Ferdinando Nicola Sacco (April 22, 1891–August
23, 1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (June 11, 1888–August 23,
1927) were anarchists who were convicted of murdering two men during a
1920 armed robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. After a
controversial trial and a series of appeals, the two Italian
immigrants were executed on August 23, 1927.
There is highly politicized dispute over their
guilt or innocence, as well as whether or not the trials were fair.
The dispute focuses on small details and contradictory evidence. As a
result, historians have not reached a consensus.
Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of the murders of
Frederick Parmenter, a paymaster, and Alessandro Berardelli, a
security guard, at the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company, on Pearl Street in
Braintree, Massachusetts during the afternoon of April 15, 1920.
Vanzetti was further charged with the theft of $15,776.73 from the
Police suspicions regarding the Braintree robbery-murder
and an earlier attempted robbery on December 24, 1919 in Bridgewater,
Massachusetts centered on local Italian anarchists. While neither
Sacco nor Vanzetti had a criminal record, the authorities knew them as
radical militants and adherents of Luigi Galleani. Police connected
the crimes and the recent activities of the Galleanist anarchist
movement, speculating that the robbers were motivated by the need to
finance more bombings.
The two men were arrested in Brockton,
Massachusetts on May 5, 1920, after appearing at a garage to pick up a
car that police believed was used in the robberies. Both had pistols
on them, along with anarchist literature, and Vanzetti was carrying
shotgun shells similar to those used in the holdups.
Vanzetti was first tried for the armed robbery in
Bridgewater and convicted. Both men were then tried for the Braintree
crimes and convicted. After several failed appeals over six years,
Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair on August 23,
1927. Celestino Madeiros (also spelled Medeiros), who had confessed to
the Braintree murders, was executed the same day for a different
Sacco was a shoe-maker born in Torremaggiore,
Foggia Province, Puglia Regione, Italy who immigrated to the United
States at the age of seventeen. Vanzetti was a fishmonger born in
Villafalletto, Cuneo Province, Piemonte Region, Italy who arrived in
the United States at age twenty. Both men left Italy for the U.S. in
1908, although they did not meet until a 1917 strike.
The men were followers of Luigi Galleani, an
Italian anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including
bombing and assassination. Galleani published Cronaca Sovversiva
(Subversive Chronicle), a periodical that advocated violent
revolution, and an explicit bomb-making manual called La Salute è
in voi!. At the time, Italian anarchists ranked at the top of the
United States government's list of dangerous enemies.
Since 1914, they had been identified as suspects in
several violent bombings and assassination attempts, including an
attempted mass poisoning. Publication of Cronaca Sovversiva was
suppressed in July 1918, and the government deported Galleani and
eight of his closest associates on June 24, 1919.
Remaining Galleanists either sought to avoid arrest
by becoming inactive or going underground, or remained active. For
three years, perhaps 60 Galleanists waged an intermittent campaign of
violence against US politicians, judges, and other federal and local
officials, especially those who had supported deportation of alien
radicals. Among the dozen or more violent acts was the bombing of US
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home on June 2, 1919. In that
incident, one Galleanist, Carlo Valdonoci, a former editor of
Cronaca Sovversiva and an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti, was
killed. The bomb intended for Attorney General Palmer exploded in
Valdonoci's hands. Radical pamphlets entitled "Plain Words" signed "The
Anarchist Fighters" were found at the scene of this and several other
midnight bombings that night.
Several Galleanist associates were suspected or
interrogated about their roles in the bombing incidents. Two days
before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, a Galleanist named Andrea
Salsedo fell to his death from the Justice Department's Bureau of
Investigation (BOI) offices on 15 Park Row in New York City. Salsedo
worked in the Canzani Printshop in Brooklyn, where federal agents
traced the "Plain Words" leaflet.
People speculated on whether or not Salsedo
committed suicide after interrogation by the Bureau of Investigation,
or was pushed out of the window by the only other occupant in the
locked room, Roberto Elia, a fellow Galleanist. Roberto Elia himself
was later deposed in the inquiry, and testified that Salsedo had
committed suicide for fear of betraying the others, portraying himself
as the 'strong' one who had resisted. According to one anarchist
writer, Carlo Tresca, Elia changed his story later, stating that
Federal agents had thrown Salsedo out the window. Whatever caused
Salsedo's death, the outcome was a disaster for the Bureau, which had
lost a potential court witness and source of information.
The Galleanists knew that Salsedo had been held by
the Bureau of Investigation and may have talked to authorities. Rumors
swirled in the anarchist community that Salsedo had made important
disclosures concerning the bomb plot of June 2. The Galleanist
plotters realized that they would have to go underground and dispose
of any incriminating evidence. After their arrest, Sacco and Vanzetti
were found to have correspondence with several Galleanists; one letter
warned Sacco to destroy all mail after reading.
On April 16, one day after the robbery-murders, the
Federal Immigration Service called local police chief Michael E.
Stewart to discuss Galleanist anarchist Ferruccio Coacci, whom he had
arrested on their behalf two years earlier. Coacci had succeeded in
postponing his deportation until April 15, 1920, the day of the
Braintree holdup. The FIS asked Stewart to investigate Coacci's excuse
that he had failed to report for deportation because his wife had
fallen ill. Stewart sent two policemen to Coacci's house on April 16.
