Bombings were terrorizing the government. Immigrants suspected of radical political leanings were being rounded up and deported, while others who had recently come to the United States were viewed with suspicion and scorn. Body bags containing dead American soldiers were coming home from war.
The year was 1921, and it was in this context of fear, repression and postwar patriotism that two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—a skilled shoemaker and a fish peddler—were tried and convicted of participating in a payroll robbery and the murder of two men outside a factory in South Braintree, Mass., near Boston. After years of appeals and attempts to secure a new trial, the two men were executed 80 years ago this week, just after midnight on Aug. 23, 1927.
Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind
Sacco and Vanzetti
Tony Shalhoub, Studs Terkel
(Willow Pond Films; US DVD: 21 Aug 2007)
During the years they were imprisoned, Sacco and Vanzetti—their names linked forever—were the subject of one of the most intense protest campaigns in history. Their presumed innocence and the unfairness of their trial were proclaimed by fellow Italians, radicals, liberals and many others throughout the United States and in major cities around the world. Esteemed Harvard Law School professor and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a widely publicized defense of the men.
Yet the justness of their conviction and sentencing was just as vociferously proclaimed by Massachusetts public officials and others. Consider The Sacramento Bee’s editorial published immediately after Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution:
“The whole miserable affair is a stain upon the fair name of this country—not because the men were executed, but because the hand of justice was stayed so long. For never were men more fairly tried and more fairly convicted.”
Debate over the Sacco and Vanzetti case has continued to the present day, pushed by the emergence of new evidence as well as new confessions and denials uttered by those close to the case. Although most historians who have written about the case have argued that the two were either innocent of the charges or at least deserved a second trial, a small minority of historians have concluded that at least Sacco was guilty.
Bruce Watson, author of the just-published “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind,” chose to relate all the facts about the case he could find, including new discoveries in archives, and let readers decide on the matter of guilt or innocence.
“I read every book on the case, and pretty much every one takes a very strong stand—90 percent of them for innocence, two or three of them for guilt,” Watson said in a telephone interview from his home in Leverett, Mass. “I decided I would credit my readers with intelligence and say, `Yeah, I have an opinion, but I’m trying to keep it out of there as much as possible and let people make up their minds.’”
Yet his book does conclude that “reasonable doubt cries out that Sacco and Vanzetti clearly deserved what is now granted for even a fraction of the anomalies surrounding their case—a second trial.”
Filmmaker Peter Miller, whose documentary “Sacco and Vanzetti” came out on DVD Aug. 21, believes that the defendants’ guilt or innocence is not the most important issue.
“The bigger point is how could people receive such a biased and unfair trial in a country that purports to be based on the rule of law, and purports to be a nation of immigrants?” Miller, a Lexington, Mass., native now living in New York, told The Sacramento Bee. “We’ll never know whether they were innocent or guilty of the shoe factory robbery and murder, but we do know that the trial was a travesty of justice.”
In another phone interview, historian Howard Zinn, author of the best-selling “A People’s History of the United States,” keynote speaker in a 2002 Hofstra University conference on the case and a longtime Boston-area resident, explained that “an aura of jingoism surrounded the case and the trial. ... The patriotism of Sacco and Vanzetti was brought into the case by questioning them about their attitudes toward the war (they were against U.S. involvement in World War I) and their evading the draft (they both moved to Mexico for a year). The jury was given the full patriotic treatment.
“I think the general atmosphere of postwar hysteria, which had been engendered by the war and continued in the Palmer Raids (in which foreign-born radicals were rounded up and deported, without hearings or trials),” Zinn continued, “which involved friends of Sacco and Vanzetti’s, was crucial to that trial.”
While neither Sacco nor Vanzetti were ever charged with any crime connected to their anarchist views or actions, they knew some of the men who did take part in bombings aimed at U.S. government officials. They both lived in the Boston area near the site of the crime and were both carrying guns when picked up by police.
Under interrogation—which they assumed was for their radical views and connections, not the Braintree robbery-murders—they both lied about their political views and what they were doing. Vanzetti always claimed they lied to protect fellow anarchists, but no one knows for sure what they were doing that night.
