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Sacco Ferdinando Nicola
and Vanzetti Bartolomeo
Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-born laborers and anarchists who were tried, convicted and executed via electrocution on August 23, 1927 in Massachusetts, United States (U.S.) for the 1920 armed robbery and murder of a pay-clerk and a security guard in Braintree, Massachusetts, U.S.
Today, the case continues to incite controversy based on questions regarding culpability, the question of the innocence or guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti, and conformance, the question of whether the trials were fair to Sacco and Vanzetti.
On August 23, 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation declaring, "Any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. We are not here to say whether these men are guilty or innocent. We are here to say that the high standards of justice, which we in Massachusetts take such pride in, failed Sacco and Vanzetti."
Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of the murders of Frederick Parmenter, a paymaster, and Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard, during a payroll robbery of US$15,776.51 from the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company, on Pearl Street in South Braintree, Massachusetts, during the afternoon of April 15, 1920.
The two men were arrested in Brockton, Massachusetts on May 5, 1920, after appearing at a garage to pick up a car that police believed was used in the robberies.
Vanzetti was initially tried and convicted on a lesser charge, stemming from another armed robbery that occurred in nearby Bridgewater, Massachusetts the previous year. Both men were then tried for the Braintree robbery-murders and convicted. After several unsuccessful appeals Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair on August 23, 1927 along with a third man, Celestino Madeiros, who had confessed to the murder.
Many aspects of both trials were challenged at the time (and since) for being highly prejudicial against the two men. In particular, the presiding judge in both cases, Webster Thayer, (and several appeals) was seen by professors, the press, and pundits like Felix Frankfurter as forcing the trial towards conviction and execution.
The case was also highly politically charged—Sacco and Vanzetti were members of the Galleanists, a militant Italian-American anarchist group suspected of a string of bomb attacks in the United States including the September 1920 Wall Street bombing that claimed over 30 lives, and which may have been a reprisal against Sacco and Vanzetti's arrest and indictment. Both men claimed to be victims of social and political prejudice and both claimed to be unjustly convicted of the crime for which they were accused. However, they did not attempt to distance themselves from their fellow anarchists nor their belief in violence as a legitimate weapon against the government.
Their controversial trial attracted enormous international attention, with critics accusing the prosecution and Judge Webster Thayer of improper conduct, and of allowing anti-Italian, anti-immigrant, and anti-anarchist sentiment to prejudice the jury. Prominent Americans such as Felix Frankfurter and Upton Sinclair publicly sided with citizen-led Sacco and Vanzetti Committees in an ultimately unsuccessful opposition to the verdict.
The executions elicited mass protests in New York, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo, worker walk-outs across South America, and riots in Paris, Geneva, Germany and Johannesburg. The American Embassy in Paris was besieged by protesters and the facade of the Moulin Rouge was wrecked.
Sacco was a shoe-maker born in Torremaggiore, Foggia who immigrated to the United States at the age of seventeen. Vanzetti was a fishmonger born in Villafalletto, Cuneo who arrived in the United States at age twenty. Both men arrived in the US in 1908, although they did not meet until mid-1917.
The men were followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombing and assassination. Galleani published both Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), a periodical that advocated violent revolution, and an explicit bomb-making manual (La Salute è in voi!). At the time, Italian anarchists ranked at the top of the government's list of dangerous enemies, and had been identified as suspects in several violent bombings and assassination attempts (even an attempted mass poisoning), going back to 1914. Cronaca Sovversiva was suppressed in July 1918, and Galleani along with eight of his closest associates were deported on June 24, 1919.
Most of the remaining Galleanists sought to avoid arrest by becoming inactive or going underground. However, some sixty militants considered themselves still engaged in a class war that required retaliation. For three years, they waged an intermittent campaign of terrorism directed at politicians, judges, and other federal and local officials, especially those who had supported deportation of alien radicals. Chief among the dozen or more terrorist acts the Galleanists committed or are suspected of committing was the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home on 2 June 1919. In that incident, one Galleanist, Carlo Valdinoci (a former editor of Cronaca Sovversiva and an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti), was killed when the bomb intended for Attorney General Palmer exploded in his hands as he was placing it. Incendiary pamphlets found at the scene of this and several other midnight bombings on the same evening were signed "The Anarchist Fighters."