They found Coacci's wife in good health. Coacci
insisted on being arrested for immediate deportation. As he had an
alibi for the robbery, his timecard showed he was at work on April 15,
he was deported on April 18. Suspicious, Stewart returned to the
Coacci residence on April 20, where he found "Mike Boda" (an alias of
Mario Buda, the chief Galleanist bombmaker) renting the house. Buda
volunteered that Coacci's wife had left in a hurry. Under questioning,
Buda admitted owning a .32 caliber Spanish automatic pistol and
possessing a diagram of a Savage automatic, such as the one used in
the murders. Buda said he owned a 1914 Oakland automobile, which was
being repaired. Police thought two cars had been kept at the now empty
Coacci garage, and believed a Buick and smaller car were used during
When Stewart discovered that Coacci had worked for
both the plants that had been robbed, he returned with the Bridgewater
police, but Buda had disappeared, along with his possessions and
The police had instructed the Johnson garage, where
the impounded cars were held, to notify them when the owners came to
collect the 1914 Oakland. On May 5, 1920 Buda arrived at the garage
with three other men, later identified as Sacco, Vanzetti and Riccardo
Orciani. Police were alerted but the men sensed a trap and fled. Buda
escaped on a motorcycle with Orciani. He later resurfaced in Italy in
1928. Tracked onto a streetcar, Sacco and Vanzetti were soon arrested.
Vanzetti claimed that the revolver he was carrying was for protection.
To avoid deportation, the pair denied being allied with anarchists.
A postscript to the arrests occurred in 1926, when
a bomb destroyed the house of Samuel Johnson, the brother of the Simon
Johnson who had called police the night of Sacco and Vanzetti's arrest.
Following the indictment of Sacco and Vanzetti,
anarchists in other countries began violent retaliation. In 1921, a
booby trap bomb mailed to the American ambassador in Paris exploded,
wounding his valet. Other bombs sent to American embassies were
Only Vanzetti was tried for the attempted robbery
and attempted murder in Bridgewater, which occurred on Christmas Eve,
December 24, 1919. Others arrested supported their alibis with
documentation, like Sacco's time-card proving he was at work. In 1927,
advocates for Sacco and Vanzetti charged that this case was brought
first because evidence against Vanzetti in the Braintree robbery was
weak and a conviction for the Bridgewater crimes would help convict
him for the Braintree crimes. The prosecution countered that the
timing was driven by the schedules of different courts that handled
On the recommendation of supporters, Vanzetti chose
to be represented by John P. Vahey, an experienced defense attorney,
rather than accept counsel appointed by the court. Frederick Katzmann,
Norfolk and Plymouth County District Attorney, prosecuted the case.
The presiding judge was Webster Thayer, who was already assigned to
the court before this case was scheduled. A few weeks earlier he had
given a speech to new American citizens decrying Bolshevism and
anarchism's threat to American institutions. He supported the
suppression of radical speech.
The trial began on June 22, 1920. The prosecution
presented several witnesses who put Vanzetti at the scene of the
attempted robbery. Their descriptions varied, especially with respect
to the shape and length of Vanzetti’s mustache. Physical evidence
included a shotgun shell retrieved at the scene of the crime and
several shells found on Vanzetti when he was arrested.
The defense produced sixteen witnesses—all Italians
from Plymouth who testified that at the time of the attempted robbery
they had bought eels for the Christmas holiday from him in accordance
with their Christmas traditions. Such details reinforced the
difference between the Italians and the Yankee jurors. Some testified
in imperfect English, others through an interpreter whose failure to
speak the same dialect of Italian as the witnesses hampered their
effectiveness. On cross examination, the prosecution found it easy to
make the witnesses appear confused about dates. A boy who testified
admitted rehearsing his testimony. "You learned it just like a piece
at school?," the prosecutor asked. "Sure," he replied. The defense
tried to rebut the eyewitnesses with testimony that Vanzetti always
wore his mustache in a distinctive long style, but the prosecution
rebutted their testimony.
Though the defense case went badly, Vanzetti did
not testify in his own defense. Vanzetti, in 1927, said his lawyers
opposed putting him on the stand. That same year, Vahey told the
governor that Vanzetti had refused his advice to testify. A lawyer who
assisted Vahey in the defense, decades later, said that the defense
attorneys left the choice to Vanzetti but warned that it would be
difficult to prevent the prosecution from using cross examination to
impeach his character based on his political beliefs and that Vanzetti
chose not to testify after consulting with Sacco.
Herbert Ehrmann, who later joined the defense team,
wrote many years later that the dangers of putting Vanzetti on the
stand were very real. Another legal analysis of the case concluded
that the defense would have little to lose from Vanzetti's testimony,
since his conviction looked certain given how poorly his alibi
witnesses had performed under cross. That analysis deemed the defense
overall "unconvincing" and "not closely argued or vigorously fought."
On July 1, 1920, the jury deliberated for five
hours and returned guilty verdicts on both counts, attempted robbery
and attempted murder. Before sentencing, Thayer learned that during
deliberations the jury had tampered with the shells found on Vanzetti
at the time of his arrest to determine if the shot they contained was
of sufficient size to kill a man. Since that prejudiced the jury's
verdict on the attempted murder charge, Thayer ignored that conviction.
On August 16, 1920, he sentenced Vanzetti for attempted robbery to a
term of 12 to 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed. An
assessment of Thayer's conduct of the trial said "his stupid rulings
as to the admissibility of conversations are about equally divided"
between the two sides and thus provided no evidence of partiality.
The defense raised only minor objections in an
appeal that was not accepted. A few years later, Vahey joined Katzmann’s
Sacco and Vanzetti both stood trial in Dedham,
Massachusetts for the South Braintree robbery and murders, with
Webster Thayer again presiding. He had asked to be assigned the trial.
