The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

by Joseph E. Mulligan

August 23, 2007 will mark the 80th anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Their story has been told in books, articles, and songs, but perhaps never so engagingly as in the historical novel, THE PASSION OF SACCO AND VANZETTI: A NEW ENGLAND LEGEND, by Howard Fast (New York: Blue Heron Press, 1953).

The selections from Fast's novel presented in this article may be useful in relation to the 80th anniversary of one of the most notorious travesties of justice in American history.

The book is dedicated "to those brave Americans who, today and yesterday, have accepted prison and even death -- rather than betray the principles they believed in, the land they loved, or the people whose trust they bore."

In the Prologue the author summarizes the case: "On the 15th of April, in the year 1920, a carefully planned and ruthlessly executed payroll robbery occurred in the town of South Braintree, Massachusetts. In the course of this robbery, a paymaster and a payroll guard were killed by the bandits.

"Subsequently, two men, Nicola Sacco, a shoe worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, one-time baker and kiln worker, and now a fish peddler, were arrested and charged with this robbery and murder. They were brought to trial in Dedham, Massachusetts, for murder, and found guilty by the jury which heard the case.

".... pleas and motions stretched through a period of seven years. Not until April 9, 1927, did the presiding judge in the case sentence the two men to death...."

Although some witnesses testified during the trial that they had seen the two at the scene of the crime, there was serious reason to challenge such testimony, as Fast clearly shows. Moreover, others testified that they had seen Sacco and Vanzetti in other locations on the day of the crime.

During the trial and appeal process, the prejudices of the prosecution and judges were evident. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and labor organizers with a radical anti-capitalist anarchist philosophy. This fact prevailed over others in the case.

Millions of people throughout the world, especially workers and labor organizers, convinced that Sacco and Vanzetti were not guilty of the crime with which they were charged, protested vigorously against the execution.

The two were executed on August 23, 1927.

Howard Fast presents this paragraph as part of a letter from Sacco to his son, Dante: "But remember always, Dante, help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved." (p. 39)

Fast presents this statement as part of a lecture by a law professor who supported Sacco and Vanzetti: "In the United States ... a situation was created in 1920 which caused a number of people to desire to see men like Sacco and Vanzetti the accused and convicted in a murder case, and thereby as men deserving the death sentence.... Were they not against capitalism, which is certainly the only and God-given way of life in these United States? Were they not opposed to war, and had we not just finished a war to make the world safe for democracy ? a war to which no decent and upright citizen could be opposed? Did they not speak sneeringly of the profit system, and were we not dedicated by God and the Constitution to an eternal system of industry which bases itself upon profits, upon the unflagging desire of one man to make more money than the next, even if he has to sweat it out of his neighbor?s hide?" (p. 62)

The novelist presents the following as the words of Sacco's wife, Rosa, to the governor of Massachusetts just hours before the execution: "Do you know what he wanted? He wanted for the whole world to have the little bit that he had, a good wife and good children and a plain job where he could work each day and earn his daily bread. This is all that he wanted. This is why he was a radical. He said the people of the whole world should have his own happiness. But kill? He never, never killed. He never raised his hand to another man. Never. And now will you spare him, please, please?" (p. 151)

The following are presented as the words of Vanzetti just before the judge pronounced the death sentence: "Now, I should say that I am not only innocent of all these things, not only have I never committed a real crime in my life � though some sins but not crimes � not only have I struggled all my life to eliminate crimes, the crimes that the official law and the official moral condemns, but also the crime that the official moral and the official law sanctions and sanctifies -- the exploitation and the oppression of the man by the man, and if there is a reason why I am here as a guilty man, if there is a reason why you in a few minutes can doom me, it is this reason and none else." (p. 185)

?.... I have fought and I have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes that the law and the church legitimate and sanctify.? (p. 189)

?.... Sacco too is a worker from his boyhood.... Sacco?s name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when the District Attorney and your bones will be dispersed by time, when your name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false god are but a dim remembering of a cursed past in which man was wolf to the man....? (p. 190)

Fast imagines the law professor?s thoughts on visiting Sacco and Vanzetti just hours before the execution: ?When all was said and done, people like Sacco and Vanzetti had always perished under one violence or another. They defied the great shibboleth and rose up to smash images. All other crimes might be forgiven, but the lord and master could not forgive him who cast doubt on lordliness and mastery. That was inevitable; therefore, why did the world protest so?? (p. 201)