Several Galleanist associates had been suspected and/or interrogated about their roles in the bombing incidents. Two days before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, a Galleanist named Andrea Salsedo jumped to his death from the Bureau of Investigation offices on Park Row in New York. There was speculation that Salsedo may have been pushed out the window or possibly dropped as he was held out the window by his ankles, a well known "third-degree" technique, as he was interrogated.
Roberto Elia, another Galleanist under arrest, was later deposed in the inquiry and testified that Salsedo was distraught over his capture and killed himself to avoid betraying the others. In his 1965 book Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals, pp. 75-76, 80, David Felix supported this idea.
He had interviewed many of the participants in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, but the truth about Salsedo, whose death may have spurred his comrades to further violent action, may never be known. Salsedo worked in a Brooklyn print shop, where federal agents had traced the "Anarchist Fighters" leaflet.
The Galleanists knew that Salsedo had been held, and reportedly beaten, for several weeks which lead to rumors that Salsedo and his comrade Roberto Elia had made important disclosures concerning the bomb plot of 2 June 1919. The rumors about the confessions were later confirmed by Attorney General Palmer.
The Galleanist plotters realized that they would have to go underground and dispose of any incriminating evidence. Sacco and Vanzetti were found to be in receipt of correspondence with several Galleanists, and one letter to Sacco specifically warned him to destroy all mail after reading.
On April 16, one day after the robbery-murders, local police chief Michael E. Stewart was called by the Federal Immigration Service about Galleanist anarchist Ferruccio Coacci, whom he had arrested on their behalf two years earlier. Coacci was to be deported for advocating the violent overthrow of the government but he had succeeded in postponing his deportation until April 15, 1920, the day of the fateful holdup in Braintree. When Coacci failed to report to the FIS, he telephoned them claiming that his wife had fallen ill. Stewart was asked to investigate and he sent two policemen to Coacci's house on April 16.
They found Coacci's wife in good health and were surprised that Coacci was willing to be arrested for immediate deportation, and that he indeed insisted on it. He was cleared of any involvement in the robbery thanks to his alibi — his timecard showed he was at work on April 15 — and was deported on April 18. He was detained by Italian police on arrival in Italy and his bags were searched, but nothing was found. Stewart became suspicious, and on April 20, he visited the Coacci residence, where he found a man calling himself "Mike Boda" (an alias of Mario Buda, the chief bombmaker of the Galleanists) who rented the house. Claiming not to like Coacci, Buda volunteered that Coacci's wife had left in a hurry as well.
When questioned about whether he or Coacci owned a gun, Buda freely admitted to owning a .32 calibre Spanish automatic pistol and having a diagram of a Savage automatic, like the one used in the robbery-murder. A Buick and smaller car were apparently used during the holdup, so the empty garage at the Coacci house became a focus of interest, since police deduced from tire tracks that two cars had been kept there. Buda stated that he owned a 1914 Oakland, which was being repaired.
Stewart had no jurisdiction or probable cause to arrest Buda at the time, and left, but when he discovered that Coacci had worked for both the plants that were robbed, Stewart came back in force with the Bridgewater police, only to find that Buda had disappeared with his possessions and furniture.
The police then instructed the proprietors of the Johnson garage (where the cars were held) to call them when the owners came to collect the 1914 Oakland. On May 5, 1920 Buda arrived at the garage with three other men, later identified as Sacco, Vanzetti and Riccardo Orciani. Police were alerted but the men fled, sensing a trap — Buda escaped on a motorcycle with Orciani and subsequently resurfaced in Italy in 1928, but Sacco and Vanzetti were tracked onto a streetcar and soon arrested.
