On April 15, 1920, a double murder set off a sequence of events that led to the controversial, and later declared unjust, trial convictions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Their execution on August 23, 1927 is blamed on anti-Italian prejudice and fear of their anarchist political beliefs.

Photo Courtesy of the City of Boston Flickr Archives
Nicola Sacco (Left) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Photo Courtesy of the City of Boston Flickr Archives

The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

The charges against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were for the robbery and murder of a paymaster and his guard, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, as they delivered wages to a shoe company in South Braintree, Massachusetts.

Several eyewitnesses claimed that the robbers looked Italian and as a result, many Italian immigrants were questioned by authorities. Sacco and Vanzetti were philosophical anarchists who lived in Boston. Despite their clean criminal record, they were charged with stealing the money and committing murder.  It was argued that the two committed the robbery to gain funds for their anarchist political movement.

A Norfolk County jury deliberated for 7 ½ hours before reaching a verdict. The conviction came despite eyewitness testimony that neither man was at the scene of the crime. Additional testimony from an official of the Italian consulate stated that Sacco was in the consulate on the day of the murder, seeking to get a passport. Additional eyewitness testimony said that they bought fish from Vanzetti on the day of the crime. A total of 99 witnesses took the stand in support of the two Italian-immigrants, all of them claiming that the two were innocent. The prosecution failed to find the stolen money and couldn’t quite pinpoint a motive for why the two men would steal the wages.

Defense and Execution

The Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee gained large grass roots support to fund court appeals throughout the seven years when Sacco and Vanzetti were imprisoned. A plaque at 256 Hanover Street in Boston’s North End marks where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee operated from 1925 to 1927.

As news spread of the case, there was a major pushback from prominent and ordinary citizens. Protests were held all over the world arguing for a pardon or at least for a new trial. 

In April 1927, a judge sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death. After being swamped with telegrams begging for a pardon, Massachusetts Governor Alvin Fuller ordered a three-man commission to investigate the case. The commission upheld the guilty verdict.

On August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair. Riots destroying property were seen in major cities, as far away as London and Paris.

The wake was held at the Langone Funeral Home, located at the time on Hanover Street in Boston’s North End neighborhood. There were lines all the way from the North End to Tremont Street and beyond. People crowded their windows looking out at the procession.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who immigrated to the United States in 1908. Nicola Sacco was born in Torremaggiore, Italy, on April 22nd, 1891 and immigrated to the United States when he was only 17 years old. Upon his arrival, Sacco started a family and found work in a shoe factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts. Bartolomeo Vanzetti, born to a farm family on June 11th, 1888, in Villafalletto, Italy, immigrated to the United States at the age of 20 and became a fish peddler in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Vanzetti (left) and Sacco handcuffed to each other and being taken from jail to court. Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Evidence and Critique

Sacco and Vanzetti were left wing radicals who met at an anarchist meeting. They protested the First World War together and fled to Mexico to avoid being drafted into the United States Army. Throughout the trial, prosecutors bombarded the two suspects with questions as to why they dodged the draft instead of fighting in the First World War. This was enough to convince a jury made up entirely of white, native-born people. The jury foreman was a former police chief, who upon entering the courtroom, would salute the American flag. In a time of great hostility towards immigrants and radicals, the presiding judge over the case, Judge Webster Thayer said to the jury at the outset, “Although this man (Sacco) may not have committed the crime attributed to him, he is nonetheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.

It was clear throughout the trial that both Sacco and Vanzetti did not speak fluent English. Many reporting that from some of their answers to questions in court, it was evident that they had misunderstood the question.

The primary evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti was the fact that both were carrying a gun at the time of their arrest. Some witnesses to the crime identified Sacco and Vanzetti as the robbers. Even with their solid alibis, the prosecution continued to push the fact that those who testified in support of Sacco and Vanzetti were also Italian immigrants.

In 1925, a Portuguese immigrant named Celestino Madeiros confessed his involvement with the Morelli gang that killed the two victims. He also named four men who had taken part in the robbery. The Morelli brothers were well-known criminals who had been involved in several robberies in Massachusetts. However, this confession made by Madeiros was never investigated by the authorities.

Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard Law professor who would later become a United States Supreme Court Justice, published a harsh critique in 1927, while the case was still on appeal. “Every reasonable probability points away from Sacco and Vanzetti,” stated Frankfurter. “Every reasonable probability points towards the Morelli gang.”

Lasting Impact

It was not until July 19th, 1977 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took a rare step to proclaim that the men were denied a fair trial. The governor at the time, Michael S. Dukakis said, “there are substantial, indeed compelling grounds for believing that the Sacco and Vanzetti legal proceedings were permeated with unfairness.”

A plaque in honor of Sacco and Vanzetti located at 256 Hanover Street in Boston's North End. This spot marks where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee operated from 1925 to 1927.
A plaque in honor of Sacco and Vanzetti, located at 256 Hanover Street in Boston’s North End. This spot marks where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee operated from 1925 to 1927. Photo by Conor Finley

Following their electrocution on August 23, 1927, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was inspired by Vanzetti’s words on the last day of his life that, “I wish in this last hour of agony… that our case and fate may be understood and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom so that our suffering and death were not in vain.”

“There’s always been a dispute whether Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial and three mayors refused to authorize this monument on city property,” said former Mayor Thomas M. Menino, “Our acceptance of this work of is a statement by the city that these men did not receive a fair trial.”

The Boston Public Library has a Sacco and Vanzetti collection, which includes letters from the two men, letters from supporters, transcripts of the trial, books, memorabilia and a plaster model of their death masks. Incredibly, the collection also possesses a portion of the two men’s cremated remains (the rest were sent to Italy). The collection is held in the rare books department at the library.

Sources:

  • Yemma, John. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Crimes Of The Century ed. Boston: The Boston Globe, 1999. Print.
  • Italian American martyrs Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti executed. N.p.: The National Italian American Foundation, n.d. Print.
  • Martin, Marlene. Sacco and Vanzetti: Two Immigrants Targeted For Their Beliefs. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
  • Witkowski, Tom. Finding a home for Sacco and Vanzetti. Boston: The Boston Tab, 1998. Print.
  • Grillo, Thomas. Sculpture to remind of Sacco, Vanzetti. Boston: The Boston Globe, n.d. Print.
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