The crime that began the Sacco-Vanzetti case

By Robert Knox

It’s a tough time in America right now. No one’s disputing that. But it was a tough time a hundred years ago as well, especially for immigrants and civil liberties.

Today, April 15, marks the 100th anniversary of the crime that began the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case in which two Italian immigrants who professed anarchist beliefs were accused without a shred of real evidence of committing a heinous crime, tried in a prejudiced courtroom, convicted by a nativist jury, and ultimately executed seven years later, by which time their case had become an international cause de celebre.

During a period of anti-radical and anti-foreigner hysteria known as “The Red Scare,” a well-organized criminal gang carried out a brazen daylight robbery in Braintree, Mass. The robbers stole a shoe factory payroll and shot the paymaster and his guard at point-blank range. Under the influence of the “Red Scare” of 1919–1920 — a time of national paranoia in which thousands of immigrant were detained without due process of law — local police dragged two Italian immigrants off a streetcar on the grounds that they had sought possession of an automobile wrongly suspected to have been used in the Braintree payroll robbery.

After the two men, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, freely admitted to being anarchists, the two were charged with robbery and murder, despite any evidence linking them to the crime. They were charged, police would later say, because they lied about what they were doing on the night of their arrest. Because they were carrying weapons. And because they were friends of a third anarchist who owned the car. It’s hard to find a clearer case of “guilt by association.”

Since police and prosecutors lacked any substantial evidence against the two radicals, both of whom had witnesses for their whereabouts on the date of the crime, they went about creating it. Among the many shoe factory workers who managed seconds-long glimpses of the crime from factory windows, the state found a few whom they could pressure, or threaten, into testifying that they recognized the defendants. In the best of circumstances eye-witness testimony to the brief, violent acts of strangers is highly unreliable. The overwhelming majority of factory workers interviewed either said the accused were not the robbers, or they could not make an identification based on what they had seen.

When the case went to trial, ballistic experts disagreed over whether a bullet removed from a victim’s body could have been fired by Sacco’s gun. Recent re-examinations of both the ballistics and autopsy evidence suggest that the state fired a bullet from Sacco’s gun and subbed it for one of the bullets surgically removed from a victim’s body.

Since the state failed to maintain a secure chain of evidence, the case’s physical evidence was contaminated.

The trial’s native-born, male jurors themselves were hardly unbiased. After the trial, the jury foreman said he didn’t care if the defendants were guilty or not, “they should hang them all.” It was clear who was meant by this ‘them’ — foreigners with beliefs that native-born citizens found threatening.
And trial judge Webster Thayer made his own bias clear in a comment to a college classmate after passing sentence:
"Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards?"

Sacco and Vanzetti were not simply the humble peace and love pacifists some of their supporters made them out to be in their outrage at the injustice of their case. While their material lives were typical of the working class, they were committed anarchists, believers in the necessity of revolution, and members of a group of Italian anarchists influenced by the writings of Luigi Galleani, a countryman who was deported for his opposition to America’s entry into World War I.

The suppression of their movement — their newspaper office ransacked, publications destroyed, subscribers’ list confiscated, leaders jailed — caused some of Galleani’s followers to ‘declare war’ on the government. They sent bombs through the mail and placed them at the homes of their ‘enemies’ in government and big business. They were self-declared enemies of the state.

But the fact that some anarchists took to planting bombs is not evidence that these particular anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, stole a workers’ payroll and killed two men. In fact, there are no examples of anarchists committing crimes to steal money. And it is very difficult to imagine that two men who had dedicated their lives to improving the life of workers would steal their pay.

So even the ‘guilt by association’ hypothesis fails to deal with the particulars of the case.

In fact while they believed in revolution, both men had settled lives in America. Nicolo Sacco was so highly valued as a skilled “shoe-trimmer” and reliable employee, that the owner of theshoe factory where he worked rented him a house for his family and trusted him with special responsibilities. The owner, the son of an Irish immigrant, later defended Sacco, saying, “This is not a stick-up man.”

Bartolomeo Vanzetti was the more intellectual of the two, but limited to day labor because of his limited English and the widespread prejudice against Italian immigrants. He was working as a fish peddler in an immigrant community in North Plymouth at the time of his arrest.

Neither of them needed money. Neither needed to look far for character references.

Both their status as typical workers in a society marked by great inequalities of wealth, and their personal rectitude and comportment during the trial attracted huge support in this country and internationally.

Their execution, after lengthy appeals and several says of execution by a Republican governor that kept the case on the front pages in the summer of 1927, drew international outrage, including violent demonstrations in some European countries. It also led to a huge public funeral march through the city of Boston regarded as the largest public gathering in the city until the Red Sox World Series victory parade in 2004, with the crowd estimated by newspapers at 200,000.

Despite international outrage over Sacco and Vanzetti case, America’s ruling class did not change its opinion of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe overnight.

In 1924 business-centric President Calvin Coolidge praised a new immigration act aimed at reducing the flow of immigrants from those parts of Europe — Italians, Poles, Jews, Russians, and many others — arguing that recent experience had shown that Italians in particular were not cut out to be good citizens in a democratic society. A few years earlier, echoing the ‘racial science’ then popular, Coolidge said, “Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend.”

If Coolidge were around today, maybe someone should introduce him to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, a sane and steady presence at a time when the nation’s response to the threat of the novel Corona virus has been spectacularly mismanaged by a nativist, fact-phobic President, who could never pass a citizenship test.

Or perhaps we could turn to Dr. Anthony Fauci for a clearer diagnosis.

Quincy resident Robert Knox is the author of “Suosso’s Lane,” a novel of Plymouth and the Sacco-Vanzetti

Source: The Patriot Ledger.
Foto: AP Photo/William B. Plowman