defendants. Therefore Sacco and Vanzetti stood convicted not because of the evidence but because of their radical political beliefs.

This strategy increasingly mobilized public sentiment as years passed and doubts multiplied regarding portions of the evidence. Some prosecution witnesses repudiated their identifications, then repudiated their repudiations. Another convicted murderer confessed that he had taken part in the South Braintree crime and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been in the gang, but his story was sketchy and inconsistent. The defense lawyers repeatedly but unsuccessfully presented motions for a new trial. On April 9, 1927, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the convictions, Judge Thayer sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to die in the electric chair.

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Final Failure

The fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti's lives continued. Governor Alvan T. Fuller, harassed on all sides, appointed a three-man panel to review the documents accumulated since 1920. The committee concluded that Sacco and Vanzetti should die. Desperate efforts to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case failed. On Aug. 22, 1927, as hundreds of heavily armed police faced crowds of demonstrators outside Boston's old Charles-town Prison, and as tens of thousands protested in the streets of New York and in many cities abroad, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted.

The Sacco-Vanzetti case furnished a public cause around which American intellectuals of widely variant beliefs could unite. The case inspired a voluminous literary outpouring and seemed to dramatize the intolerance and injustice of American society. The movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti presaged the greater involvement of intellectuals with social issues that would mark the 1930s.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case remains a tragic chapter in United States history. The case has come to stand for the type of racial bigotry and breach of human rights the United States Constitution is to protect against. The legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti serves to protect others from racial and political prosecution.

Further Reading on Sacco and Vanzetti

Published material on the Sacco-Vanzetti case is voluminous. The classic brief for the defense is Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927). G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948), an almost exhaustive résumé and analysis of the evidence, strongly upholds their innocence. Robert H. Montgomery, Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth (1960), concludes they were guilty, while Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham (1962), accepts the state's ballistics evidence and the guilty verdict for Sacco but exonerates Vanzetti. David Felix, Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals (1965), is more concerned with describing the development of the Sacco-Vanzetti "myth" and its impact on American intellectuals in the 1920s. Much of the atmosphere of the Sacco-Vanzetti protest movement can be gleaned from Upton Sinclair's novel Boston (1928) and John Dos Passos' The Big Money (1936) and U.S.A. (1937).