The program room at Whitman, Mass. Public Library filled steadily, until more chairs had to be separated from a file a pile in the far corner of the room and placed on the floor to accommodate the audience for what librarian Barbara Bryant called "the best-attended author talk we have ever had!"
The talk about Sacco and Vanzetti was her idea, her invitation. I hadn't given a talk about the two Italian immigrants falsely accused of murder and robbery back in 1920, and ultimately executed by the state of Massachusetts seven years later despite worldwide protests -- for half a dozen years. I gave a bunch of them, mostly in libraries, after the publication of my novel based on the case, "Suosso's Lane."
The audience that filled the Whitman library program room was almost uniformly of an age to know that we're all part of history now.
This talk was about the facts of the case, not directly about my book. The book is fact-based, but goes beyond the historical record to invent a contemporary (wholly fictional) investigation to turn up some new evidence about the old case. Those talks were fun, but a little fraught -- I was hoping back then to sell books.
To prepare for this talk, I had to go back to my notes and printouts for those talks from seven years ago and reacquaint myself with what I used to know well enough to share by memory with an audience, Facts, dates, places, names were particularly important, indeed essential, because this was a talk about the case, its history, rather than about the book.
Here's what I told them, the good people of Whitman, about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the international affair that exposed America's prejudice against immigrants, particularly those from Italy.
Long Ago in Braintree... The Crime That Began the Sacco-Vanzetti Case Took
Place 100 Years Ago
By Robert Knox
These are difficult days in American politics – perhaps difficult
days in America, period. But times were tough a hundred years ago as well,
especially for immigrants and for civil liberties – i.e. constitutional
protection of free speech and other basic rights.
A little more than a hundred years ago, on April 15, 1920, the
crime took place that began the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case – an American
scandal of injustice that became an international cause – in which two Italian
immigrants who professed anarchist beliefs were accused without a shred of real
evidence of committing a heinous crime, tried in a prejudiced courtroom,
convicted by a nativist jury – that is to say, all male American citizens in a time
when only men could vote – and eventually executed 7 years later, by which time
their case had become an international cause de celebre. (They were famous
names worldwide, everybody knew about the case; everybody worldwide knew they
were victims of injustice.)
Immigration, always an essential part of the American story, looked a lot different in the early 20th century. Immigrants came from Europe – not from Mexico, Central America, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa or the Middle East, as they do today. They came at first from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, mostly northern European countries. But from around 1880 and into the 1920’s, in greater numbers than had ever been seen, they came from southern and eastern Europe. From Poland, Russia, the Balkans, Portugal, Turkey, and – the single greatest number – from Italy. For those who came from Italy, the cause was almost always purely economic. Disasters weakened the economic base of Southern Italy: drought, crop disease, the collapse of traditional fisheries and the lumber industry. At the same time advances in maritime transportation made it easier, and less expensive, to cross the ocean. Many Italian men crossed the ocean to work in seasonal industries and then return home with their earnings year after year. But many others, including women and children –whole families – chose to come and stay.
During those peak decades, 1880-1920, national prejudices grew as
numbers of immigrants did. Some towns or companies made it clear when they were
hiring more workers that they did not intend to hire Italians.
Two immigrants: Bartolomeo Vanzetti arrived in America in
1908 as a young man of 20 to “put an ocean between my mother’s death” and the
rest of his life, he said…. Unlike most, he did not come for economic reasons.
His father was a wealthy farmer in northern Piemonte Italy (in Villafilletto) who
wanted Bartolomeo to learn to run his businesses. He sent him to the city to
learn to be a pastry chef and help the family business that way. Bartolomeo
found pastry-making to be factory work, piece-work, a miserable business in
conditions that nearly killed him. He became seriously ill with a breathing
difficulty, was sent home, where his mother devoted herself to nursing him back
to health. Then she developed cancer and died after months of suffering. Her
devoted son thought that her efforts to save him weakened her. Wishing to
separate his future from a painful past – he had a deep relationship with his
mother, but a poor one with his father, he decided to go to America, which he
thought of as “the land of the free.” No big divides between social classes; no
oppressive national church.
