The murder trial of two Italian immigrants who had fled poverty and oppression in their native country only to find the same in the United State made them a global cause celebre becoming a by-word for police corruption, political intrigue and judicial murder. Their supporters at the time believed that as committed anarchists they were merely being tried as an example to others, the Authorities believed they were dangerous men who had committed murder in the cause of violent revolution and even to this day, their guilt, or indeed innocence, remains un-established to any certain degree.
Ferdinando Nicola Sacco was a cobbler born in Foggia in 1891, who emigrated to the United States aged just 17 and never truly mastered the English language but then absorbed into the Italian-American community he never felt the need to do so.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti was a fishmonger from Villafaletto who like Sacco had fled Italy in the hope of a better life.
The two men did not meet one another until 1917 when both of them fled to Mexico to avoid the draft for the First World War which was to play heavily against them at their trial when they were accused of being unpatriotic and unwilling to fight for their adopted country. The fact they were anarchists and therefore anti-war was not considered an excuse for their actions but merely as further evidence that they were some kind of alien species that was essentially un-American.
On 15 April 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, a payroll clerk Frederick Parmenter, and a security guard, Alessandro Berardelli, were delivering a payroll of $15,776 to the Slater Morill Shoe Company when they were robbed and shot dead. It was a brutal and unnecessary murder as neither Parmenter nor Berardelli were armed and could defend themselves.
The police traced the car they believed had been used in the robbery and staked out the garage in Brockton where it was being kept. On 5 May, Sacco and Vanzetti, along with Mario Buda, who was the revolutionary Luigi Gallieni’s bomb-maker and responsible for numerous terrorist crimes, and another as yet still unknown man, arrived at the garage to pick up the car. As they did so the police sprung their trap.
Buda and the unknown man escaped on a motorcycle but Sacco and Vanzetti who had fled the scene were not so fortunate being arrested soon after boarding a streetcar. They gave themselves up without a struggle.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti were found to be armed and in possession of anarchist literature, Sacco also had shotgun shells in his possession that were similar to those that had been used in the crime. Neither of them had criminal records.
The brutal attack on two unarmed men delivering the payroll to a Shoe Factory occurred at the height of the “Red Scare” in America and at a time of mass-immigration when the poor, and dispossessed of Europe fleeing political oppression were flocking to the United States in record numbers, and a sense of paranoia prevailed but not without cause.
In July 1916, a bomb had exploded during a parade in San Francisco killing 10 people, a Milwaukee Police Station was blown up killing 9 Police Officers; a mass poisoning of business leaders at a dinner in Boston was attempted, and over the next two years there were bomb attacks in Washington, New York, Boston, and many other cities.
These attacks were carried out by recent immigrants to the country, mostly Italians, and this was a fact not lost on the American people or the press.
Charged with the murders at Braintree both Sacco and Vanzetti pleaded their innocence claiming that they were victims of social and political prejudice and there is little doubt that the presiding Judge at the subsequent trial, Webster Thayer, guided the jury towards a guilty verdict.
He had asked to preside at the trial and had reportedly told the jury:
“This man (Vanzetti) although he may not have committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”
There is no evidence for this in the Court transcripts, however.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti were committed anarchists something neither denied, and they were known associates of Mario Buda so it seems likely that they had participated in the bombing campaigns of Luigi Galleani at some level or other, particularly as neither of them was to disavow their belief in violence as a legitimate tool with which to oppose oppression.
At the time of their arrest both men lied to police fearing that they would be deported as political undesirables, as indeed Gallieni had been in 1919, but this initial false testimony would seriously prejudice their case later.
Vanzetti testified that at the time of the robbery he had been selling fish and witnesses were produced who confirmed that they had indeed bought fish from him that day but as they were all Italian their testimony was treated with scepticism.
Sacco claimed that he had been in Boston trying to obtain a passport from the Italian Consulate, and their Defence Attorney Fred Moore, whom Judge Thayer had already described as a “long-haired Californian Radical”, managed to track down the clerk who had dealt with Sacco’s application, but he had since returned to Sicily and refused to attend the trial to testify claiming ill-health.
Sacco also claimed to have had dinner with friends whilst in Boston and these friends were produced as witnesses, but yet again they were Italian and simply not believed.
The ballistic evidence produced by the Prosecution was also equivocal, inconsistent and flawed.
