Sacco and Vanzetti Are Executed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Anti-immigrant sentiment contributed to the sentencing and eventual execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder. The two men’s guilt remained in doubt for decades after their deaths.

Summary of Event

Although Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in 1927, the arrest and trial of these Italian immigrants took place amid the paranoia that characterized much of American politics immediately after the end of World War I. In the war’s aftermath, Europe had undergone a political shuffling that culminated in a communist revolution in Russia. As European immigrants began flooding into the United States, there was fear that this communist ideology and anarchy—the belief that compulsory government should be replaced by voluntary, self-governing groups—would also be imported. Many native-born citizens worried about secret plots to undermine the democratic structure of the country, and often anyone who appeared different or foreign was branded as a “Red.” [kw]Sacco and Vanzetti Are Executed (Aug. 23, 1927) [kw]Vanzetti Are Executed, Sacco and (Aug. 23, 1927) [kw]Executed, Sacco and Vanzetti Are (Aug. 23, 1927) Sacco and Vanzetti case Red Scare (1919-1920);Sacco and Vanzetti case [g]United States;Aug. 23, 1927: Sacco and Vanzetti Are Executed[06910] [c]Crime and scandal;Aug. 23, 1927: Sacco and Vanzetti Are Executed[06910] [c]Social issues and reform;Aug. 23, 1927: Sacco and Vanzetti Are Executed[06910] Sacco, Nicola Vanzetti, Bartolomeo Thayer, Webster Moore, Fred H. Thompson, William G. Fuller, Alvan T. Madeiros, Celestino Boda, Mike Coacci, Feruccio

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, manacled together and surrounded by guards and onlookers, as they approach the Massachusetts courthouse where they will be sentenced to death.

(Library of Congress)

The two events, which may or may not have been connected, that culminated in the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti began on December 24, 1919. It was payday at the L. Q. White Shoe Company of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and a truck carrying approximately thirty-three thousand dollars in company payroll was unsuccessfully attacked. Pinkerton Agency detectives investigated the incident, and during interviews with eyewitnesses they determined that one of the suspects appeared to be an immigrant with a dark complexion and a mustache and that he fled in a large vehicle that was probably a Hudson. The identified license plate had been stolen a few days earlier in Needham, Massachusetts, as had a Buick touring car. Thus, despite witnesses’ testimony to the contrary, the detectives concluded that the Buick had likely been used in the robbery. No suspects were arrested, although tips emerged connecting the getaway car to a group of Italian anarchists.

On April 15, 1920, in nearby South Braintree, the payroll for the Slater and Morrill Shoe Factory was being escorted, on foot, from the office to the factory by two security guards, Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli. En route, the guards were attacked, robbed, and murdered by two men who escaped in a waiting vehicle. At the inquest, twenty-three eyewitnesses testified that the assailants appeared to be Italian, but few could positively identify the men.

Police Chief Michael E. Stewart traced the lead to Feruccio Coacci, an Italian citizen scheduled for deportation, after recalling the tip about Italian anarchists storing a car in Bridgewater. Coacci revealed that the car belonged to his housemate, Mike Boda, a known anarchist, and that it was currently being repaired in a garage in West Bridgewater. A police guard was planted outside the garage to wait for Boda.

Meanwhile, as a result of the prevalent U.S. attitude against radicals and in the wake of a national roundup and arrest of aliens, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had decided it would be wise to destroy their anarchist literature. The abundance of material required transportation, and they arranged to borrow Boda’s vehicle. Although the trap was laid for Boda, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested as they attempted to claim the car. Neither man had a police record, but both were armed.

Because the men were not informed of the reason for their arrest, they assumed they were being held as anarchists. Although they were read their rights, the language barrier may have obstructed their complete understanding. They were fingerprinted, their weapons were confiscated but not tagged, and they were questioned for seven days without being charged. There was no lineup; the two were paraded in front of witnesses who were asked if they were the men involved in the holdup. On May 12, 1920, Vanzetti was charged with attempted murder and robbery at Bridgewater.

His trial began on June 22, 1920, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Judge Webster Thayer presiding. The initial interviews by the Pinkerton detectives were not admitted, and all witnesses for the defense were of Italian origin. After only five hours of deliberation, the jury found Vanzetti guilty of assault with intent to rob and murder. Six weeks later, he was sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison for intent to rob, though the attempted murder charge was dropped after it was discovered that one of the jurors had brought his own shell casings for comparison.

