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Sacco, Nicolalocked

(22 April 1891–23 August 1927)
  • Nunzio Pernicone

Sacco, Nicola (22 April 1891–23 August 1927), and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (11 June 1888–23 August 1927), Italian anarchists convicted of murder in the celebrated Sacco-Vanzetti trial, were born, respectively, in Torremaggiore, Italy, and Villafalletto, Italy. Sacco was the son of Michele Sacco, a peasant landowner and merchant, and Angela Mosmacotelli. (Sacco’s given name was Ferdinando; he adopted the name Nicola in 1917 to honor an older brother who had died.) Vanzetti was the son of Giovan Battista Vanzetti, a peasant landowner, and Giovanna Nivello. Both Sacco and Vanzetti emigrated to the United States in 1908. Sacco found steady work as an edge-trimmer in shoe factories in Milford and Stoughton, Massachusetts. He married Rosina Zambelli in 1912; they had two children, the second born during Sacco’s imprisonment. Vanzetti, whose lonely private life was mitigated by the pleasure he found in books, endured long periods of unemployment or toiled at menial jobs before becoming a fish peddler in the spring of 1919. What Sacco and Vanzetti shared in common during these years was a deep commitment to anarchism.

Traditionally depicted by supporters as “philosophical anarchists” (defined by writer John Dos Passos as “an anarchist who shaves daily, has good manners and is guaranteed not to act on his beliefs”), Sacco and Vanzetti in reality were militant disciples of Luigi Galleani, an anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombing and assassination. Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had been radicalized in Italy. Only after experiencing and observing the hardships and inequities of working-class life in America did they become receptive to the criticism of capitalism and the state propagated in Galleani’s Cronaca Sovversiva, an anarchist newspaper described by its editor as “a rag of a paper that lives on crusts and bits of bread, with the support and pennies of five thousand beggars.” Between 1912 and 1917 Sacco and Vanzetti both engaged in fundraising for the anarchist movement and occasional strike agitation. After the U.S. Congress passed the military conscription act in May 1917, they were among some sixty Italian anarchists who followed Galleani’s recommendation and fled to Mexico rather than register for the draft. Their purpose was not merely to avoid military service or imprisonment for draft resistance; they wanted to remain at liberty so they could join the revolution they expected to erupt in Italy in the wake of the March revolution in Russia. When revolution failed to spread and exile became wearisome, they reentered the United States, Sacco resuming work as an edge-trimmer in Stoughton and Vanzetti selling fish in Plymouth. By now, however, the government’s antiradical campaign was intensifying, and Italian anarchists ranked at the top of the enemy list. Because of its antiwar stance, Cronaca Sovversiva was suppressed in July 1918, and Galleani and eight of his closest associates were deported on 24 June 1919. Most of the remaining Galleanisti sought to survive repression by becoming inactive or going underground. However, some sixty militants—including many who had gone to Mexico—considered themselves engaged in a class war that required retaliation. For three years they waged an intermittent campaign of terrorism directed at politicians, judges, and other federal and local officials involved in political repression. Chief among the dozen or more terrorist acts the Galleanisti committed were the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home on 2 June 1919 and the Wall Street explosion of 16 September 1920.

Sacco and Vanzetti were marginally involved in the bomb conspiracy, although their precise roles have not been determined. This fact explains much about their activities and behavior on the night of their arrest, 5 May 1920. Two days earlier they had learned that Andrea Salsedo had plunged to his death from the Bureau of Investigation offices on Park Row in New York. Salsedo was an anarchist to whose Brooklyn print shop federal agents had traced a revolutionary leaflet found at Palmer’s bombed house. The anarchists knew that Salsedo had been held incommunicado for several weeks and repeatedly beaten. So when Palmer announced to the press that Salsedo and his comrade Roberto Elia had made important disclosures concerning the bomb plot of 2 June 1919, the Galleanisti realized that the attorney general was not making an idle boast. It was now imperative that they go deeper underground and get rid of incriminating evidence. Thus on the evening of their arrest, Sacco and Vanzetti may have been transferring Italian anarchist literature—including a bomb manual innocuously titled La salute è in voi (Health is in you)—to a safe place; or, more likely, they may have been hiding dynamite. Both men were carrying pistols and ammunition when arrested, and during their interrogation—initially about their radical activities, not payroll robbery and murders—they told lies and gave contradictory statements to the police. This behavior constituted “consciousness of guilt” to the authorities.