Vanzetti was found to be carrying a revolver, which he claimed he had for protection but at the trial the prosecution alleged that it had been taken from the murdered guard. In apparent attempts to avoid deportation as anarchists, they lied to the police, and this would weigh heavily against them at their trial.
It has been speculated that Coacci was involved in the holdup, and was thus eager to be deported to escape prosecution. Buda and the unidentified man disappeared, abandoning their colleagues to the police. Vanzetti was tried for the South Bridgewater robbery, though not Sacco, who was able to prove by a time-card that he had been at work all day. The presiding judge was Webster Thayer, who had criticized the jury for acquitting an anarchist named Sergei Zabraff in a trial he presided at just two months before.
Vanzetti's lawyer was James Vahey, a distinguished Boston trial lawyer and former two-time candidate for governor in Massachusetts. Vahey and Vanzetti produced sixteen witnesses — Italians from Plymouth who claimed they had bought eels for the Christmas holiday from him, but as a fishmonger he had no time-card.
The jury was swayed by several witnesses who identified Vanzetti as being at the scene of the attempted robbery and by shotgun shells found on Vanzetti when he was arrested five months after the Bridgewater crime. Vanzetti was furious with his lawyer who, he claimed, "sold me for thirty golden money like Judas sold Jesus Christ."
Vanzetti also claimed his lawyer convinced him not to testify on his own behalf, fearing that his anarchist politics might sway the jury against him. Vanzetti's failure to take the witness stand is thought to have convinced the jury of his guilt. Vanzetti was found guilty (although few historians now think he committed it) and Judge Thayer sentenced him to 12-15 years imprisonment, the maximum sentence allowable.
Sacco and Vanzetti are believed to have been involved at some level in the Galleanist bombing campaign, although their precise roles have not been determined. In particular, the Galleanist's chief bombmaker, Mario Buda, reportedly told a friend in 1955, "Sacco c'era" (Sacco was there). This fact could account for their suspicious activities and behavior on the night of their arrest, May 5, 1920.
The judge in the case, Webster Thayer, allegedly stated to the jury "This man, (Vanzetti) although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions." There is no record of this statement in the full trial transcript.
Later Sacco and Vanzetti both stood trial for murder in Dedham, Massachusetts for the South Braintree killings, with Webster Thayer again presiding. (Thayer had asked to be assigned the trial.) Well aware of the Galleanists' reputation for constructing dynamite bombs of extraordinary power, Massachusetts authorities took great pains to defend against a possible bombing attack. Workers outfitted the Dedham courtroom where the trial was to be held with cast-iron bomb shutters (painted to match the wooden ones fitted elsewhere in the building) and heavy, sliding steel doors that could protect that section of the courthouse from blast effect in the event of a bomb attack. Each day during the trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were escorted in and out of the courtroom under a heavy armed guard.
Vanzetti again claimed that he had been selling fish at the time of the Braintree robbery. Sacco claimed that he had been in Boston in order to gain a passport from the Italian consulate. He had claimed to have had lunch in Boston's North end with several friends, each of whom testified on his behalf. Prior to the trial, Sacco's lawyer, Fred Moore, went to great lengths to contact the consulate employee Sacco said he had talked with on the afternoon of the crime. Moore's friend found the man back in Italy. The clerk said he remembered Sacco because of the unusually large passport photo he presented. The clerk also remembered the date — April 15, 1920. Moore's friend tried to get the clerk to return to America to testify but the clerk, in ill health, refused. What could have been key alibi testimony by a reputable clerk was reduced to a sworn deposition read aloud in court and quickly questioned by the prosecution, which claimed Sacco's visit to the consulate could not be established with certainty. The prosecution also pointed out that Sacco's dinner companions were fellow anarchists.
