Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1927, having been tried and convicted for the 1920 robbery and murder of a payroll clerk and his guard. The crime was hardly newsworthy at the time. However, when Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested a few weeks later, the fact that they were Italian immigrants, active in anarchist circles, gave the case national and international political significance. Their 1921 trial was what we would call today a ‘‘media event.’’ There were demonstrations, protests, and even bombings, in the United States and around the world, from the time of the trial, through the long appeals process, until after their execution.
The controversy continues to this day about whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or were unfairly convicted of a crime they did not commit because of prejudice against foreigners who held unpopular political beliefs.
The early years of the twentieth century were years of unrest and violence in the United States. Labor organizers and various radical groups agitated for causes such as workers’ rights, opposition of American involvement in World War I, and even overthrow of both the capitalist system and of the government. Many members of these movements were recent immigrants, a fact that furthered fueled prejudice against foreigners. State and federal Anti- Anarchy and anti-anarchy-and-anti-syndicalism-statutes.html">Anti-Syndicalism Acts made some types of political protest illegal. Violators were subject to imprisonment, and foreigners could be deported. Government harassment of these radical groups reached a high point with the Palmer Raids in late 1919 and early 1920, when thousands were arrested and deported.
In the afternoon of April 15, 1920, a payroll clerk and his guard walked on a street in Braintree, Massachusetts, an industrial town near Boston, each carrying a box of payroll envelopes. Two men approached them and shot them. Several accomplices in a waiting getaway car picked up the killers, and they made a clean escape, with a total of nearly $16,000.
Although there were numerous eyewitness, their conflicting accounts gave the police little to go on. When the getaway car was discovered several days later, a series of pieces of circumstantial evidence led the police to watch for someone coming to claim a second car from a repair shop near where the getaway car had been found. Sacco and Vanzetti and two other men fell into this trap on the evening of May 5. The police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti. (The other two men had solid alibis for April 15 and were neither arrested nor charged.)
Sacco and Vanzetti did not tell credible stories about why they had gone to get this car or why they were carrying handguns when they were arrested. Although the police interrogation first focused on Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s political beliefs, the prosecutor decided to charge them with the payroll robbery and murders.
At the trial, a very aggressive prosecutor badgered reluctant witnesses to identify Sacco and Vanzetti as the culprits. He belittled alibi witnesses, many of whom testified in Italian, telling the jury that they could assume that Italians would lie to protect their friends. A state ballistics expert testified that one of the bullets removed from the body of the dead guard probably came from Sacco’s gun. The defense presented an expert who testified to the contrary and later suggested that this bullet had been switched.
The prosecution said that the fact that Sacco and Vanzetti lied to police about where they were going the night they were arrested showed ‘‘consciousness of guilt’’—they lied because they had something more serious to hide. Sacco and Vanzetti testified that they had lied because, with a new round of Palmer Raids coming, they feared deportation.
The most dramatic part of the trial was Sacco’s testimony about his patriotism and his involvement in the anarchist movement. The prosecutor questioned Sacco at length about why, if he loved this country, he and Vanzetti had gone to Mexico during World War I to avoid the draft. Defense counsel objected that these questions were irrelevant and prejudicial. The trial judge showed his prejudice here by repeating each of the prosecutor’s questions, saying he wanted to be sure he understood whether defense counsel was objecting to each of these inflammatory questions.
Although the trial lasted six weeks, the jury took less than three hours to return guilty verdicts. Motions for a new trial on the basis of later discovered evidence and the judge’s prejudice were all denied. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed those decisions. Responding to the public’s outcries about the case, the Governor convened a special committee to review the case and advise him whether the trial had been fair. When that committee supported the court decisions and several justices of the U.S. Supreme Court turned down petitions for that court’s review, Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s fates were sealed.
ELI C. BORTMAN
References and Further Reading