Anticipating a possible bomb attack, authorities had the Dedham
courtroom outfitted with cast-iron shutters painted to appear wooden
and heavy, sliding steel doors. Each day during the trial, Sacco and
Vanzetti were escorted in and out of the courtroom under a heavy armed
Vanzetti testified that he had been selling fish at
the time of the Braintree robbery. Sacco testified that he had been in
Boston applying for a passport at the Italian consulate. He stated he
had lunched in Boston's North end with several friends, each of whom
testified on his behalf. Prior to the trial, Sacco's lawyer, Fred
Moore, went to great lengths to contact the consulate employee Sacco
said he had talked with on the afternoon of the crime. Once contacted
in Italy, the clerk said he remembered Sacco because of the unusually
large passport photo he presented. The clerk also remembered the date,
April 15, 1920, but he refused to return to America to testify citing
his ill health. Instead he executed a sworn deposition that was read
aloud in court and questioned by the prosecution, which argued Sacco's
visit to the consulate could not be established with certainty. The
prosecution also established that Sacco's lunch companions were fellow
Much of the trial focused on material evidence,
notably bullets, guns, and a cap. Prosecution witnesses testified that
the .32-caliber bullet that had killed Berardelli was of a brand so
obsolete that the only bullets similar to it that anyone could locate
to make comparisons were those in Sacco's pockets. Yet ballistics
evidence, which was presented in exhaustive detail, was equivocal.
Prosecutor Frederick Katzmann, after initially promising he would not
try to link any fatal bullet with Sacco's gun, changed his mind after
the defense arranged test firings of the gun. Sacco, saying he had
nothing to hide, had allowed his gun to be test-fired, with experts
for both sides present, during the trial's second week. The
prosecution then matched bullets fired through the gun to those taken
from one of the slain guards. In court, two prosecution experts swore
that one of the fatal bullets, quickly labeled Bullet III, matched one
of those test-fired. Two defense experts said the bullet did not
Years later, defense lawyers would suggest that the
fatal bullet had been substituted by the prosecution. Noting that
witnesses swore to seeing one gunman pump bullets into Berardelli,
they asked how only one of four bullets found in the deceased could
have come from Sacco's gun.
Even more doubt surrounded Vanzetti's gun. Since
all of the bullets found at the scene were .32 caliber and Vanzetti's
gun was .38 caliber, there was no direct evidence tying Vanzetti's gun
to the crime scene.
The prosecution claimed it had originally belonged
to the slain guard and that it had been stolen during the robbery. No
one testified to seeing anyone take the gun, but the guard, while
carrying $15,776.51 in cash through the street, had no gun on him when
found dead. The prosecution traced the gun to a Boston repair shop
where the guard had dropped it off a few weeks before the murder. The
defense, however, was able to raise doubts, noting that the repair
shop had no record of the gun ever being picked up and that the
guard's widow had told a friend that he might not have been killed had
he claimed his gun. Still, the jury believed this link as well.
The prosecution's final piece of material evidence
was a flop-eared cap claimed to have been Sacco's. Sacco tried the cap
on in court and, according to two newspaper sketch artists who ran
cartoons the next day, it was too small, sitting high on his head. But
Katzmann insisted the cap fitted Sacco and continued to refer to it as
Further controversy clouded the prosecution
witnesses who identified Sacco at the scene of the crime. One, a
bookkeeper named Mary Splaine, precisely described Sacco as the man
she saw firing from the getaway car. Yet cross examination revealed
that Splaine had refused to identify Sacco at the inquest and had seen
the getaway car for only a second and from nearly a half-block away.
While a few others singled out Sacco or Vanzetti as the men they had
seen at the scene of the crime, far more witnesses, both prosecution
and defense, refused to identify them.
After deliberating for three hours, then breaking
for dinner, the jury returned guilty verdicts. Supporters later
insisted Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted for their anarchist
views, yet every juror insisted anarchism had played no part in their
decision. First degree murder in Massachusetts was a capital crime.
Sacco and Vanzetti were therefore bound for the electric chair unless
the defense could find new evidence.
The verdicts and the likelihood of death sentences
immediately roused international opinion. There were demonstrations in
60 Italian cities and a flood of mail to the American embassy in
Paris. Demonstrations followed in a number of Latin American cities.
Anatole France, veteran of the campaign for Alfred Dreyfus and
recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote an "Appeal to
the American People": "The death of Sacco and Vanzetti will make
martyrs of them and cover you with shame. You are a great people. You
ought to be a just people."
The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee was formed on
May 9, 1920, immediately following the arrests, by a group of fellow
anarchists, headed by Vanzetti's 23-year-old friend Aldino Felicani.
Over the next 7 years, it raised $300,000. Fred Moore drew on its
funds for his investigations, though differences arose when Moore
tried to determine who had committed the South Braintree crimes over
objections from anarchists that he was doing the government's work.
After the Committee hired William G. Thomson to manage the legal
defense, he objected to its propaganda efforts.
A Defense Committee publicist wrote an article
about the first trial that appeared in the New Republic. In the
winter of 1920-21 the Defense Committee sent stories to labor union
publications every week. It produced pamphlets with titles like
Fangs at Labor's Throat, sometimes printing thousands of copies.
It sent speakers to Italian communities in factory towns and mining
camps. The Committee eventually added staff from outside the anarchist
movement, notably Mary Donovan, a 40-year-old who had experience as a
labor leader and Sinn Fein organizer. The prosecution infiltrated its
ranks to gather information.
