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Reflecting Back on the Trial Of Sacco & Vanzetti

August in the North End conjures up images of feasts, children playing outside, and residents gathering in the parks; but there’s a darker memory associated with this time of year: On the 23rd of August in 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed via electrocution after being declared guilty of robbery and murder.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left), handcuffed to Nicola Sacco (right). Massachusetts Superior Court, 1923. (Wikipedia Commons)

The North End, from Langone Funeral Home (which in those times was located on Hanover St), to the Defense Committee Building which remains standing on 256 Hanover St complete with a commemorative plaque, pulses with an abundance of arresting content. For those willing to read the unfiltered narrative of events exactly as they happened, the injustice becomes visible. The role which racism and prejudice played in the denial of a fair trial and appropriate justice being afforded to Sacco and Vanzetti are enshrined in the Proclamation Of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

When asked by Judge Thayer if he had anything to say in his defense, Vanzetti answered in part: “…I can live by my two hands and live well…” This simple symbol offers insight into what it was like during such a time of societal struggle. It was, in the years of the great migration at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a struggle not simply for survival, but to gain proper, dignified elevation of personhood for Italian-Americans. They, like other groups, had historically been subjected to suspicion, stereotyping, and at various points deeply oppressed; from New Orleans in 1891 to the internment camps of WW2.

A sweeping chronicle of the diaspora of the Italian-Americans of the North End and beyond is undeniably entwined with the lives and fate of these two men.

The Sacco & Vanzetti Commemoration Society held a presentation to remember these two men on August 26. Rare film footage was shared from La Marcia Del Dolore. Readings from Robert Knox’s Suosso’s Lane (recited by the author himself) were followed by diary excerpts shared with the group based on a theme of better understanding the identities, feelings, and personalities of Sacco & Vanzetti, courtesy of David Rothhauser.

Robert D’Attilio closed things out with a retrospective on the legacy both of the publication Cronaca Sovversiva – an Italian-Language periodical published by Luigi Galleani that was highly influential in the intellectual formation of Sacco and Vanzetti –and of the bronze sculpture created by Gutzon-Borglum (the same sculptor who gave us Mt.Rushmore). D’Atillio brought attention to the fact that a plaster cast of the sculpture is currently on display at the Boston Public Library in the Rare Books Room on the third floor, with the Aldino-Felicani collection, and that an exhibit dedicated to Sacco & Vanzetti, “Sacco & Vanzetti: Justice On Trial” is at the John Adams Courthouse.

D’Attilo also spoke of the history of the Commemoration Society and its pivotal role in helping to bring increased attention to the legacy of Sacco & Vanzetti – not simply the trial, but the continued relevance of their place in the national and international consciousness.

Attendees were reminded that the controversial case of Sacco & Vanzetti was and remains instructive for all generations, as does our vigilance towards maintaining objective and balanced justice under the law.

Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.” – attributed to Vanzetti by Philip D. Stong,[1] a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance who visited Vanzetti in prison in May 1927, shortly before he and Sacco were executed.