Vanzetti was not an anarchist when he arrived. His life in the US
led him to that philosophy. He later told reporter about the early years, “I
was a Dago to be worked to death [a pejorative]…. We lived in a shanty, where
the Italians work and live like a beast…” Like other day laborers, he is forced
to follow the availability of work, a trade he called “pick and shovel.” After
five years mostly in New York, rumors of work brought him to Mass., and
eventually to Plymouth, where he boarded with the Brini family who came from
his region in Italy, and who lived in North Plymouth, the immigrant section of
town. [this is how I got interested in the story...working for community
newspaper publisher based in Plymouth] He became close to the family’s
children. He called Beltrando Brini his “spiritual son.” Recorded interviews
collected and published later show V. to be kind, courteous to women, gentle
and loving to children; V was a talker, a thinker, a dreamer, a reader. Among the
books he owned was “the life of Jesus Christ” by Ernest Renan. Anarchism became
his religion; its ideals gave meaning to his life… Among his jobs was working
on repairs to Plymouth harbor.
Nicola Sacco was born in the town of Toremaggiore (SE of Italy) and
emigrated to US in 1908 at age 17. He loved machinery. He emigrated with his
brother Sabino, and when his brother returned to Italy in 1909 and he was left
alone in the United States, he began to take lessons on shoe-trimming and
became an excellent shoe trimmer. He was a skilled worker; made a good living. He
married his wife Rosa, when he was 21, she 17, and first child was born in
He found settled work in a shoe factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts;
he developed a strong relationship with the owner, the son of an Irish
immigrant. He made a good living because he was so good at what he did. A shoe
trimmer is piece work. He could make a day’s pay in a few hours. He was also
attracted to the cause of labor, and participated in strikes. …Sacco helped
with the defense of Arturo Giovannitti, an Italian labor organizer -- one of
the principal organizers of the famous 1912 Lawrence textile strike -- an
Italian immigrant who had been arrested on a dubious murder charge. It
was one of his first radical activities.
A definition: The word “anarchy” means ‘no authority.’ [From the Greek: ‘a’ means not; archon is a ruler] It doesn’t mean chaos. It means living with no governing state, no political or “established” religious institutions. No rich; no poor… V. called anarchy “the beautiful idea.” People, he believed, would live happily and survive materially by forming voluntary cooperatives. Sharing resources. Recognizing the needs of others as important as one’s own.
For anarchists like V and S and for many other social critics, the
fundamental issue in this stage of western civilization was “rich versus poor”.
…today we call that “the distribution of wealth.”
Believing that workers were oppressed by the capitalist system, by the
owning of property, anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti – both became disciples
of the anarchist theorist Luigi Galleani (V. called him my ‘master’) –
supported and took part in strikes. Though he did not work there, Vanzetti took
part in the 1916 strike against the Plymouth Cordage Company, a large
ropemaking business. WWI created a great demand for American resources such as cordage,
but war-driven inflation ate up workers’ earnings.
When America joined the war in 1917 (3 yrs after it began), the act
forced political radicals to choose: participate or not? Anarchists opposed all
war; they opposed the draft; they opposed governments.
Sacco, who supported strikes by his physical
presence – strikes were often street battles – also became a disciple of Galleani. He began attending weekly meetings of an anarchist group in 1913 and subscribed
to Cronaca Sovversiva (“Subversive Chronicles”), as did
Vanzetti, an anarchist newspaper published by Galleani in Italian. He became
a devotee of Galleani and in the next several years wrote for the paper, donated
and solicited funds for anarchist activities, as well as support his family.
So the two men have much in common, a
world view, an allegiance to the views of a powerful theorist, or ideologue in
Galleani. A strong commitment to social change. They’re the kind of people the
business and political establishment hate and fear. They want change. As
anarchists see it (or ‘radicals’ generally), the ‘establishment’ hates change;
it wants to preserve the status quo. The owners and the politicians are rich;
they don’t care if you’re poor.
The two meet at activities held in opposition to
the war. Then, in 1917, both join a group of men leaving home to travel to
Mexico and live under pseudonyms in order to avoid the draft.