In 1927, she and Felicani together recruited
Gardner Jackson, a Boston Globe reporter from a wealthy family,
to manage publicity and serve as a mediator between the Committee's
anarchists and the growing number of supporters with more liberal
political views, socialites, lawyers, and intellectuals. He bridged
the gap between the radicals and the social elite well enough for
Sacco to thank him a few weeks before his execution: "We are one heart,
but unfortunately we represent two different class....But, whenever
the heart of one of the upper class join with the exploited workers
for the struggle of the right in the human feeling is the feel of an
spontaneous attraction and brotherly love to one another." John Dos
Passos joined the committee and wrote the its 127-page official review
of the case: Facing the Chair: Story of Americanization of Two
Foreignborn Workmen. After the executions, the Committee continued
its work, helping to gather material that eventually appeared as
The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Motions for a new trial
While the prosecution staunchly defended the
verdict, the defense, led by attorney Fred Moore, continued to develop
evidence that raised doubts. Three key prosecution witnesses stated
that they had been coerced into identifying Sacco at the scene of the
crime, but when confronted by District Attorney Katzmann they denied
any coercion. One of them, Lola Andrews, a nurse, told authorities
that she was forced to sign an affidavit stating she had wrongfully
identified Sacco and Vanzetti. She signed a counter-affidavit the
following day. Another, Lewis Pelser, described how he had submitted
to alleged prosecutorial coercion while drunk and signed a counter-affidavit
In 1924, controversy continued when it was
discovered that someone had switched the barrel of Sacco's gun with
that of another Colt automatic used for comparison. Other appeals
focused on the jury foreman and a prosecution ballistics expert. In
1923, the defense filed an affidavit from a friend of the jury foreman
who swore that prior to the trial, the man had said of Sacco and
Vanzetti, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!" That same year,
a state police captain retracted his trial testimony linking Sacco's
gun to the fatal bullet. Captain William Proctor claimed that he never
meant to imply the connection and had repeatedly told Katzmann there
was no such connection, but that the prosecution had crafted its trial
questioning to disguise his true assessment.
Thayer denied all motions for a new trial on
October 1, 1924.
Appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court
The defense appealed Thayer's denial of their
motions to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), the highest level of the
state's judicial system. Both sides presented arguments to its 5
judges on January 11–13, 1926. The SJC returned a unanimous verdict
upholding Judge Thayer's decisions on May 12, 1926. The Court did not
have the authority to review the trial record as a whole or to judge
the fairness of the case. Instead, the judges only considered whether
Thayer had abused his discretion in the course of the trial. Thayer
later claimed that the SJC had "approved" the verdicts, which
advocates for the defendants protested as a misinterpretation of the
Court's ruling, which only found "no error" in his individual rulings.
In November 1925, Celestino Madeiros, an ex-convict
awaiting trial for murder, confessed to committing the Braintree
crimes. He absolved Sacco and Vanzetti of participation. In May, once
the SJC had denied their appeal and Madeiros was convicted, the
defense investigated the details of Madeiros’ story. Police interviews
led them to the Morelli gang based in Providence, Rhode Island. They
developed an alternative theory of the crime based on the gang’s
history of shoe-factory robberies, connections to a car like that used
in Braintree, and other details. Gang leader Joe Morelli bore a
striking resemblance to Sacco.
The defense filed a motion for a new trial based on
the Madeiros confession on May 26, 1926. In support of their motion
they included 64 affidavits. The prosecution countered with 26
affidavits. When Thayer heard arguments on September 13–17, 1926, the
defense, along with their Madeiros-Morelli theory of the crime,
charged that the U.S. Justice Department was aiding the prosecution by
withholding information obtained in its own investigation of the case.
Attorney William Thompson made an explicitly political attack: "A
government which has come to value its own secrets more than it does
the lives of its citizens has become a tyranny, whether you call it a
republic, a monarchy, or anything else!" Judge Thayer denied this
motion for a new trial on October 23, 1926. After arguing against the
credibility of Madeiros, he addressed the defense claims against the
federal government, saying the defense was suffering from "a new type
of disease,...a belief in the existence of something which in fact and
truth has no such existence."
Three days later, the Boston Herald
responded to Thayer's decision by reversing its longstanding position
and calling for a new trial. Its editorial, "We Submit", earned its
author a Pulitzer Prize. No other newspapers followed suit.
Second appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court
The defense promptly appealed once more to the
Supreme Judicial Court and presented their arguments on January 27–28,
While the judges were considering this appeal,
Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court Justice Felix
Frankfurter published an article in the Atlantic Monthly
arguing for a retrial. He noted that the SJC had already taken a very
narrow view of its authority when considering the first appeal and
called upon the court to review the entire record of the case. He
called their attention to Thayer's lengthy statement that accompanied
his denial of the Madeiros appeal, describing it as "a farrago of
misquotations, misrepresentations, suppressions, and mutilations," "honeycombed
with demonstrable errors."
The Supreme Judicial Court denied the Madeiros
appeal on April 5, 1927. Summarizing the decision, the New York
Times said that the SJC had determined that "the judge had a right
to rule as he did" but that the SJC "did not deny the validity of the
Many famous socialists and intellectuals campaigned
for a retrial without success. John Dos Passos came to Boston to cover
the case as a journalist, stayed to author a pamphlet called Facing
the Chair, and was arrested in a demonstration on August 10, 1927,
along with Dorothy Parker. After being arrested while picketing the
State House, Edna St. Vincent Millay pleaded her case to the governor
in person and then wrote an appeal: "I cry to you with a million
voices: answer our doubt...There is need in Massachusetts of a great
Others who wrote to Fuller or signed petitions
included Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. The
president of the American Federation of Labor cited "the long period
of time intervening between the commission of the crime and the final
decision of the Court" as well as "the mental and physical anguish
which Sacco and Vanzetti must have undergone during the past seven
years" in a telegram to the governor.
Benito Mussolini, himself the target of two
anarchist assassination attempts, quietly made inquiries through
diplomatic channels and was prepared to ask Governor Fuller to commute
the sentences if it appeared his request would be granted.
