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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
History of immigration after 1891