The trap that ensnared Sacco and Vanzetti had been set by Michael Stewart, the police chief of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who had been assisting the Justice Department in rounding up Italian anarchists for deportation. When one of them, Ferrucio Coacci, failed to report for deportation at the east Boston immigration station on 15 April 1920—the same day of the payroll robbery at the Slater & Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in which a guard and paymaster were killed—Stewart concluded that the robbery and murders must have been committed by Coacci and his comrades, among whom were Sacco, Vanzetti, Riccardo Orciani, and Mario Buda. Stewart also believed them responsible for a botched holdup of a shoe factory in Bridgewater the previous Christmas Eve. Justice Department agents in Boston believed the South Braintree crime had been committed by professionals, but since Sacco and Vanzetti were listed in their files as “radicals to be watched” and known comrades of the bomber Carlo Valdinoci, whose dismembered body had been found at Palmer’s house, a murder conviction presented an effective way of eliminating them. The Justice Department subsequently furnished prosecuting authorities with information about Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical activities, placed a spy in a cell adjacent to Sacco’s, and infiltrated one or more informants into the Sacco-Vanzetti defense committee.

Of the five suspects, Coacci was deported, Orciani was released because he had strong alibis for the days both crimes were committed, and Buda disappeared to plot revenge (the Wall Street explosion) for the indictment of the remaining two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. Because the evidence linking him to South Braintree was weak, Vanzetti was tried first for the lesser crime at Bridgewater (Sacco’s alibi for that day was solid) so that he would go before the second jury as a convicted felon. Held in Plymouth from 22 June to 1 July 1920, Vanzetti’s trial was a travesty. The presiding magistrate, Webster Thayer, despised foreigners and considered anarchism “cognate with the crime.” The prosecutor was Frederick G. Katzmann, a cunning and unscrupulous district attorney willing to suborn perjury and manipulate and withhold evidence to obtain a conviction. Vanzetti’s attorney, John Vahey, who became Katzmann’s law partner in 1924, performed so poorly that he was suspected of collusion with the prosecution. The testimony of more than twenty witnesses who had seen Vanzetti selling eels on the day of the Bridgewater crime was discounted because the individuals were all Italians. Prosecution witnesses—typified by a newsboy who caught a glimpse of a perpetrator and “knew by the way he ran he was a foreigner”—were believed. Found guilty, Vanzetti was condemned by Judge Thayer to serve twelve to fifteen years in prison.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for the South Braintree murders was held in Dedham from 31 May to 14 July 1921. The atmosphere in court was transfused with the nativist and reactionary sentiments still pervading American society in the wake of the Red Scare. District Attorney Katzmann was able, therefore, to try Sacco and Vanzetti not only for murder but, in effect, for being anarchists, atheists, foreigners, and draft dodgers. Judge Thayer, repeating his role as presiding magistrate, had no objection to Katzmann’s interjecting such extraneous and inflammatory information, despite its prejudicial effect on the jury. Nor did he interfere with Katzmann’s coaching and cajoling of prosecution witnesses to obtain descriptions of the shooting and of the perpetrators that were remarkably more detailed and incriminating than those they had provided to Pinkerton investigators more than a year earlier. With defense witnesses, especially Italians, Katzmann was patronizing and disdainful, implying that they were lying to defend their compatriots. Several witnesses whose testimony would have helped the defendants were never called to testify or brought to the attention of the defense. Katzmann’s handling of the alleged murder weapons and ballistics evidence was likewise unethical. The prosecution’s chief expert, Captain William Proctor of the state police, did not believe that Sacco’s Colt .32-caliber automatic had fired the bullet that killed the guard. (The remaining five bullets taken from the two bodies could not have been fired from the guns found on Sacco and Vanzetti.) Nevertheless, by prearrangement with Katzmann, Proctor testified when asked about the bullet in question that “it is consistent with having been fired from that gun,” meaning any Colt .32-caliber automatic, not Sacco’s weapon. Katzmann also knew that the .38-caliber revolver found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest could not have been taken from the slain guard, as the prosecution claimed. The guard’s weapon was a .32-caliber revolver with a different serial number—evidence withheld from the defense. Katzmann’s manipulation of evidence may even have included substituting a test bullet fired from Sacco’s gun for the real fatal bullet.

Outmatched by Katzmann in the courtroom, defense attorney Fred Moore, a radical lawyer previously involved with Industrial Workers of the World cases, sought to demonstrate that the proceedings against Sacco and Vanzetti were politically motivated, the result of collusion between local and federal authorities seeking to suppress Italian anarchists. Moore’s strategy generated widespread publicity and support for Sacco and Vanzetti but failed to thwart the prosecution. The weight of evidence—the weapons, ballistic tests, and eyewitness testimony—and the issue of consciousness of guilt (independently stressed by Judge Thayer in his instructions to the jury) as well as the prejudice Katzmann had evoked against the accused combined to ensure a guilty verdict on 14 July 1921.

