Remember Sacco and Vanzetti
WHILE President Carter preaches human rights, crusading as the leader of the whole world, a more realistic stand is taken by a lesser official, Governor Dukakis who on July 19 issued a statement that Sacco and Vanzetti did not have a fair trial. Coming fifty years after the event, even this belated acknowledgement must be considered as progressive. In the 1920s the case of Sacco and Vanzetti won world-wide support perhaps more than any other civil rights case. For the sake of newcomers on the scene we shall tell once more their tragic story.
Nicola Sacco was a man of Italian origin who worked in a shoe factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts. He had a home, a wife and a little son. Bartolomeo Vanzetti, also Italian, worked as a fish peddler in nearby Plymouth. The two men were friends. On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, it happen that a crime was committed on the streets of South Braintree, another small industrial town of the vicinity. Five bandits held up the paymaster of a shoe factory, killed him and his guard and escaped with the loot of over $15,000.
What connection did this event have with our two Italian workingmen? None, none whatever. Neither was anywhere near the scene of the crime. Both had ample proof of their alibis. Nevertheless they were arrested, thrown into jail and charged with the crime of first degree murder.
The jail doors never opened for Sacco and Vanzetti. For seven agonizing years of alternating hope and despair they waited while their defense tried every possible legal device, appeal after appeal being rejected until at last on August 22, 1927, the electric chair put an end to their martyrdom.
To explain how such an outrage could occur in this fair land of peace, justice, prosperity and above all of FREEDOM we must first look into the situation prevailing in the United States in that post World War I period.
During and After the War
From 1914 on and especially in 1917 and 1918, when the country was finally involved in the insanity of the war, the public was given over to patriotism and chauvinistic hatred of Germans. A few voices of protest were raised. In 1917 the Socialist Party passed the St. Louis resolution condemning the war. Some of its members and some Anarchists and I.W.W. who also resisted, served time in prison. Altogether the opposition was a small minority. Here in the U.S.A. with the end of the war, 1919 saw the outbreak of strikes in the basic industries, with great militancy among the workers. In 1917 also occurred a world-shaking event, the Russian Revolution. The overthrow of the Czar in February 1917, at first met with a favorable response in the democratic countries which expected Russia to follow the same course they had done. When however in November 1917 the Bolsheviks took power in what was called a proletarian revolution, fear struck the hearts of capitalists everywhere that their own workers might follow this example.
Here in the U.S. among the many thousands of workers in the foreign language socialist federations, sympathy and support for the revolution was strong, the Russian federation completely won over. It was these workers who formed the basis for the new radical movements which now burst forth. No less than three Communist groups emerged from the split which tore the Socialist Party asunder. Already there has been many anarchist groupings inspired in the 1880’s by the German Anarchist Johan Most and others.
Among the native born Americans, even workers, there was little sympathy for all this radicalism. Now their wartime hatred of Germans spread to include all foreigners. Of course racism and national prejudice had been present from the very beginning in a country whose wealth was founded in the first place on slavery of the Africans, followed later by the almost as cruel and ruthless wage slavery of the foreign born. Especially exploited and despised were those from the southern and eastern parts of Europe whose skins might be darker and their speech quite different from those generally more skilled of northern Europe who could be considered closer to the ruling native English-descended group.
All this latent prejudice was now stimulated into a frenzy of fear by propaganda against the budding radical movement. Quickly the state got into action. A Criminal Anarchy law was passed making it possible for foreigners to be deported. In late 1919 and early 1920 Attorney General Palmer with the help of the Department of Justice and local police forces carried out a series of raids throughout the country against all radical groups: communist, anarchist, I.W.W., whatever. With the greatest brutality and violence headquarters were raided, equipment smashed, literature seized and people, especially foreigners, beaten up and arrested. Thousands were deported and many held in jail. “The raids were particularly intense and violent in the industrial towns round Boston and culminated in the captives being driven through the streets of Boston chained together in fours—unfortunate people after being beaten and put through the third degree were concentrated at Deer Island.” (*1)
Such was the background of the Sacco and Vanzetti case. From the beginning the Department of Justice worked closely with the Massachusetts authorities. Besides deportation there were other ways of getting rid of undesirable aliens, namely, involving them in a criminal case. Affidavits of men of the Department of Justice testify that this was what happened with Sacco and Vanzetti.