In any event, the case that Sacco and Vanzetti did not receive a fair trial is laid out clearly in Watson’s book and Miller’s film. (While in custody, Vanzetti was also charged and convicted—on even flimsier evidence and in the face of 16 witnesses offering alibis—of a botched robbery in nearby Bridgewater, Mass. The same prosecutor and judge then conducted the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.)
The trial in Dedham, Mass., was an armed camp, with rifle-toting deputies surrounding the courthouse and courtroom while the defendants were kept locked in a cage for the entire trial.
Most eyewitnesses to the crime either failed to identify either defendant as a participant or stated unequivocally that neither took part in it. The few witnesses who implicated the men told very different stories when first interrogated or before the grand jury than they did after being coached and admonished by the prosecution.
Some of the evidence presented was simply ludicrous—such as one man’s testimony that he saw Vanzetti driving the getaway car, while in actuality Vanzetti didn’t know how to drive.
Ballistics evidence, which is still debated by historians of the case, was at best inconclusive.
An undercurrent of anti-Italian immigrant sentiment was manifest throughout the trial, with prosecutor Frederick Katzmann harshly cross-examining the many Italian witnesses, most of whom spoke English poorly, who provided alibis for both defendants.
“Basically,” Watson said, Katzmann’s strategy was to convince the jury that “all Italians stick together and will lie for each other.”
Judge Webster Thayer did, however, tell the jury that the defendants “are entitled, under the law, to the same rights and considerations as though their ancestors came over in the Mayflower.”
In his charge to the jury, Thayer, who had battled with defense attorney Fred Moore throughout the trial, made obvious references to both the war and the defendants’ anarchist views. He compared a juror’s duty to “the true soldier (who) responded to that call in the spirit of American loyalty” and urged the jury to uphold the rule of law over “the arbitrary rule of men ... (which) when carried to excess means the impairment, if not the destruction, of the American government.”
During the six years of appeals, much additional information about the case came out.
Watson’s book cites various examples of Thayer’s bias. During the trial Thayer reportedly said, referring to defense attorney Fred Moore: “I’ll show them that no long-haired arnuchist (sic) from California can run this court!” He was also reported to have criticized “those bastards down there” and “Bolsheviki,” and said he “would show them and would get those guys hanged!” and told a well-regarded attorney outside the courthouse, “These two men are anarchists; they are guilty. ... They are not getting a fair trial but I am working it so that their counsel will think they are.”
And in 1924, just after Thayer himself ruled against all of the defense appeals, including one that claimed he had been biased, the judge said to a friend, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while!”
It also was revealed that prior to the trial, jury foreman Walter Ripley, a former police chief of nearby Quincy, Mass., had responded to a friend’s doubt that the men were guilty by saying, “Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!”
And while doing research on his book, Watson discovered an affidavit in which it was reported that another juror during the trial said, “They ought to hang all of those Italians by the balls.”
Perhaps most importantly, in the years after the trial, other men, members of a group of Italian gangsters from Providence, R.I., known as the Morelli gang, confessed to both the Braintree and Bridgewater crimes.
Helping keep interest in the case alive during the years between the trial and Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution were the efforts of their defenders to free them and the personalities of the men themselves.
For years, demonstrations about the case were held in the major cities of the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Manila, the Philippines, and Johannesburg, South Africa. And in addition to Frankfurter, Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters included some of the most famous writers and intellectuals of the era, such as Walter Lippman, John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay and H.L. Mencken.
But perhaps it was the character of the men themselves, as revealed in their prison letters to friends and supporters, that generated such support. “The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti” was published in 1928 and remains in print today.
“Those letters are extraordinary,” said filmmaker Miller, who had actors Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro read from them in his movie. “They are some of the most beautiful literature that’s ever been written in the English language, and they were written by two people who barely had a grasp of English when they arrived in prison.”
The Sacco and Vanzetti case continues to resonate today because of the parallels between the 1920s and now.
Zinn cited the current war on terror: “The fear that’s been inculcated in the country about terrorism is not too different from the fear of anarchism.”
Miller pointed out that “back then the (new immigrant) group that was most feared and most mistreated was the Italian-Americans, who are now a very well-assimilated ethnic group.
“I think we can learn something from looking at the way we treated immigrants back then and the way in which justice was tainted by politics and bigotry,” Miller said. “I think we can learn something about how we should be doing things now.”