Much of the trial focused on material evidence, notably bullets, guns, and a cap. Prosecution witnesses testified that the .32-caliber bullet that had killed Berardelli was of a brand so obsolete that the only bullets similar to it that anyone could locate to make comparisons were those in Sacco's pockets. Yet ballistics evidence, which was presented in exhaustive detail, was equivocal. Prosecutor Frederick Katzmann, after initially promising he would not try to link any fatal bullet with Sacco's gun, changed his mind after the defense arranged test firings of the gun. Sacco, claiming he had nothing to hide, had allowed his gun to be test-fired, with experts for both sides present, during the trial's second week. The prosecution then matched bullets fired through the gun to those taken from one of the slain guards. In court, two prosecution experts swore that one of the fatal bullets, quickly labeled Bullet III, matched one of those test-fired. Two defense experts said the bullet did not match. Years later, defense lawyers would suggest that the fatal bullet had been substituted by the prosecution. Noting that witnesses swore to seeing one gunman pump bullets into Berardelli, they asked how only one of four bullets found in the deceased could have come from Sacco's gun.
Even more doubt surrounded Vanzetti's gun. Since all of the bullets found at the scene were .32 caliber and Vanzetti's gun was .38 caliber, there was no direct evidence tying Vanzetti's gun to the crime scene. The prosecution claimed it had originally belonged to the slain guard and that it had been stolen during the robbery. No one testified to seeing anyone take the gun, but the guard, while carrying $15,776.51 in cash through the street, had no gun on him when found dead. The prosecution traced the gun to a Boston repair shop where the guard had dropped it off a few weeks before the murder. The defense, however, was able to raise doubts, noting that the repair shop had no record of the gun ever being picked up and that the guard's widow had told a friend that he might not have been killed had he claimed his gun. Still, the jury believed this link as well.
The prosecution's final piece of material evidence was a flop-eared cap claimed to have been Sacco's. Sacco tried the cap on in court and, according to two newspaper sketch artists who ran cartoons the next day, it was too small, sitting high on his head. But Katzmann insisted the cap fitted Sacco and continued to refer to it as his.
Further controversy clouded the prosecution witnesses who identified Sacco at the scene of the crime. One, a bookkeeper named Mary Splaine, precisely described Sacco as the man she saw firing from the getaway car. Yet cross examination revealed that Splaine had refused to identify Sacco at the inquest and had seen the getaway car for only a second and from nearly a half-block away. While a few others singled out Sacco or Vanzetti as the men they had seen at the scene of the crime, far more witnesses, both prosecution and defense, refused to identify them.
After deliberating for only three hours, then breaking for dinner, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. Supporters later insisted Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted for their anarchist views, yet every juror insisted anarchism had played no part in their decision. First degree murder in Massachusetts was a capital crime. Sacco and Vanzetti were therefore bound for the electric chair unless the defense could find new evidence.
Appeals, protests, and denials continued for the next six years. While the prosecution staunchly defended the verdict, the defense, led by radical attorney Fred Moore, dug up many possible reasons for doubt. Three key prosecution witnesses stated that they had been coerced into identifying Sacco at the scene of the crime. But when confronted by DA Katzmann, each changed their stories again, denying any coercion. One of these was a nurse, Lola Andrews, who told authorities that she was forced, against her will, to sign an affidavit stating that she wrongfully identified Sacco and Vanzetti; she signed a counter-affidavit the following day. Another was a man, Lewis Pelser, who had given his statement about the alleged prosecutorial coercion when he was drunk, and also signed a counter-affidavit shortly thereafter, upholding his original trial testimony. In 1924, controversy continued when it was discovered that someone had switched the barrel of Sacco's gun with that of another Colt automatic used for comparison. Other appeals focused on the jury foreman and a prosecution ballistics expert. In 1923, the defense filed an affidavit from a friend of the jury foreman who swore that prior to the trial, the man had said of Sacco and Vanzetti, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!" That same year, a state police captain retracted his trial testimony linking Sacco's gun to the fatal bullet. Captain William Proctor claimed that he never meant to imply the connection and that he had repeatedly told DA Katzmann there was no such connection but that the prosecution had crafted its trial questioning to hide this opinion.
