The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti
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The trial of Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, polarized America of the 1920's further. The growing nativism and discrimination enabled the execution of these men, creating greater social disharmony and controversy over the fairness of the legal system and after time, a desire for a more diplomatic America.

Two Italian-born anarchists living in Boston

Nicola Sacco

  • Born as "Ferdinando" in Torremaggiore, Italy in 1891
  • Dropped out of school at age 14
  • Emigrated to US in 1908, settled in Milford, MA
  • Started as water-boy, then went to doing textile work
  • Began to take lessons on shoe-trimming
  • Attended weekly meetings of Circolo di Studi Sociali (25 member anarchist group)
  • Subscribed to Cronaca Sovversiva, Luigi Galleani's anarchist newspaper
  • Followed Luigi Galleani , an anarchist leader who believed in revolutionary violence using bombs and assasinations
  • Sacco wrote for Galleani's newpaper
  • Met Vanzetti in 1917: They along with other anarchists moved to Mexico to avoid WWI draft, took on pseudonyms (Nicola)
  • Moved back to US a few months later

Bartolomeo Vanzetti

  • Born in Villafelletto, Italy in 1888
  • Father took him out of school to work at pastry shop at age 13
  • Contracted pleurisy (disease inflames membrane around lungs, difficult to breath)
  • Arrived in NYC in 1908 after mother died of cancer
  • Worked in restaurants and clubs in city until 1909 when moved to Springfield, MA and worked in a brick factory
  • Constantly moved around and changed jobs
  • Read books on political philosophy, attracted to anarchism
  • Received Cronaca Sovversiva
  • Escaped to Mexico to avoid draft
  • Moved back to Plymouth, MA and took up fish peddling before arrested

A photo of them at the trial

What Happened? What Are They Accused Of?
Murder and Armed Robbery (April 15, 1920)
  • Both accused of shooting and killing Frederick Parmenter (a paymaster) and Alessandro Berardelli (his security guard)
  • Vanzetti accused of theft of $15, 776.51 from Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, MA
  • Parmenter and Berardelli carrying payroll when two men jumped out and fired
  • Sped away in getaway cars

Attempted Robbery
  • Vanzetti later accused of a failed holdup attempt
  • December 24, 1919 in Bridgewater

The Arrests and Early Trial Proceedings:
  • Police focused on local Italian anarchists
  • Sacco and Vanzetti had no previous criminal record
  • BUT they were known as radical militants and followers of Galleani
  • Associated crimes with Galleanist anarchist movement
  • Police believed robberies were committed to go to an ongoing bomb campaign

The Arrests

  • Arrested in Brockton, MA on May 5, 1920
  • At a garage, picking up a car thought to be used in robberies
  • Had guns on them and anarchist literature
  • Vanzetti had shotgun shells like those used in robberies

First Convictions
  • Vanzetti first to be tried for armed robbery: was convicted
  • Both then convicted for murder

The Trial

  • Vanzetti claims to be fishing when the incident occured
  • Sacco says he was in Boston - has alibi: the waiter at the restaurant he ate at
  • Waiter cannot testify due to poor health: government takes this to show how even the people he was eating with were anarchists
  • Prosecution uses material evidence (ex. size of the bullets) to "prove" that it had to be Sacco and Vanzetti
  • No direct evidence tied either men to the crime
Political Cartoon of Trial


  • Prosecution had ELEVEN eyewitnesses
  • Before trial, said events were too quick for positive identification
  • But at trial, said it was definitely Sacco and Vanzetti
  • Bullets "matched" using ballistics---> ballistics were new at time
  • Matched markings on bullets to Sacco
  • Vanzetti owned same type of gun used to killed guard
  • Lied about how they knew each other, and when and where Vanzetti got a gun
  • Lied to protect their fellow anarchists and their other activities--->not incriminate themselves but Judge allowed evidence of anarchist beliefs and this influenced trial

Trial results:

  • After deliberating for three hours, the jury finds both Sacco and Vanzetti guilty
  • Both men were conviced to death by the electric chair in 1921
  • Electrocuted in 1927
  • Later, supporters would say they were only convicted due to their anarchist beliefs

  • As the public protested this ruling, governor Fuller of Massachusetts created an "advisory committee"
  • Made up of Judge Robert Grant as well as the president of both Harvard and MIT
  • The trio reviewed the information for two weeks before deciding it had been fair
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  • Both men refused priests
  • Sacco's last words: "Viva l'anarchia!" and "Farewell Mia Madre"
  • Vanzetti shook hands with the guards and said "I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me"
  • Anarchists outraged by this - continued to fight for Sacco and Vanzetti
  • In 1988 evidence came out that it had not been Sacco or Vanzetti

The Aftermath and Controversy
  • Trial taking place during Red Scare
  • Nativism raging-->people feared Bolshevism, immigrants, communism
  • Quick to blame Sacco and Vanzetti as being anti-American
  • Others thought trial was unjust
  • Courts did not adhere to laws in giving them fair trial
  • Evidence was loose, only convicted due to associations with anarchist group and discrimination against Italians, not because guilty

People were sympathetic. And many still are. This is shown in this great song.
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Relevance to Today:
  • Nativism still exists today
  • Hostility towards Mexican immigrants and issues at borders
  • After 9/11, discrimination towards those of Middle-Eastern descent
  • Discrimination and racial profiling still affect law and law enforcement, bias still exists
  • Fairness of trial compromised in these situations
  • Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society was created----> demonstrations and marches to remind people how law was blatantly ignored

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