Defendants in prison
For their part, Sacco and Vanzetti seemed to
alternate between moods of defiance, vengeance, resignation, and
despair. The June 1926 issue of Protesta Umana published by
their Defense Committee carried an article signed by Sacco and
Vanzetti that appealed for retaliation by their colleagues. In the
article, Vanzetti stated "I will try to see Thayer death [sic]
before his pronunciation of our sentence" and asked fellow anarchists
for "revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and
In a reference to Luigi Galleani's bomb-making
manual (covertly titled La Salute è in voi!), the article
concluded "Remember, La Salute è in voi!". Both Sacco and Vanzetti
wrote dozens of letters expressing their innocence. Sacco and Vanzetti
insisted they had been framed because they were anarchists.
On April 9, 1927, Judge Thayer heard final
statements from Sacco and Vanzetti. In a lengthy speech Vanzetti said:
I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the
most low and misfortunate creature of the earth–I would not wish to
any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not
guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that
I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I
am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian and indeed I
am an Italian...if you could execute me two times, and if I could be
reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done
Thayer declared that the responsibility for the
conviction rested sole with the jury's determination of guilt. "The
Court has absolutely nothing to do with that question." He sentenced
each of them to "suffer the punishment of death by the passage of a
current of electricity through your body" during the week beginning
July 10. He twice postponed the execution date while the governor
considered requests for clemency.
On May 10, a package bomb addressed to Governor
Fuller was intercepted in the Boston post office.
Governor’s Advisory Committee
In response to public protests that greeted the
sentencing, Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller faced last minute
appeals to grant clemency to Sacco and Vanzetti. On June 1, 1927, he
appointed an Advisory Committee of three: President Abbott Lawrence
Lowell of Harvard, President Samuel Wesley Stratton of MIT, and
Probate Judge Robert Grant. They were tasked with reviewing the trial
to determine whether it had been fair. Lowell's appointment was
generally well received, for though he had controversy in his past he
had also at times demonstrated an independent streak. The defense
attorneys considered resigning when they determined that the Committee
was biased against the defendants, but some of the defendants' most
prominent supporters, including Harvard Law Professor Felix
Frankfurter and Judge Julian W. Mack of the U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, persuaded them to stay because Lowell "was not entirely
One of the defense attorneys, though ultimately
very critical of the Committee's work, thought the Committee members
were not really capable of the task the Governor set for them: "No
member of the Committee had the essential sophistication that comes
with experience in the trial of criminal cases....The high positions
in the community held by the members of the Committee obscured the
fact that they were not really qualified to perform the difficult task
assigned to them." He also thought that the Committee, particularly
Lowell, imagined it could use its fresh and more powerful analytical
abilities to outperform the efforts of those who had worked on the
case for years, even finding evidence of guilt that professional
prosecutors had discarded.
Grant was another establishment figure, a probate
court judge from 1893 to 1923 and an Overseer of Harvard University
from 1896 to 1921, and the author of a dozen popular novels. Some
criticized Grant's appointment to the Committee, with one defense
lawyer saying he "had a black-tie class concept of life around him,"
but Harold Laski in a conversation at the time found him "moderate."
Others cited evidence of xenophobia in some of his novels, references
to "riff-raff" and a variety of racial slurs. His biographer allows
that he was "not a good choice," not a legal scholar, and handicapped
by age. Stratton, the one member who was not a Boston Brahmin,
maintained the lowest public profile of the three and hardly spoke
during its hearings.
In their earlier appeals, the defense was limited
to the trial record. The Governor's Committee, however, was not a
judicial proceeding, so Judge Thayer's comments outside the courtroom
could be used to demonstrate his bias. Once Thayer told reporters that
"No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!"
According to the sworn affidavits of eyewitnesses, Thayer also
lectured members of his clubs, calling Sacco and Vanzetti "Bolsheviki!"
and saying he would "get them good and proper". In 1924, Thayer
confronted a Massachusetts lawyer at Dartmouth, his alma mater,
and said: "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the
other day. I guess that will hold them for a while.... Let them go to
the Supreme Court now and see what they can get out of them." The
Committee knew that, following the verdict, Boston Globe
reporter Frank Sibley, who had covered the trial, wrote a protest to
the Massachusetts attorney general condemning Thayer's blatant bias.
Thayer's behavior both inside the courtroom and outside of it had
become a public issue, with the New York World attacking Thayer
as "an agitated little man looking for publicity and utterly
impervious to the ethical standards one has the right to expect of a
man presiding in a capital case."
After two weeks of hearing witnesses and reviewing
evidence, the Committee determined that the trial had been fair and a
new trial was not warranted. They assessed the charges against Thayer
as well. Their criticism, using words provided by Judge Grant, was
direct: "He ought not to have talked about the case off the bench, and
doing so was a grave breach of judicial decorum." But they also found
some of the charges about his statements unbelievable or exaggerated,
and they determined that anything he might have said had no impact on
the trial. The panel's reading of the trial transcript convinced them
that Thayer "tried to be scrupulously fair." The Committee also
reported that the trial jurors were almost unanimous in praising
Thayer's conduct of the trial.
A defense attorney later noted ruefully that the
release of the Committee's report "abruptly stilled the burgeoning
doubts among the leaders of opinion in New England." Supporters of the
convicted men denounced the Committee. Harold Laski said the decision
represented Lowell's "loyalty to his class."
Execution and funeral
On August 15, 1927, with the executions scheduled
for midnight on the 22nd, a bomb exploded at the home of one of the
Dedham jurors. On Sunday, the 21st, more than 20,000 protesters
assembled on Boston Common.
In their cells at Charlestown State Prison, both
Sacco and Vanzetti refused a priest several times on their last day.
