Sacco and Vanzetti Case

views updated May 29 2018

Sacco and Vanzetti Case

The Sacco and Vanzetti case is widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice in American legal history. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists, were executed for murder by the state of Massachusetts in 1927 on the basis of doubtful ballistics evidence . For countless observers throughout the world, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted because of their political beliefs and ethnic background.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case began in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920. Workers at the Slater & Morrill shoe factory were paid in cash. The money to be paid out that day, $15,773.51, was placed in two steel boxes, each secured by a Yale lock, and picked up by payroll guard Alessandro Berardelli and paymaster Frederick A. Parmenter for escort to the factory. The two guards began walking toward the shoe factory at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Just as they passed two men leaning against a pipe-rail fence, the men attacked the guards. In the struggle that followed, Berardelli was shot four times, with the last shot coming as he had fallen to his knees. Parmenter was shot once in the chest and once in the back as he staggered and fell in the street.

The two attackers fired several other shots, apparently to signal accomplices. A dark-colored touring car, with three men inside, picked up the robbers and the payroll boxes. The car headed west, out of town. Berardelli was dead when the medical examiner arrived on the scene at 4 p.m. Parmenter regained consciousness long enough to make a statement that he did not recognize the gunmen. He then died at 5 a.m. the next day.

Eyewitness reports differed on almost every crucial part of the evidence. The description of the gunmen's builds, appearances, and clothes varied widely among the many people on the street that day. There was also disagreement about when the bullets were fired and who fired them. Some witnesses reported that a third robber had fired shots. Even the exact sequence of the crime varied among observers.

The police suspected anarchists, in part because anarchists at the time were engaged in a number of bombings and robberies. Michael Stewart, the police chief of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, had been assisting the Justice Department in rounding up Italian anarchists for deportation. One of the anarchists, Ferrucio Coacci, failed to report for deportation at the east Boston immigration station on the same day as the payroll robbery. Stewart concluded that the robbery and murders must have been committed by Coacci and his comrades, among whom were Sacco, Vanzetti, Riccardo Orciani, and Mario Buda. Stewart also considered them responsible for a botched holdup of a shoe factory in Bridgewater in December 1919.

Nicola Sacco (18911927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (18881927) both immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1908. Sacco found work as an edge-trimmer in shoe factories, while Vanzetti labored as a fish peddler. Both men were followers of Luigi Galleani, an anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombings and assassinations. On May 3, 1920, they learned that an Italian anarchist had died of a purported suicide while in federal custody. The dead man had been involved in a bomb plot with other anarchists, including Sacco and Vanzetti.

On May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were either hiding Italian anarchist literature, including a bomb manual, or moving dynamite. Both men were carrying pistols and ammunition when arrested, and during their interrogationinitially about their radical activities, not the payroll robbery and murdersthey told lies and gave contradictory statements to the police. The authorities concluded that the behavior of Sacco and Vanzetti meant that the men were guilty of somethingpresumably the payroll murders.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for the South Braintree murders was held in Dedham, Massachusetts, from May 31 to July 14, 1921. Police believed that Sacco was one of the gunmen and that Vanzetti had been one of the three men seen in the getaway car. During the trial, 169 witnesses testified about 226 items of evidence. Sacco claimed to be in Boston on April 15 to arrange for passports so that he could return to Italy with his family. An Italian consul officer supported Sacco's statement. More than twenty witnesses, all of Italian background, testified that Vanzetti had sold them fish on the day of the crime.

The prosecution's chief expert, Captain William Proctor of the state police, did not hold that Sacco's Colt .32-caliber automatic fired the bullet that killed Berardelli (The remaining five bullets taken from the two bodies could not have been fired from the guns found on Sacco and Vanzetti.) Nevertheless, by prearrangement with District Attorney Frederic G. Katzmann, Proctor testified that the bullet in question was consistent with having been fired from the gun, meaning any Colt .32-caliber automatic, not necessarily Sacco's weapon. Katzmann also knew that the .38-caliber revolver found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest could not have been taken from the slain guard, as the prosecution claimed. The guard's weapon was a .32-caliber revolver with a different serial numberevidence withheld from the defense.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on July 14, 1921. Each of the defendants was found guilty of first-degree murder. The weight of evidencethe weapons, ballistic tests, and eyewitness testimonyand the issue of consciousness of guilt were crucial in convicting Sacco and Vanzetti, but emotional factors were also heavily present. The presiding judge, a man who had requested to work on the trial because he hated anarchists, influenced the jury against the suspects with his instructions about the guilty behavior of the men. The prosecutor emphasized the Italian background of Sacco and Vanzetti.

A six-year struggle to save Sacco and Vanzetti followed the trial. Countless observers worldwide were convinced that political intolerance and racial bigotry had condemned two men whose only offense was that of being foreigners, atheists, and anarchists. Sacco and Vanzetti defenders eventually included radicals, trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, and even some conservatives. Others were steadfast in their belief that the American system of justice could do no wrong and that the two subversives were guilty as charged, had been fairly tried, and deserved the maximum penalty.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti, however, was not decided in the arena of public opinion. Eight motions for a new trial in accordance with Massachusetts law were submitted to the trial judge. Several pertained to perjured testimony by prosecution witnesses and to collusion between local police and Justice Department agents. Another addressed a jailhouse confession by a convicted bank robber, Celestino Madieros, who claimed he and other members of the Morelli gang of professional criminals had committed the South Braintree holdup and murders. Each motion was denied. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that no errors of law or abuses of discretion had been committed, the judge sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death on April, 9, 1927.