The early experience of the two men in this country paralleled that of so many others who came here with high hopes and little money: working at unskilled jobs for next-to-nothing pay and atrociously long hours, living hand to mouth. Soon they both found an explanation for their situation and hope for the future in anarchism. They were part of a group around Galleani, editor of an anarchist paper. There was also an Italian club in Boston where workmen from surrounding industrial towns met to play bowls and discuss social problems. There they met anarchists, socialists and syndicalists. Sacco attending meetings of a “Circolo di studi Sociali” was arrested once there with some others but was released without arraignment. Vanzetti while working at unskilled labor for the Plymouth Cordage Co., had taken active part in a strike there for which he was blacklisted.
Also, both of them had attempted to evade the draft by going to Mexico for a few months in 1917. It was on the train traveling there that they met and formed their lifelong friendship. They constantly read and distributed anarchist literature.
With this background the names of the two men were already in the files of the Department of Justice. The links of the chain were building up. In the spring of 1920 an Italian printer, an anarchist named Andrea Salsedo was arrested in New York with a companion named Elia and both held incommunicado by the Department of Justice. In late April Vanzetti made a trip to New York to try to get a lawyer for these two men. The anarchist comrades there warned him to expect raids and to remove all radical literature from their homes. (A few days later, on May 4, the crushed body of Salsedo was found on the sidewalk in front of the Park Row Building where the Department of Justice had been holding him in their office.)
In order to warn their comrades of the possible raids, Sacco and Vanzetti needed to get a car. They were directed to a man named Boda, but as his car had no license plates they did not take it. Returning from there to Stoughton via trolley car they were arrested on May 5th.
The Department of Justice had already probably decided to involve Sacco and Vanzetti in the South Braintree crime mentioned above; however there was another payroll robbery attempt, namely in Bridgewater on December 24, 1919 still unsolved and they apparently decided to first implicate the two Italians in this one. Sacco and Vanzetti thought they were arrested as anarchists; the police chief who interrogated them did indeed probe into their political beliefs. Hence the two men were guarded, even evasive in their answers, out of fear of betraying their anarchist comrades. It happened also that they had in their pocket leaflets calling for a mass meeting to protest the death of Salsedo. Unfortunately, both carried revolvers for which they had good reason: Sacco sometimes worked as night watchman in the shoe factory; Vanzetti used to have a lot of money on him when he went to buy his fish and needed protection against robbery. Sacco had an alibi for the 24th of December and his employer provided affidavit that he had been working at his machine that day. At any rate, for their own reasons the prosecution brought Vanzetti alone to trial for this Bridgewater holdup.
He was tried in Plymouth in June-July under Judge Webster Thayer. He was charged with assault with intent to rob and assault with intent to kill. Vanzetti had a number of witnesses to prove that on the day of the crime he had been selling eels in Plymouth for the traditional Italian Christmas eve dinner. However his witnesses were Italians who had to speak through an interpreter and the jury was composed of native Americans from the good part of town. Bartolomeo Vanzetti was found guilty as charged. On August 16 he was sentenced to serve twelve to twenty years in the state’s prison at Charlestown. Sacco was left behind in the Dedham jail.
Later both were charged with the South Braintree crime, their trial opening in Dedham on May 31, 1921, with the same Judge Thayer presiding. Five men had participated in the South Braintree holdup. The money which they made off with, again the payroll of a shoe company, amounted to well over $15,000. a large sum then than now. The paymaster named Parmenter was killed as was the guard named Berardelli. All the bandits had escaped.
Sacco had ample proofs that he had spent the entire day of the crime in Boston getting a passport so that he could visit his father in Italy. His mother had died and he felt he must go. Vanzetti again had the testimonies of his customers that he was in Plymouth selling fish. But again the jury was of Americans of English extraction from the good part of town. Much time was given to expert testimony in regard to the bullets taken from the dead men’s bodies, and comparison with a bullet taken from Sacco’s pocket with a view to proving the fatal bullet could have come from Sacco’s gun. Investigators are convinced that the expert testifying on the bullet found in Sacco’s pocket collaborated with Judge Thayer in giving a wrong impression to the jury. (*2)
The political beliefs of the defendants were dwelt upon as was their draft evasion in Mexico in 1917. The two men were convicted but not sentenced; Vanzetti was returned to Charlestown prison while Sacco remained in Delham, and so it continued almost until the end.
