The Sacco-Vanzetti Case in Context Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The famed case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists tried and convicted for murder, is examined in the present section. The case centered on a robbery and double homicide that took place in Braintree, Massachusetts in April 1920. The paymaster and a guard at a shoe factory there were killed during the execution of the robbery, and eyewitnesses claimed to have seen two men driving off in a car after the shooting. Although neither Sacco, a shoemaker, nor Vanzetti, a fish peddler, had a criminal record, they were known to the authorities on account of their activities within anarchist circles. An associate of theirs, Mike Boda (Mario Buda), was suspected of knowing about or being involved in the murders. When police tracked down Boda together with Sacco and Vanzetti, the three men fled. Boda escaped to Italy, but Sacco and Vanzetti were soon arrested. Both were found to be in possession of handguns, and Sacco was holding some anarchist literature. One of the guns held by Vanzetti matched the type used by the dead guard, whose gun was not found at the scene of the crime.

The famed case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists tried and convicted for murder, is examined in the present section. The case centered on a robbery and double homicide that took place in Braintree, Massachusetts in April 1920. The paymaster and a guard at a shoe factory there were killed during the execution of the robbery, and eyewitnesses claimed to have seen two men driving off in a car after the shooting. Although neither Sacco, a shoemaker, nor Vanzetti, a fish peddler, had a criminal record, they were known to the authorities on account of their activities within anarchist circles. An associate of theirs, Mike Boda (Mario Buda), was suspected of knowing about or being involved in the murders. When police tracked down Boda together with Sacco and Vanzetti, the three men fled. Boda escaped to Italy, but Sacco and Vanzetti were soon arrested. Both were found to be in possession of handguns, and Sacco was holding some anarchist literature. One of the guns held by Vanzetti matched the type used by the dead guard, whose gun was not found at the scene of the crime.

Fearing deportation, both men denied any links to anarchism and gave other, contradictory statements. Vanzetti was first tried alone on charges of a previous robbery-murder in Bridgewater, and on the basis of fairly weak eyewitness testimony and indeterminate physical evidence, was found guilty. Subsequently, it evolved that some of the physical evidence had been tampered with, and therefore the murder conviction was vacated. Both men were then tried for robbery and murder in connection with the Braintree crime. Again, questionable eyewitness testimony and tenuous ballistics evidence was sufficient to convict the men, and the case seemed to revolve as much around their radical political beliefs and immigrant background as the facts of the crime. It didn’t help that their defense attorney, a long-time defender of left-wing causes, angered the judge several times and allowed Sacco and Vanzetti to take the witness stand–with disastrous results. In the end, both were found guilty.

The case became a cause célèbre among radicals and progressives, who mounted protests across the nation and wrote pleas for understanding on the part of the public. Several appeals were filed but came to naught. In 1925, while Sacco and Vanzetti sat in prison still awaiting sentencing, an ex-convict facing murder charges, Celestino Madeiros, came forth to confess his participation in the Braintree crime. Attempts to retry the case failed, however. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death by the trial judge in 1927 and sent to the electric chair–together with Madeiros. Their case continued to be discussed for decades as an example of bias within the legal system, and even today remains a topic of study and commentary.

In the present section, along with several chapters devoted to the Sacco-Vanzetti case, we include a chapter concerning the so-called Palmer raids, which targeted alleged communists, socialists, and anarchists in the interests of keeping America free of radical elements. These raids, along with the movement to restrict immigration from “undesirable” nations, serve, in historical perspective, to shed light on the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Also included here is a statement from labor activists about how labor “will not be outlawed or enslaved”–despite the forces seemingly working against it.

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