The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

Against the Current, No. 190, September/October 2017

Marty Oppenheimer

IT WAS A pleasant spring day in South Braintree, Massachusetts on the afternoon of April 15, 1920. Two men, a paymaster named Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli, walked rapidly down the sidewalk of the main street carrying a $16,000 cash payroll to a nearby shoe factory.

A black Buick drew to the curb. Two men leaped out. Several shots rang out. Two strongboxes containing the cash were grabbed by the men who then leaped into the waiting car and were driven off. Berardelli lay dead on the street. Parmenter died of his wounds a day later.

And so began the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two Italian immigrant anarchists who were convicted of the murders. On April 23, 1927 they were executed in the electric chair at Charleston Prison, Boston. Celestino Medeiros, a career criminal guilty of killing a bank clerk during a robbery, was also executed that day.

The case came amidst a widespread “red scare” in response to the Soviet revolution of 1917, and in reaction to a series of bombings, the most recent of them by an Italian American anarchist group under the leadership of one Luigi Galleani. Galleani believed in revolutionary violence to overthrow the state.

In April 1919, bombs were sent to a set of establishment figures. Only one bomb went off, mutilating an African-American maid. The others were spotted by a Post Office worker. But on June 2 more bombs went off, one of them at the home of President Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer.

The so-called Palmer Raids (1919-1920) followed. The federal government rounded up and deported hundreds of “reds” (including Galleani) to Italy and Eastern European countries. Eugene V. Debs had been convicted of sedition and in November, 1918 had been sent to federal prison.

Many frightened Americans feared a Bolshevik uprising here. American Legionnaires were raiding IWW offices. There were lynchings of “Wobblies,” other radicals, and union organizers. Portions of the immigrant radical community went underground. It was the “red summer” that saw race riots in dozens of cities, with hundreds of African-Americans killed and their neighborhoods laid waste.

Sacco and Vanzetti knew about the bombings. They had attended meetings of a Galleanist cell. Vanzetti also wrote essays for the Galleanist paper, the Cronaca Sovversiva. There is no evidence that they were personally involved in the bombings.

Arrest and Trial

On May 5 both men were arrested for the Braintree murders. They were armed, Vanzetti with a .38 revolver, Sacco with a .32 Colt pistol.

Vanzetti was first charged with an attempted holdup in Bridgewater on the day before Christmas, four months earlier. He was swiftly tried, convicted and sentenced to 12-15 years despite the testimony of 16 Italian Americans who said they had done business with him on that day.

The D.A.’s chief investigator, State Police Captain William Proctor, had doubts about Vanzetti’s involvement and was replaced. Then both men were charged with the two payroll murders and on May 31, 1921, their joint trial began in Dedham. The judge, Webster Thayer, and the D.A. Frederick Katzmann were the same as at Vanzetti’s earlier trial.

The two men had lied to the police concerning their whereabouts on the day of the robbery, possibly to throw the police off the track that they were involved with the Galleanists.

They feared they might suffer the same fate as another anarchist, Andrea Salsedo. He was being questioned when he jumped to his death from a 14th floor window of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the F.B.I.) office in New York City. It had been just two days before their arrest. Salsedo was a Galleanist.

The defense, headed at first by Fred Moore, a veteran of numerous IWW trials, called more than a hundred witnesses. Twenty supplied alibis for the two men. Vanzetti was placed selling fish in Plymouth, 35 miles from South Braintree, at the time of the holdup. A clerk at the Italian Consulate in Boston verified that Sacco had been there on that day applying for a passport.

D.A. Katzmann badgered defense witnesses with questions, doing his best to confuse them and to cast doubt on their reliability. Some witness testimony had to be translated from Italian.

Fred Moore showed one potential witness, a woman, a set of pictures including one of Sacco. She told him he was not among the robbers. Prodded by Katzmann in court, she pointed to Sacco. Attempts to discredit her failed.

Several prosecution witnesses did identify one or the other as being at the crime scene, but there was confusion. Did one of the robbers have a mustache like Vanzetti’s? Was it long like his or was it short?

Both men were put on the stand. Their involvement with anarchism soon came out. Their hesitant English was no match for the sophisticated, Harvard-educated Katzmann, who pressed them on why they were armed and why they lied to the police.

Five years after the trial, a Pinkerton Detective Agency report turned up. Several people who testified in court that they had seen Sacco or Vanzetti did not identify them when first interviewed by the Pinkertons.

Dubious Evidence

Much of the trial hinged on ballistics evidence. Was the mortal bullet that killed the guard Berardelli fired by Sacco’s Colt? Berardelli normally carried a .38 Harrington and Richardson revolver, the model with which Vanzetti was arrested.

The prosecution tried to tie Vanzetti to the holdup by claiming that he had taken Berardelli’s gun. However, it turned out that the guard’s gun was in the shop that day, to the great regret of his widow.

