Framed and put to death because of their political beliefs
August 23, 2002 | Page 8
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this month, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti--two Italian immigrants--were executed in the state of Massachusetts. They were convicted and sentenced to death for killing two men during a robbery--a paymaster and his guard who were delivering money to pay workers' wages at a shoe company.
But to the millions of people around the world who fought to save them, Sacco and Vanzetti were proof of the injustice of a system that would frame two men and railroad them to the death chamber because of their political beliefs.
Despite this overwhelming support and all the evidence that pointed to their innocence, the two were executed in 1927. But not before the case and the movement organized to save them made a huge impact around the world. MARLENE MARTIN tells the story of Sacco and Vanzetti.
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HOW COULD this travesty of justice take place? The answer lies in the anti-immigrant Red Scare that gripped the U.S. in the 1920s. The end of the First World War in 1918 led to a tremendous radicalization among U.S. workers, with revolutionaries at the forefront of huge struggles.
The government countered with a wave of repression. In the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, organized by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, immigrant radicals were rounded up, beaten and held incommunicado for days--until they were deported.
Anti-foreign sentiment reached a new high. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the well-known union organizer and socialist who helped lead the struggle for Sacco and Vanzetti, recalled that the attitude toward Italian immigrants was "like the Dixiecrat attitude in the South to [African American] people today."
This bigotry was obvious to Sacco and Vanzetti from the beginning. During his testimony, Vanzetti was asked why he thought he was being held because of his politics. "Because the first thing [the police] asked me is if I was an anarchist, communist or socialist," he replied. Likewise, Sacco was badgered by prosecutors as to why he dodged the draft rather than fight in the First World War.
Their trial was presided over by Judge Webster Thayer, who made his bias plain. "Although this man [Sacco] may not have committed the crime attributed to him," Thayer told the jury at the outset, "he is nonetheless culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions." A friend of Thayer's reported that the judge told him, "Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day?"
The jury in the trial was made up only of native-born whites, and the foreman was a former police chief who made a point to salute the American flag each time he entered the courtroom.
As the appendix to a book of letters by Sacco and Vanzetti puts it, "Outside the courtroom, the Red hysteria was rampant; it was allowed to dominate within. The prosecution systematically played on the feelings of the jury by exploiting the unpatriotic and despised beliefs of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the judge allowed him thus to divert and pervert the jury's mind."
The case against Sacco and Vanzetti was a fabrication, contradicted at every step by the evidence put forward by the defense. A total of 99 witnesses testified that the two men were innocent--including dozens who said Sacco and Vanzetti were nowhere near the crime scene.
Just before the robbery took place, Sacco was at the Italian consulate, trying to get a passport, as a consulate official said in court. More than a dozen people took the witness stand to verify that Vanzetti, a fish peddler, had delivered fish to their homes, miles away from the crime scene, on the day of the killing.
The prosecution failed to find the stolen money--or come up with a credible explanation for why two avowed anarchists would steal workers' wages. Even Sacco's former employer spoke out for the shoemaker: "A man [Sacco] who is in his garden at four o'clock in the morning and at the factory at seven o'clock, and in his garden again after supper and until nine and ten at night, carrying water and raising vegetables beyond his own needs, which he would bring to me to give to the poor--that man is not a 'hold-up man.'"
But the witnesses for the defense were mainly immigrants themselves, and therefore easily dismissed by the all-white jury--and Judge Thayer gave the prosecutors every advantage. The trial ended in a conviction.
For seven years after the trial, Sacco and Vanzetti's lawyers tried to present new evidence of the two men's innocence. For example, in one astonishing turn of events, Sacco received a letter from a man named Celeste Maderios, who confessed that he took part in the robbery and killings.
An investigation confirmed that Maderios, then behind bars for bank robbery, belonged to a well-known gang of professional robbers. This fit with what some law enforcement agents had long believed--that the crime had been committed not by Sacco and Vanzetti, but by professionals.
In one appeal, an agent for the U.S. Justice Department who had worked closely with prosecutors during the investigation and trial, confessed in an affidavit that he thought Sacco and Vanzetti had been framed. "It was the opinion of the department agents here that a conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder would be one way of disposing of the two men," the agent wrote. "My opinion and the opinion of most of the older men in the government service has always been that the South Braintree crime was the work of professionals."
But Thayer denied every motion for a new trial. Finally, Vanzetti made a petition for clemency to the governor of Massachusetts. But Sacco refused to sign it. He had long ago given up on expecting the system to provide justice. As he wrote in a letter to a friend from the death house, "[I]n our coffin will lay our friends' optimism and our pessimism. What I wish more than all in this hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom--so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain."
They weren't. Millions of people around the world were outraged at the framing of Sacco and Vanzetti--and expressed their outrage at countless demonstrations as the date for the execution approached.
On the eve of their being put to death, miners in Colorado went on strike in support of Sacco and Vanzetti. Demonstrators clashed with police in London, Paris and Geneva. Protesters took to the streets in Berlin, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rome, Moscow, Barcelona, Milan, Havana, Tokyo and Lisbon--not to mention across the U.S.
The worldwide protests didn't save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. But the struggle helped to radicalize a generation of activists, giving many of the people who would play an important role in the great struggles of the 1930s their first taste of political activity.
As Vanzetti stated in court when Thayer sentenced the two men to death, "If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not failures. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident.
"Our words, our lives, our pains, nothing! The taking of our lives--lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler--all! That last moment belongs to us--that agony is our triumph."