Tension filled the air on the night of August 22, 1927. Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were to be executed at midnight.
Nearly eight hundred police formed a “cordon of steel” to guard the state prison in Charlestown, Massachusetts, where the two men were held. Machine guns and searchlights lined the south and west walls of the death house. Authorities had gas and tear bombs at the ready. In nearby Boston, searchlights shone down from the State House roof. Police armed with guns positioned themselves at intervals between the lights. “It was,” according to the New York Times, “the first time in Massachusetts’s history that such a scene had been enacted.”
As midnight approached, thousands gathered on the Boston Common and Beacon Street. Police arrested 156 people among the crowd amassed for the “death watch” in front of the State House.
A similar vigil took place in New York. Composer Anton Coppola, who was just ten years old at the time, recalled standing in a packed Union Square and being told to watch the lights dim as power was diverted to Massachusetts for the electrocutions. Sacco, the first of the two to be killed, was declared dead at 12:19. Vanzetti followed at 12:26.
As anticipated, riots erupted in response. But demonstrations and protests were not limited to the United States. Sacco and Vanzetti supporters called general strikes in Mexico and Uruguay. Ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Sydney. Riots broke out in Berlin, London, Paris, and other European cities. As historian Lisa McGirr has noted, the Sacco-Vanzetti case ignited “an international worker-led protest.”
It didn’t start out that way. In 1920 when the two men were arrested, they were virtually unknown and indistinguishable from the more than 4 million Italians who had immigrated to the United States.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti left their home country in 1908. Sacco hailed from the town of Torremaggiore in the Puglia region of southeast Italy. Upon arriving in the US at age seventeen he went to Milford, Massachusetts. He became a skilled shoe worker, married, and started a family. Twenty-year-old Vanzetti came from Villafalletto, in the northwestern region of Piedmont. After a brief stint in New York he settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he boarded with a family and worked as an itinerant fish seller.
Neither of the two men were anarchists when they left Italy. They were radicalized in the US, where instead of the “land of the free,” they found masses of people living in desperate poverty and a political system that all too often turned a blind eye to the suffering. Vanzetti expressed his disillusionment in a letter to his sister Luigia, who was still back in Italy.
In America things are going very badly. There is a great deal of unemployment and enough misery to soften the heart of a tiger. Those responsible could not care less. You are not aware of the present condition of this nation. This is no longer the America that excited your imagination. America, dear sister, is called the land of liberty, but in no other country on earth does a man tremble before his fellow man like here.
To Sacco and Vanzetti, the capitalist state was beyond redemption. In their search for an alternative they found anarchism and became dedicated followers of Luigi Galleani, a charismatic, anti-organizational, militant anarchist who preached the overthrow of capitalism and government by any means. In 1917 the pair went to Mexico along with several other Galleanisti to plan for the revolution they believed would sweep Italy. When it didn’t materialize, they returned to the US and continued their war against the state. Their militancy helped precipitate the first red scare.
On the evening of June 2, 1919, the Galleanisti set off bombs at the homes of various business leaders and government officials, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. While attempting to place the explosive on Palmer’s doorstep the bomber tripped and blew himself to bits. He left enough forensic evidence, including a portion of his scalp, and a leaflet titled “Plain Words,” for law enforcement to identify him as Carlo Valdinoci, an Italian anarchist and Galleani supporter.
In retaliation, Palmer directed agents from the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI, to conduct warrantless raids of public and private meeting places, seize literature and other items without permission, and arrest anyone they deemed suspicious. Agents traced the “Plain Words” flyer to a printer and typesetter, Roberto Elia and Andrea Salsedo, and arrested the men, holding them secretly and without charge in an office on the fourteenth floor of New York’s Park Row Building and subjecting them to harsh interrogation. On May 3, after nearly three months of captivity, Salsedo jumped out a window and to his death on the Manhattan sidewalk.
Just two days after Salsedo’s death, police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti on a streetcar near Brockton, Massachusetts. The police had been looking for suspects in a recent robbery and murder at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Factory in nearby South Braintree. The previous month, two armed men had detained paymaster Frederick Parmenter and his guard, Alessandro Berardelli, as they were transporting money from the payroll office. The men shot Parmenter and Berardelli, then fled in a Buick, along with three accomplices.
Sacco and Vanzetti had no idea why they were under arrest (police claimed that they were “suspicious characters” without mentioning the Braintree crimes), but they did know that radicals were being rounded up for deportation. Both men were armed, and Sacco had in his possession a leaflet advertising a meeting to protest the federal government’s brutal treatment of Salsedo and the deportation of Elia. Vanzetti was slated to speak at the meeting.
Not surprisingly, when asked about their politics, the two men denied being anarchists. The flyer, however, outed them as “Reds.” In addition to charging the pair with the Braintree crimes, police pinned a bungled robbery in nearby Bridgewater on Vanzetti.
Vanzetti went on trial for the Bridgewater burglary in the summer of 1920. Although he had an alibi (he was selling eels to his Italian customers for Christmas Eve dinner), the Italian witnesses who testified on his behalf failed to convince the jury. They found him guilty, and the judge issued a draconian sentence of twelve to fifteen years in prison. When he stood trial for the Braintree crimes, Vanzetti would face the jury as a convicted criminal.
Initially, support for Sacco and Vanzetti in the US was confined to anarchist circles. Led by Aldino Felicani, a printer and publisher and a friend of Vanzetti (although not one of the Galleanisti), Boston-based anarchists formed the Sacco Vanzetti Defense Committee to increase awareness of the case and raise funds for legal expenses. The circle of supporters widened exponentially when Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the former Industrial Workers of the World organizer and then-secretary of the Workers Defense Union in New York City, met with Felicani and the two prisoners.