The Defense of Sacco and Vanzetti
The anarchists of Massachusetts had at once rallied in the defense of their comrades, later joined by socialists, communists, and liberals. Albert Weisbord was part of the committee in 1923-24. Among the socialists was Mary Donovan who had a post as industrial inspector with the State Department of Labor and Industry. Because of her participation in the committee she was relieved of her job. The defense at once prepared briefs moving for a new trial on the ground that the verdict was against the weight of evidence. The motion was denied by Judge Thayer. Under Massachusetts law, no appeal was possible from his decision on that motion.
Five new motions requiring years of legal preparation were successively presented. All were denied. These were all on specific issues of the trial. On November 18, 1926, new hope appeared. A condemned convict named Celestino Madeiros confined in the Dedham jail for another crime confessed to having taken part in the South Braintree crime. This new development involved the defense in work for another seventeen months. Madeiros claimed to be one of the Morelli gang. The records of all these criminals had to be investigated as well as that of Madeiros himself. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts refused to participate in the investigation leaving the whole burden to the defense.
After all this accumulated new evidence it remained for Judge Thayer to pass on the motion. He remained adamant and decided against the two men even though the Department of Justice agents said they saw earmarks that the South Braintree crime was committed by professionals. The Department of Justice constantly cooperated in the case. “The understanding in this case between the agents of the Department of Justice in Boston and the District Attorney follow the usual custom, that the Department of Justice would help the District Attorney to secure a conviction, and that he in turn would help the agents of the Department of Justice to secure information that they might desire.” (*3)
The conviction was obtained not merely by this cooperation, but by prevailing hysteria against Reds influencing a jury already prejudiced. Testimonies identifying the defendants were contradictory and flimsy, some giving evidence of having been bought. As Vanzetti said, the case could not hold up under public exposure of a new trial, hence this had to be denied.
Efforts continued to the very last day with appeals to numerous judicial and executive authorities but to no avail.
On April 7 1927, Judge Thayer sentenced the men to be executed in the week of July 10, but this was postponed to August 10 and finally to August 22. A final last minute appeal, a petition for executive clemency was addressed to Governor Alvin T. Fuller of Massachusetts but this too was denied.
DURING these long agonizing years the men behind bars revealed themselves each in his own way to be of great fortitude, intelligence, deep feeling and devotion to their belief in anarchism. They were really two very different people as brought out in their letters written from prison. Sacco born in Torre Maggiore in the province of Foggia of the southern Appenines, came from a very good home. His father was a well-to-do farmer having extensive vineyards and olive orchards; his mother, the daughter of a wine and oil merchant. Nicola as a boy loved to roam the fields and help with the farm work. Especially he was fascinated by machinery such as the big threshing machine with which his father harvested wheat in the neighborhood. It was really this interest which took him to America. He left in 1908 at the age of seventeen with his older brother Sabino who was a Socialist. America, the land of machines! Surely there a young man could build a fine future!
Landing in Boston, Nicola worked for a time at the usual low paid unskilled jobs, later he had the chance to learn a skilled trade as edger in a shoe factory. So equipped, he had a steady job, got married, had a little son named Dante (later a little daughter), a fine wife and a neat little home. His life was a simple, stable, hardworking one, illumined by love and by his faith in anarchism. Now in the Dedham jail he found himself deprived of everything but the last. In the ambiguous position of a man convicted but not sentenced he had no privileges, no work, in fact not much of anything but to sit in his cell. He was a man of great physical strength who loved fresh air and nature. The Dedham jail was physically better than most but still Nicola Sacco chafed at his confinement. He studied English which he had hardly known at all and finally learned to read, speak and write at least understandably.
