On 23 August 1927, two Italian-born anarchists were strapped into the electric chair in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and electrocuted by order of the Mass. Supreme Court. They were Nicolo Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish-pedlar.
During the seven years they were in jail before their execution, the names of Sacco and Vanzetti became a byword in the US and international labour movement for ruling-class justice and the use of the courts to frame up and lynch rebel workers.
Sacco and Vanzetti themselves believed they were victimised because they were foreign-born radicals. They felt themselves to be representatives of one class, the working class, being judged in the hostile courts of their class enemies. They conducted themselves as class-conscious men throughout their long years in jail fighting for their lives.
They insisted on seeing themselves as class-war prisoners. “I am and remain for the emancipation of the working class”, said Vanzetti firmly in 1926, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court had refused a new trial.
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in May 1920 and charged with armed robbery and murder.
This was the period of the anti-Bolshevik hysteria usually linked with the name of Palmer, then US Attorney General. Thousands of socialists, communists, and anarchists were harassed and jailed, or, if foreign-born, deported. There were lynchings by vigilantes and murders of prisoners by police.
In May 1920 a radical friend of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s, named Solseda, was found dead outside a building where the authorities had detained him. Alarmed, Sacco and Vanzetti attempted to borrow a motor car to move incriminating radical literature. This attracted the attention of the police to them. They were arrested and charged with shooting the paymaster and a guard on the main street of South Braintree, Mass., in April 1920.
The actual charge against them played less part in the court hearings than did the fact that they were foreigners and anarchists.
The legal case against them rested fundamentally on identiﬁcation by eyewitnesses. In addition ballistic experts gave evidence that was interpreted by the prosecution as proof that a bullet used in the robbery had been ﬁred from a gun found in Sacco’s. possession. Modern experts consider this to be inconclusive; and Sacco had a weighty alibi.
At the time of the robbery he had been in Boston making arrangements for a passport at the Italian Consulate. The Consulate corroborated his account.
No matter. Sacco and Vanzetti had given false information about themselves to the police. They had carried guns and the police said. they had got the impression that Sacco and Vanzetti had been inclined to use them when they were apprehended.
All this showed clear “knowledge of their own guilt”. But, the defence counsel explained, these things had a different explanation: Sacco and Vanzetti were aware of being foreign-born anarchists, the sort of people who were being arrested, jailed and deported daily in 1919-20.
This explanation was as good as an admission of guilt to the prosecution, which appealed to the religious, political and national prejudices — Protestant Anglo-Saxon and Irish Catholic — of the New England jury, against Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists, who opposed the ruling class. and who had opposed World War One.
In July 1921 they were found guilty of first-degree murder.
Light is shed on the character of this trial by a secondary part of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Vanzetti was tried for and convicted of an armed robbery carried out in December 1919. Sacco was not tried, for he could prove he had been in the shoe factory on the day of the robbery.
The conviction of Vanzetti rested entirely on evidence of identiﬁcation by eye-witnesses. Statements now available, but kept secret until Vanzetti had been long dead, made by private detectives immediately after the robbery in 1919, vary greatly from the evidence given in court on the basis of which. Vanzetti was convicted.
The conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti aroused a great protest throughout the USA and around the world, which quickly became a campaign to save them. Millions of workers protested and demonstrated “For Sacco and Vanzetti”. In Britain the TUC, the Labour Party, and hundreds of local working-classorganisations protested, as did the working class movement in many countries. Opposition spread to include wide layers of liberals and others.
This seemed only to strengthen the relentless bloodthirstiness and obstinacy of the Massachusetts establishment. The US Supreme Court refused to interfere.
In 1925 an already condemned man, Madeiras, made a confession which led to much circumstantial evidence that the South Braintree raid was the work of professional gangsters. That made no difference. ’
An advisory committee set up by Governor Alvin T Fuller in mid-1921 showed unmistakably the attitude of the ruling class to Sacco and Vanzetti. It consisted of the President of Harvard University, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a retired judge. It whitewashed the trial and the convictions to the best of its abilities.
Even this committee felt obliged to answer widespread criticisms of the judge, Thayer, by censuring him for a “grave breach of decorum” in uttering prejudiced remarks outside the court against Sacco and Vanzetti. The committee concluded, nevertheless, that this prejudice had not inﬂuenced judge Thayer in court!
After seven years of refined torture, during which all the possible legal appeals were exhausted, Sacco and Vanzetti were, according to the American practice, brought to court for sentence.
Before the sentence, Vanzetti said to the judge: “You are the one that is afraid. You are the one that is shrinking with fear, because you are the one that is guilty of attempt to murder”.
After it, he said: “Now we are not a failure... Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by an accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoe-maker and a poor ﬁsh-pedlar — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph!"
Sacco and Vanzetti’s revolutionary attitude made the trial a test case, a trial of strength. Sacco and
Vanzetti looked to the labour movement for their freedom. There were mass demonstrations, and strikes and great meetings. But the protests were not strong enough to stop the work of the executioner.
With virtually martial law in force in Boston, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted in the early hours of the morning of August 23rd, 1927.
It has now been admitted by the authorities that two “innocent “men died on that day.‘ That isn’t much use to Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. And indeed it is not much use, either, to the thousands of black victims of racism who right now are in jail in the USA.
• From Workers’ Action 66, 13 August 1977