Bob D’Attilio and the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society

Bob D’Attilio’s (*) name was so closely associated with the names of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Italian anarchists of Boston that anyone doing serious research on the subject was almost obligated to get in contact with him. His vast knowledge of the case was only surpassed by his devotion to collecting and preserving everything related to the case and the Italian anarchists to which the two men were so closely connected. This knowledge and devotion made Bob an invaluable resource in exploring every facet of the history surrounding Boston at the time. It was natural that when the Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society was forming, Bob was asked to join.

In the 1970s Bob had been an active member of a group called Black Rose which began sponsoring a lecture series and publishing a small magazine called Black Rose. He was very proud of his work on the magazine. Much care and thought went into its production, from the art work to the paper used. Bob liked to tell a story about a heated debate the group had about an issue over the type size and leading used. Whether it had anything to do with a split within the group he never said. In any case, the split resulted in a magazine group and a lecture group, both continuing to use the Black Rose name. Bob remained with the magazine group which lasted until 1987 when it’s twelfth and final issue was issued. That same year he gave a talk on the background to the Sacco and Vanzetti case for the lecture group which lasted a few years longer, until 1992.

Bob also had an important role in getting the extensive Aldino Felicani collection of Sacco-Vanzetti related materials into the Boston Public Library. Felicani had been a founder and secretary of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, a printer by trade, and a friend of both men. After the collection was moved to the Boston Public Library, Bob learned that some remaining materials from Felicani’s shop may have been thrown into a dumpster. As he told the story, he rushed over to the shop only to find that the dumpster had already been picked up and its contents disposed of. He then raced over to the garbage dump, but it was too late. It had disappeared in a mountain of garbage.

Bob also must be given credit for re-discovering the Sacco and Vanzetti funeral footage that can now be found all over the internet. The story of the film from the time it was shot to when Bob rediscovered it has many twists and turns, but the film eventually found its way to Brandeis University where it went unnoticed until 1970 when Bob tracked it down. Due in great part to his efforts the film was made available to the public and has been widely shown since. The film, now commonly referred to as La Marcia del Dolore / The March of Sorrow, was the title given to it by Bob. A detailed description of the history of the footage, written by Bob, is on our website. A shot by shot description of the footage, assembled by another member of the group, can also be found there.

The Society was formed as a result of a parade organized by young anarchists in Boston on August 27, 2006. They were joined by the Boston May Day Coalition, who contributed a speaker by the name of Jesse Díaz, an activist from Los Angeles who was involved in the massive nationwide protest for immigrants rights. Bob was already involved with the event which ended up at the Forest Hills Cemetery where the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti were cremated in 1927. Following the success of the parade, a number of meetings were subsequently held in preparation for a march on August 23, 2007, to mark the 80th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions.

This was the first march to commemorate the lives and death of Sacco and Vanzetti through the streets of Boston, and also the first ever designating that day as “Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Day in Boston” by a Boston City Council resolution sponsored by councilor Felix Arroyo. The event that year as well as all the Society’s subsequent ones could count on Bob contributing his expertise.

We recognized that Bob’s knowledge of the case and the extensive personal connections he made over the years, especially here in Boston, could prove to be an asset to the group, especially in it’s desire to place a bronze copy of Gutzon Borglum’s bas-relief of Sacco and Vanzetti in a public space in the North End. One small hidden spot adjacent to the Polcari Playground and across the street from Copp’s Hill Burial Ground had been offered by the city years before, but for the Society it was and remains important to all of us that the plaque be placed prominently in a location along the Freedom Trail in the North End.

As D’Attilio guided us through the narrow streets of the North End, he would point to the building which in 1927 was occupied by the Langone Funeral Home where the bodies lay in state after their execution. He also told us that during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations a plaque had been installed at the entrance of that building as a permanent historical marker. Unfortunately, this marker had been removed at some point and only the four holes that had held it in place remained. Our group decided to correct the situation and reinstall a new plaque in the same place. Two of our young members took on a different task of contacting the owner of the building so we could obtain permission to reinstall the plaque, which, surprisingly, was done without any opposition. Bob produced a picture of the plaque from which we were able to recreate the text and the design. The work was completed in December of 2007. Bob then went into action and did what he liked most, orchestrating a ceremony to unveil the plaque, which included the participation of Italian-American actors recreating Sacco and Vanzetti’s words and some singing. Bob himself spoke to the importance of this location, while the featured speaker was former governor Michael Dukakis. The unveiling of the plaque on that day are documented on the Society’s website.

On November 7, 2008, we were able to present a well attended lecture by Howard Zinn at the Dante Alighieri Center. The introductions were given by Bob and David Rothauser. Zinn made it a point to praise Bob for his life’s dedication to his research on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, which according to him, earned Bob the name “Mister Sacco and Vanzetti,” He also recognized David’s work in film, theater, and poetry related to the case. In his usual humility, Zinn ended up saying, “With all that work, Where does that leave me?”.

Bob prided himself on the extensive political connections he had in Boston, especially within the Italian-American community. However, he viewed with some suspicion the interest other progressive politicians of color showed toward the case. Some of us had connected with the few councilors of color in Boston at the time, such as Felix Arroyo, Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey, all of whom continued to support our work through the years by obtaining resolutions designating August 23rd as Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Day. Another example of the support we got came when we met with Councilor Turner and informed him of our hopes to erect a memorial to Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston. He immediately sprung into action, convinced that a coalition could be put together in the Council to get this done. However, when we reported this back at our next meeting, Bob made it clear he opposed moving forward with this project as we described it. He was more interested in putting together a coalition of notables, (such as former governor Dukakis, Judge Agnes, and others among the many Italian-American Boston’s politicians). Unfortunately, we were unable to reach an agreement and this opportunity to move forward on the project was dropped.

It was not easy to work with Bob and there were many battles. Some members dropped out as a result, but we were fortunate to have a strong core group that enabled us to continue working together even if we didn’t agree on certain matters. One thing the group didn’t disagree with him on was the breadth of his knowledge on the subject. So, in spite of our differences, the few of us who toughed it out and stayed in the group learned much about the case and its place in Boston’s history.

Bob’s time to rest came. His translations from Italian, his writings, his analysis of the case, and the contribution of Italian anarchists to the United States, in short his whole body of work, remains. And for that we are grateful. We hope that one day his manuscript of the case in what he hoped would be the final word on the matter of Sacco and Vanzetti will be published and his extensive collection of Sacco and Vanzetti related material preserved and made available for future study. He had a saying that applies particularly to himself: “Nobody is perfect.” Yet, in our imperfection we do the best we can in pursuit of our struggle for freedom and justice.

Bob D’Attilio, presente! Saluti!


December 5, 2020

* Bob was born on March 26, 1935. Attended elementary and high school in Medford, Massachusetts. Graduated in 1956 with a degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT. He died at the age of 85 last November 19, 2020 at his home in Medford, where he lived by himself.