Selected Prison Letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti

These letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti were published posthumously in 1928. He and his fellow defendant, Nicola Sacco, were executed on August 23, 1927. When Vanzetti wrote these letters, he had been convicted of a double murder, but had not yet received his final sentence. Vanzetti was imprisoned for six years before being sentenced to death by electric chair.

Summary Overview

These letters of Bartolomeo Vanzetti were published posthumously in 1928. He and his fellow defendant, Nicola Sacco, were executed on August 23, 1927. When Vanzetti wrote these letters, he had been convicted of a double murder, but had not yet received his final sentence. Vanzetti was imprisoned for six years before being sentenced to death by electric chair.

Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-born workers accused of armed robbery and murder in the 1920 holdup of two guards transporting shoe-factory payroll money. Both Sacco and Vanzetti had ties with a violent anarchist group, and many people around the world believed that this prejudiced the judge and jury against them, resulting in an unjust trial and conviction.

Defining Moment

The arrest and trial of Vanzetti took place during the height of the post–World War I Red Scare, a nationwide fear of radical leftist activities. A violent Bolshevik revolution of the type that had swept through Russia was believed to be imminent in the United States, and a deep distrust of foreign workers contributed to this fear. Turmoil followed the end of World War I, as men returned and jobs were scarce. Though labor agitation had been officially on hold while the nation went to war, after the war’s end, widespread strikes led by labor unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, once more swept through the country, and the widespread pro-American patriotic rhetoric that prevailed in the country made anyone who questioned authority seem a potential enemy.

Despite arrests and hostility from the authorities, radical leaders continued to call 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 allied themselves with other branches of the labor movement, wished to do away with all authority, and were becoming increasingly violent. In April 1919, a plot was uncovered that would have sent at least thirty-six bombs through the mail to prominent government and business leaders, including Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, immigration officials, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. In June of that year, anarchists set off eight bombs in eight cities. One went off prematurely and killed the bomber, who was identified as a follower of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated bombings and assassinations in the cause of revolution. Sacco and Vanzetti were committed radicals and had ties to Galleanist anarchists. They met at a strike in 1917 and became close friends.

The bombings increased the existing paranoia surrounding immigrants involved in the labor movement. From 1919 to 1920, under the auspices of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover conducted what would come to be known as the Palmer Raids, arresting and deporting hundreds of immigrants whose political beliefs they claimed would lead to violent uprisings. Some of those deported were indeed anarchists or radical Socialists, but many were simply members of unions and immigrant organizations.

In this atmosphere of heightened tension, gunmen in Braintree, Massachusetts, attempted to steal the payroll boxes of the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company. When a security guard reached for his pistol, he was shot and killed, and the unarmed employee with him was shot as well. The boxes were taken, and the murderers fled in a stolen car. Braintree police contacted detectives in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where another shoe factory had been robbed. 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. The other two men 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. The pair was indicted for murder in the Braintree robbery, and Vanzetti was also charged in the Bridgewater case. Anarchists retaliated violently with bombings in New York and at embassies across the world.

Vanzetti’s Bridgewater trial was first, and he was convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder. Sacco and Vanzetti’s Braintree trial was next and was marred by allegations of anti-immigrant bias. The judge–the same who presided over the Bridgewater trial–had recently given a speech denouncing Bolshevism and anarchy. Much of the case against Sacco and Vanzetti was circumstantial, with the primary material evidence coming from questionable ballistics tests. Both men were found guilty of murder on July 14, 1921. During the lengthy appeals process, both Sacco and Vanzetti corresponded frequently with friends, supporters, and each other. A volume of select letters was published after their deaths in 1928.

Author Biography

Bartolomeo Vanzetti was born in Villafalletto, Italy, in 1888. In 1908, he immigrated to the United States, working in restaurants and clubs in New York City. Eventually, he moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and Connecticut before finally settling in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1913. He worked as a fish seller in Plymouth and met Nicola Sacco at a labor rally in 1917. Vanzetti was suspected of being a follower of a violent anarchist movement called the Galleanists. He was convicted of the double murder of a guard and a paymaster during a robbery on April 15, 1920, at a shoe factory, and was also convicted of a December 24, 1919, factory robbery in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. In 1927, Vanzetti was executed by electrocution. He was cremated and is buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts.

Document Analysis

This collection of Vanzetti’s letters from the Charleston State Prison varies in tone from affectionate letters to a favorite supporter to debates with radical friends on points of theory. Overall, Vanzetti’s letters show an engagement with the leftist writers and philosophers of his time, and he is more willing than Sacco to wear his anarchist title proudly while proclaiming his innocence. He does not discuss the trial in any detail, but does condemn the judge and justice system overall, along with the entire capitalist profit system.

Vanzetti’s letters begin with a letter to Mrs. Evans, a staunch supporter of both Sacco and Vanzetti. Like Sacco, Vanzetti uses his correspondence with Evans to reinforce his innocence and to paint himself as a gentle person who abhors violence and looks to her for guidance and help as a “gentle motherly figure.” He declares that his background renders him unable to stomach violence, though he wishes for “‘social wealth’ for all people.” He is philosophical about the “insurrection” he wishes for. “It need love, light, spirit of sacrifice, ideas, conscience, instincts. It need more conscience, more hope and more goodness. And all this blessed things can be seeded, awoked, growed up in the heart of man in many ways, but not by robbery and murder for robbery.” Evans has also encouraged him to study American philosophers and writers, but Vanzetti says the language barrier precludes him from doing so. In other letters, he references a wide leftist reading list, including Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Leo Tolstoy. He declares that he “cannot study without work, hard physical work, sunshine and winds; free, blessing wind.”

In Vanzetti’s letters to his fellow radicals, however, he is much freer to engage in debates on the finer points of anarchist theory and to be open about his feelings of anger and desire for revenge. In a letter to “Comrade Hillsmith,” he separates himself from those outside of the movement. “Of course, we Anarchists are so because we differ in opinions from all the other humans who are not Anarchists.” He also discusses, albeit vaguely, the idea of violence in aid of the cause, asking Hillsmith, “Are you contrary or in favor of the Anarchistic view and aim?–of a real physical equality in ownership, in rights and duties among the human beings? If it would that humans should be compelled to the violence either for justice or for injustice, then would you approve those who would use the violence against the violence that compel them to be unjust and violent?” In a later letter, he is more straightforward. “I will ask for revenge–I will tell that I will die gladly by the hands of the hanger after having known to have been vindicated. I mean ‘eye for an eye, ear for an ear,’ and even more since to win it is necessary that 100 enemies fall to each of us.” Vanzetti believes that history will vindicate him. “It is supremely sweet to me–my consciousness of superiority, of righteousness, to know that I can judge and that the future shall bow to me, the doomed, and curse my judges.”

Essential Themes

In these letters, Vanzetti longs for the freedom to be in nature and describes himself as a gentle man, who has no need of money and abhors violence. In other letters, however, he is more open with his feelings that the labor movement should be preparing for war. “Are they not ready to do with other comrades what they are doing to us? Are they not more willing than ever to squeeze out the worker’s blood for more gold? Are they not preparing a greater war?”

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Frankfurter, Felix. “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 1 Mar. 1927. Web. 27 May 2014.
  • Sacco, Nicola, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
  • Topp, Michael M.The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford, 2005. Print.
  • Watson, Bruce.Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.