'Sacco and Vanzetti': the case that never dies

On the 80th anniversary of their deaths, a thoughtful new look at the Sacco-Vanzetti trial.

Exactly 80 years ago, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for a robbery and double murder in South Braintree, Mass., that they may not have committed. The crime and trial quickly became a sort of legal litmus test: Your view of it depended on whether you saw the men as hardened criminals who killed to support anarchy and terrorism or as simple, hard-working immigrants with unpopular beliefs who were railroaded. Time has passed, but the controversy has never disappeared.

Bruce Watson's new book Sacco and Vanzetti: the Men, the Murders, and The Judgment of Mankind tells the story of this incident starting with the decision of the two protagonists to immigrate to America, through the trial and execution, and concluding with an assessment of what one scholar has called "the case that will not die." This careful and thoughtful volume is a valuable addition to the extensive literature on this landmark case.

There was no dispute that a crime had been committed. There were plenty of witnesses, and it happened in broad daylight. But there was little agreement about anything else. Watson writes: "It had all been over in a minute. One crime had been committed. One car had picked up the bandits. One bandit had fired from its passenger seat. But as the crowd began to babble, a kaleidoscope of impressions swirled around the scene."

The trial was a circus. Several witnesses changed their stories, evidence was tampered with, and the defense attorney managed to do little except offend the presiding judge. After a trial that lasted six-and-a-half weeks and involved 167 witnesses, it took the all-white, all-male jury just three hours to find Sacco and Vanzetti guilty. They were quickly sentenced to death.

Watson leaves little doubt that Judge Webster Thayer was biased against the defendants. He ruled his courtroom with an iron hand and off the bench had a habit of making shocking comments. Speaking privately, he once said, "These two men are anarchists; they are guilty…. They are not getting a fair trial but I am working it so that their counsel will think they are."

Appeals and motions for a new trial would drag on for more than six years and involve an enormous cast of characters. Given the widespread impression that two poor immigrants with limited English were being framed, it is not surprising that there were protests worldwide. After being asked to commute the sentence, Massachusetts Gov. Alvan T. Fuller appointed a three-man committee – that included the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – to review the trial evidence and verdict. The Committee concluded that both the accused were "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Governor Fuller let the sentence stand, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed at midnight on April 23, 1927.

Their deaths settled nothing. Arguments about their guilt or innocence – and violent action on their behalf – continued long after. The homes of both the electrician who was the executioner and Thayer were destroyed by bombs.

Many of the issues surrounding the case have a surprisingly contemporary feel. Immigrants who spoke a foreign language were feared and suffered serious discrimination. Terrorist attacks could and did kill innocent people. Courts were asked to protect the country against terrorists, even if it meant that the rights of defendants were trampled.

Watson has mined the massive trial record and the voluminous material produced since the event and has written an extensive, even-handed and detailed summary of the case and its aftermath. He recreates the mood and events of the 1920s – from the Red Scare to bathtub gin to Mussolini – and shows how social and international forces influenced reaction to the case. Even though the outcome is never in doubt, Watson conveys an air of suspense and uncertainty as the story unfolds.

Watson offers no conclusion on guilt or innocence. He finds that the behavior of Sacco and Vanzetti was suspicious and their alibis were suspect. But he makes it abundantly clear that they did not get a fair trial and should have had another day in court. After reading this fine book, most readers will nod in agreement.

Terry Hartle is vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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