Sacco and Vanzetti

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Venzetti(left) and Sacco(right)

Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two revolutionary terrorists who were convicted and executed in 1927 for a 1920 double murder carried out during a robbery. The duo became a Communist[1] cause célèbre.[2] For decades, liberals argued that they had been wrongly convicted, their leading champion Harvard Law School Professor Felix Frankfurter,[3] a future Supreme Court Justice. One of Frankfurter's students, future State Department official Noel Field, would later write, "The shock of the Sacco-Vanzetti executions drove me leftward": he would become a Soviet intelligence source;[4] another of Frankfurter's students, Alger Hiss, would later emulate Sacco and Vanzetti.

The case became fodder for polemical works: Socialist[5] playwright Maxwell Anderson had his greatest success with the 1935 play Winterset, a tragedy in verse loosely based on the case, which won him both commercial success and the Critics’ Circle Award. In the play, the accused is innocent, and the judge is described as "crazy as a bedbug." Socialist novelist Upton Sinclair likewise wrote a novel, Boston, based upon the case, in which he suggested that the convicted terrorists had been railroaded.[6] But in 2005, a 1929 letter from Sinclair surfaced, in which he confessed that Fred Moore, lawyer for the two men, “told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them."[7] As he revealed in another letter, from 1927, Sinclair feared for his life if he told the truth: "My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book."[8] In the end, he decided that a lie would sell better than the truth: "It is much better copy as a naive defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public."[9] New evidence suggests that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.[10]

Wall Street bombing, 1920, attributed to Galleanists. World-Telegram photo. Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation
The pair were members of a terrorist[11] group known as the Galleanists,[12] which was responsible for the May Day 1919 attempted bombing of a number of public figures.[13] They had dodged the draft for World War I.

Liberals alleged that they had been tried for their beliefs rather than their actions, and questions about the fairness of such a trial in Boston were raised from the beginning. They had skilled defense counsel in a famous labor attorney, but no Italians were included in the jury (none may have been in the jury pool). The defense counsel eliminated every businessman from the jury. Witnesses for the prosecution were weak, with one testifying that the murderer spoke good English (the defendants did not). The prosecution identified only one bullet as being from Sacco's gun, with no explanation as to the source of the other three bullets found at the scene. The stolen money was never found.

The defendants took the witness stand in their defense, but were subjected to relentless questioning about their political beliefs. Defense counsel repeatedly objected to such questions, but the judge overruled the objections and allowed them. There is widespread agreement that the judge never should have permitted so much questioning about political beliefs at the trial.

The jury returned a guilty verdict after more than a day of deliberations. (At an earlier trial, a different jury had convicted them of a similar crime.) Faced with international protests against the prosecution, the Massachusetts governor appointed a commission to examine the trial and evidence. Throughout the 1920s the case was a flashpoint for protests. Finally, after the commission announced it agreed with the verdict, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927.

Vanzetti, who sported a distinctive handlebar mustache, maintained his innocence to the end. His final words to the judge before execution were these: "I would not wish to [a dog or snake] what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. 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; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that if 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."

On the left, sympathy has continued for Sacco and Vanzetti ever since. Much is made of a confession by another death row inmate to having perpetrated the crime. But the judge found that unreliable.

Fifty years after the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, in 1977, Massachusetts Democratic governor Michael Dukakis signed a resolution pardoning them, apologizing to them and establishing a day in honor of them. However, most scholars are convinced of their guilt.


  1. Stephen Koch, Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals (New York: Enigma Books, rev. ed. 2004) ISBN 1929631200, pp. 31-37
  2. John F. Neville, Twentieth-Century Cause Celebre: Sacco, Vanzetti, and the Press, 1920-1927 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004) ISBN 0275977838 p. 101
  3. Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen (Buffalo: Wm. S. Hein & Co., 2003) ISBN 157588805X
  4. Noel Haviland Field, Records of the Security Service, The National Archives (United Kingdom)
  5. "To John M. Gillette," September 15, 1912, in Maxwell Anderson (Laurence G. Avery, Ed.), Dramatist in America: Letters of Maxwell Anderson, 1912-1958 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) ISBN 0807849405, p. 3
  6. E.g.: "[O]f the five identification witnesses upon whom the case against Sacco rested, one was a many times arrested crook, one a hysterical prostitute, one a halfwit, one a disoriented fantasist, and one a feeble victim of police pressure." Upton Sinclair, Boston: A Novel (A. & C. Boni, 1928), p. 411
  7. Jean O. Pasco, "Sinclair Letter Turns Out to Be Another Expose," Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2005. Cf. "Novelist's Book about Murder Trial Called into Question," Canadian Broadcasting Company, January 28, 2006 (Archive); cf. Doug Linder (2001), The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, Famous Trials (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law); Richard Newby, Kill now, talk forever: debating Sacco and Vanzetti (AuthorHouse, 2006) ISBN 1420843931, p. 634
  8. Richard Newby, Kill now, talk forever: debating Sacco and Vanzetti (AuthorHouse, 2006) ISBN 1420843931, p. 481
  9. Jonah Goldberg, The Clay Feet of Liberal Saints, National Review, January 06, 2006. Cf. Ann Coulter, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Random House Digital, Inc., 2007), ISBN 1400054214, p. 52
  10. Richard Newby, Sacco & Vanzetti: Were They Really Innocent?, History News Network (George Mason University), April 19, 2004
  11. According to Charles Poggi, Frank Maffi said the 1920 Wall Street bombing that killed more than 30 people was the work of his uncle, a Galleanist named Mario Buda. Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2005), ISBN 1904859275, p. 133
  12. Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton University Press, 1996), ISBN 0691026041, pp. 59-60
  13. Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (Princeton University Press, 1996), ISBN 0691026041, p. 146