Adding to the growing conviction that Sacco and Vanzetti deserved a new trial was the conduct of trial judge Webster Thayer. During the trial, many had noted how Thayer seemed to loathe defense attorney Fred Moore. Thayer frequently denied Moore's motions, lecturing the California-based lawyer on how law was conducted in Massachusetts. On at least two occasions out of court, Thayer burst into tirade.
Once he told astonished reporters that "No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!" According to onlookers who later swore affidavits, Thayer also lectured members of his exclusive clubs, calling Sacco and Vanzetti "Bolsheviki!" and saying he would "get them good and proper". Following the verdict, Boston Globe reporter Frank Sibley, who had covered the trial, wrote a scathing protest to the Massachusetts attorney general condemning Thayer's blatant bias.
Then in 1924, after denying all five motions for a new trial, Thayer confronted a Massachusetts lawyer at his alma mater, Dartmouth. “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?" the judge said. "I guess that will hold them for a while! Let them go to the Supreme Court now and see what they can get out of them!” The outburst remained a secret until 1927 when its release heightened the suspicion that Sacco and Vanzetti had not received a fair trial.
Jurors in the trial, however, were almost unanimous in praising Thayer for the way he conducted proceedings. When interviewed, they also stated that they were unaware that he had also been the judge in the earlier trial. The transcript of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial does not reveal major instances of obvious bias.
For their part, Sacco and Vanzetti seemed to alternate between moods of defiance, vengeance, resignation, and despair. The June 1926 issue of Protesta Umana published by their Defense Committee, carried an article signed by Sacco and Vanzetti that appealed for retaliation by their colleagues.
In the article, Vanzetti stated "I will try to see Thayer death [sic] before his pronunciation of our sentence" and asked fellow anarchists for "revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and dead." In a reference to Luigi Galleani's bomb-making manual (covertly titled La Salute è in voi!), the article concluded "Remember, La Salute è in voi!". Both Sacco and Vanzetti wrote dozens of letters sincerely expressing their innocence. Sacco, in his awkward prose, and Vanzetti in his eloquent but flawed English, insisted they had been framed because they were anarchists.
Supporters, historians, and others who remain convinced of their innocence, point to these letters as proof. When the letters were published after the executions, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, “If Sacco and Vanzetti were professional bandits, then historians and biographers who attempt to deduce character from personal documents might as well shut up shop. By every test that I know of for judging character, these are the letters of innocent men.”
Many famous socialist intellectuals, including Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, campaigned for a retrial, but were unsuccessful. Famed lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter also argued for a retrial for the two men, writing a scathing criticism of Thayer's ruling which, when published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927, was widely read.
While in Dedham prison, Sacco met a Portuguese convict named Celestino Madeiros. Late in 1925, Madeiros claimed to have committed the crime of which Sacco was accused. Medeiros, whose vague confession contained many anomalies, steered defense lawyers to a gang many still think committed the Braintree murders.
Prior to April 1920, gang leader Joe Morelli and his men had been robbing shoes from factories in Massachusetts, including the two in Braintree where the murders occurred. Morelli, investigators discovered, bore a striking resemblance to Sacco, so striking that several witnesses for both prosecution and defense mistook his mug shot for Sacco's.
When questioned in 1925, while in prison, Morelli denied any involvement but six years later he allegedly confessed to a New York lawyer. And in 1973, further evidence against the Morelli gang emerged when a mobster's memoirs quoted Joe's brother Frank as confessing to the Braintree murders. However, the appeal for a new trial based on the Madeiros confession was denied by Judge Thayer. Further appeals to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court were also denied.
On April 8, 1927, their appeals exhausted, Sacco and Vanzetti were finally sentenced to death in the electric chair. A worldwide outcry arose and Governor Alvin T. Fuller finally agreed to postpone the executions and set up a committee to reconsider the case. By this time, firearms examination had improved considerably, and it was now known that an automatic pistol could be traced by several different methods if both bullet and casing were recovered from the scene (as in Sacco’s case).
Automatic pistols could now be traced by unique markings of the rifling on the bullet, by firing pin indentations on the fired primer, or by unique ejector and extractor marks on the casing. The committee appointed to review the case used the services of Calvin Goddard in 1927, who had worked with Charles Waite at the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York. Goddard was a genuine firearms expert trained in ballistics and forensic science.