There had been six shots, all from .32 pistols. Four, including the fatal one, hit Berardelli. Allegedly that one came from Sacco’s weapon, the other three from another .32. The grooves from this bullet, the prosecution said, were different from the other three and could only have been fired from Sacco’s pistol.

Captain William Proctor of the State Police test-fired Sacco’s pistol and, weighing his words very carefully, testified that the third bullet “is consistent with being fired by that pistol.” Later Proctor signed an affidavit for the defense making it clear that he did not intend to say the bullet definitely passed through Sacco’s pistol. However, Proctor did not really have experience with the microscope and other (rather minimal at that time) ballistics technology.

Nor was there any other really expert witness except for the prosecution’s Charles Van Amburgh, who had worked for several firearms companies. He said he was “inclined to believe” the bullet had been fired from Sacco’s gun. In later testimony during one of the hearings for a new trial he was more emphatic that it was Sacco’s gun.

To counter this testimony the defense made the unknowing mistake of hiring a charlatan masquerading as an expert who managed, in an attempt to vindicate Sacco, to get caught tampering with the evidence.

Nevertheless, questions remained. Had the tampering also come from the other side? Had someone fired Sacco’s gun when it was in custody and then substituted his bullet for the real one? That question remains to this day.

Denial of Verdict and Appeals

On July 14, 1921 the jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of first degree murder. Apparently the jury believed that Sacco had fired the murder weapon. But Vanzetti had done nothing except be in the company of Sacco when he was arrested. The evidence of his presence at the scene of the hold-up was contested to say the least. The jury seemingly ignored Vanzetti’s alibi.

In his charge to the jury, Judge Webster Thayer referred to “our boys who had done their duty on the blood-stained fields of France,” in contrast, presumably, to the unpatriotic defendants, who had fled to Mexico in June, 1917 together with several other anarchists to avoid being drafted into the imperialist war. By now Thayer’s biases had become pretty evident to the defense and to their sympathizers in court.

In October, 1921 Attorney Moore’s appeal for a second trial based on new evidence was denied. He continued to try to track down further witnesses who might support the defense case, or show that prosecution witnesses had perjured themselves. Sentencing was delayed and a year went by with the men in prison.

As 1923 began, Sacco started a series of hunger strikes, one lasting 30 days and hospitalizing him. A number of society women, some who had supported the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, now began working with the defense committee and corresponded with Vanzetti.

On October 1, 1924 all motions for a new trial were denied by Thayer. Several persons later quoted Thayer as saying privately, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?”

Soon Moore left the defense team and William G. Thompson, a prominent Boston lawyer, would lead it. In January, 1926 Thompson appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. After a series of delays that raised some hopes, the verdict came down in early May: Thompson was stunned to hear that all 34 points that he had raised were unanimously overruled.

This started the clock on the sentencing. Then Celestino Medeiros, the career criminal, sent a note from his jail cell confessing he had been in the robbery car and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not been involved. This was a vain attempt to bargain information for his life.

The defense team visited his wife and then the Providence Police Department, which had been involved in the Braintree investigation initially. The police revealed they had been going after some crooks called the Morelli gang.

Clues began to point to the gang’s leader, Joe Morelli. By now in prison he denied everything. However, the defense team noticed that Morelli bore a striking resemblance to Sacco. The sentencing was postponed again and again.

Delays could only be welcomed as opportunities to forage for more information. It was now 1927. The hearing on Thompson’s eighth motion for a new trial, which included witnesses’ confusing the mugshots of Morelli and Sacco, was again under Judge Thayer. The result, a denial, was as expected.

Thompson and the defense team worked on, pursuing leads all over the country. They tried to establish just who had been in the Buick and who had been sitting in which seat. They found nothing but contradictory testimony. There was yet another appeal and another denial, on April 5.

Sentencing and Execution

The sentencing finally took place on April 9, at the courthouse in Dedham. Each of the accused was asked why they should not be executed. Sacco spoke briefly, then Vanzetti at length. It was, as expected, a full-blown political speech, combining autobiography, an attack on the “justice” system, and a defense of anarchist ideas. Then Thayer pronounced the sentences, first Sacco, then Vanzetti: death by electrocution.

The case would now be fought largely outside the courts. The Boston newspapers had already taken sides. While the Telegram demanded to know why “the reds” had not long ago been executed, the Herald surprisingly said that although it did not know about guilt, they should not be executed.

Protests by labor unions, civil liberties groups, and the wider progressive and radical milieu had begun the day of the verdict in 1921. Now as the situation became desperate the international movement for a new trial, if not outright acquittal, grew rapidly.

The world press covered the proceedings day by day. Sacco and Vanzetti had become the most famous legal cause célèbre in modern history, even more than the Dreyfuss affair.

Vanzetti then wrote a letter to Governor Alvin Fuller asking for clemency. In response to this plus, no doubt, the world-wide outcry, Fuller appointed a committee to advise him on the fairness of the trial as well as the justification for the death sentence. The blue ribbon group included the president of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, Samuel Stratton, president of M.I.T., and a former judge, all members of the cream of Massachusetts society.

