(I was browsing some of our old radio broadcasts recently, and the short piece we did on Sacco and Vanzetti stood out as one of my favourites (clicky). It doesn’t read like my style of writing, so I suspect it was written by one of my comrades in Inverclyde SSP, although I genuinely can’t remember who. I’ve reproduced the script here with the music we played on the radio added at the relevant parts. Hope you enjoy! Beinn)
In the South Braintree area of Boston in April 1920, five armed robbers got away with $15,000 from a robbery at a shoe factory. In the process of the robbery they killed two men.
Over 7 years later, on the 23rd of August 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair by the State of Massachusetts. They had 6 years earlier been found guilty of the two murders, a judgment now accepted as being a miscarriage of justice. In truth, it was not the evidence of the case that condemned these two innocent men to die at the hands of the state; it was a combination of their political views and ethnicity.
Both were immigrants in America, both originally from Italy. And both adhered to a brand of left wing politics that advocated relentless opposition to violent and oppressive governments. Then, as now, the government of the USA met those criteria. All attempts to appeal the conviction were denied, despite serious doubts over the reliability of the evidence and even a confession by another more likely perpetrator. By 1925 the case had generated an international movement, which continued to grow as details of the case against the men and their probable innocence spread. In 1927, protests demanding they be saved from the electric chair were held in every major city in North America and Europe, as well as cities in Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa.
It would not be until 50 years after their wrongful execution that the American establishment would try to cleanse itself of this injustice, when in 1977 a proclamation was issued that the men had been unfairly convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”.
Nicola Sacco was born in the Italian town of Torremaggiore in April 1891. At age 17 he immigrated to the states where he found work in a shoe factory, got married and started a family. Bart Vanzetti was also of Italian origin, being born in the town of Villaffalletto on 11th June 1888. When he was 20 he moved to the states where he found work as a fish peddler. Vanzetti was shocked and appalled by the treatment of working class immigrants, and this was instrumental in his becoming involved in left wing politics. At one gathering of anarchists he met Sacco and the two men became friends, often attending political meetings together.
Like many on the political left, Sacco and Vanzetti were opposed to the First World War, and in 1917 when America entered the war they fled to Mexico to avoid conscription. It was a principled decision, one firmly rooted in their opposition to the imperial war in Europe, but it would be twisted by the prosecution into evidence of their cowardice and lack of patriotism.
The America that Sacco and Vanzetti lived in was changing rapidly. Both men had been able to move to the States due to that countries Open Door policy, which had been designed to make immigration to the States as easy as possible. In the lead up to the First World War, however, there was a shift in American public opinion towards the newcomers. Clear anti-immigration sentiments, and at times explicit xenophobia, started to become commonplace, especially among the more affluent classes. Catholics and Jews in particular would feel the brunt of this rising resentment.
Racial persecution only intensified when America became gripped by the Red Scare. The collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union worried many of the moneyed classes in America. Anti-communist paranoia and hatred was often directed towards immigrants, especially those from an Eastern or Southern European origin.
The America that Sacco and Vanzetti inhabited was therefore one which hated the two men, on account of both their ethnicity and their politics.
In court Sacco claimed: “I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class, and there will be always collision between one and the other. We fraternise the people with books, with literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try to educate the people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality, to hate each other. That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor.”
At trial, the main evidence used against the men was that they were both carrying a gun when arrested. It was argued at the time, and even as recently as the 1980’s, that ballistics could trace the fatal shots to Sacco’s gun, although it has been agreed by experts that the evidence was so badly handled and tampered with that no judgment of any type can be made based on it. For example, the barrel on the gun had been changed at least once since it was confiscated, and as it is the barrel that leaves the tell tale evidence on a bullet it is therefore impossible to say whether or not this was the gun that fired the fatal shots.
Throughout the trial it became evident that the establishment were going to find the men guilty no matter what. Judge Thayer has been roundly criticised for showing blatant bias and prejudice against the two. At one point Sacco was asked to try on a cap which had been found at the crime scene, a cap which eye witnesses said had been worn by the murderer but fell off as he made his escape. Those present at the court agreed that the cap was far too small for Sacco, but the prosecution lawyer continued to refer to it as “Sacco’s cap” for the remainder of the trial anyway, and was allowed to do so by Judge Thayer. During questioning it was clear that the two men didn’t fully understand many of the questions put to them, which led to them giving contradictory answers at times. Judge Thayer was well aware that the two men had only a limited grasp of English, but decided to let them incriminate themselves.
Eugene Lyons (a journalist who worked on the case) wrote in his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti, “It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest. It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility.”
By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Sacco and Vanzetti would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. 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 now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belong to us – that agony is our triumph.”