Vanzetti lacked the domestic base which was such an influence with Sacco. Serving his sentence in Charlestown he had work assignments, but used all his leisure time for study. Vigorously he applied himself to learning English until he was able to write forcibly, even eloquently. He wrote his life story in Italian which has been translated, Story of a Proletarian Journey. “Nameless in the crowd of nameless one.” he writes, “I have merely caught and reflected a little of the light from that dynamic thought or ideal which is drawing humanity towards better destinies.” (*4)
Bartolomeo Vanzetti was born in 1888 in a good home in the Piedmont. He did well in school. At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to a pastry maker and worked fifteen hours a day with three hours off twice a month. Later, he tried other jobs but none were much better. Finally, after the death of his mother whom he dearly loved, he decided to go to America. He left Italy in 1908. His was the usual disillusionment: brutal treatment at Ellis Island, then being practically penniless he worked as a dishwasher under horrible conditions. Later on in Massachusetts he worked at various unskilled jobs until at last eight months before his arrest, he had the opportunity to become a fish peddler. The independence of this job he liked, also being among friendly Italian people, his customers.
The keenness of Vanzetti’s mind may be seen in the following estimation of the law in a letter to Mary Donovan (dated May 22, 1927): “The laws are the codified will of the dominating classes; the laws are made to legalize the State organization of violence; the laws and the courts are therefore the tools of the bosses as the judges, police, hangers and spies are their servants.” (*5)
And in this one written to comrade Blackwell dated May 31st, 1927: “My point is that Fuller did not order a public investigation on all the facts of the double case, because it would have revealed a judiciary scandal, and so he chose to save the face of Thayer and the other Justices rather than vindicate us.” (*6)
In one respect Sacco may have shown himself more intransigent than Vanzetti in refusing to deal with authorities: that last summer he steadfastly refused to sign an application for executive clemency which Vanzetti urged him to do. In this he recalls Alexander Berkman who followed the same course during his imprisonment after the attempted assassination of Henry Frick, the steel magnate as a result of the Homestead steel strike in 1892.
Vanzetti had two hour long interviews with Governor Fuller in the last days with the Governor sitting outside his cell. Following that he wrote a long letter to the Governor proving his innocence. Much good it did him!
However, Vanzetti’s cooperation with the defense lawyers to appeal to the authorities was in the long run more realistic. He knew that even though the State was determined to have his life and Sacco’s, by means of the defense an immense propaganda was spread which awakened many people to the true nature of the state they lived under. Capitalist regimes have always draped themselves in illusion with noble hypocritical slogans such as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “All men are created free and equal” and “Equal opportunity for all.”
Sacco and Vanzetti met their death with courage and simple honesty as they had lived, protesting their innocence and proclaiming their faith in their credo of anarchism. And the radical movement of the entire world mourned them.
Why do we revive this old story of the two comrades, Sacco and Vanzetti? Is it to refute President Carter’s propaganda about human rights? Mr. Jimmy Carter will disillusion the workers more effectively by his own action than any words could do. No, it is because the same conditions which were responsible for this dreadful case still prevail today. Our jails are still holding and our courts still railroading men and women either victims of race prejudice or those who have dared to fight against oppressive conditions.
Divide and conquer! The old slogan of British imperialism which the rulers of this country have inherited is still applied by keeping the ethnic groups apart with all of them looked down upon by the English majority. Removing from the scene radicals who might give leadership to rebellion is still a favorite practice. Imprisonment or implication in a capital crime they did not commit is still resorted to by those who control the industries and the power. The many-headed monster of capitalism grows more clever in its senility but the voices of rebellion still ring out.
Capitalism in its growing period was a progressive force, vastly expanding the human intelligence, raising the level of science to a magnificent degree, creating a technology which under a better system of property relations may be able to free mankind from slavery. The time has come now when an international movement of workers can save the world from the destruction which threatens it as we see air, water and land sinking into a morass of pollution while the atom, or neutron, bomb menaces humanity itself.
Sacco and Vanzetti were forerunners. They lived their lives fully to the last measure. They met death bravely, as they had lived, protesting their innocence and their faith in anarchism. They are an inspiration for those who today fight the same cause they died for. Let us keep their memory great.
1. Facing the Chair, by John Dos Passos, a Da Capo Press. Reprint of book first published in 1927, page 52.
2. For details of this and other intricate legal matters see: The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan. New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1948. Also The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, by Felix Frankfurter, Little Brown & Co., 1927.
3. Facing the Chair, page 33.
4. Facing the Chair. John Dos Passos—A Da Capo Reprint, First published in 1927.
5. Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti - Viking Press, 1928, pg. 264.
6. Same, pg. 279.