The Mexico experiment lasts a few months. No jobs;
no money. Then both men go ‘home.’ Sacco returns to his young family, in Stoughton,
Massachusetts, where he worked for a shoemaker, who valued him so highly he
gave him management responsibilities and paid him to keep an eye on the factory
after hours. Vanzetti goes back to Plymouth; has to find a new place to board, the
Brini family doesn’t have room for him any more. He boards with a widow a few
streets over in North Plymouth. He also finds a new to make a living; selling
fish, door to door, among the immigrant community.
OK, now comes the heavy political stuff.
During a period of anti-radical and
anti-foreigner hysteria known as “The Red Scare,” [ask yourself if this was in
your American History class] a well-organized criminal gang carried out a
brazen daylight robbery in Braintree, Mass. The robbers stole a shoe factory
payroll and shot and killed the paymaster and his guard at point-blank range.
We'll come back to the crime, but first we have to talk about the Red Scare of 1919–1920 — a time of national paranoia in which thousands of immigrants were detained without due process of law.
After the US entered World War I in 1917, Congress passed laws to suppress all criticism of government’s decision to join the ongoing European slaughter or any means the government chose (such as the draft) to conduct the war. Anti-war critics were prosecuted, the non-citizens among them deported to their native countries. (For comparison, imagine that response to war protests and criticism of the government during the Vietnam War era.)
When Galleani was deported to Italy, some of his followers
‘declared war’ on the government – arguing that the government had already been
making war on them -- on the institutions that suppressed their publications,
broke up rallies of war critics, and used the courts to suppress their First
Amendment freedoms of expression. In response, these followers – some of them
members of the same ‘gruppo’ that Sacco and Vanzetti belonged to -- sent bombs through the
mail and placed them at the homes of their ‘enemies’ in government and big
business. These "Anarchist Fighters" were self-declared enemies of the state.
In his recent book “American Midnight,” historian Adam Hochschild detailed the US government’s outrageous violations of war critics’ Constitutional rights – and the rights of Americans in general. Thousands of immigrants were rounded up in mass raids, declared ‘disloyal’ and sentenced to deportation before a single federal judge stepped in to overturn decisions made without due process of law.
His legally prescribed role was to make sure "due process" had been followed before he approved the deportation orders. He refused: due
process had not been followed.
A crackdown on labor organization was taking place as well: Union meetings were
broken up by local and government police; speakers, and simple participants,
dragged off to jail… A lawless war was declared on members of the most active labor
organization of the time, the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, known
as Wobblies. Private industry, especially 'big business' supported the war. There was lots of money to be made from it. Organized labor -- unions -- cut into their profits. Now that the US was at war, big business wanted union organizers to be seen as traitors.
Wartime deportations included the nation's most famous critics of capitalism, among them Emma Goldman, a Russian immigrant, radical, anarchist, and America’s most popular lecturer. She traveled whole country, drawing audiences everywhere and speaking on a wide range of social and political subjects.
Eugene V. Debs, not an immigrant but a Socialist party candidate who received almost a million votes for President in 1912, was jailed for opposing the decision to go to war.
Mobs of what were called “Super-Americans” physically attacked and broke up meetings of war critics, draft critics, and labor organizers. Enforcing wartime restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly required the creation of the first federal police force, called the Radical Division of the Department of Justice; it later became the Investigation Bureau; finally the FBI, its principal duty from the very beginning being to ferret out and suppress 'subversion' by labor organizers or 'radical' critics of the status quo. J. Edgar Hoover, in his 20s was there from the Red Scare to the Civil Rights era when his agents were harassing leaders such MLK.
