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The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants accused of and executed for murder and robbery in the 1920’s. Both men subscribed to the beliefs of anarchism and were anti-war and anti-government. This fact made their trial very political in nature, with collective protests that demanded their release and people claiming prejudice on the part of the judicial system. There is still controversy today over whether both men were indeed guilty or innocent.

On April 15, 1920, two men, Frederick Parmenter and Alesandro Berardelli, were brutally shot as they walked down the street. The two men were paymasters, off to deliver wages to factory workers. The gunmen robbed the men of the wage envelopes and escaped in a getaway car. On May 5, 1920, the police set a trap in Bridgewater to capture a suspect in the murders. Off a tip given by police, both Ferdinando and Bartolomeo were arrested that night, although neither were the original suspects for the crime. Upon their arrest, police found that both men were carrying guns and that Vanzetti had information about an anarchist meeting.

Police questioned Sacco and Vanzetti about whether or not they knew the original suspects, Feruccio Coacci and Mike Boda. Both men denied knowing Coacci and Boda. Police determined that neither man gave good reason for being in Bridgewater the night of their arrest, nor did they have good cause for carrying guns. Once police learned that Sacco missed work the day of the Braintree murders, they were convinced that both men were responsible for the crime. Vanzetti was also facing charges for an earlier robbery in Bridgewater.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti went through the first trial alone; the trial to prove his guilt in the Bridgewater robbery. Ferdinando Sacco avoided these charges because he had a timecard that proved his whereabouts. After Vanzetti’s attorney convinced him that his anarchist beliefs would work against him in a trial and not to take the stand, Vanzetti was found guilty and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

The second trial tried Vanzetti and Sacco together. The prosecution employed eyewitnesses that claimed they saw the men in the area of the shooting. Bullet and gun comparisons were also made to prove guilt. The defense was able to provide witnesses that corroborated stories that Vanzetti and Sacco were elsewhere on the date of the crime. Vanzetti had witnesses that testified he was at work throwing fish. Sacco had an alibi that he was trying to get a passport from the Italian consulate. With all of the he-said, she-said of the witnesses, many believe the jury used the evidence of the cap and gun to find the defendants guilty.

A gray cap found at the crime scene was said to be a cap frequently worn by Ferdinando Sacco. When Sacco’s boss confirmed that the cap might be Sacco’s, the prosecution jumped on the evidence as proof that Sacco was one of the shooters. The defense had the most trouble fighting the ballistics evidence of the bullet found in Berardelli’s body. Testing on the bullet showed that the bullet matched the gun found on Sacco on the night of his arrest. Vanzetti was found to be carrying a gun that matched exactly to the gun Berardelli would have carried when transporting the money. After the evidence was received by the court, the jury deliberated and came back with a verdict of guilty for both men. This meant that without successful appeals, both men were bound for the electric chair.

Over the next few years, attorney Fred Moore would appeal the court’s decision on a variety of grounds. Some witnesses started recanting their original testimonies or claimed they were forced to sign affidavits or give certain testimonies. An appeal was made on the fact that Judge Thayer seemed prejudiced against Sacco and Vanzetti for no other reason than their anarchist beliefs. The biggest reason for appeal was the suspicion that the chief investigation witness switched the barrel of Sacco’s gun with one used for the murder. Up until 1924, five motions were made for a new trial but all were denied. In 1924, attorney William Thompson overtook the case from Moore and motioned for a new trial after convict Celestino Madeiros confessed to the crime from prison. The motion was denied and the men were scheduled for execution on August 23, 1927.

Ferdinando Nicola Sacco was the first man executed. Witnesses claim his last words were, “Long live anarchy!” Bartolomeo Vanzetti proclaimed his innocence until they pulled the lever on the electric chair. News of their execution caused riots, bombings, and protests. There were violent acts in Geneva, Paris, and Germany. Anarchist Severino Di Giovanni was suspected of bombing the homes of jurors, the executioner, the governor, and Judge Thayer. Bombs were also set off in the subway, at churches, and at businesses. The retaliation caused Judge Thayer to live out the rest of his life on a heavily guarded property.

Scholars still discuss the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. Recent scholarship on the case has some believing that Sacco was indeed guilty but that Vanzetti was innocent. Letters and early conversations are still coming out from ancestors of the original Italian anarchists and people involved in the case. Some claim that a leader of the anarchist movement eventually admitted Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti innocent. Another person claims that a direct talk with attorney Fred Moore revealed that both men were guilty and Moore arranged alibis during the trial. The study of this case will continue as people strive for the true answer to whether or not these men were innocent or guilty.

The following links will give in-depth information about the trial, including different scholarly opinions about how the case was handled. These will also discuss the political agenda many believe helped convict the two men.

  • Penn State gives a general overview of the crime and the trial, including opinions and recent information discovered about the case.
  • The Sacco and Vanzetti Trial has information about people who were influences in the trial, information given by journalists at the time of the trial, and letters from the men while they were in prison.
  • Harvard Law offers a catalog of newspaper clippings from the case, which they house in an off-site library. This site also gives a timeline of events and tells people how to get access to original news stories about the case.
  • American Writers and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case is a site that shows how poets and writers dealt with the case through writing. Writers tackled the topics of government, anarchism, and the two men through poems and stories.
  • Pitzer College has a page of various photographs of Sacco and Vanzetti.
  • University at Albany covers the background of the anarchist movement and how and why Sacco and Vanzetti got involved.
  • Yale Press explores the social and political implications of this trial in the early 1900’s and in modern times.

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