Attorney Thompson sent Lowell a large file of documents that had emerged since the trial, including the Pinkerton report and evidence of Judge Thayer’s bias. Meanwhile Sacco and Vanzetti together began a hunger strike.

The committee’s hearing was closed door with no opportunity for the defense to cross examine witnesses. On August 3, the committee and the Governor reported they found the trial fair. Fuller had found no evidence that Judge Thayer was biased.

The next day Attorney Thompson resigned from the defense team. The remaining defense lawyers appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court again to have Thayer removed from further proceedings. The Court appointed Thayer to rule on his own alleged bias; he promptly rejected the appeal.

The executions were set for August 10. Protests mounted. There were threats of bombings. On August 9, New York’s garment workers went on strike. Early on the following day pickets massed at the State House. A writ of habeas corpus was rushed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes refused to intervene.

Sacco and Vanzetti were prepped for the electric chair, their heads shaved. At literally the last moment the governor stayed the execution for no known reason. The date was reset for midnight, August 23.

August 22 was the last day of the men’s lives. Final appeals to other U.S. Supreme Court Justices, including Louis Brandeis, had failed. So had last minute pleadings by Vanzetti’s sister, Luigia, and Sacco’s wife, Rosina. They were executed the next day at the Charlestown Jail.

Global Outrage, Lasting Controversy

The funeral was on August 28. Tens of thousands of people marched with the coffins. Apparently there was trouble, with the police attacking, after which most of the mourners melted away.

In Paris the executions came shortly before dawn, Paris time. As the sun rose, the populace withdrew behind closed shutters. The streets became utterly silent. The bewildered government rushed in troops. Machine guns were set up on street corners. In 1871, when the Prussian army marched in to confront a similar silence it turned back before it had advanced a dozen blocks.

Elsewhere, there were massive protests, riots, strikes, looting of stores selling U.S. goods, attacks on U.S. consulates and embassies. Protesters fill the streets of capitals around the world. This outpouring of protests continued for several days.

In the years after the execution, the burden of nurturing the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti was largely carried by the cultural world. There were plays, ballads, fiction and nonfiction works, and documentary films, the latest in 2008.

It was accepted in these circles as well as among the broad left that New England society murdered the men, guilty only of being Italian immigrants who also happened to be anarchists and labor agitators.

These beliefs were strengthened by reports of interviews with the two, by the men’s statements, and, importantly, by Vanzetti’s voluminous published letters and a short book, The Story of A Proletarian Life (1924), all depicting the men as civilized, sensitive, nonviolent. Vanzetti especially seemed the very model of Gramsci’s “organic” or self-taught intellectual and philosopher.

Yet through the years there continued to be doubts. In 1959 the Massachusetts State Legislature turned down an attempt to pardon the men. On the fiftieth anniversary of their execution, Gov. Michael Dukakis declared a memorial day. There was an immense backlash.

Year after year there were more stories about witnesses on both sides changing their minds. There was a rumor that Carlo Tresca, the famous anarchist writer, had been told by Fred Moore that Sacco was guilty. Another test of Sacco’s pistol took place as late as 1961. There was no consensus on the result.

A theory emerged that paralleled the Rosenberg case: One of them (Sacco) had done it, the other had not. The Morelli brothers wrote memoirs disagreeing on who committed the robbery. It went on and on.

What was the Sacco and Vanzetti case about? Was it about who committed the murders? Was it about the nature of American justice? Was it about the defense of New England values against an attack by foreign elements?

Clearly it was all of these. It is possible that Sacco shot the guard Berardelli, but the evidence is so riddled with contradictions that clearly he should not have been found guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. As to Vanzetti, my belief is that he was innocent. This was not the first, nor would it be the last case in American history where sufficient doubt existed to justify a new trial.

For many Americans then and for decades since the Sacco and Vanzetti affair was a radicalizing moment. It made the class nature of our “justice” system nakedly apparent. Even many who believed one or both of the men guilty had called for a retrial, and at minimum opposed capital punishment for them, only to fail in the face of the intransigence of the Massachusetts establishment.

Today the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state is again deporting immigrants, as in the days of the Palmer Raids, not by the hundreds but by the tens of thousands. Once again movements of opposition to anti-foreign hysteria have appeared. It is important to link this opposition to a wider critique of the “justice” system and its function in this period of capitalist crisis.

Author’s note: The literature about this case is immense. I first read about Sacco and Vanzetti in high school, and wrote several papers about it in college. For this essay I am especially indebted to more recent sources, especially Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti (Viking, 2007), and for the forensics, “Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case,” the website of Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent ( For letters and documents by and sympathetic to the men, see Sacco and Vanzetti: Rebel Lives edited by John Davis (Rebel Lives Series, Ocean Press, 2004).

September-October 2017, ATC 190