In the face of mounting criticism of the legal proceedings and the impending death sentence, Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a committee on June 1, 1927 to review the case and advise him on the issue of clemency. The Lowell committee, named after its chair, Harvard University President A. Lawrence Lowell, ignored exculpatory evidence the defense had discovered since the trial while validating the prosecution's every step. Reporting its findings to Governor Fuller on July 27, the Lowell Committee declared that the trial and appeals process had been fair and advised against clemency. Governor Fuller followed the committee's recommendation. Despite continuing worldwide protests and demonstrations, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison on August 23, 1927.

By this point, the case had become too controversial to quietly fade away. Scholars and scientists have spent the subsequent decades reexamining the evidence and the trial testimony. In the most current thinking about the case, Vanzetti is regarded as innocent of any involvement in the murders. The weight of opinion is that Vanzetti, although innocent, was willing to die to become a martyr for the cause of anarchy.

Less certainty exists about the innocence of Sacco. Ballistics tests in 1983 showed that the bullet that allegedly killed Berardelli came from the Colt revolver taken from Sacco at the time of his arrest. A panel of firearms experts concluded that Sacco was probably guilty either as a conspirator or a perpetrator of the crime. Another group of experts insists that there exists an overwhelming probability that a substitution of bullets took place and that Sacco was completely innocent. They contend that both Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent victims of a frame-up.

Forensic evidence in the Sacco and Vanzetti case has badly deteriorated in the passage of time. It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to conclusively prove the guilt or innocence of the two anarchists at this late date.

see also Ballistic fingerprints; Ballistics; Circumstantial evidence; Firearms.

Sacco and Vanzetti

views updated May 23 2018

Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco (died 1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927), Italian-born anarchists, became the subject of one of America's most celebrated controversies and the focus for much of the liberal and radical protest of the 1920s in the United States.

The execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Boston in 1927 brought to an end a struggle of more than 6 years on the part of Americans and Europeans who had become convinced that they were innocent of the crimes of robbery and murder. For a sizable portion of the American intellectual community their case symbolized the fight for justice for ethnic minorities, the poor, and the politically unorthodox. The case had a catalytic influence on the subsequent development of leftist thought in America.

Sacco was born in Torremaggiore. When he was 17, he immigrated to the United States. He learned the trade of shoe edge-trimming and settled in Milford, Mass., working for a local shoe company. He married, fathered a son, and seemed to be building a stable and secure life.

Vanzetti, by contrast, was a bachelor and a wanderer. Born in Villafalletto, he went to the United States in early adulthood. He worked as a kitchen helper in New York, then at various menial jobs in the Boston area. There Vanzetti, already committed to anarchist principles, met Sacco. When the United States entered World War I, they fled to Mexico to escape military conscription. Within a few months Sacco returned to his family; Vanzetti traveled around the American Midwest for a year.

Returning to New England, Vanzetti worked at a succession of jobs and renewed his friendship with Sacco, who was employed at a shoe factory. Vanzetti spent much time reading and reflecting on prospects for the revolutionary transformation of industrial society. Sacco, though little interested in books and ideas, also accepted the anarchist vision of brotherhood, peace, and plenty without government. The two moved in a circle of anarchists and sometimes distributed revolutionary literature.

Arrest, Trial, Conviction

Such were the ostensible circumstances of the two men's lives in May of 1920, when they were arrested and charged with participating in the robbery of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Mass., on April 15 and murdering the plant's paymaster and payroll guard. They were arrested shortly after going to a garage to claim an automobile which had supposedly been seen near the South Braintree crime. Both were armed but protested they knew nothing of the crime and had planned to use the automobile to distribute anarchist literature.

Vanzetti, also charged with taking part in an attempted mail truck robbery the previous December, was speedily indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 12 to 15 years' imprisonment. It was almost a year before Vanzetti and Sacco went on trial in Dedham for the South Braintree robbery and murders. Their trial turned into an extraordinarily vigorous and complicated legal struggle between the prosecutor and Fred H. Moore, who managed the Sacco and Vanzetti defense. After more than 6 weeks of listening to witnesses, to the presentation of ballistics evidence which supposedly matched a bullet from one of the victims with bullets from Sacco's pistol, and to grueling cross-examinations and closing speeches, the jury returned verdicts of guilty for both.

Posttrial Strategy

The Dedham trial received almost no publicity outside Boston while in progress; the anarchist issue was apparently of minor importance. But over the next 6 years Moore, William G. Thompson (who became chief defense counsel after Moore left), and the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee (an array of anarchists, Boston free-thinkers from prestigious families, and middle-class liberals and radicals) reshaped the public image of the case into a political and ideological rather than a legal controversy. The thesis of the defense's campaign was that the trial had been conducted in an atmosphere of fear and repression and that the jury and especially Judge Webster Thayer had been prejudiced against the defendants. Therefore Sacco and Vanzetti stood convicted not because of the evidence but because of their radical political beliefs.