In September, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the murder of Alessandro Berardelli Berardelli, Alessandro and Frederick Parmenter Parmenter, Frederick during the South Braintree robbery. Both pleaded not guilty. A committee for their defense raised enough money to hire the radical California attorney Fred H. Moore, who cited the case as an establishment attempt to victimize the working man. The trial began on May 31, 1921, in Dedham, Massachusetts. As the presiding judge in Vanzetti’s first trial, Judge Thayer should have been disqualified, but instead he oversaw the second trial’s administration. On June 4, the all-male jury was sworn in, and on June 6, Sacco and Vanzetti were marched, handcuffed, into the courtroom.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution presented a bounty of circumstantial evidence: testimony from witnesses whose status as eyewitnesses was questionable; a cap from the scene that was alleged to be Vanzetti’s but was too small for his head; expert testimony qualified with “I am inclined to believe”; no positive identification on the getaway car; ballistic evidence that was technical and confusing; and the accusation of “consciousness of guilt,” based on false statements made by the two when they thought they were being held for anarchy. Judge Thayer instructed the jury to be “true soldiers,” who would display the “highest and noblest type of true American citizenship,” while referring to the defendants as slackers. On July 14, after another five-hour deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. The standard penalty in Massachusetts at the time was death by electric chair.

Sacco and Vanzetti remained incarcerated for six years while motions were filed for them. The presiding judge heard all appeals, and each was weighed and denied by Judge Thayer. One motion stated Judge Thayer himself had demonstrated out-of-court prejudice against the two. However, despite growing doubts about the men’s guilt, Thayer remained adamant, and his animosity toward Moore grew. On November 8, the defense committee forced Moore to resign and hired William G. Thompson.

While Thompson continued to encounter roadblocks, Sacco was slipped a note from another prisoner, Celestino Madeiros, who confessed to the crime. From the note, Thompson traced a link to the Morelli Gang, a group of Italian immigrants from Providence, Rhode Island, led by Joe Morelli and his brothers. This group had attacked the shoe factory in the past, and one member of the gang bore a resemblance to Sacco. Based on the new evidence, Thompson filed a motion for retrial, which was denied, and in April of 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to die during the week of July 10. Public outcry caused the date to be moved to August 10, and Vanzetti wrote a plea for clemency to Massachusetts governor Alvan T. Fuller. In the letter, he asked not for pardon but for a complete review of the case.

On June 1, the governor appointed a committee to review the case, but after examination of the findings, he denied a new trial. On August 10, Sacco and Vanzetti were prepared for execution. Thirty-six minutes before the execution, the governor issued a postponement pending the results of an appeal to the Supreme Court. On August 19, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, citing a lack of authority. In Europe and South America, mobs rioted and marched on U.S. embassies. In France, Italy, and the United States, workers went on strike to protest. Five hundred extra policemen, armed with machine guns and tear gas, barricaded the crowd of thousands outside the jail. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Significance

The robbery and murder case against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, one of the most famous U.S. trials of the twentieth century, generated worldwide protests, strikes, and riots as it focused the international spotlight on the small town of Dedham, Massachusetts in 1927. Controversy over the trial and its verdict continued long after the two men were executed. Some maintained that both men were innocent and were the targets of ethnic and political discrimination, whereas others insisted that only Vanzetti was innocent. However, most scholars agreed that Sacco and Vanzetti should have been granted a second trial, and in 1977 Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis released an official state document asserting that the men’s guilt had not been proven. Sacco and Vanzetti case Red Scare (1919-1920);Sacco and Vanzetti case

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bortman, Eli C. Sacco and Vanzetti. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 2005. A brief, dramatic, and evenhanded account of the trial and its circumstances.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickinson, Alice. The Sacco-Vanzetti Case. New York: Franklin Watts, 1972. An abbreviated overview of the case, including chronology and photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrmann, Herbert. The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Liberally illustrated account by the case’s assistant defense attorney during the period 1926-1927. Maps, time tables, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frankfurter, Marion Denman, and Gardner Jackson, eds. The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997. Collection of correspondence by both men written from prison, including Vanzetti’s letter to the governor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joughin, G. L., and E. M. Morgan. The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1948. Early work provides masterful analysis of the case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Francis. Tragedy in Dedham. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962. Illustrated chronological recitation of events, including a discussion of public temperament.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Topp, Michael M. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. A good resource for those interested in primary-source material.

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