Goddard used Philip Gravelle's newly-invented comparison microscope and helixometer, a hollow, lighted magnifier probe used to inspect gun barrels, to make an examination of Sacco’s 0.32 Colt, the bullet that killed Berardelli, and the spent casings recovered from the scene of the crime. In the presence of one of the defense experts, he fired a bullet from Sacco's gun into a wad of cotton and then put the ejected casing on the comparison microscope next to casings found at the scene.
Then he looked at them carefully. The first two casings from the robbery did not match Sacco’s gun, but the third one did. Even the defense expert agreed that the two cartridges had been fired from the same gun. The second original defense expert also concurred. Other witnesses to the tests, including Sacco's assistant laywer Herbert Ehrmann and a Boston Herald reporter had not been convinced.
Nor was new head lawyer William Thompson who considered Sacco’s gun barrel "so altered by rust and age as to render such experiments wholly valueless." After the tests, Thompson had invited Major Goddard to his office where the expert admitted he had considered Sacco guilty even before coming to Dedham, and had entered the case chiefly to attract more ballistics work. Goddard offered no opinion on whether Bullet III had been substituted but agreed with Thompson that its markings were different than those on other bullets.
Many modern critics charging that Sacco, at least, was guilty, cite Goddard's examination. It may have been Sacco who killed the men in the robbery, assuming his comrades and he committed it. However, this would not have protected any of them, because it still would have been felony-murder if they were involved in the robbery previously. Others insisting on innocence note the doubts Thompson raised.
On December 24, 1927, the headquarters of the Citibank and of the Bank of Boston in Buenos Aires were blown up by the Italian anarchist Severino Di Giovanni, in apparent protest of the execution.. Di Giovanni, one of the most vocal supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti in Argentina, had already bombed the US embassy in Buenos Aires a few hours after Sacco and Vanzetti were condemned. Later, Di Giovanni and his comrades would unsuccessfully attempt to bomb the train in which president Herbert Hoover travelled during his stay in Argentina, in December 1928.
A few days after the executions, Di Giovanni received a letter from Sacco's widow thanking him for his actions and informing him that the director of the tobacco firm Combinados had proposed her a contract to produce a cigarette brand named "Sacco & Vanzetti". On 26 November, 1927, Di Giovanni and his comrades duly bombed a Combinados tobacco shop.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti famously refused a priest but both men went peacefully and proudly to their deaths. Sacco's final words were "Viva l'anarchia!" and "Farewell, mia madre." Vanzetti, in his final moments, gently shook hands with guards and thanked them for their kind treatment, read a statement proclaiming his innocence, and finally said, "I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me."
Fellow Galleanists did not take news of the executions with equanimity. One or more followers of Galleani, especially Mario Buda, were suspected as the perpetrators of the infamous and deadly Wall Street bombing of 1920 after the two men were initially indicted. At the funeral parlor in Hanover Street, a wreath announced Aspettando l'ora di vendetta (Awaiting the hour of vengeance). Anarchists in other countries had been conducting a campaign of violent retaliation ever since the mens' indictment. In 1921, a booby trap bomb mailed to the American ambassador in Paris exploded, wounding his valet. Other bombs sent to American embassies were defused. In 1926, Samuel Johnson, the brother of the man who had called police the night of Sacco and Vanzetti's arrest (Simon Johnson), had his house destroyed by a bomb.
Following the sentencing of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, a package bomb addressed to Governor Fuller was intercepted in the Boston post office. Three months later, bombs exploded in the New York subway, in a Philadelphia church, and at the home of the mayor of Baltimore. One of the jurors in the Dedham trial had his house bombed, throwing him and his family from their beds. Less than a year after the executions, a bomb destroyed the front porch of the home of executioner Robert Elliott. As late as 1932, Judge Thayer himself was the victim of an attempted assassination when his home was wrecked in a bomb blast. Afterwards, Thayer lived permanently at his club in Boston, guarded 24 hours a day until his death.
