The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

Nora Connolly 

On this day in 1927 Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed, their final hours spent writing letters to loved ones. They were apparently remarkably calm, this the final dreadful stage in a seven year legal battle. In the very early hours of that terrible morning another man was executed with them, though his composure not as pronounced. He was Celestino Madeiros and while he was executed for an unrelated matter he had admitted to his involvement in the armed robbery and murder for which Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted. Madeiros had given compelling evidence which totally absolved both men but still failed to save them from the electric chair.  

As Howard Zinn recounts one of the last acts that Nicola Sacco performed was to pen a letter to his son. In this missive he advised him to console his grieving Mother by taking her for a walk in the countryside just as Nicola once did, “to pick wild flowers”, and to calm her by “resting under the tranquillity of Mother nature”. He continued by suggesting his son should always think of the less fortunate saying, “but remember always Dante that in the play of happiness don’t you use all for yourself only but help the weaker ones who cry for help, help the persecuted and the victim because they are your better friends.” In this letter he points out that he and Vanzetti are not criminals and that one day his son will be proud of his Father. He then concludes by saying, “And Dante I kiss you and clasp you in a firm embrace” with that he knocked on the cell door and beckoned the guard, requesting him to take the letter to his son.

Sacco is reported to have gone to his death pretty quietly, saying goodbye to his family, though as he approached the electric chair shouted, “Long live Anarchy”. These men, while they maintained their innocence, never denied their political ideals, although these beliefs were the reason for their predicament, an unconscionable breach of due process. It was their political outlook combined to their ethnicity and immigrant status which sat them both on the electric chair, on August 23, 1927. Sacco`s  last comment was not political he uttered, “farewell Mother” just before death took him.

As the historian Nunzio Pernicone points out the case of Sacco and Vanzetti highlights the gulf between the mythology and the reality of American society. Italian immigrants were confronted with a harsh industrial environment, profits great while wages poor. As historian Michael Topp highlights workers at the time laboured in deplorable conditions with as many as 35,000 people killed or maimed each year. Both Sacco and Vanzetti participated in these industries as Lincoln Robbins points out they did “tough hard work”. Working hard didn’t protect the Italian immigrants from the full force of so called native hostility. As Pernicone highlights the myriad racist terms used to describe Italian immigrants; didn’t come into existence by accident these were a reflection of the contempt felt by mainstream American society for Italian immigrants.

The last of the three men to be executed on the 23rd of August, was Vanzetti he was taken to the electric chair but he stopped first to shake the hand of the Warden, sincerely thanking him for everything he had done during his incarceration, an amazing gesture which impacted on everyone who witnessed it. According to historian David Kaiser He then made a statement, in which he said he had committed no crime, some sins, but no crime. Just as they were about to place the hood over his head he spoke for the last time, “And I now want to forgive some of these people for what they are doing to me.”

The Red Scare which took place in the United States after the Bolshevik revolution is the back drop for the Sacco and Vanzetti case. This scare which saw a complete breach of due process is closely associated with the Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and his `Palmer Raids`. As Pernicone points out, under the pretext of this scare people were swept up by the authorities in the thousands, no warrant, no trials, no nothing. The panic combined with a general rise in intolerance towards immigrants from 1921 onwards.

The USA hardly appeared to be ripe for revolution, given the surge of jingoistic patriotism (used against Sacco and Vanzetti during the trial) at the end of the First World War and the seemingly widespread attraction of conservatism and fundamentalism; this is after all the nation of the KKK and the Scopes Trial. One indeed wonders what the state was worried about, as the left at the time was in poor shape. True a million people voted for the American Socialist Party in 1920 but the left splintered and became factionalised after the Bolshevik revolution. Of course this was all helped along by government intervention which hardly lived up to the precepts of its democratic ideals, indeed the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were simply torn up. Among the proliferation of radical groups evident in the USA at the time were the Anarchists. Which Sacco and Vanzetti joined as Pernicone points out both men came to the conclusion that the state per se is the enemy of freedom. However the doctrine these men followed was not shaped by a nihilistic framework as Vanzetti explains: I championed the weak the poor, the oppressed, the simple and the persecuted. I maintained that whoever benefits or hurts a man benefits or hurts the whole species. I sought my liberty in the liberty of all. The happiness in the happiness of all. I wanted a roof for every family and bread for every mouth. Education for every heart, light for every intellect…”

It has not been my intention to fully explore the range of issues linked to this case in this blog. There may be a few people out there who still think Sacco and Vanzetti guilty and deserved to be murdered by the state. This is clearly not a view that I share or anyone else who has bothered to study this case with an open mind and heart. For those interested in learning more the 2006 documentary cited is a good place to start. It explores the issue objectively and in a forensic manner the evidence is judiciously outlined, if only Judge Thayer had been as diligent when he presided over all the cases linked to this issue. Sacco and Vanzetti might then have got the justice they deserved.

Clearly the initial politicisation of the case by the socialist defence lawyer Fred Moore was a mistake. This was a counsel of despair based less on the strength of the evidence against the two men and more on the discriminatory features of the judicial process which they faced. Historian Mary Anne Trasciatti points out that Elizabeth Gurley Flynn encouraged Moore to take up the case. It was believed, these two men were never going to get a fair trial – a view that has credence. However by taking the issue onto the streets and into the political debating hall it heightened the discriminatory outlook of the court. The best one can say about Judge Thayer is that he stopped acting as an impartial judge and became an aggressive arm of the prosecution; the worst one can say is that he became a willing executioner Vanzetti called him a “cobra in a black frock”.

If you get a chance this weekend to toast the memory of these two men with a glass of Italian wine, then please do so because Sacco and Vanzetti are gone but will never be forgotten.


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