It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. The 1920’s was a great time in America. Business was booming, cars were everywhere, there were daring new fashions, and happy jazz music to listen and dance to. Despite all the good things happening, there were some very dark times. During the early 1920’s and there was much tension and fear of foreigners in America. Foreigners were often associated with communism and anarchism (Stark 1). These radicals were being deported daily for fear of riots and rebellion. Raids were led against communists and over 10,000 suspected of communism were arrested, many times without proper warrants. Also during this time, there was a string of bank robberies and the police were on the lookout for bandits that were on the loose. Then on April 15, 1920 two men were shot to death and $15,766 was stolen. The two murderers were said to be Italian immigrants (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). In panic, the police searched for two anarchist Italian immigrants to blame the murder on. Twenty days later, on May 5, 1920, the unlucky duo of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested while picking up a car connected with the murder (“Sacco-Vanzetti Case”). The two men were tried and found guilty under circumstantial evidence (Stark 1). There was obvious proof that witnesses were lying and that Sacco and Vanzetti could not have committed the murders, but because the trial was filled with such hatred toward the foreign radicals, they were sentenced to the electric chair. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were the victims of an unfair trial based upon their background and beliefs.
It is important to know just who Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were. Bartolomeo Vanzetti when arrested was“[…] 34 years old. He was a student and a prize scholar in a Catholic School in Italy, and came to this country at the age of 20. He is a philosophical anarchist and was described as a dreamer and idealist type. He is a frequent contributor to Italian radical papers, and once wrote that as a result of reading St. Augustine and “the Divine Comedy,” “humanity and equality of rights began to afflict my heart”” (Stark 2). Vanzetti’s occupations in America were fish peddler and a casual laborer (1). Vanzetti seems like a harmless citizen. He was described as “a dreamer,” basically saying he would never commit a crime. He believed strongly in what he believed in, but did not look like a person that would cause any problems.
Nicola Sacco when arrested was “[…] 28 years old. He came to this country at the age of 17 and learned the trade of edge trimmer in a shoe factory. His employers gave him a good character. He named his son Dante “because Dante is a great man in my country.” In his spare time he took part in strike agitations and in radical meetings.” Sacco also seems like a good person. He was a hard worker and took what he could from life. He had a strong remembrance for his home country, and that would make his seem suspicious to the authorities.
Both men had no criminal records before the incident (Downey). Vanzetti had been discriminated against and had a hard time in America (Sacco 3). Both men were active in the anarchist political movement (Sacco Trial), and they even led a few protests (Sacco 4). The fact that Sacco and Vanzetti went the Mexico to flee the draft made them even more unlikable (3). They were not bad people at all, but because they were radicals, immigrants, and they fled the draft, that caused suspicion and hatred toward them.
It is also important to get a little better sense of the times when the men were arrested. “Hatred of foreign radicals approached hysteria in April 1919 when anarchists plotted to send thirty dynamite bombs to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, capitalists J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.” (Sacco, Nicola 1). This caused the Palmer and Red Raids, where about 10,000 suspected Reds and Anarchists were arrested. In 1920, Red raids were still being pursued (Stark 1). Communists and extreme radicals were constantly deported without warrants. Radicals were all “shamefully abused and maltreated.” It was a disgraceful time in America.
Sacco and Vanzetti were also arrested during a time when the authorities were alert for the bandits on a string of robberies. There was prejudice from the beginning because they were foreigners, radicals, and slackers (for evading the draft). Vanzetti said, “We were tried during a time that has now passed into history. I mean by that, a time when there was hysteria of resentment and hate against the people of our principles, against the foreigner, against slacker […]” (Vanzetti). In the opinion of radicals and immigrant union members, Sacco and Vanzetti were being persecuted because of their beliefs (“Sacco Trial“), but “members of the established power structure saw them as dangerous foreigners out to subvert the American way of life.” Sacco and Vanzetti really symbolized the growing class struggle in America after World War I.
The basic case was that “[…] two men had been killed in Braintree, Massachusetts” (Sacco Trial). Frederick Parmendelli and his guard were killed, and there was $15,766 in missing money (Stark 1). Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on May 5, 1920 for armed robbery. The murderers were supposedly Italian, and the two men matched that description. Sacco and Vanzetti had gone to claim a car supposedly connected with the murder, so they were arrested (“Sacco-Vanzetti Case”). They were originally charged of the two murders, theft of money, unsuccessful murder, and hold-up (Stark 1).
Before the trial, there were basically two stances; people were either “anti-radical” or thought that the trial was a “frame-up” (Stark 1). Most people were “anti-radicals.” The trial was called a Mooney case, which is a case “judged in advance by people who did not know the evidence […]” The Department of Justice spread propaganda “designed to excite public opinion against radicals.” Newspapers printed their biographies with their radical opinions and how they fled to Mexico to avoid the draft. They also printed that Sacco and Vanzetti had loaded revolvers when arrested. The judge, Judge Thayer, told the jurors to have “courage,” which was interpreted by the jurors as “courage to convict.” Before the incident even happened, the Department of Justice wanted to deport the two for being radicals, but that was not very easy to prove (Russell 2). They would do anything to get rid of Sacco and Vanzetti. If that meant tainting their appearance to the public to help find them guilty, the government would do that.