Their attorney William Thomson asked Vanzetti to make a statement
opposing violent retaliation for his death and they discussed
forgiving one's enemies. Celestino Madeiros, whose execution had been
delayed in case his testimony was required at another trial of Sacco
and Vanzetti, was executed first. Sacco was next and went quietly to
the electric chair, then shouted "Viva l'anarchia!" and "Farewell, mia
madre." Vanzetti, in his final moments, shook hands with guards and
thanked them for their kind treatment, read a statement proclaiming
his innocence, and finally said, "I wish to forgive some people for
what they are now doing to me." All three executions were carried out
by Robert G. Elliott, the "state electrician".
Violent demonstrations swept through many cities
the next day, including Geneva, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Tokyo.
In South America wildcat strikes closed factories. Three died in
Germany, and protesters in Johannesburg burned an American flag
outside the American embassy.
At the funeral parlor in Boston's North End, more
than 10,000 mourners viewed Sacco and Vanzetti in open caskets over
two days. At the funeral parlor, a wreath over the caskets announced
Aspettando l'ora di vendetta (Awaiting the hour of vengeance).
On Sunday, August 28, a two-hour funeral procession bearing huge
floral tributes moved through the city. Police blocked the route,
which passed the State House, and at one point mourners and the police
clashed. The hearses reached Forest Hills Cemetery where, after a
brief eulogy, the bodies were cremated. The Boston Globe called
it "one of the most tremendous funerals of modern times." Will H. Hays,
head of the motion picture industry's umbrella organization, ordered
all film of the funeral procession destroyed.
Sacco's ashes are in Torremaggiore, the town of his
birth, at the base of a monument erected in 1998. Vanzetti's ashes
were buried with his mother in Villafalletto.
Continuing protests and analyses
A few days after the executions, Sacco's widow
thanked Italian anarchist Severino Di Giovanni by letter for his
support and added that the director of the tobacco firm Combinados
had offered to produce a cigarette brand named "Sacco & Vanzetti". On
November 26, 1927, Di Giovanni and his comrades bombed a Combinados
tobacco shop shortly afterwards.
Di Giovanni, one of the most vocal supporters of
Sacco and Vanzetti in Argentina, bombed the American embassy in Buenos
Aires a few hours after Sacco and Vanzetti were condemned to death. On
December 24, 1927, Di Giovanni blew up the headquarters of the
Citibank and of the Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires in apparent protest
of the execution. In December 1928, Di Giovanni and his comrades
failed in an attempt to bomb the train in which President Herbert
Hoover traveled during his visit to Argentina .
Three months later, bombs exploded in the New York
subway, in a Philadelphia church, and at the home of the mayor of
Baltimore. One of the jurors in the Dedham trial had his house bombed,
throwing him and his family from their beds. Less than a year after
the executions, a bomb destroyed the front porch of the home of
executioner Robert Elliott. As late as 1932, Judge Thayer's home was
wrecked and his wife and housekeeper injured in a bomb blast.
Afterward, Thayer lived permanently at his club in Boston, guarded 24
hours a day until his death.
In the fall of 1928, Upton Sinclair published his
novel Boston, an indictment of the American judicial system
that took the case, especially Vanzetti's life and writings, as its
focus, mixing fictional characters with actual participants in the
trials. Though his portrait of Vanzetti was entirely sympathetic, he
disappointed advocates for the defense by failing to absolve Sacco and
Vanzetti of the crimes, however much he argued that their trial had
been unjust. Years later, he explained: "Some of the things I told
displeased the fanatical believers; but having portrayed the
aristocrats as they were, I had to do the same thing for the
When the letters Sacco and Vanzetti wrote appeared
in print in 1928, journalist Walter Lippmann commented: "If Sacco and
Vanzetti were professional bandits, then historians and biographers
who attempt to deduce character from personal documents might as well
shut up shop. By every test that I know of for judging character,
these are the letters of innocent men." On January 3, 1929, as Gov.
Fuller left the inauguration of his successor, he found a copy of the
Letters thrust at him by someone in the crowd. He knocked it to
the ground "with an exclamation of contempt."
Intellectual and literary supporters of Sacco and
Vanzetti continued to speak out. In 1936, on the day when Harvard
celebrated its 300th anniversary, 28 Harvard alumni issued a statement
attacking the University's retired President Lowell for his role on
the Governor's Advisory Committee in 1927. They included Heywood Broun,
Malcolm Cowley, Granville Hicks, and John Dos Passos.
Massachusetts judicial reform
Following the SJC's assertion that it could not
order a new trial even if there was new evidence that "would justify a
different verdict," a movement for "drastic reform" quickly took shape
in Boston's legal community.
In December 1927, four months after the executions,
the Massachusetts Judicial Council cited the Sacco and Vanzetti case
as evidence of "serious defects in our methods of administering
justice." It proposed a series of changes designed to appeal to both
sides of the political divide, including restrictions on the number
and timing of appeals. Its principal proposal addressed the SJC's
right to review. It argued that a judge would benefit from a full
review of a trial and that no one man should bear the burden in a
capital case. A review could defend a judge whose decisions were
challenged and make it less likely that a governor would be drawn into
a case. It asked for the SJC to have right to order a new trial "upon
any ground if the interests of justice appear to inquire it." Governor
Fuller endorsed the proposal in his January 1928 annual message.
The Judicial Council repeated in recommendations in
1937 and 1938. Finally, in 1939 the language it had proposed was
adopted and the SJC gained the authority to consider an entire case on
the law and on the evidence or "for any other reason that justice may
require." (Mass laws, 1939 c 341)
Many historians, especially legal historians, have
concluded the Sacco and Vanzetti prosecution, trial, and aftermath
constituted a blatant disregard for political civil liberties,
especially Thayer's decision to deny a retrial.