A six-year struggle to save Sacco and Vanzetti followed the trial. Countless observers worldwide were convinced that political intolerance and racial bigotry had condemned two men whose only offense was that of being foreigners, atheists, and anarchists. Edmund Wilson, like many others, believed that the case “revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system.” This perception was reinforced by the dignity and courage Sacco and Vanzetti displayed throughout their ordeal. That such men were capable of common murder struck many as inconceivable. Sacco and Vanzetti defenders eventually included radicals, trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, and even some conservatives, such as Boston lawyer William G. Thompson, who replaced Moore as chief defense counsel in 1924, and Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. Arrayed against them were the upholders of traditional conservative values and institutions associated with patriotism, religion, and capitalism. They were intransigent in their belief that the American system of justice could do no wrong and that the two subversives were guilty as charged, had been fairly tried, and deserved the maximum penalty.

But the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti was not decided in the arena of public opinion. Eight motions for a new trial—in accordance with Massachusetts law—were submitted to Judge Thayer. Several pertained to perjured testimony by prosecution witnesses and to collusion between local police and Justice Department agents. Another addressed a jailhouse confession by a convicted bank robber, Celestino Madieros, who claimed he and other members of the Morelli gang of professional criminals had committed the South Braintree holdup and murders. Still another was based on comments Judge Thayer himself had made after rejecting a previous motion, namely, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while.” Each motion was denied. Finally, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that no errors of law or abuses of discretion had been committed, Judge Thayer sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death on 9 April 1927. In the face of mounting criticism of the legal proceedings and the impending death sentence, Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a committee on 1 June headed by A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, to review the case and advise him on the issue of clemency. The Lowell committee ignored exculpatory evidence the defense had discovered since the trial while validating the prosecution’s every step. Even Judge Thayer’s remarks about “those anarchistic bastards,” although deemed a “grave breach of decorum,” did not cause the committee concern. Reporting its findings to Governor Fuller on 27 July, the Lowell Committee declared that the trial and appeals process “on the whole” had been fair and advised against clemency. Governor Fuller followed the committee’s recommendation, and in the face of worldwide protest and demonstrations, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison on 23 August 1927.

The Sacco-Vanzetti case was an international cause célèbre in the 1920s and still remains one of the most controversial legal proceedings in modern history. Decades after they were sentenced to death, Sacco and Vanzetti still have their partisan defenders and accusers. Historians of the case, manifesting the same biases, continue to disagree. Some pronounce Sacco definitely and Vanzetti possibly guilty on the evidence of ballistics tests and rumors attributed to a few Italian anarchists. Others contend that both men were innocent victims of a frame-up, based on the prosecution’s collusion with federal authorities, suppression of evidence, and manipulation of ballistics tests. Preoccupation with guilt or innocence has resulted in the neglect of more important dimensions of the case such as the atmosphere in which the trial and appeals took place, the conduct of the officials involved, and the broader implications of the proceedings for American society. Even Sacco and Vanzetti themselves—their personalities, ideas, and writings—have not received sufficient attention from historians, although recent work establishing their revolutionary credentials represents a significant step in that direction. Thus the Sacco-Vanzetti case will probably remain, in the words of attorney Herbert B. Ehrmann, “the case that will not die.”


A wealth of original sources is available to scholars, including The Sacco-Vanzetti Case: Transcript of the Record of the Trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the Courts of Massachusetts and Subsequent Proceedings, 1920–1927 (6 vols., 1928–1929); The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Papers, microfilm (23 reels, 1986); the Aldino Felicani Sacco-Vanzetti Collection, Boston Public Library; the Herbert H. Ehrmann Papers, Harvard Law Library; the Massachusetts State Police Sacco-Vanzetti Files, Massachusetts State Archives; and the Department of Justice/FBI Sacco-Vanzetti Files, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The most influential book written about the trial, amounting to a devastating critique of Judge Thayer and the prosecution, is Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen (1927). The principal works written during the 1930s and 1940s, asserting the innocence of the accused and the unfairness of the legal proceedings, are Osmond K. Fraenkel, The Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1931), and Louis G. Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948). The first book to argue that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty and fairly tried was Robert H. Montgomery, Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth (1960). An important work that posits a split-guilt thesis (Sacco guilty, Vanzetti innocent) is Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1962). Russell subsequently asserted Vanzetti’s guilt in numerous articles and in Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved (1986). Seriously critical of Russell is William Young and David E. Kaiser, Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1985), which argues on the basis of new evidence pertaining to ballistics testing and the alleged murder weapons that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent men framed by the prosecution. The most thorough and well-balanced study of the case, written by a former member of the defense team, is Herbert B. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti (1969). Indispensable for an understanding of the Italian anarchist movement to which Sacco and Vanzetti devoted their lives is Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991). Letters written by the condemned men to relatives and friends have been collected in Marion D. Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson, eds., The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti (1928; 1960), and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Non piangete la mia morte (1962).