Sacco and Vanzetti trial

The trial of the Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti illustrates the extreme nativism pervading American society during the 1920’s. Through the questionable investigation that led to their arrest, the lack of concrete proof against them, the questionable methods of the presiding judge, and the subsequent public outrage at their conviction, it is clear that an injustice was wrought.

American participation in World War I (1914-1918) engendered an extraordinary level of patriotism that fostered public Xenophobia;and World War I[World War I]xenophobia and government curbing of civil liberties. The Russian RevolutionRussian Revolution of 1917 exacerbated this trend and helped create a “Red Scare” during which both the public and the government–through the office of U.S. attorney general Palmer, A. MitchellA. Mitchell Palmer–sought to eradicate the country of communists, socialists, anarchists, and all others deemed threats to the capitalist democratic way of life. Immigrants became prime targets of nativist hysteria, as they collectively represented all that was “foreign” and antithetical to Americanism. Social and political groups of immigrants had their meetings disrupted, their members beaten, their newspapers censored, and their supporters thrown in jail.Red Scare;and Sacco and Vanzetti[Sacco and Vanzetti]Sacco, NicolaAnarchists;Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti[Sacco and
Bartolomeo Vanzetti]
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Impact of the Red Scare

In [a]Sedition Act of 1918[a]Espionage Act of 19171917-1918, the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, two pieces of censorial legislation unlike any seen since the 1798 [a]Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798Alien and Sedition Acts. Combined, these laws punished virtually anyone deemed disloyal to the U.S. government, whether through actual treasonous actions, resistance to federal law, or even simply the use of defamatory language against the government or military. Persons who obstructed the government’s conduct of the war or interfered with military recruitment were also in violation of these laws.

Because the U.S. postmaster general had the power to prevent the distribution of defamatory and abusive material through the U.S. mail, it was relatively easy to shut down radical presses that depended on the mail to distribute their publications. In this climate, the anarchist Press;Italian Americannewspaper Cronaca Sovversiva–founded by well-known Italian anarchist Galleani, LuigiLuigi Galleani–became a mouthpiece for the Italian immigrant community. Its contributors touted the end of capitalism–even through violent means. The newspaper’s criticism of U.S. draft laws made it a prime target for censorship. The Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were known to be anarchists because they wrote for Cronaca Sovversiva and gave money to it. Their connections with the newspaper probably drew early government attention to them.

The Crimes

Between December, 1919, and April, 1920, a series of unexplained robberies and two murders occurred in Massachusetts. These events, along with bombing incidents, prompted public outrage against anarchists, who were believed to be out of control. Law-enforcement officials fell under heavy public pressure to take action. A veritable witch hunt ensued as U.S. attorney general Palmer, A. MitchellPalmer’s Department of Justice demanded the roundup and deportation of suspected anarchists and “Reds.” In the investigations that followed, similarities were found in two unsolved crimes–a robbery case in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and a robbery/murder case in South Braintree, Massachusetts. These clues led detectives to a garage owner named Simon Johnson.

Because eyewitnesses declared they saw Italian men leaving the scene of the Bridgewater robbery in a car, the Bridgewater police chief tried to round up all Italians in the vicinity who owned cars. No consideration was given to how eyewitnesses determined the suspects were Italians; they were simply taken at their word. On May 5, 1920, Sacco, Vanzetti, and a man named Orciani were arrested when they showed up at Simon Johnson’s garage to collect a car, whose owner fled without being arrested. Orciani was later released because he had solid alibis for the times when the crimes that were being investigated had occurred.

At the moment when Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, both men were armed. They then lied to the police and later the district attorney about their politics and affiliations with other anarchists and Cronaca Sovversiva. The following month, Vanzetti was indicted for the Bridgewater robbery, for which he was later convicted; Sacco had an alibi for that incident. In September, 1920, both Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted for the South Braintree robbery and murders.

The Trial

When Sacco and Vanzetti were brought to trial for murder in May, 1921, several people who had earlier deposed either that they were unsure of the culprits’ identities or that Sacco and Vanzetti did not resemble the culprits they saw changed their testimonies by swearing they were certain they had seen Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime or fleeing it, or that they knew the men were somehow associated with the crime. During cross-examination, both defendants were repeatedly questioned about their political views–an issue that had nothing directly to do with the crimes for which the men were charged. In fact, more time was spent asking Sacco and Vanzetti about their avoiding the draft, their feelings about America, and deportations of their friends than about evidence actually relating to the criminal case.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco, manacled together and surrounded by guards as they approach the Massachusetts courthouse in which they were about to be sentenced.

(Library of Congress)

When Thayer, WebsterJudge Webster Thayer instructed the jury about deliberations, he reminded them that as members of the jury they were proving their “loyalty” to the U.S. government and that their duty was sacred in this respect. He went on to explain that there never would have been a trial had not a grand jury ruled there was sufficient evidence for an indictment. His implication was that if the jury did not convict, it would, in effect, be declaring that the grand jury had been prejudiced. He also added that the law did not require jury members to be certain of the defendants’ guilt to convict them. While the members of the jury were deliberating, the foreman, named Ripley, brought .38 caliber cartridges into the room to show other jurors. While admitting there was not much evidence against the men, he said, “They outta hang anyway.”

After the jury returned with two convictions, the defense tried to argue for a new trial based on using the “Ripley motion” that unfair and unjust proceedings had occurred. Several other motions, mostly directed against Judge Thayer, were made for new trials, citing retractions by eyewitnesses and discoveries that certain witnesses had testified under false pretenses. These motions were all denied, as Thayer felt the new evidence was not substantial enough to overturn the convictions. When Sacco was in prison, a Portuguese man named Celestino Medeiros admitted to him that he had been involved in the South Braintree holdup and murders; however, a motion for a new trial based on this information was also denied.

Public agitation on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti by radicals, workers, immigrants, and Italians became international in scope, as demonstrations protesting the unfairness of their trial were held in major world cities Mounting public pressure, combined with influential behind-the-scenes interventions, eventually persuaded Massachusetts governor Fuller, Alvin T.Alvin T. Fuller to consider the question of clemency. He appointed an advisory committee under the leadership of Harvard University president A. Lawrence Lowell. In a decision that became notorious, the Lowell committee reported that Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial had been fair, so clemency was not warranted. After Fuller ignored a request for a stay of execution plea, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on August 23, 1927, slightly more than six years after their conviction. Fifty years later, Sacco and Vanzetti were pardoned by Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who declared August 23 a memorial day.Red Scare;and Sacco and Vanzetti[Sacco and Vanzetti]Sacco, NicolaAnarchists;Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti[Sacco and Bartolomeo
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Further Reading

  • Avrich, Paul. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Offers a fresh look at the case that paints a more circumspect picture of the two men. Rather than portraying them as purely innocent, Avrich reveals how their substantial role in the Italian anarchist movement was a major factor in their arrest, conviction, and execution.
  • Bortman, Eli C. Sacco and Vanzetti. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 2005. Brief, dramatic, and evenhanded account of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and its circumstances.
  • 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.
  • Frankfurter, Felix. “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.” The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1927. Primary-source document written when nearly all hope of overturning the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti had been lost. U.S. Supreme Court justice Frankfurter–who was himself an immigrant–openly criticized the procedures of the trial, being especially critical of Judge Thayer’s conduct. The article can be found online in the archives section of The Atlantic Monthly.
  • Topp, Michael M. The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Good resource for those interested in primary-source material on the Sacco and Vanzetti case.


Frankfurter, Felix

History of immigration after 1891

Italian immigrants



Red Scare