This strategy increasingly mobilized public sentiment as years passed and doubts multiplied regarding portions of the evidence. Some prosecution witnesses repudiated their identifications, then repudiated their repudiations. Another convicted murderer confessed that he had taken part in the South Braintree crime and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been in the gang, but his story was sketchy and inconsistent. The defense lawyers repeatedly but unsuccessfully presented motions for a new trial. On April 9, 1927, after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the convictions, Judge Thayer sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to die in the electric chair.

Final Failure

The fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti's lives continued. Governor Alvan T. Fuller, harassed on all sides, appointed a three-man panel to review the documents accumulated since 1920. The committee concluded that Sacco and Vanzetti should die. Desperate efforts to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case failed. On Aug. 22, 1927, as hundreds of heavily armed police faced crowds of demonstrators outside Boston's old Charles-town Prison, and as tens of thousands protested in the streets of New York and in many cities abroad, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted.

The Sacco-Vanzetti case furnished a public cause around which American intellectuals of widely variant beliefs could unite. The case inspired a voluminous literary outpouring and seemed to dramatize the intolerance and injustice of American society. The movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti presaged the greater involvement of intellectuals with social issues that would mark the 1930s.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case remains a tragic chapter in United States history. The case has come to stand for the type of racial bigotry and breach of human rights the United States Constitution is to protect against. The legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti serves to protect others from racial and political prosecution.

Further Reading

Published material on the Sacco-Vanzetti case is voluminous. The classic brief for the defense is Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927). G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948), an almost exhaustive résumé and analysis of the evidence, strongly upholds their innocence. Robert H. Montgomery, Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth (1960), concludes they were guilty, while Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham (1962), accepts the state's ballistics evidence and the guilty verdict for Sacco but exonerates Vanzetti. David Felix, Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals (1965), is more concerned with describing the development of the Sacco-Vanzetti "myth" and its impact on American intellectuals in the 1920s. Much of the atmosphere of the Sacco-Vanzetti protest movement can be gleaned from Upton Sinclair's novel Boston (1928) and John Dos Passos' The Big Money (1936) and U.S.A. (1937). □

Sacco-Vanzetti Case

views updated May 18 2018


SACCO-VANZETTI CASE. Nicola Sacco, a skilled shoeworker born in 1891, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler born in 1888, were arrested on 5 May 1920, for a payroll holdup and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts. A jury, sitting under Judge Webster Thayer, found the men guilty on 14 July 1921. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on 23 August 1927 after several appeals and the recommendation of a special advisory commission serving the Massachusetts governor. The execution sparked worldwide protests against repression of Italian Americans, immigrants, labor militancy, and radical political beliefs.

Numerous legal issues arose regarding the case's prosecution that sidelined the question of guilt or innocence, including prejudicial behavior of an unscrupulous district attorney, Frederick G. Katzmann, complemented by an often inept defense; and profane and violent prejudice by the judge against the defendants, expressed outside the courtroom and possibly implicit in his behavior on the bench. Other issues included alleged perjury by a state police captain; refusal to address circumstances pointing to a group of professional criminals; inexpert and potentially deceptive presentation of ballistics evidence; and failure of the evidence as a whole to remove "reasonable doubt." Throughout the trial, the men were disadvantaged by their avowed anarchism, their status as unassimilated alien workers, and the backdrop of the red scare following World War I. Scholarly legal opinion over-whelmingly holds that apart from the question of guilt or innocence, the case is an extremely serious instance of failure in the administration of justice.

Within the United States, Sacco and Vanzetti received from the start the help of compatriots, fellow anarchists, and scattered labor groups. By 1927 they had support in money, action, and words of concerned lawyers, numerous writers, prominent activists, organized labor, and the Communist Party leadership. Nevertheless, it is clear that the majority of persons in the United States who held an opinion, and they were in the millions, believed the verdict sound and approved of the death penalty.

The case has inspired writers and artists from the 1920s onward, including several novels, plays, television presentations, and over a hundred poems by such prominent writers as John Dos Passos, Countee Cullen, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Upton Sinclair's novel Boston (1928) and Maxwell Anderson's prize-winning play Winterset (1935) reached particular fame, and Ben Shahn produced a notable series of gouaches on the two men. The letters Sacco and Vanzetti wrote during their seven years in prison are still regarded by many as the most profoundly human and genuinely literary commentary on the case.


Avrich, Paul. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Russell, Francis. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved. New York:

Harper and Row, 1986. Sacco, Nicola, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. Edited by Marion Denman Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.


Eric S.Yellin

See alsoAnarchists ; Italian Americans andvol. 9:Vanzetti's Last Statement .

Sacco and Vanzetti

views updated May 18 2018

Sacco and Vanzetti the Italian-born political radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused and convicted of murder in the US in 1921 in a sensational, controversial trial. In 1927, both men were executed; fifty years later, their names were cleared of any crimes.