This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The controversial execution of two Italian anarchists in America

Posted in America, Anarchy, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, Politics on Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about American justice first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 510 published on 23 October 1971.

No one noticed the two tall swarthy Italian-looking men who had been loitering outside a shoe factory in South Braintree, a small industrial town near Boston, Massachusetts. They had a black Buick car which was parked opposite the gates of the factory, and from the suspicious bulges beneath the men’s jackets it seemed as if they were concealing some kind of cudgels.

Curiously enough, no one bothered to challenge the men, or ask them what they were doing near the factory on the very day that $16,000 was being taken from there to the shoe company’s main works, some four hundred yards away.

At precisely 3 p.m. on 15th April, 1920, two guards left the building carrying metal boxes containing the firm’s pay packets for the week. The two foreigners were then leaning over a fence, as though idly passing away the time. Suddenly, as the guards approached them, the loiterers pulled guns from their belts and fired at the oncoming men.

One of the guards, named Berardelli, fell dead at the feet of the bandits. The other employee, Frederick Parminter, the shoe company paymaster, made a run for it. Two more shots were fired and he dropped to the ground, mortally wounded.

Within seconds the gunmen had snatched the money boxes, rushed with them to the waiting car, and speeded off across some railway tracks in the general direction of Boston. A few days later the Buick was found abandoned in some outlying woods, and the search for the dark-skinned men – one of whom sported a long drooping moustache – was intensified.

The Massachusetts State Police were already investigating a similar hold-up the previous December, and their enquiries took them to the Italian communities in the towns scattered around Boston. A short while later they accosted two men – Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Banzetti – while they were riding on a streetcar.

As the officers stated who they were, the immigrants allegedly reached for the guns stuck in their waistbands. According to the police the Italians were disarmed before they could use their weapons – a .32 Colt automatic owned by Sacco, and Vanzetti’s .38-calibre revolver.

It was later stated by a firearms expert that the Colt pistol was one of the murder weapons. So Sacco – a 29-year-old shoemaker – and Vanzetti – a fish pedlar born in 1888 – were charged on 5th May with the cold-blooded slaughter of the two guards.

From the outset both the men vigorously denied being in South Braintree on the day of the shooting. When asked why he had been carrying a gun, the bow-tied Sacco replied: “To protect myself. Lots of bad men.” And Vanzetti, his features partly hidden by his heavy moustache, claimed to have been in Plymouth, Mass, selling fish at the time the guards were killed.

As the District Attorney prepared his case against the prisoners, an investigation of their background served to condemn them even before they were put on trial. They had both arrived in America shortly before the start of the First World War; in 1917, when the United States entered the hostilities, Sacco and Vanzetti fled to Mexico to avoid military service.

Added to this it was revealed that they had been touring the Boston area distributing pamphlets supporting the working man in his struggle against the “bosses,” or capitalist society.

At the time America was going through the first of its “Red scares,” in which all Radicals and Russian-influenced Bolsheviks were regarded as the sworn enemies of democracy.

It did not help the immigrants when pamphlets were found in their possession expressing such sentiments as: “Fellow workers, you have all worked for the capitalists . . . but have you harvested the fruits of your labours? . . . have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like one?”

Due to administrative delays, the trial for first-degree murder did not take place until 31st May, 1921 – more than a year after the actual hold-up. The trial was presided over by Judge Webster Thayer, who from the very beginning openly displayed his detestation of the two men and their alien way of life.

By an ironical stroke, Judge Thayer had only a few weeks before sentenced the harsh-voiced Vanzetti to imprisonment for the earlier hold-up in Bridgewater, Mass. It seemed to be against all sense of justice that he should also conduct the second trial; but no amount of protest could alter this.

To make the proceedings even more difficult, a mass of confused and conflicting evidence was presented by the defence and prosecution lawyers. In all, forty-three witnesses were called – seven of whom identified Vanzetti as being one of the men loitering in South Braintree, while four others said they had seen Sacco in the vicinity.

Twenty-five witnesses, however, said that the Italians were not the men they had seen outside the factory. In view of this it seemed reasonable to suppose that the shoemaker and the fish pedlar would be discharged. But Judge Thayer had been overheard outside the court to say that he was convinced that the “anarchists” were guilty and would be sentenced to death.

To many observers, therefore, it came as no surprise when on 14th July the jury found both defendants guilty of murder. The evidence against the men was only circumstantial, and from Sacco came an immediate cry that: “They kill an innocent man. They kill two innocent men.”

In order for motions for a re-trial to be heard, Judge Thayer postponed sentence, and for the next six years the machinery of the law ground its laborious way as lawyers fought to save the two men’s lives.

A series of appeals for a new trial were launched on the grounds that the judge was hopelessly biased against the Italians, and that the men had been convicted because of their political views and activities.

The unforgivably long drawn-out process showed American justice at its worst, and it was not until 9th April, 1927 – by which time Judge Thayer’s own life had been threatened – that he faced Sacco and Vanzetti again.

His voice did not falter as he sentenced them to die in the electric chair. Sacco, in his clumsy broken-English, then declared that: “I know the sentence will be between two class, the oppressed class and the rich class . . . That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been the oppressed class.” And Vanzetti, in turn, said bitterly: “I have suffered because I was an Italian.”

The day of the execution was set for 23rd August, 1927; and in the intervening four months representatives of the whole of the civilized world made impassioned pleas for clemency. Despite letters and statements from such writers as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and the great physicist and mathematician, Albert Einstein, the condemned men were still taken to the chair.

As the hour of execution drew near, sympathetic strikes took place as far away as South America and France. Five hundred armed policemen – some carrying machine-guns – surrounded Boston’s Charlestown Prison as the executioner twice pulled the switch.

Sacco and Vanzetti were dead, but their trial was destined not to be forgotten. A flood of books and plays based on the case poured from the presses, and the question most frequently asked was not about the Italians’ guilt or innocence – but why had they been forced to languish for nearly seven soul-destroying years before their ordeal was finally brought to an end?

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.