Some critics felt that the authorities and jurors
were influenced by strong anti-Italian prejudice and prejudice against
immigrants widely held at the time, especially in New England. Fred
Moore compared the chances of an Italian getting a fair trial in
Boston to a black person getting one in the American South. Against
charges of racism and racial prejudice, others pointed out that both
men were known anarchist members of a militant organization, members
of which had been conducting a violent campaign of bombing and
attempted assassinations, acts condemned by the Italian-American
community and Americans of all backgrounds. Though in general
anarchist groups did not finance their militant activities through
bank robberies, a fact noted by the investigators of the Bureau of
Investigation, this was not true of the Galleanist group, as
Mario Buda readily admitted to an interviewer: "Andavamo a
prenderli dove c'erano" ("We used to go and get it [money] where
it was") — meaning factories and banks.
Others believe that the government was really
prosecuting Sacco and Vanzetti for the robbery-murders as a convenient
excuse to put a stop to their militant activities as Galleanists,
whose bombing campaign at the time posed a lethal threat, both to the
government and to many Americans. Faced with a secretive underground
group whose members resisted interrogation and believed in their
cause, Federal and local officials using conventional law enforcement
tactics had been repeatedly stymied in their efforts to identify all
members of the group or to collect enough evidence for a prosecution.
Most historians believe that Sacco and Vanzetti
were involved at some level in the Galleanist bombing campaign,
although their precise roles have not been determined. The Galleanist
bombmaker, Mario Buda, reportedly told a friend in 1955, "Sacco
c'era" (Sacco was there).
evidence and investigations
In 1941, anarchist leader Carlo Tresca, a member of
the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, told Max Eastman, "Sacco
was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent". After The Nation and
The New Republic refused to publish Eastman's revelation, it
was published in an article in the National Review in 1961.
Later, others would confirm being told the same information by Tresca.
Labor organizer Anthony Ramuglia, an anarchist in
the 1920s, said in 1952 that a Boston anarchist group had asked him to
be a false alibi witness for Sacco. After agreeing, he had remembered
that he had been in jail on the day in question, so he could not
Both men had previously fled to Mexico, changing
their names in order to evade draft registration, a fact the
prosecutor in their murder trial used to demonstrate their lack of
patriotism and which they were not allowed to rebut. Sacco and
Vanzetti's supporters would later argue that the men fled the country
to avoid persecution and conscription, their critics, to escape
detection and arrest for militant and seditious activities in the
United States. But a later Italian history of anarchism reported the
reminiscences of one of their political allies who said:
Several dozen Italian anarchists left the United
States for Mexico. Some have suggested they did so because of
cowardice. Nothing could be more false. The idea to go to Mexico
arose in the minds of several comrades who were alarmed by the idea
that, remaining in the United States, they would be forcibly
restrained from leaving for Europe, where the revolution that had
burst out in Russia that February promised to spread all over the
In October 1961, ballistic tests were run with
improved technology using Sacco's Colt automatic. The results
confirmed that the bullet that killed Berardelli in 1920 was fired
from Sacco's pistol. Subsequent investigations in 1983 also supported
In 1988, Charlie Whipple, a former Boston Globe
editorial page editor, revealed a conversation that he had with
Sergeant Edward J. Seibolt in 1937. According to Whipple, Seibolt said
that the police ballistics experts had switched the murder weapon, but
Seibolt indicated that he would deny this if Whipple ever printed it.
At the time, Whipple was unfamiliar with the specific facts of the
case, and it is not known if Seibolt was actually recalling Albert
Hamilton's testimony and behavior on the stand when Hamilton
apparently switched Sacco's gun barrel with that of another Colt
Sacco's .32 Colt pistol is also claimed to have
passed in and out of police custody, and to have been dismantled
several times, both in 1924 prior to the gun barrel switch, and again
between 1927 and 1961, thus interrupting the chain of custody of the
evidence. The central problem with these charges is that the match to
Sacco's gun was based not only on the .32-caliber Colt pistol, but
also on the .32-caliber bullet that killed Berardelli, as well as
spent cartridge cases found at the scene. This means that in addition
to tampering with the pistol, any conspirator bent on switching or
dismantling Sacco's pistol would also be required to access police
evidence lockers and exchange the bullet obtained from Berardelli's
body as well as all spent casings retrieved by police, or else locate
the actual murder weapon, then switch barrel, firing pin, ejector, and
extractor, all before Goddard's examination in 1927 when the first
match was made to Sacco's gun.
Critics of the prosecution's evidence have
repeatedly pointed to a single anomaly — that several witnesses to the
crime insisted the gunman, alleged to be Sacco, fired four bullets
into Berardelli. "He shot at Berardelli probably four or five times,"
one witness said. "He stood guard over him." Despite this, only one
fatal bullet was ever linked to Sacco's pistol. In 1927, the defense
raised the suggestion that the fatal bullet had been planted, calling
attention to the awkward scratches on the base of the bullet that
differed from those on other bullets. The Lowell Commission dismissed
this claim as desperate but in 1985, historians William Kaiser and
David Young made a compelling case for a switch in their book
Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.
In 1973 a former mobster published a confession by
Frank "Butsy" Morelli, Joe's brother. "We whacked them out, we killed
those guys in the robbery," Butsy Morelli told Vincent Teresa. "These
two greaseballs Sacco and Vanzetti took it on the chin."
Before his death in June 1982, Giovanni Gambera, a
member of the four-person team of anarchist leaders that met shortly
after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti to plan their defense, told his
son that "everyone [in the anarchist inner circle] knew that Sacco was
guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual
participation in killing."
Russell had originally written about the case,
arguing that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, but further research
led him to write a 1975 book, asserting that Sacco was, in fact,
guilty. Russell used the Gambera revelation as the basis of a new book
in 1986, in which he claims that the case is "solved," and presents
his view that Sacco was one of the shooters, while Vanzetti was an
accessory after the fact. While Russell's 1975 book was praised, even
by those who disagreed with his conclusion, for being balanced and
well-reasoned, his 1986 book was much more negatively received.
