History of the Sacco and Vanzetti Case

Immigrants Executed in 1927 Exposed Prejudice in America

Black and white photograph of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti (left) and Nicola Sacco (right).

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Batolomeo Vanzetti, died in the electric chair in 1927. Their case was widely seen as an injustice. After convictions for murder, followed by a lengthy legal battle to clear their names, their executions were met with mass protests across America and Europe.

Some aspects of the Sacco and Vanzetti case would not seem out of place in modern society. The two men were portrayed as dangerous foreigners. They were both members of anarchist groups and faced trial at a time when political radicals engaged in brutal and dramatic acts of violence, including a 1920 terrorist bombing on Wall Street.

Both men had avoided military service in World War I, at one point escaping the draft by going to Mexico. It was later rumored that during their time spent in Mexico, while in the company of other anarchists, they were learning how to make bombs.

Their long legal battle began after a violent and deadly payroll robbery on a Massachusetts street in the spring of 1920. The crime seemed to be a common robbery that didn't have anything to do with radical politics. But when a police investigation led to Sacco and Vanzetti, their radical political history seemed to make them likely suspects.

Before their trial even began in 1921, prominent figures declared that the men were being framed. Donors came forward to assist them with hiring competent legal help.

Following their conviction, protests against the U.S. broke out in European cities. A bomb was delivered to the American ambassador to Paris.

In the U.S., skepticism about the conviction surged. The demand that Sacco and Vanzetti be cleared continued for years as the men sat in prison. Eventually their legal appeals ran out, and they were executed in the electric chair in the early hours of August 23, 1927.

Nine decades after their deaths, the Sacco and Vanzetti case remains a disturbing episode in American history.

The Robbery

The armed robbery that began the Sacco and Vanzetti case was remarkable for the amount of cash stolen, which was $15,000 (early reports gave an even higher estimate), and because two gunmen shot two men in broad daylight. One victim died immediately and the other died the next day. It seemed to be the work of a brazen stick-up gang, not a crime that would turn into a prolonged political and social drama.

The robbery occurred on April 15, 1920, on a street of a Boston suburb, South Braintree, Massachusetts. The paymaster of a local shoe company carried a box of cash that was divided up into pay envelopes to be distributed to workers. The paymaster, along with an accompanying guard, was intercepted by two men who drew guns. 

The robbers shot the paymaster and the guard, grabbed the cash box, and quickly jumped into a getaway car driven by an accomplice. The car was said to be holding other passengers. The robbers managed to drive off and disappear. The getaway car was later found abandoned in a nearby woods.

Background of the Accused

Sacco and Vanzetti were both born in Italy and, coincidentally, both arrived in America in 1908.

Nicola Sacco, who settled in Massachusetts, got into a training program for shoemakers and became a highly skilled worker with a good job in a shoe factory. He married, and had a young son at the time of his arrest.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who arrived in New York, had a more difficult time in his new country. He struggled to find work and had a succession of menial jobs before becoming a fish peddler in the Boston area.

The two men met at some point through their interest in radical political causes. Both became exposed to anarchist handbills and newspapers during a time when labor unrest led to very contentious strikes across America. In New England, strikes at factories and mills turned into a radical cause and both men became involved with the anarchist movement.

When the U.S. entered the World War in 1917, the federal government instituted a draft. Both Sacco and Vanzetti, along with other anarchists, traveled to Mexico to avoid serving in the military. In line with anarchist literature of the day, they claimed the war was unjust and was really motivated by business interests.

The two men escaped prosecution for avoiding the draft. After the war, they resumed their previous lives in Massachusetts. They remained interested in the anarchist cause just as the "Red Scare" gripped the country. 

The Trial

Sacco and Vanzetti were not the original suspects in the robbery case. But when police sought to apprehend someone they suspected, attention fell on Sacco and Vanzetti by chance. The two men happened to be with the suspect when he went to retrieve a car the police had linked to the case.

On the night of May 5, 1920, the two men were riding a streetcar after visiting a garage with two friends. Police, tracking the men who had been to the garage after receiving a tip, boarded the streetcar and arrested Sacco and Vanzetti on a vague charge of being "suspicious characters."

Both men were carrying pistols and they were held in a local jail on a concealed weapons charge. As the police began to investigate their lives, suspicion fell on them for the armed robbery a few weeks earlier in South Braintree.

The links to anarchist groups soon became apparent. Searches of their apartments turned up radical literature. The police theory of the case was that the robbery must have been part of an anarchist plot to fund violent activities.

Sacco and Vanzetti were soon charged with murder. Additionally, Vanzetti was charged, quickly put on trial, and convicted of another armed robbery in which a clerk was killed.

By the time the two men were put on trial for the deadly robbery at the shoe company, their case was being widely publicized. The New York Times, on May 30, 1921, published an article describing the defense strategy. Supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti maintained the men were being tried not for robbery and murder but for being foreign radicals. A sub-headline read "Charge Two Radicals Are Victims of Department of Justice Plot."

Despite the public support and the enlistment of a talented legal team, the two men were convicted on July 14, 1921, following a trial of several weeks. The police evidence rested on eyewitness testimony, some of which was contradictory, and disputed ballistics evidence that seemed to show a bullet fired in the robbery came from Vanzetti's pistol.

Campaign for Justice

For the next six years, the two men sat in prison as legal challenges to their original conviction played out. The trial judge, Webster Thayer, steadfastly refused to grant a new trial (as he could have under Massachusetts law). Legal scholars, including Felix Frankfurter, a professor at Harvard Law School and a future justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, argued about the case. Frankfurter published a book expressing his doubts about whether the two defendants had received a fair trial.

Around the world, the Sacco and Vanzetti case turned into a popular cause. The U.S. legal system was criticized at rallies in major European cities. Violent attacks, including bombings, were aimed at American institutions overseas.

In October 1921, the American ambassador in Paris had a bomb sent to him in a package marked "perfumes." The bomb detonated, slightly wounding the ambassador's valet. The New York Times, in a front-page story about the incident, noted that the bomb seemed to be part of a campaign by "Reds" outraged about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

The long legal fight over the case went on for years. During that time, anarchists used the case as an example of how the U.S. was a fundamentally unjust society. 

In the spring of 1927, the two men were finally sentenced to death. As the execution date drew near, more rallies and protests were held in Europe and across the U.S. 

The two men died in the electric chair in a Boston prison early on the morning of August 23, 1927. The event was major news, and the New York Times carried a large headline about their execution across the entire top of the front page. 

Sacco and Vanzetti Legacy

The controversy over Sacco and Vanzetti never entirely faded away. Over the nine decades since their conviction and execution, many books have been written on the subject. Investigators have looked at the case and have even examined the evidence using new technology. But serious doubts still remain about misconduct by the police and prosecutors, and whether the two men received a fair trial. 

Various works of fiction and poetry were inspired by their case. Folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a series of songs about them. In "The Flood and The Storm" Guthrie sang, "More millions did march for Sacco and Vanzetti than did march for the great War Lords."

Sources

  • "Dashboard." Modern American Poetry Site, Department of English, University of Illinois and Visit Framingham State University, the Department of English, Framingham State University, 2019.
  • Guthrie, Woody. "The Flood and the Storm." Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc., 1960.