From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born workers who were accused of armed robbery and the murder of two guards in the 1920 holdup of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Both Sacco and Vanzetti had ties to a violent anarchist group, but the evidence against them was largely circumstantial. The case drew international attention, and many people around the world believed that the defendants’ radicalism had prejudiced the judge and jury against them, resulting in an unjust trial and conviction. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with armed robbery and murder in May 1920, and widespread international protests followed. Novelist John Dos Passos visited the defendants in prison and became convinced of their innocence. Dos Passos joined the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1920 and published the 127-page report Facing the Chair in 1927, after appeals had been exhausted and Sacco and Vanzetti had been sentenced to death. The publication of this report encouraged Massachusetts governor Alvan T. Fuller to set up an advisory committee to review the case, but the committee found no reason to recommend a new trial. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

Summary Overview

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born workers who were accused of armed robbery and the murder of two guards in the 1920 holdup of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Both Sacco and Vanzetti had ties to a violent anarchist group, but the evidence against them was largely circumstantial. The case drew international attention, and many people around the world believed that the defendants’ radicalism had prejudiced the judge and jury against them, resulting in an unjust trial and conviction. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with armed robbery and murder in May 1920, and widespread international protests followed. Novelist John Dos Passos visited the defendants in prison and became convinced of their innocence. Dos Passos joined the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in 1920 and published the 127-page report Facing the Chair in 1927, after appeals had been exhausted and Sacco and Vanzetti had been sentenced to death. The publication of this report encouraged Massachusetts governor Alvan T. Fuller to set up an advisory committee to review the case, but the committee found no reason to recommend a new trial. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

Defining Moment

The arrest and trial of Sacco and Vanzetti took place during the height of the First Red Scare, a nationwide fear of radical leftist activities that swept the country in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Many Americans believed that a violent Bolshevik Revolution of the type that had swept through Russia was imminent in the United States, and a deep distrust of foreign workers contributed to this fear. Beginning in the 1890s, large waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived in the United States and were rapidly changing the country’s demographics. Widespread labor unrest, class tension, and anti-immigrant views fueled public fears of an impending Communist revolution in the United States.

Turmoil followed the end of World War I, as men returned from military service and jobs were scarce, and the United States entered an economic recession between 1918 and 1919. Radical leaders called for an end to capitalism and employed inflammatory rhetoric to galvanize support for their cause. Communists urged an end to private property and the wage system. Anarchists, who often allied themselves with other branches of the labor movement, wished to do away with all governmental authority, and many anarchist groups were becoming increasingly violent in their tactics. In particular, the followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated violence to advance the cause of revolution, had carried out several bombings and assassination attempts in the mid-1910s and early 1920s. Sacco and Vanzetti were committed radicals, who had ties to Galleanist anarchists. They had met at a strike in 1917 and became close friends.

In this atmosphere of heightened tension, two gunmen attempted to steal the payroll boxes of the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920. When a security guard reached for his pistol, he was shot and killed, as was another employee who was present at the scene. The boxes were stolen and the murderers fled in a stolen car. Braintree police contacted detectives in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where another shoe factory had been the target of an unsuccessful armed robbery attempt a few months earlier, in December 1919. When Sacco, Vanzetti, and two other men came to a local garage to pick up a car suspected of involvement in the robberies, the police gave chase. Two of the suspects escaped and eventually made their way back to Italy, but Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. Both were found to be carrying loaded pistols, and Sacco also had anarchist literature and an Italian passport on his person. The two men were indicted for murder in the South Braintree robbery, and Vanzetti was also charged in the Bridgewater case. Anarchists retaliated violently with bombings in New York City and at American embassies around the world.

In June 1920, Vanzetti was indicted for the attempted robbery in Bridgewater, and he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison. On May 31, 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti faced trial for the South Braintree murders, but the trial was marred by allegations of anti-immigrant bias. Judge Webster Thayer, the same man who had presided over Vanzetti’s Bridgewater trial, had recently given a speech denouncing Bolshevism and anarchism. Much of the evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti was circumstantial, with the primary material evidence coming from questionable ballistics tests. After weeks of testimony, both men were found guilty of murder on July 14, 1921, and after a lengthy appeals process, they were executed on August 23, 1927.