The trial lasted 35 days (Streissguth 2). Sacco and Vanzetti entered the court in manacles and they were patted down to search for weapons (Stark 1). They were tried in a steel cage, which was used in many courts in Massachusetts. These first impressions on the jurors obviously did not help the defendants at all. “The court referred from time to time to the duty of the jurors to serve as did the soldiers on the battlefields of France” (2). The jurors’ opinions of Sacco and Vanzetti were swayed greatly during the trial. The case questioned the fairness and objectivity of the American justice system and it became an international affair (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). A headline in a newspaper read “Promoters of Propaganda to Aid Condemned Italians get Little Response in America” (“Final Plead…”). Almost all Americans were being swayed into going against the foreigners and radicals. Sacco and Vanzetti did not have much of a chance to win the trial the moment it started.
There were almost 180 witnesses and there was a sharp disagreement on almost every key point (Stark 1). Judge Thayer said, “It is one of identity,” referring to the case, but “There was absolute disagreement between the witnesses on both sides on the question of identity.” Some witnesses said they saw Sacco selling fish far away from the crime (Stark 1) and an editor of an Italian newspaper claimed to see Sacco in a restaurant in Boston the day of the murder (“Sacco Trial…”), yet the prosecution said the defendants were present at every scene of the crime (Stark 1). They also said Sacco and Vanzetti tried to shoot the officers. One witness said Vanzetti was driving the getaway car, while the prosecution even admitted that it was not Vanzetti driving. People within 10 feet of the car could not identify either man in it. Yet somehow, a woman who from a second-story window claimed to see Sacco driving by at 20 mph. She described him in perfect detail while only seeing him for about one second. She gave this description of him: “[He] was slightly taller than I, weighed about 140-145 pounds, had dark hair, dark eyebrows, thin cheeks and clean shaven face of a peculiar greenish-white. His hair was brushed back, and it was, I should think, between two and two and a half inches long. His shoulders were straight cut, square. He wore no hat. He was clean cut. He wore a gray shirt. He was a muscular, active looking man and had a strong left hand, a powerful hand.” When the woman had seen Sacco 13 months earlier at a preliminary hearing, she could not positively identify him. Another women could not identify Sacco earlier, but did later at the trial. She said, “I felt sure in my own mind, but hated to say so and stand out.” Cleary, some people were inventing stories because of the fear and paranoia caused by the circumstances.
Each of the men were carrying guns when arrested. Sacco was found with a loaded 32-calibre colt with 2 extra cartridges (Stark 1). Vanzetti was found with a 38 Harrington and Richardson loaded. Vanzetti was also found with three shotgun shells in his pocket. The murderer also used a shotgun. Sacco had a gun because his employer advised it. He had it for protection working and traveling at night. Revolver experts for the prosecution said the bullets from the victim matched Sacco’s gun. On the other hand, the defense experts said the bullets did not match. Officers also didn’t agree on which pocket they took Vanzetti’s gun out of. There was a bit of confusion about the guns because each side’s experts disagreed about whether the bullets matched their guns. There was also a cap found by a victim that supposedly belonged to Sacco. His employer said it belonged to him, but Sacco denied owning it.
The prosecution said that Sacco and Vanzetti gave false answers when first questioned and that they lied freely. They said that they also reached for a revolver when questioned. They apparently kept speaking when they didn’t have to. The Commonwealth said they were full with guilt. One of their friends had been under police suspicion and fled. Sacco and Vanzetti fell into a police trap set for their friend, so they also fled feeling guilty, said the prosecution. A passport was found on Sacco, supposedly to be used for sailing to Italy, but deportation would have been a free trip home if they had been under enough suspicion of being anarchists, so it didn’t make sense to have a passport. The prosecution also said the court agreed not to talk about how Sacco and Vanzetti were radicals, as not to taint the jury, yet this were a prevalently known fact, emphasized from the beginning of the trial. “Word got around that a man’s house might be burned by the “Black Hand” if he found the defendants guilty.” This could have been spurred up by the prosecution.
Sacco and Vanzetti pleaded innocent (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). The defense said they lied because they were afraid of being arrested because of their beliefs and for skipping the draft (Stark 1). They said Sacco was in Boston to get a passport on April 15, 1920 when the murders happened. “There was, the defenders claimed, evidence secreted in the Bureau’s files that would have established their innocence, but both the Bureau and the prosecution were ready to go to any lengths of fraud and deceit to get rid of two troublesome radicals” (Russell 2). Bartolomeo Vanzetti pleaded:
“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; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself […] I would not wish to a dog or to 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 […] I have fought against crime and I have fought and have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes the law and the church legitimate and sanctify. I have never stole and I have never killed and I have never spilt blood […] not only have I struggled all my life to eliminate crimes, the crimes that the officials and the official moral condemns, but also the crime that the official moral and the official law sanctions and sanctifies — the exploitation and the oppression of the man by man […] I am not only innocent of all these things, not only have I never committed a real crime in my life — through some sins but not crimes […]” (Vanzetti).