After the government suppressed Galleani's network, destroyed his printing press, burned his writings and tried and deported the maestro himself back to Italy, his followers decided they had to fight back. Going underground, hiding their identities, they formed the "Anarchist Fighters" and mailed bombs to the houses of federal judges, police chiefs and prominent capitalists, "terrorist" style, in revenge for the 'war' the American government had been waging on them. Famously, June 2, 1919, bombings in major cities such as Washington DC and Boston shook the nation. Top of the page was the bomb that exploded on the front steps of the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in DC, destroying most of the house but not harming the family. Other buildings were destroyed, but almost no one was seriously hurt, except for the anarchist who blew himself up when the bomb he was planting at Palmer's house went off prematurely. Remarkably, we know his name, Carlo Valdinocci, an Anarchist Fighter and follower of Galleani. Sacco and Vanzetti would have known him.
bombings lead to the "Palmer raids," as they are known, in late 1919, when federal agents and vigilantes
conduct major raids in big cities rounding up supposed radicals and thousands of
immigrants – lots of Russians, since after the Russian Revolution ‘communism’ is now perceived as a major
threat. Detainees are roughed up and kept in poor conditions. Congress passes a law making it
illegal to be a member of an anarchist organization.
Federal agents declare they will find those responsible for the bombings, but get nowhere. After almost a year, the feds arrest Andrea Salsedo, a member of the Galleani network; a printer, he made the leaflets denouncing the government the ‘Anarchist Fighters’ include in their bombs. He’s questioned, tortured, and held without charges in police office building in New York City. He smuggles out a letter to Vanzetti, asking for help, and Vanzetti heads to New York, though it's unclear what he can hope to accomplish. But before he can get to see him, Salsedo dies falling out a window of a police building. The cops say it was a suicide; other anarchists say he was pushed.
But the crackdown on 'radicals' following the Anarchist Fighters' bombings creates the hostile law-enforcement atmosphere in which any critic of the government, the war, or wartime profiteering by Big Business is treated. This politically tense atmosphere may explain why local and state police in Massachusetts tried hard to convince themselves that 'radicals' might be responsible for a shoe factory robbery in Braintree.
In a well-planned criminal enterprise, a gang carried out a brazen daylight robbery in
Braintree, Mass., on April 15, 1920. The robbers stole a shoe factory payroll and shot and killed
the paymaster and his guard at point-blank range.
Some days later, in a completely unrelated matter, members of Sacco and Vanzetti's "Gruppo" decided that in view of the government's sweeping attack on radicals and immigrants following the Anarchist Fighters' bombings, they should hide evidence linking them to Galleani, such as copies of his journal "Cronaca Sovversiva." …The Gruppo decides to send some of its members to collect anarchist lit from other members and hide it. Sacco and Vanzetti and two other group members decide to retrieve a comrade’s car left at the home of a mechanic in Bridgewater. Police have staked out the car, on the grounds that that Bridgewater is somewhat near Braintree (not really) and since some anarchists have taken to planting bombs, maybe they also commit robberies -- a notion that, a century later, makes no more sense now than it did at the time. Cops tell the mechanic to call them at once if anybody comes for the car.
Four Gruppo members, two riding a motorcycle, arrive at the Bridgewater mechanic's home one evening to retrieve the car, which they plan to use to round up anarchist literature from other group members. The mechanic stalls, then tells the visitors that the car isn't ready to drive yet. His visitors shrug, decide it's now too late to make their rounds without a car. The two guys get back on the bike for the ride home. Sacco and Vanzetti take off on foot to the nearest streetcar stop. Meanwhile the mechanic's wife has called the Bridgewater police to say four "foreign" guys came looking for the car.
State police put out the word to local cops to look for foreign-looking guys leaving Bridgewater. Streetcars are stopped, and two men with foreign accents are taken off a streetcar at gunpoint, hauled to a police station and interrogated. After the two men freely admit to being anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti are charged with robbery and murder, despite any evidence linking them to the crime. They were charged, police would later say, because they lied about what they were doing on the night of their arrest. They said they were visiting a friend. And because they were carrying weapons. Quick fact check: This is America! lots of people carry weapons – it’s legal. Vanzetti told the police they were carrying guns "because there were a lot of dangerous people around." Clearly, though, they came under suspicion largely because they were friends of another anarchist who owned the car. It’s hard to find a clearer case of “guilt by association.”