Immediately following their arrest, the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee was formed by friends and supporters. Author John Dos Passos joined the committee and authored its 1927 report, Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreign-Born Workmen.

Author Biography

John Dos Passos was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 14, 1896, the son of a well-known lawyer. He attended the prestigious Choate School and graduated from Harvard College in 1916. He volunteered as an ambulance driver at the outbreak of World War I and was stationed near the site of the 1917 Battle of Verdun, which profoundly affected him. After the war, Dos Passos was disillusioned with the US government and the military. He went to work as a journalist, traveling extensively. Beginning in 1920, he published novels with increasing success and became close friends with Ernest Hemingway. In 1927, Dos Passos published the report of the Sacco-Vanzetti Committee and was arrested for loitering while picketing in Boston in protest of their executions. In 1928, Dos Passos traveled to the Soviet Union to study socialism.

Dos Passos grew disillusioned with radical politics while in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and advocated for civil and human rights. He served as a war correspondent during World War II, and his politics became increasingly conservative later in life. Dos Passos published critically acclaimed fiction and nonfiction throughout his life. He died on September 28, 1970, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Document Analysis

In this excerpt from the 1927 Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee report Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreign-Born Workmen, Dos Passos focuses not on the details of the legal arguments in the case against the two men, but on their history, their characters, and the impact of years in prison. Dos Passos paints a very sympathetic picture of both men, using their own words to describe how America had failed them, first as downtrodden laborers and then as victims of a prejudiced, unjust court system. This passage begins with an impassioned plea for readers to see Sacco and Vanzetti as representatives of an oppressed group of people. “They are all the wops, hunkies, bohunks, factory fodder that hunger drives into the American mills through the painful sieve of Ellis Island,” Dos Passos argues. Is it any wonder that they wanted to change the system that had treated them so badly? Dos Passos quotes Vanzetti’s account of his early years in the United States, in which he describes deplorable working conditions and recounts how he was blacklisted by local employers for his efforts in the labor movement. Vanzetti claims that “every one of my many employers could testify that I was an industrious, dependable workman, that my chief fault was in trying so hard to bring a little light of understanding into the dark lives of my fellow-workers.” Dos Passos suggests that the government had gone to extraordinary lengths to convict Sacco and Vanzetti of this crime because it was unable to deport them, and the government wanted to get rid of Sacco and Vanzetti “in a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, and dissenters of all sorts.”

Dos Passos masterfully contrasts the public’s paranoia and the government’s hunt for suspected radicals with Vanzetti’s account of his arrival in the “promised land” of the United States. “The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent [sic] revolution. All the horrors of Russian Bolshevism were about to be enacted on our peaceful shores. That fall the roundup began. Every man had his ear to his neighbor’s keyhole.” By contrast, Dos Passos quotes from Vanzetti’s account of his first view of America: “New York loomed on the horizon in all its grandness and illusion of happiness.”

Dos Passos recounts a meeting with Sacco in the surreal environment of a prison on a beautiful June day. He is described as polite, pleasant, but numb from working so hard to maintain his innocence in an environment where his guilt was assumed.

This selection ends with a plea for the middle and upper class to inform themselves about the case. “Working people, underdogs, reds know instinctively what is going on. The same thing has happened before. But the average law-admiring, authority-respecting citizen does not know.” Dos Passos urges that “the facts of the case may be known so that no one can plead ignorance” to the crime of executing innocent men; he urges the public to get involved and work for justice in the case. To Dos Passos, it is not a question of just Sacco and Vanzetti, but of a system that is broken and will not serve anyone adequately if it does not serve them.

Essential Themes

The essential theme of this passage is the miscarriage of justice that Dos Passos and the committee felt had been carried out in the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. Dos Passos portrayed the men as having been abandoned and betrayed by the promise of American opportunity long before they were denied justice, and he portrayed the men sympathetically, as the victims of mass hysteria. This report was published before the execution of the men, so it also passionately pleads for any help that can be offered in the case and asks men and women of higher social standing than the working class to intervene on their behalf.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Carr, Virginia Spencer. Dos Passos: A Life. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2004. Print.
  • Frankfurter, Felix. “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Monthly Group, 1 Mar. 1927. Web. 22 May 2014.
  • Topp, Michael M. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin, 2005. Print.
  • Watson, Bruce. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
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