The Sacco and Vanzetti Case and its Impact


1921 Photograph of a “Save Sacco & Vanzetti” Protest in London.

On August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed after being sentenced to murdering a pay master and a security guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The trial and proceedings leading up to their executions is famous in United States history because of the significance it held in revealing the judicial process as xenophobic. Alongside their being immigrants, both Sacco and Vanzetti were also anarchists, which at the time loaded their case with political uneasiness: those beliefs played a significant role in the unfairness of their trial. But although it worked against them in court, their leftist views helped them gain widespread national and international support, which reached from France to Argentina.

Sacco was born on April 22, 1891 in Italy, like his partner Vanzetti, who was born June 11, 1888. Each arrived in the United States at twenty years old. They met each other at a 1917 strike and bonded over their ideal of anarchism, which took after Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist. Anarchists do not believe in government and the Galleanist sect of anarchy advocated the use of violence to fight against violent and unjust governments. The group was suspected of many bombings that occurred in the early twentieth century. The U.S. government listed followers of the group among the ten top enemies of the country.

On April 15, 1920 two men who worked at The Slater-Morrill Shoe Company factory, Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter, were robbed and killed. The robbers took over fifteen million dollars from the pay roll boxes and sped away in a car. The ballistics report revealed that a .32-caliber Savage Model 1907 was used in the men’s killings.

The Bureau of Investigation (BOI, which later became the FBI) was investigating the homicide and began looking into suspects when they received information that the men in the robbery looked Italian and that they were in need of the money to finance their anarchist organization. The police chief, Michael E. Stewart, suspected Italian anarchist Ferruccio Coacci, who was about to be deported at the time of the crime and was living with Mario Buda. Stewart later found a .32-caliber Savage Model 1907 in Buda’s apartment and traced the cars that he was holding at a repair shop to be the same as those used in the getaway. Stewart decided to wait on his arrest until someone picked up the cars at the shop.

Buda brought Vanzetti, Sacco, and Riccardo Orciani to the repair shop at which point the police were alerted. Buda later escaped to Italy, leaving Vanzetti and Sacco to be arrested shortly after. At the time of their arrests, Sacco was holding anarchist literature, an Italian passport, and a pistol that contained some of the same bullets used at the crime scene. Orciani was later arrested, but had an alibi and was set free. Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with murder and robbery on May 5, 1920. Their arrests were announced in anarchist and leftist communities nationally and internationally and protests were immediately planned, one of which led to the US embassy being bombed in Paris. On September 16, after both of the men were indicted, Buda was said to have organized the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which killed 38 people and wounded 134.

Before the incident took place, Vanzetti was accused of involvement in the robbery of a shoe factory in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Contingent on this information, the Bridgewater crimes trial began on June 22, 1921 shortly after both men’s arrests; Vanzetti was represented by Judge John P. Vahey and attorney James Graham, who were recommended by fellow anarchists. The judge in the case, Webster Thayer, who also would serve on the murder trial, was opposed to anarchism and had recently given a speech denouncing the left. On July 1, 1920, the jury in that courthouse declared Vanzetti guilty on the robbery accounts.

On May 21, 1921, the Braintree crimes trial began. Vanzetti was represented by Jeremiah and Thomas McAnraney and Sacco was represented by Fred H. Moore and William J. Callahan. The main pieces of evidence connecting both men to the murders were that: Sacco was absent from work the day of the murders; they were both in the neighborhood that day; the car that was picked up at the shop was the same that left the crime scene; that the used shellings at the crime scene matched the caliber that was found on Sacco; that a cap found at the crime scene belonged to Sacco; and that both men were involved in violent anarchism and were likely to incite violence.

The alibis presented by Sacco and Vanzetti testified that they were each in different places at the time of the crimes: Sacco was applying for a passport, to which an Italian clerk testified, and Vanzetti had been selling fish. The testimony  corroborating their alibis was not utilized and the case was focused mainly on material evidence. There was a cap that the prosecutor insisted belonged to Sacco, although when he attempted to put it on in court it did not fit and the police chief later doubted that it was evidence as well, citing that it was found on the crime scene a day after the police had collected evidence. There was ballistic evidence presented by forensic gun experts who testified that the bullets found at the scene and in the bodies of both men killed that day came from Sacco’s pistol (later, one of those experts signed an affidavit stating that the bullets could have came from any pistol). Sacco and Vanzetti’s own testimony about their politics most likely did not help their case, as did the prosecution’s emphasis on the accused’s draft evasion in 1917. After deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts on July 21, 1921. The verdict increased international attention and ignited a chain of protests that would take place across the world.

Over the next few years, the case continued to be revisited. In January of 1926, it was brought to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the highest court in Massachusetts, because Thayer had denied the attorneys’ motion to revisit the case and check if the evidence had been tampered with originally. The SJC returned a verdict upholding Thayer’s denial on May 12, 1926. In November of 1925, Celestino Madeiros admitted to committing the murder and robbery, supporting his claim with 64 affidavits; however, the prosecution countered his claim with 26 affidavits of their own. Vanzetti’s and Sacco’s attorneys accused the Justice Department of withholding information to no avail. The editorial by the Boston Herald, “We Submit,” about the editorial board’s changing its opinion based on new information, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927.

In January of 1927, the defense appealed to the SJC for a new trial, but were shot down. Supreme Court Justice and Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter published an article arguing for a retrial in the case, but at the same time a well-known ballistics expert, Calvin Goddard, examined the bullets used in the case under a comparison microscope and proved that they had come from Sacco’s .32 Colt pistol. Based on Goddard’s testimony, SJC denied the appeal on April 5, 1927. Three months later, Thayer sentenced them each to death “by the passage of a current of electricity through your body.” The execution dates were twice postponed because of protests and requests of clemency, which included petitions by Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw,
and H.G. Wells, but on August 23 of 1927 both men died in the electric chair, seven years after their convictions.

Violent demonstrations and protests continued internationally long after both men’s deaths, landbasting the trial as unfair. In 1928, Upton Sinclair published Boston, a novel surrounding Vanzetti’s life, which indicted the American judicial system. According to Sinclair, while writing the novel he found evidence that they were both guilty, but declined to include this in his novel. The entire incident sparked conversation in the US about fair and just trials.

The case was reopened once in 1961 and revealed, with accurate ballistics proof, that Sacco and Vanzetti were responsible for the crimes. But although the evidence proved their involvement, the governor of Massachusetts in 1977, Michael Dukakis, wrote a proclamation stating that both men were unfairly tried. Today the trial is remembered for its mention in works of literature, like Sinclair’s novel, for its connection to the Anarchist movement and for its profound impact on the dialogue concerning fair trials in America.

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