Since police and prosecutors lacked any substantial evidence against the two radicals, both of whom had witnesses for their whereabouts on the date of the crime, they went about creating it. Among the many shoe factory workers who managed split-second glimpses of the crime from factory windows, the state found a few whom they could pressure, or threaten, into testifying that they recognized the defendants. In the best of circumstances eye-witness testimony to the brief, violent or otherwise criminal acts of strangers is highly unreliable. The overwhelming majority of factory workers interviewed either said the accused were not the robbers, or they could not make an identification based on what they had seen.
When the case went to trial, ballistic experts disagreed over
whether a bullet removed from one of the victim’s body could have been fired by
Sacco’s gun. Recent re-examinations of both the ballistics and autopsy evidence
suggest that the state fired a bullet from Sacco’s gun and subbed it for one of
the bullets surgically removed from a victim’s body. Since the state failed to
maintain a secure chain of evidence, the case’s physical evidence was
The trial’s native-born, male jurors were themselves hardly
unbiased. After the trial, the jury foreman said he didn’t care whether the
defendants were guilty or not, saying “they should hang them all.” It
was clear who was meant by this ‘them’ — foreigners with political beliefs that
native-born citizens found threatening.
And trial judge Webster Thayer made his own bias clear in a widely
reported comment to a college classmate, at an alumni reunion, after passing
sentence: “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”
The defendants' attorney, a respected labor lawyer naturally appealed, beginning a legal process that lasted seven years. Appeal hearings were delayed, postponed, rescheduled for a host of reasons -- so-called prosecution witnesses had left the state and needed to be tracked down. Expert witnesses were ill and could not attend until recovery. The judge was ill for a year. The appeals court judge was ill, and then needed a vacation. When the state's supreme judiciary court finally rejected the defense's appeal, only then could Webster Thayer pronounce sentence: death in the electric chair.
The sentencing brought widespread public protests, both in this country and abroad, to a boil. A typical newspaper headline from 1927 captured the universality of working class and progressive condemnation of the court's decision:
"Protests and demonstrations and strikes
all over the United States, in Germany, England Australia, Switzerland,
Paraguay, Mexico, on every continent except Antarctica."
In Paris, a protest gathering drew a reported one million people.
A who’s who of prominent figures from different walks of life expressed support for Sacco and Vanzetti either publicly or privately. Writers Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay
showed up to demonstrations. Benito Mussolini, then prime minister of Italy, explored potential avenues for requesting a commutation of the sentence. Various others, from Albert Einstein to George Bernard Shaw to Marie Curie, signed petitions directed toward Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller or U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.
The defendants' attorneys made a final appeal for clemency to the governor of the state. Unhappily, the overseas attention paid to the case may have worked against the defendants. Governor Alvan Fuller, a Republican, visited them in prison while weighing an appeal and was impressed by Vanzetti's personality, remarking: “what an attractive men.”
Vanzetti had used jail time to improve his English. He wrote letters to supporters, and a few memoirs. Fuller said he considered granting a pardon but, one associate explained, "He felt that worldwide interest in the case proved that there was a conspiracy against the United States."
Their execution, after several stays of
execution by Fuller kept the case on the front pages in the
summer of 1927, drew international outrage, including violent demonstrations in France and in some other European countries. Thousands of people gathered the night of
the execution, Aug. 23, 1927, many of them on the Boston Common, in a vigil…dispersing after
midnight in sorrow after word passed that the men were dead.
The executions also led to a huge public funeral march through the city of Boston regarded as the largest public gathering in the city until the Red Sox World Series victory parade in 2004, with the crowd estimated by newspapers at 200,000.
I will give the last
words to the two principals in this story:
"At his trial Sacco said that life in the U.S. is good for
people with money but it’s not good for the working and the laboring class, and
at his sentencing, he said, 'I know this sentencing will be between two
classes, the rich class and the working class, and there will always be
collision between one and the other.'"
Vanzetti said their
deaths would be a worthy sacrifice. He said he mkight have spent his life
talking to sad men on street corners, winning no change or improvements: a
But “Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our
triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for
justice, for man’s understanding of man as we now do by dying. 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