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Sacco and Vanzetti

Sacco (right) and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) were two Italian anarchists, who were arrested, tried, and executed in the United States in the 1920s on charges of murder of a shoe factory paymaster named Frederick Parmenter and a security guard named Alesandro Berardelli and of robbery, although there was much doubt regarding their guilt at the time of their trial. Judge Webster Thayer , who heard the case, described the two as 'anarchist bastards'[1]. They were electrocuted in Massachusetts in 1927. Sacco was a shoe-maker, Vanzetti a fish seller. Many years later, ballistic tests showed that the bullet found in Parmenter was fired from Sacco's gun, leading many authorities to conclude that Sacco probably was guilty, though Vanzetti was innocent.

It was a period of intense fear of communism in American history, the Red Scare of 1919 to 1920. Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had any previous criminal record, nor did they consider themselves communists, but they were known to the authorities as radical militants who had been widely involved in labor strikes, political agitation, and anti-war propaganda. Sacco and Vanzetti believed themselves to be victims of social and political prejudice, and as Vanzetti said in his last speech to Judge Webster Thayer:

I would not wish to a dog or a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earth — I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian... (Vanzetti spoke on 19 April, 1927, in Dedham, Massachusetts, where their case was heard.[1])

Many famous intellectuals, including Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, campaigned for a retrial but were unsuccessful. On August 23, 1927, after a seven year trial, the two men were sent to the electric chair. The execution sparked riots in London, Paris and Germany.

The first inside confirmation of Sacco's guilt was provided in 1941 when anarchist leader Carlo Tresca told Max Eastman, "Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent." Eastman's published an article recounting his conversation with Tresca in National Review in 1961. Later, others would confirm being told the same information by Tresca.

In addition, in October 1961, ballistics tests were run using Sacco's Colt automatic. The results left little room for doubt that the bullet that killed Berardelli in 1920 came from Sacco's gun.

Despite this evidence of Sacco's guilt, on August 23, 1977, exactly fifty years after their execution, Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation absolving the two men of the crime, saying that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names".

Further evidence on the Sacco and Vanzetti case came in November, 1982 in a letter from Ideale Gambera to Francis Russell. In it, Gambera revealed that his father, Giovanni Gambera , who had died in June 1982, was a member of the four-person team of anarchist leaders that met shortly after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti to plan for their defense. In his letter to Russell, Gambera said "Everyone [in the anarchist inner circle] knew that Sacco was guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual participation in killing."

Their trial is a major part of the novel Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut. Upton Sinclair's 1928 book, Boston (ISBN 0837604206), is a fictional interpretation of the affair. Herbert B. Ehrmann, junior counsel for the defense, wrote a book in 1969, The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Venzetti (ISBN 0316231002), describing his experiences working on the case.

External links


  • Brian MacArthur (editor), The Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Speeches, second edition (1999), pp. 100-103.

Last updated: 11-03-2004 04:34:13