Many historians, especially legal historians, have concluded the Sacco and Vanzetti prosecution, trial, and aftermath constituted a blatant disregard for political civil liberties, especially Thayer's decision to deny a retrial. Judge Webster Thayer, who heard the case, allegedly described the two as "anarchist bastards."
Both men had previously fled to Mexico, changing their names in order to evade draft registration required for citizenship application, a fact used against them by the prosecutor in their trial for murder. This implication of guilt by the commission of unrelated acts is one of the most persistent criticisms leveled against the trial. Sacco and Vanzetti's supporters would later argue that the men merely fled the country to avoid persecution and conscription, their critics, to escape detection and arrest for militant and seditious activities in the United States.
Some critics felt that the authorities and jurors were influenced by strong anti-Italian prejudice and prejudice against immigrants widely held at the time, especially in New England. Fred Moore compared the chances of an Italian getting a fair trial in Boston to a black person getting one in the American South. Against charges of racism and racial prejudice, others pointed out that both men were known anarchist members of a militant organization, members of which had been conducting a violent campaign of bombing and attempted assassinations, acts condemned by the Italian-American community and Americans of all backgrounds. Though in general anarchist groups did not finance their militant activities through bank robberies, a fact noted by the investigators of the Bureau of Investigation, this was not true of the Galleanist group, as Mario Buda readily admitted to an interviewer: "Andavamo a prenderli dove c'erano" ("We used to go and get it [money] where it was") — meaning factories and banks.
Others believe that the government was really prosecuting Sacco and Vanzetti for the robbery-murders as a convenient excuse to put a stop to their militant activities as Galleanists, whose bombing campaign at the time posed a lethal threat, both to the government and to many Americans. Faced with a secretive underground group whose members resisted interrogation and believed in their cause, Federal and local officials using conventional law enforcement tactics had been repeatedly stymied in their efforts to identify all members of the group or to collect enough evidence for a prosecution.
Today, their case is seen as one of the earliest examples of using widespread protests and mass movements to try to win the release of convicted persons. The Sacco-Vanzetti case also exposed the inadequacies of both the legal and law enforcement system in investigating and prosecuting members and alleged members of secret societies and terrorist groups, and contributed to calls for the organization of national data collection and counterintelligence services.
One additional piece of evidence supporting the possibility of Sacco's guilt arose in 1941 when anarchist leader Carlo Tresca, a member of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, told Max Eastman, "Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent." Eastman published an article recounting his conversation with Tresca in National Review in 1961. Later, others would confirm being told the same information by Tresca. Others pointed to an ongoing feud between Tresca and the Galleanisti, claiming the famous anarchist was just trying to get even.
In 1952, labor organizer Anthony Ramuglia admitted that a Boston anarchist group had asked him to be a false alibi for Sacco. Though he had agreed, he had then remembered that he had been in jail at that time, and his perjury could therefore be proven, so he was removed from the alibi list.
In addition, in October 1961, ballistics tests were run with improved technology using Sacco's Colt automatic. The results confirmed that the bullet that killed Berardelli in 1920 was fired from Sacco's pistol. Subsequent investigations in 1983 also supported this finding. This resulted in some scholars of the case to conclude that Sacco may in fact be guilty.
The relevance of this evidence was challenged in 1988, when Charlie Whipple, a former Globe editorial page editor, revealed a conversation he had with Sergeant Edward J. Seibolt when he worked as a reporter in 1937. According to Whipple, Seibolt admitted that the police ballistics experts had switched the murder weapon, but Seibolt indicated that he would deny this if Whipple ever printed it. At the time, Whipple was unfamiliar with the specific facts of the case, and it is not known if Seibolt was actually recalling Albert Hamilton's testimony and behavior on the stand when Hamilton apparently switched Sacco's gun barrel with that of another Colt automatic.