Months before he died, the distinguished jurist
Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., who had presided for 45 years on the U.S.
District Court in Massachusetts, wrote to Russell stating "I myself am
persuaded by your writings that Sacco was guilty." The judge's
assessment was significant, because he was one of Felix Frankfurter's
"Hot Dogs," and Justice Frankfurter had advocated his appointment to
the federal bench.
In 1977, as the 50th anniversary of the executions
approached, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis asked the Office of
the Governor's Legal Counsel to report on "whether there are
substantial grounds for believing–at least in the light of the legal
standards of today–that Sacco and Vanzetti were unfairly convicted and
executed" and to recommend appropriate action. The resulting "Report
to the Governor in the Matter of Sacco and Vanzetti" detailed grounds
for doubting that the trial was conducted fairly in the first instance
and argued as well that such doubts were only reinforced by "later-discovered
or later-disclosed evidence."
The Report questioned prejudicial cross-examination
that the trial judge allowed, the judge's hostility, the fragmentary
nature of the evidence, and eyewitness testimony that came to light
after the trial. It found the judge's charge to the jury troubling for
the way it emphasized the defendants behavior at the time of their
arrest and highlighted certain physical evidence that was later called
into question. The Report also dismissed the argument that the trial
had been subject to judicial review, noting that "the system for
reviewing murder cases at the time...failed to provide the safeguards
Based on recommendations of the Office of Legal
Counsel, Dukakis declared August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of
their execution, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day.
His proclamation, issued in English and Italian, stated that Sacco and
Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that "any disgrace
should be forever removed from their names." He did not pardon them,
because that would imply they were guilty. Neither did he assert their
innocence. A resolution to censure the Governor failed in the
Massachusetts Senate by a vote of 23 to 12. Dukakis later expressed
regret only for not reaching out to the families of the victims of the
A memorial committee attempted to present a plaster
cast executed in the 1937 by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount
Rushmore, to Massachusetts governors and Boston mayors in 1937, 1947,
and 1957 without success. On August 23, 1997, on the 70th anniversary
of the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, Boston's first Italian-American
Mayor Thomas Menino and the Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts
Paul Cellucci unveiled the work at the Boston Public Library, where it
remains on display. "The city's acceptance of this piece of artwork is
not intended to reopen debate about the guilt or innocence of Sacco
and Vanzetti," Menino said. "It is intended to remind us of the
dangers of miscarried justice, and the right we all have to a fair
trial." The event occasioned a renewed debate about the fairness of
the trial in the editorial pages of the Boston Herald. There is
also a mosaic mural of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti on the main
campus of Syracuse University.
The "Sacco and Vanzetti Century" was an American
anarchist military unit in the Durruti Column that fought in the
Spanish Civil War.
There are many objects in the former USSR named
after "Sacco and Vanzetti", for example a beer production facility in
Moscow, a kolkhoz in Donetsk region, Ukraine, and an apartment complex
in Yekaterinburg. There are also numerous towns in Italy that have
streets named after Sacco and Vanzetti, including Via Sacco-Vanzetti
in Torremaggiore, Sacco's home town, and Villafalletto, Vanzetti's.
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Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691034126.
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Anarchist Dimension" in Sacco-Vanzetti: Developments and
Reconsiderations - 1979, Conference Proceedings (Boston:
Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston, 1982)
Herbert B. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die:
Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti (Boston: Little, Brown and
Frankfurter, Felix (March
1927). "The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti". Atlantic Monthly.
; reprinted in book form as The Case of Sacco and
Vanzetti: A Critical Analysisfor Lawyers and Laymen (Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1927)
G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The
Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company,
(1960). Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth. NY: Devin-Adair.
John Neville, Twentieth-Century Cause Cèlébre
[sic]: Sacco, Vanzetti, and the Press, 1920-1927 (Westport, CT:
Praeger, 2004), ISBN 0275977838. Accents are incorrect in the
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Put to Death Early This Morning". New York Times. 1927-08-23.
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Documentary Novel (Cambridge, MA: Robert Bentley, Inc., 1978),
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Documentary Novel (Cambridge, MA: Robert Bentley, Inc., 1978),
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Resolved (NY: Harper & Row, 1986)
Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham: The Story
of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (NY: McGraw Hill, 1962)
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Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, Marion Denman Frankfurter and
Gardner Jackson, eds. (NY: Penguin Books 2007); various editions,
first published 1928
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A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's,
2005), ISBN 0312400888
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of Anarchism in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press,
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Remembers), Commonwealth Editions, 2005 ISBN 1889833762
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Howard Fast, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,
A New England Legend ISBN 0837155843
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Intellectuals, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965
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Reconsidered," in Commentary, January 1962
Brian Jackson, The Black Flag: A Look Back at
the Strange Case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti,
Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981
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Series in Probability & Mathematical Statistics, 1996
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denying new trial at Case citation 255 Mass. 369, decided May 12,
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Murder and the Myth, New York: Devin-Adair, 1960
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[Lawrence, KS], 1963.
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Resolved, New York: Harper & Row, 1986
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Courts of Massachusetts, 6 vols., NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1928-9
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the Sacco-Vanzetti Case, Cambridge: R. Bentley, 1978
James E. Starrs, "Once More Unto the Breech: The
Firearms Evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti Case Revisited," in
Journal of Forensic Sciences, 1986, 630–54, 1050–78
Moshik Temkin, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair:
America on Trial, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009
Lorenzo Tibaldo, Sotto un cielo stellato. Vita
e morte di Nicola Sacco e Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Turin: Claudiana,
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Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind, New York, Viking, 2007
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Vanzetti, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1958
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University of Massachusetts Press, 1985