Selected Prison Letters of Nicola Sacco

The letters of Nicola Sacco included in this excerpt were published posthumously in 1928. Sacco was executed on August 23, 1927. When Sacco wrote these letters, he had been convicted of a double murder, as had his friend Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but he had not yet received his final sentence. Sacco was imprisoned for more than six years, until he was ultimately sentenced to death by electric chair.

Summary Overview

The letters of Nicola Sacco included in this excerpt were published posthumously in 1928. Sacco was executed on August 23, 1927. When Sacco wrote these letters, he had been convicted of a double murder, as had his friend Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but he had not yet received his final sentence. Sacco was imprisoned for more than six years, until he was ultimately sentenced to death by electric chair.

Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-born workers accused of armed robbery and the murder of two men in the 1920 holdup of a shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Both Sacco and Vanzetti had ties with a violent anarchist group, but much of the evidence against them was circumstantial. Their trial 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.

Defining Moment

The arrest and trial of Sacco and Vanzetti took place during the height of the Red Scare, a nationwide fear of radical leftist activities that swept the country from 1919 to 1920. Many Americans believed that a violent Communist 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 were rapidly changing the demographics of the United States. 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. Between 1918 and 1919, the US economy entered a recession. 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 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. When a security guard reached for his pistol, he was shot and killed, as was another employee who was present at the crime 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. 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 on his person. Sacco and Vanzetti 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 throughout 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 case 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. During their lengthy appeals process, both Sacco and Vanzetti corresponded frequently with friends, supporters, and each other. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927. A volume of select letters was published in 1928.

Author Biography

Nicola Sacco was born near Torremaggiore, Italy, on April 22, 1891, and grew up on his father’s vineyard. He immigrated to the United States in 1908 at the age of seventeen and worked in a shoe factory in Massachusetts. He married his wife, Rosina, in 1912, and together they had two children, Dante and Ines. Sacco became increasingly involved in radical, left-wing groups and met Vanzetti in 1917. Sacco opposed the United States’ entry into World War I and fled with Vanzetti to Mexico in 1917 to avoid the draft. Sacco was suspected of being a follower of Luigi Galleani, the leader of a violent anarchist movement, and he was arrested in 1920 for the double murder of a guard and a paymaster during a robbery at a shoe factory. After a lengthy appeals process, Sacco was executed by electrocution on August 23, 1927.

Document Analysis

This collection of Sacco’s letters from jail begins with a letter to Vanzetti, which offers a poignant recounting of a 1921 visit from his family. Sacco’s wife, Rosina, was pregnant with their daughter Ines when he was arrested, so he had only seen her sporadically. He ends his letter to Vanzetti with a comment on their shared loneliness. “I am very sorry that no one comes and see you, no one comes to see me neither, but Rosie.” As Sacco and Vanzetti’s case became more widely known, more and more friends and supporters came to see both of the men, and they realized that they were on a broader stage. Their letters to their supporters discuss the case and speak to the wider world. Sacco sends thanks to his supporters in a 1923 letter to Elizabeth Evans. “I see in that court room all the noble legion of our friends and comrades.… [I] salute fraternally all our friends and comrades, and you dear mother of the human oppressed.”

Sacco’s use of the word “comrade” is politically charged, though it did not carry the direct connection to Communism that it held later. The term “comrade” was used by leftist and labor organizations beginning in the nineteenth century to eliminate hierarchical titles, and the term served as a reminder of the equality of all men. In 1924, Sacco wrote to Vanzetti “the comrades and the proletariat of the world they are always with us, indeed much more today than ever.”

Though Sacco makes vague references to “international proletariat” and “poor stupid, oppressed humanity,” his letters are not overtly political and focus instead on pleas for support from his friends, protestations of his innocence, and memories of his youth. He refers to one supporter as “another old dear mother,” and to another he wrote, “I have find in you that same sincere and faithful that my dear mother she always had toward me.” In one letter, he paints a descriptive picture of looking for a red rose for his mother in a field in Italy, and his repeated invocation of motherhood served to endear him to the older women with whom he most frequently corresponded.

In one letter to his lawyer, Sacco lets his frustration at the length of the case boil over. He is furious over a pamphlet printed with his name on it, and he accuses Fred Moore, his lawyer, of profiting from his case and “abuse on weakness of my comrades good faith.” This letter paints a picture of a hot-blooded, frustrated man, who is well aware of the international attention that his case was garnering.

Essential Themes

The essential theme of this passage is Nicola Sacco’s desire to convince his friends and supporters of his inherent goodness as a person and his innocence in this case. His letters were primarily to Vanzetti and to his older, female supporters, and all portrayed him as a loving son, husband, and father. He avoided overt political statements, but used the language of leftist movements in his letters. Sacco’s increasing eloquence as he was able to become more proficient in English is clear in these letters, and his letters helped galvanize support for his case outside the immigrant community.

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: St. Martin, 2005. Print.
  • Watson, Bruce. Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.