Sacco's .32 Colt pistol is also claimed to have passed in and out of police custody, and to have been dismantled several times, both in 1924 prior to the gun barrel switch, and again between 1927 and 1961. The central problem with these charges is that the match to Sacco's gun was based not only on the 0.32 Colt pistol but also on the same-caliber bullet that killed Berardelli as well as spent casings found at the scene.
In addition to tampering with the pistol, the gun switcher/dismantler would have had also to access police evidence lockers and exchange the bullet from Berardelli's body and all spent casings retrieved by police, or else locate the actual murder weapon, then switch barrel, firing pin, ejector, and extractor, all before Goddard's examination in 1927 when the first match was made to Sacco's gun. However, doubters of Sacco's guilt have repeatedly pointed to a single anomaly — that several witnesses to the crime insisted the gunman, alleged to be Sacco, fired four bullets into Berardelli. "He shot at Berardelli probably four or five times," one witness said. "He stood guard over him." If this was true, many ask, how could only one of the fatal bullets be linked to Sacco's gun? In 1927, the defense raised the suggestion that the fatal bullet had been planted, calling attention to the awkward scratches on the base of the bullet that differed from those on other bullets. The Lowell Commission dismissed this claim as desperate but in 1985, historians William Kaiser and David Young made a compelling case for a switch in their book Post-Mortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Further evidence concerning the Morelli gang came to light in 1973 when a former mobster published a confession by Frank "Butsy" Morelli, Joe's brother. "We whacked them out, we killed those guys in the robbery," Butsy Morelli told Vincent Teresa. "These two greaseballs Sacco and Vanzetti took it on the chin."
Yet there are others who revealed different opinions, further muddling the case. In November, 1982 Francis Russell author of a book on the case, received a letter from Ideale Gambera. Gambera revealed that his father, Giovanni Gambera, who had died in June 1982, was a member of the four-person team of anarchist leaders that met shortly after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti to plan for their defense. In his letter to Russell, Gambera claimed, "everyone [in the anarchist inner circle] knew that Sacco was guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual participation in killing."
Russell had originally written about the case, arguing that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, but further research led him to write a 1975 book, asserting that Sacco was, in fact, guilty. Russell used the Gambera revelation as the basis of a new book in 1986, in which he claims that the case is "solved," and presents his view that Sacco was one of the shooters, while Vanzetti was an accessory after the fact. While Russell's 1975 book was praised, even by those who disagreed with his conclusion, for being balanced and well-reasoned, his 1986 book was much more negatively received.
Months before he passed away, the distinguished jurist Charles E. Wyzanski Jr., who had presided for 45 years on the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, wrote to Russell stating "I myself am persuaded by your writings that Sacco was guilty." The judge's assessment was significant, because he was one of Felix Frankfurter's "Hot Dogs," and Justice Frankfurter had advocated his appointment to the federal bench.
On August 23, 1977, exactly fifty years after their execution, Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that Sacco and Vanzetti had been treated unjustly and that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." Controversy arose, as a result of his action, and Dukakis later expressed regret, not for the proclamation itself, but for not also reaching out to the families of the victims of the crime. "It was a terrible gap in my judgment; we didn't seem to focus on that," said the former Governor, in a 2005 newspaper article.
On August 23, 1997, on the 70th anniversary of their execution, Thomas Menino, the first Italian-American mayor of Boston, presided over an official ceremony at the Boston Public Library to formally "accept" a bas-relief memorializing Sacco and Vanzetti, designed by the same sculptor who created Mount Rushmore. This move also generated some controversy, and like Governor Dukakis, Mayor Menino purposefully avoided addressing the issue of whether the pair were guilty or innocent. Also speaking at the artwork acceptance ceremony was the Italian-American Acting Governor of Massachusetts, Paul Cellucci. A memorial committee had attempted to present the relief to Massachusetts governors and Boston mayors in 1937, 1947, and 1957, but it had been refused each time.
Sacco was quoted as saying before his death, "It is true, indeed, that they can execute the body, but they cannot execute the idea which is bound to live."
Micronesia, 2000, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vancetti