May 24

1921 The opening of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial

On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company’s payroll was robbed and two men, a guard and the unarmed paymaster, were murdered. As the thieves fled the scene in a dark-blue Buick, they fired at the crowd of workers. Suspicion fell on a gang of Italian anarchists, who were questioned and followed. When police apprehended Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fishmonger, they were found to be carrying anarchist literature, and pistols and ammunition which linked them to the shooting scene. They were charged with robbery and murder, which prompted their anarchist comrades to launch a series of bomb attacks including the famous blast on Wall Street that exploded killing 38 people and wounding 134.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti opened on May 24, 1921, eventually becoming a famous episode in American jurisprudence and an enduring part of left-wing mythology. The left presented the two as harmless cheese-eating immigrants persecuted by xenophobic bigots, while the right saw them as dangerous terrorists and a warning of the dangers of unrestricted immigration. What made this clash of ideologies worse was the incompetence and bias of the judge, Webster Thayer, who had already presided over a trial finding Vanzetti guilty of an earlier robbery. A jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder in July 1921.

It was at this point that the American left rallied and used the undoubted flaws of the trial to raise money, publicize labour and anarchist causes, and demand a new trial. The usual crowd of celebrities, academics, and writers supported the cause, making it an international sensation. As appeals dragged on, another anarchist in 1925 took the blame for the Braintree crimes, absolving Sacco and Vanzetti, but again Judge Thayer denied the need for a new trial. However, by 1926 powerful voices, including future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Parker, were arguing that the original case had been a travesty of justice. The uproar was such that Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller established an independent inquiry into the affair which, after two weeks of study and hearing witnesses, declined to overturn the original verdict. Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution on August 22, 1927 was to go ahead.

In prison, the condemned alternated between calls for violent revenge — “revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and dead” — and posing as innocents. Vanzetti was particularly touching, telling Sacco’s son in a letter “remember always these things; we are not criminals; they convicted us on a frame-up; they denied us a new trial; and if we will be executed after seven years, four months and seventeen days of unspeakable tortures and wrong, it is for what I have already told you; because we were for the poor and against the exploitation and oppression of the man by the man.”

Their execution prompted a wave of bombings across America and in Europe. Fifty years later Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts decreed that the pair been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Though the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti remains a legend of injustice on the left, the two were certainly guilty. Their defence lawyer told Upton Sinclair, author of a sympathetic novel, that he had provided the men with a fake alibi and that they served the cause better as martyrs than if they had been released. Anarchist sources admitted that Sacco was the shooter.

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