For the next six years Flynn made Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause her own. She oversaw the publication of pamphlets and press releases, travelled around the country giving speeches on behalf of “the boys,” as she called them, and secured endorsements and donations to the defense fund from prominent liberals and mainstream and radical labor organizations. Along with labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, Flynn made a presentation to members of the ACLU’s national board, who voted to endorse the case, and she convinced the Massachusetts branch to follow suit.
The first Sacco and Vanzetti meetings with English speakers, in the summer of 1920, attracted just twenty-five people in New York and an only somewhat larger audience in Boston. But by the following April, Flynn reported that requests for speaking dates had dramatically increased. The Workers Defense Union was sending out weekly publicity releases to over five hundred newspapers. The Defense Committee was printing “hundreds of thousands of leaflets and pamphlets in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German.” And workers were covering the cost of most of these expenses. As Flynn later recounted, “the agitation among New England and New York workers for Sacco and Vanzetti began as a small spark at first. But it eventually spread around the world.”
At the behest of the Defense Committee, Flynn and New York anarchist Carlo Tresca recruited California attorney Fred Moore to join the legal team. It was Moore who turned the case into a referendum on political and ethnic intolerance in the Bay State — writing, at one point, that “an Italian accused of a murder in Massachusetts stands about as much a chance of getting a fair trial as a Black man accused of rape in the south.”
The trial for the Braintree crimes opened in Dedham, Massachusetts, on May 31, 1921. It lasted a little over six weeks. Superior Court Judge Webster Thayer, who had previously lambasted a jury that returned a “not guilty” verdict for a man accused of inciting anarchy, presided. He requested the assignment after ruling in Vanzetti’s Bridgewater trial. Thayer’s disdain for the defendants was evident. He was reported to have commented to a friend, “Did you see what I did to those 2 anarchist bastards the other day? That ought to hold them for a while.”
Both Sacco and Vanzetti had alibis for their whereabouts the day of the crime. Prosecution relied on eyewitness testimony (much of which was contradictory), a “consciousness of guilt” argument based on the men’s supposedly strange behavior at the time of their arrest, and inconclusive ballistics evidence. Despite the flimsy case, the jury reached a unanimous “guilty” verdict after only a few hours of deliberation.
Undeterred by the verdict, the defense prepared and put forward five supplementary motions for a new trial. As the appeals process wore on, demonstrations on behalf of the two anarchists grew in size, frequency, and militancy. The cry “Save Sacco and Vanzetti!” resounded around the globe.
But although Moore’s strategy was beginning to pay off in the court of public opinion, it was far less effective in the court of law and with his clients. In the summer of 1924, Moore resigned. Soon after, Judge Thayer denied all five motions for a new trial.
Following Moore’s departure, the Defense Committee reorganized and hired establishment attorney William Thompson. But the former Boston district attorney was no more successful in obtaining a new trial. While a glimmer of hope flashed when a prison mate of Sacco’s confessed to the robbery-murder, Thayer ultimately rejected Thompson’s appeal.
On April 9, 1927, amid continued protests, he handed down his decision. Sacco and Vanzetti would die in the electric chair.
Just before Thayer’s ruling, Felix Frankfurter — then a professor at Harvard Law School — published a now-famous analysis of the case in the Atlantic Monthly. He focused not on Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt or innocence, but on the flawed procedure of the trial. Frankfurter’s essay is often credited with bringing widespread public attention to the case. And to be sure, his gravitas conferred respectability on Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause.
But it was radicals like Flynn and Felicani who kept the case alive for seven years. The campaign they devised was extraordinary in its appeal across lines of gender, race and ethnicity, and even political ideology and class. By 1927 the list of Sacco and Vanzetti supporters in the US included novelist Upton Sinclair, poet Katherine Anne Porter, Boston socialite Elizabeth Glendower Evans, New York congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, anarchist Lucy Parsons, socialist A. Philip Randolph, Smith College students, immigrant coal miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Labor, and the Communist Party USA.
But nothing could stop the judicial juggernaut. Soon after the judge’s death sentence, Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller bowed to pressure and convened a committee to review the evidence and conduct of the trial. That panel — known as the Lowell Committee, after its chair, A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University and a founder of the Immigration Restriction League — concluded that the trial was a fair one and Sacco and Vanzetti had been proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Governor Fuller denied an appeal for clemency, and further appeals to the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court also failed. Sacco and Vanzetti were killed by the state just after midnight on August 23, 1927.
Disheartening as it was for so many of their supporters, the Sacco-Vanzetti case is one episode in a history of lethal judicial violence against radicals, sandwiched on a timeline between Haymarket and the Rosenbergs. Countless other radicals have felt the repressive force of the state on their backs in other ways, but most of their names are forgotten, if they were ever known.
Efforts to ferret out “foreigners” and quash dissent continue in the Trump era. The president gives quarter to white supremacists and accuses antifascist counter demonstrators of violence, and the Department of Justice seeks a warrant for the IP addresses of everyone who visited the website of DisruptJ20, a loosely organized collective of activists who protested during the inauguration.
But the Left’s long history of being targeted for repression is accompanied by a history of fighting back in defense of civil liberties and against state violence. In the 1920s Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Fred Moore, and others reached across a variety of dividing lines to fill the streets in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. In the age of Trump, we pick up their mantle.