Fast has Sacco telling an attorney who visited: ?Tonight we will die. I am afraid to die, but I am also prepare to die. Not once, but a thousand time, Sacco and myself already die ? we are prepare. This is for the cause of mankind, to make an end of man?s oppression of other men. I am filled with sadness, for I never again see sister or family or anyone I love; but not sadness alone. There is also triumph, for men will remember what we suffer ? and fight better for a just world.? (p. 206)

?.... Have we ever hurt man? Is it violence to go to our brothers who are workers and say to them, Maybe for him you bake the whole bread, it is not fair you should eat only the crust? No ? look, the violence is done to me. For seven year locked up in prison, tortured, treated like criminal ? seven long year in dungeon. That is violence.

?.... I never make violence. Is there ever a time in the whole world when some man stand up for brotherhood and a better life, when he is not accused of violence? So with Jesus Christ. I do not compare Sacco and myself with Jesus Christ, and I am also not religious man. But you people who take Christ?s name and call yourself Christian, you never stop crucifying.? (p 208)

?.... Violence comes when too much weight is loaded onto back of people. What kind of world have you made? Is it world without violence? At the trial, District Attorney curse Sacco and me because we will not fight in war where twenty million human souls are slain. Yet Sacco and Vanzetti are charged with violence. What a world you make where so few live with the sweat and suffering of so many! Your whole world is violence....

?You crucify Christ not once, but again and again, whenever he come to you.? (p. 211)

The novelist presents a ?Communist? making this observation to the law professor: ?Those who murder Sacco and Vanzetti hate the communists only because the communists are knit to the working people.? (p. 251).

Fast describes the reactions of people around the world as the execution becomes imminent: ?So each wept in his own fashion ? but there were some who remained dry-eyed; and these dry-eyed ones did other things instead of weeping. They pledged to themselves a long memory and an absolute identification. They made notations in their own hearts and they drew up a balance sheet that extended as far back as the memory of mankind and the first whiplash on the first bent back. These dry-eyed ones said to themselves, ?There is a better way than weeping and a better way than tears.?? (p. 252)

The book ends with Fast?s description of Vanzetti?s final moments: ?[The witnesses] could not anticipate the lion-like poise of [Vanzetti] as he walked into the execution chamber, or the dignity with which he stood before them. His self-possession, his calm, his command of the situation, was more than they could bear, callous though they were.... He broke through their defenses. He looked at them with what can only be described as a sense of judgment, and he pronounced the words he had decided to say, slowly and clearly.

??I wish to say to you,? Vanzetti told them, ?that I am innocent. I have never committed any crime ? some sins ? but never any crime....?

?There were hard men there, but hard as they were, their throats constricted, and many among them began to cry silently. It never occurred to them to halt their tears now with the argument that they were only weeping for two Italian radicals who were supposedly alien to all that is known as Americanism. This never occurred to them. Some of them closed their eyes, and others turned their heads away ? and then the lights waned, and when the lights became bright again, Bartolomeo Vanzetti was dead.? (p. 254)


On April 8, 1998 Howard Fast was interviewed by Amy Goodman on the radio program, Democracy Now ( www.trussel.com/hf/democnow.htm).

Amy Goodman:
?For young listeners today, Sacco and Vanzetti, I bet, does not ring a bell. Why were they, these two anarchists, significant in your life, and in the history of the United States??

Howard Fast:
?Well, they were significant because their case -- and they were both put to death -- their case was one of a great many innocent men who were put to death or sent to jail for long periods of time on the basis that they opposed the government.

?Now an anarchist is not a bomb-thrower. Anarcho-syndicalism is a way of thinking, it's a movement, and what it means, in the crudest, briefest way, is ownership of factories by the men who work in these factories. So the anarchist movement is not essentially -- has nothing to do with this vision of anarchists as destroyers or bomb-throwers.

?Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian working men, who preached, to some extent or another, the anarchist philosophy. For this they were framed for a murder that they did not commit, and the evidence against them was so small, so poor, and so manipulated, that it really roused the conscience of America. And thousands of men and women, in the 1920s, late 1920s, were drawn in this movement to save Sacco and Vanzetti. And it was futile, and they were put to death.?


Managua, August 2007

Joseph E. Mulligan has been working with Christian Base Communities in Nicaragua since 1986 and has engaged in actions of civil disobedience against the School of the Americas and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.