Eighty-six years ago today, despite a long campaign of letters and petitions involving such world luminaries as HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Upton Sinclair, two Italian anarchists died in the electric chair after losing their six-year battle to clear their names of a crime they most certainly did not commit. The executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti – one a ‘poor fish peddler’, the other a shoemaker – exposed the outside world to the realities of America’s prejudices against ethnic minorities, against the poor and, most significantly, against those who dared to think unconventionally.
Throughout the controversial trial and subsequent failed appeals, the case became the focus not only of radical protest against the extreme political repression and “Red Scare” of the 1920s, but attracted worldwide attention, controversy and condemnation. And, as the executions approached, Massachusetts was inundated with thousands from all over America that turned out to demonstrate against injustice. Worldwide, people took to the streets across six continents where protesters burned American flags and destroyed anything American-made.
The saga had begun on 5th May 1920 when, whilst garnering support for a meeting following the mysterious death of a fellow anarchist, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on suspicion of “dangerous radical activities”. They were subsequently charged with the murder of two men in Braintree, a suburb of Boston, which had occurred the previous month during a bungled payroll robbery. While awaiting trial for murder, Vanzetti was tried and convicted for a separate attempted robbery; with no evidence to link him to the crime, the presiding judge concluded: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.” The same judge, Webster Thayer, requested to preside over the Braintree murder trial, which began in June 1921. The prosecution’s case against the two was virtually non-existent with no evidence whatsoever against Vanzetti, a fish seller whose customers testified that he was delivering to them at the time of the crime. The evidence against Sacco – primarily the bullets from his gun – was oblique. Throughout the seven-week trial, the defendants’ political ideologies were questioned more than the crime itself – yet it took the jury only three hours to return a guilty verdict for both men; Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted for their unorthodox beliefs. The foreman of the jury, a retired policeman, said in response to a friend who suggested that Sacco and Vanzetti might be innocent, “Damn them. They ought to hang anyway.” The two were duly sentenced to death.
Legal battles ensued for the next six years as a strong case developed for a new trial. Finally, after repeated appeals and motions for a new trial had been exhausted, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the convictions. On 9th April 1927, it was once again Judge Thayer who sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to die in the electric chair. On being sentenced, Bartolomeo Vanzetti commented: “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 . . . but I am so convinced to be right that you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.” While Judge Thayer is alleged to have said, “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?”
After six years of separation while incarcerated in different penitentiaries, Sacco and Vanzetti were reunited in Charlestown State Prison to await their fate. Just after midnight on 23rd August 1927, Sacco was led to the electric chair. As a guard secured the straps, Sacco cried out in Italian: “Long live anarchy!” Then, just before the executioner flicked the switch, he spoke his final words: “Farewell my wife and child and all my friends”; and, finally he called out to his “Mama” before falling silent. Vanzetti, who throughout his ordeal had touched his supporters with his dignity and poignantly poetic ruminations, paused inside the death chamber for his final statement: “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins, but never any crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one, but of all, all. I am an innocent man.” He then shook hands with the warden, two guards, and prison doctor. As he took his position in the electric chair, his last words were: “I now wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me.” He was crying as the signal was given to end his life.
Fifty years after their executions, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation declaring, “Any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. We are not here to say whether these men are guilty or innocent. We are here to say that the high standards of justice, which we in Massachusetts take such pride in, failed Sacco and Vanzetti.” But the final word on this pivotal episode in American (mis)justice belongs to Emma Goldman, who illuminated the legacy of these two men when she said:
Vanzetti was right when he declared that his execution was his greatest triumph, for all through history it has been the martyrs of progress that have ultimately triumphed. Where are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their spirits still march on.