They claimed that the calibre of Sacco’s gun was so obsolete that only the ammunition found on his person could possibly have been fired from it. Yet only one of the four bullets recovered from the body of the security guard, Alessandro Berardelli, anywhere near matched the calibre of Sacco’s gun.
Again, Vanzetti’s revolver was a .38 calibre the bullets found at the scene were from a .32 calibre gun.
The Prosecution however claimed that Vanzetti had wrested the security guard’s gun from his person and then shot him in cold blood, but Berardelli had sent his gun for repair and was unarmed on the day of the robbery. Indeed, his wife stated that if only her husband had retrieved his gun from the repair shop that day he might still be alive.
There appeared to be little evidence that linked either Sacco, and in particular Vanzetti, directly to the crime.
The most substantial piece of evidence the Prosecution had was Sacco’s cap found at the scene. Yet when he tried it on in Court it was too small for him. The eyewitness accounts of the crime were also varied and inconclusive. Some placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene others did not, some later recanted their witness statements, other’s later recanted their recantations.
Even so, after just three hours of deliberations the jury returned a guilty verdict.
Given the contentious and inconclusive evidence everyone was shocked at the speed of the verdict and the press now had a field day with the reports that were being leaked from the Court.
Supposed remarks made by Judge Thayer such as “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards today,” and “I will get them good and proper,” were widely circulated. Even the Chairman of the Jury was believed to have said “Damn them, they should hang anyway.”
Many saw the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti as politically motivated and their case became a cause celebre as such eminent people as H.G Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Parker voiced their support, demands were made for a retrial, Defence Committees were formed to gather funds, and demonstrations were held around the world.
Two further appeals were heard, and retrials held but the verdict remained unchanged. Both Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Whilst in prison awaiting execution, Sacco was told by a gangster Celestine Medeiros (who was also awaiting execution but for an unrelated crime) that he had been a member of the gang which committed the robbery and that he was willing to testify that neither he nor Vanzetti had been present.
The fresh evidence was passed onto Judge Thayer but he refused to hold another re-trial based on the testimony of a convicted murderer.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti talked at great length about their lives and beliefs during many years of incarceration. Sacco less so perhaps, due to his fractured English but he was heard to remark:
“True, they can execute the body but they cannot execute the idea which is bound to live.”
Vanzetti was more eloquent about what had transpired:
“I would not wish on any of them what I have had to suffer for things I am not guilty of. But I have suffered for things I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical, and I am indeed a radical. I have suffered because I am an Italian, and I am indeed an Italian. If you could execute me two times, and I could be reborn two times, I would still live again to do what I have done.”
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on 23 August 1927, meeting their deaths with great calmness and a sense of long endured resignation. Vanzetti shook hands with his gaolers and thanked them for their kindness. His final words were: “I wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me.”
Sacco blurted out in his native Italian: “Viva I’anarchia! Ciao Mia Madre.”
Liberal opinion around the world which had been shocked at the verdict was now outraged at the severity of the punishment. Petitions of condemnation were signed, politicians spoke out publicly, and the liberal press savaged the American judicial system.
Others reacted even more strongly, in Buenos Aires the Headquarters of Citibank were bombed, as also was the Bank of Boston, an attempt was also made upon the life of President Hoover, and the wife of Nicola Sacco wrote to the man she believed had carried out the bombings, Severino di Giovanni, thanking him for his efforts on her husband’s behalf.
John Upton Sinclair, the socialist author and politician who had been a prominent and outspoken supporter of Sacco and Vanzetti recalled meeting their Defence Attorney Fred Moore following their execution. He wrote:
“Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth. He then told me that the men were guilty, and told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them. I faced the most ethical problem of my life. I had come to Boston with the announcement that I would write the truth about the case.”
But he doubted the credibility of Moore’s statement and had heard that Moore was addicted to drugs.
In 1941, the anarchist Carlo Tresca, who had been a member of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defence Committee, stated that Sacco was guilty but that Vanzetti was not. Mario Buda, also later claimed that Sacco had been present.
In 1952, the labour leader Anthony Ramuglia, said that he had been asked to provide a false alibi for Sacco by Fred Moore, and in 1982, a letter emerged written by Giovanni Gambera, one of the four anarchists who had organised their defence, stated that everyone within the anarchist inner-circle knew that Sacco was guilty.
Regardless of the statements made by individuals many years after the event, the evidence at the time of the trial was less than conclusive and appeared to suggest an acquittal rather than a conviction, and certainly not a sentence of death.
In 1977, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, declared that:
“Any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.”
But there was no pardon.