Vanzetti was very genuine about the situation. He pleaded of his innocence and let all his emotions out. He expressed how he was a peaceful person and would not harm anybody.
People all over the world were outraged at the court‘s decision. “Protests and demonstrations were held in support of Sacco and Vanzetti, and appeals to spare their lives came from all over the world” (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). Specifically, there were radical demonstrations in Italy, France, Spain, and South America (Stark 1). Italians in Philadelphia met to protest, but the police showed up to disperse them (“Havana Terrorists…”). People all over the world cared about Sacco and Vanzetti. Unfortunately home in America, most people were being corrupted with propaganda making radicals and immigrants look like bad people.
The verdict came in only five hours (Stark 1). Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of all charges except for the murders and were sentenced to 12-15 years in prison, but then they were later found guilty of the murders and were sentenced to the electric chair. People sympathized for them as their execution neared (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). “The two men faced their fate with calm and fortitude.” Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were finally executed in Charlestown, Massachusetts on August 23, 1927.
A newspaper reporting after the trial said, “The agitation on behalf of the two men is attaining greater proportions daily, and it promises to continue” (Stark 2). Many observers felt the trial was unfair, even those who thought that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). Nicola Sacco wrote letters to his son Dante during the trial. In the letters, Vanzetti wrote to his son, “One day, you will understand. That day you will be proud of your father; and if you come brave enough, you will take his place in the struggle between tyranny and liberty, and you will vindicate his names and our blood.” These letters were made public after the trial. Many Americans were glad that Sacco and Vanzetti were dead and that news of them would die down. On the other hand, others were saddened by their deaths. They marched around with signs saying, “American honor dies with Sacco and Vanzetti.” Judge Thayer would not have a new trial because the radicalism of Sacco and Vanzetti had been introduced to the trial (Stark 2). The knowledge of their radical ways had been known since the beginning of the trial, and Judge Thayer had even helped to point out this fact. A conservative reporter said the evidence was not sufficient enough (1). Sacco missed hardly any days working from 1910-1917. He was the fastest worker. Why would he kill someone and return the next day? There was also no increase in his bank account. A different conservative reporter said there was sufficient evidence to convict and that they received a fair trial. Another reporter said there was not enough evidence. The bullet theories did not match. The witnesses could not have positively identified Sacco and Vanzetti either. “The question of the two men’s guilt or innocence is still a matter of historical controversy” (“Sacco and Vanzetti Trial”). This statement certainly holds true today.
There is no way Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti could have been proven guilty. The juror’s opinions of them were swayed from the beginning of the trial. They were brought into court with manacles and handcuffs and tried in a steel cage, and this made them look barbaric and nonhuman. Before the trial began, their beliefs had become a big issue. During these times, this was a very big issue. People who were radicals or immigrants were considered bad people and they were not trusted. Sacco and Vanzetti epitomized the class struggle of the 1920’s. Jobs were in need, and people did not want foreigners taking their jobs. People did not want foreigners who could not speak English living in their neighborhoods. A hatred grew as time went on. The juror’s opinions of Sacco and Vanzetti had been swayed since the beginning of the trial. They probably did not trust them because they were foreigners and radicals. To them, this meant that they were not good people and were probably guilty. There was a lot propaganda that had brainwashed the jurors into believing this. Newspapers printed their biographies and their radical views. They also pointed out that Sacco and Vanzetti fled to Mexico to skip the draft. The witnesses were also tainted by the propaganda. They disagreed on everything and made up false recollections. Some witnesses could not identify either man when they were standing ten feet away, but a woman from a two-story building could describe Sacco in full detail. Some witnesses were obviously lying and their accounts should have been discredited. The matching of the bullets with the gun went both ways. The prosecution said the bullets matched the gun, but the defense said the bullets did not match the gun that belonged to Sacco. Lastly, the two men were very genuine when they spoke. They spoke about how there was a lot of unfair racism towards them, which led to their prosecution. Vanzetti specifically spoke about how he would not hurt anyone, not even an animal. He spoke his heart and seemed confused and afraid, as if he was saying, “How could this happen to me?”
There is not conclusive evidence to prove Sacco and Vanzetti guilty. It seems like they were guilty until proven innocent rather than innocent until proven guilty. When asked for a new trial, judge Thayer said they could not because the knowledge of their beliefs had been brought into the trial. Their beliefs were common knowledge throughout the trial. Judge Thayer knew this, and he even stressed those points. The government was determined to dispose of Sacco and Vanzetti any way possible. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were the victims of a biased trial filled with hatred for their background and beliefs.
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