top of page

Sacco & Vanzetti: Book Review

One hundred years ago the names of these two hard-working and very militant anarchist immigrants were famous around the world for the widely perceived injustice that had been meted out to them by a racist and unscrupulous Massachusetts legal system.

International socialists, communists and organized labor across Europe and South America were in uproar and bombs were left on various US embassy doorsteps. A few days after Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted for murder a massive bomb was detonated on Wall Street killing 38 and injuring 134 others. The reaction of violent anarchists did nothing to help the two condemned men.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco

The United States was very different country a century ago and capitalism was still in its brutal exploitation stage. The labor movement was trying to claim its fair share of the fruits of the industrial revolution but widespread strikes were often met with bullets rather than negotiation.

In the first twenty years of the new century the Ludlow massacre was followed by the Everett massacre and then further deaths resulted from the Centralia Armistice Day riot. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia led to the first American ‘Red Scare’ in 1919 and anarchists became public enemy number one, not least because of a series of home-made bombs posted to prominent people around the country exactly one year before the Sacco and Vanzetti saga began.

Even though most of the anarchist literature circulating at that time did not advocate violence, the international anarchist movement had left a bloody trail around the world starting with the assassination of the Spanish Prime Minister in 1897, the Italian King Umberto I in 1900, President McKinley in the US in 1901 and of course Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

The events in this excellent book by Bruce Watson begin in 1919 and though America and Massachusetts were indeed very different 100 years ago, there are some interesting similarities with today including war, an international plague and large scale immigration into the US as well as the fact that the top 10% of Americans still control 80% of the nation’s wealth just as they did a century ago. Not much progress one could argue for a country that remains a magnet for everyone on the planet and yet where the inequality inherent in capitalism is the deepest and least mitigated of any capitalist country anywhere.

The America that greeted these two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, was not the welcoming country romanticized by later generations and in Massachusetts a southern European in those days was very much a second class citizen. For Sacco at least, the American dream was well and truly over by 1920 and he was preparing to return to Italy with his family until the robbery of 15 April in Braintree and his subsequent arrest intervened.

It only takes a few pages for Bruce Watson to describe what took place that day but the subsequent events leading up to the trial and the actual trial itself occupy the following 114 pages because this is where all the doubt and confusion take place that have endured for a century.

The relationship between the stiff Yankee judge (Webster Thayer) and the distinctly non-conformist California defense attorney (Fred Moore) played out in a very similar manner to that amusing 1992 film My Cousin Vinny starring Joe Pesci, but unfortunately for Sacco and Vanzetti there was no expert witness Marisa Tomei to save the day; this was a serious business for them with their very lives at stake.

There is no doubt that Fred Moore got under the skin of the judge and his courtroom behavior did nothing to help his clients but the outcome of the trial was predetermined both by Thayer’s obvious and witnessed antipathy towards anarchists as well as the cultural clash between working class Italian immigrants and the whole Boston Brahmin establishment, one of whom occupied the White House during the entire six year appeal process in the person of Calvin Coolidge.

Felix Frankfurter as a Supreme Court Justice a few decades later

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in 2021 was not the end of the matter, not even close, because what followed was an extraordinary period in which every facet of the trial was challenged and disputed. In 1924 the unreliable and increasingly volatile Moore was replaced as their defense attorney by the highly respected and very Boston establishment figure of William Thompson.

A Brahmin himself, Thompson was a Harvard Law School graduate and was ably assisted by Felix Frankfurter who at that time was a law professor at Harvard. Frankfurter went on to become a distinguished Supreme Court Justice from 1939 to 1962 so we should perhaps give more weight to his outrage at the conduct of the trial than we afford the self-serving actions of the Massachusetts Justice Department.

Both Thompson and Frankfurter came to believe in the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti but their main motivation in taking the case, at some personal cost to their standing in society, was to safeguard the integrity of the Massachusetts legal process which they felt very strongly had been undermined during the trial. Their efforts were not primarily to establish the innocence of their clients but rather to win them a second and much fairer trial on the basis of all the errors, willful prejudice and downright malpractice of the initial trial.

And these were not small or insignificant errors. They included an eyewitness yelled at in perfect non-accented English by the gunman in the getaway car (niether Sacco nor Vanzetti spoke even intelligible English in 1920), a jury that ignored all alibi witnesses despite 9 people testifying for Sacco’s whereabouts that day and 8 for Vanzetti, and also a cap left near the crime scene that clearly didn’t fit Sacco. This piece of courtroom drama was much more compelling and much more conclusive than the notorious black glove that didn’t quite fit O.J. Simpson at his trial in 1995 that led Johnnie Cochran to famously delare “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” in his closing statement to the jury.

Ranged against Thompson and Frankfurter was a strange combination of conservatives, so-called patriots, the entire Massachusetts establishment and even the Ku Klux Klan who made their presence felt on the streets on more than one occasion. It may have been wise perhaps for this coalition of the self-righteous to have recognized that finding themselves on the same side as the Klan was reason enough to reconsider their position.

The author goes into considerable detail over the next 148 pages, taking us from the verdict at their trial in 1921 to their final sentencing in 1927, and appropriately so because a lot happened during that period. The final insult towards the end was when the State appointed a judge to look into whether the trial judge, Webster Thayer, had shown any bias and who did they appoint for this task? None other than Judge Webster Thayer himself.

There were 7,000 people in the funeral cortege for Sacco and Vanzetti and a further 200,000 watching the procession

By the end of the book you might not be convinced of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti but there are certainly enough facts presented to convince the reader of the merit of a second trial and I would guess that had that happened it may have been difficult to prove the guilt of Sacco & Vanzetti beyond a reasonable doubt, so perhaps that’s the real reason why the full judicial and law enforcement machinery of the State of Massachusetts was hell-bent on not allowing a second trial.

Shortly before the sentencing in April 1927 Felix Frankfurter felt so aggrieved by the process that he wrote a 118 page article (later published as a book) titled 'The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti' setting out in detail all of the judicial and procedural problems with their conviction at the trial. And 5 months before Frankfurter's book the Boston Herald wrote a lengthy editorial, essentially a mea culpa for the paper's hasty original judgement, in which it strongly advocated a second trial. The opening paragraph was as follow:

Subsequent Events:

In 1977 Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned both men — with the words, “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

A memorial committee had tried to present a plaster cast of the two men made in 1937 by Gutzon Borglum (the sculptor of Mount Rushmore) to various Massachusetts governors and Boston mayors in 1937, 1947, and 1957, without any success. On August 23, 1997, on the 70th anniversary of the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, Boston's first Italian-American Mayor, Thomas Menino, and the Italian-American Governor of Massachusetts, Paul Cellucci, unveiled the work at the Boston Public Library, where it remains on display.

The city's acceptance of this piece of artwork is not intended to reopen debate about the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti," Menino said. "It is intended to remind us of the dangers of miscarried justice, and the right we all have to a fair trial.

This is one of those books where the ending is well-known but the events leading up to it are less so and are completely fascinating like a good crime thriller should be, except this one unfortunately happens to be true.


bottom of page