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About the Sacco-Vanzettti Case

Nunzio Pernicone

Sacco, Nicola (22 Apr. 1891-23 Aug. 1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (11 June 1888-23 Aug. 1927), Italian anarchists convicted of murder in the celebrated Sacco-Vanzetti trial, were born, respectively, in Torremaggiore, Italy, and Villafalletto, Italy. Sacco was the son of Michele Sacco, a peasant landowner and merchant, and Angela Mosmacotelli. (Sacco's given name was Ferdinando; he adopted the name Nicola in 1917 to honor an older brother who had died.) Vanzetti was the son of Giovan Battista Vanzetti, a peasant landowner, and Giovanna Nivello. Both Sacco and Vanzetti emigrated to the United States in 1908. Sacco found steady work as an edge-trimmer in shoe factories in Milford and Stoughton, Massachusetts. He married Rosina Zambelli in 1912; they had two children, the second born during Sacco's imprisonment. Vanzetti, whose lonely private life was mitigated by the pleasure he found in books, endured long periods of unemployment or toiled at menial jobs before becoming a fish peddler in the spring of 1919. What Sacco and Vanzetti shared in common during these years was a deep commitment to anarchism.

Traditionally depicted by supporters as "philosophical anarchists" (defined by writer John Dos Passos as "an anarchist who shaves daily, has good manners and is guaranteed not to act on his beliefs"), Sacco and Vanzetti in reality were militant disciples of Luigi Galleani, an anarchist who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombing and assassination. Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had been radicalized in Italy. Only after experiencing and observing the hardships and inequities of working-class life in America did they become receptive to the criticism of capitalism and the state propagated in Galleani's Cronaca Sovversiva, an anarchist newspaper described by its editor as "a rag of a paper that lives on crusts and bits of bread, with the support and pennies of five thousand beggars." Between 1912 and 1917 Sacco and Vanzetti both engaged in fundraising for the anarchist movement and occasional strike agitation. After the U.S. Congress passed the military conscription act in May 1917, they were among some sixty Italian anarchists who followed Galleani's recommendation and fled to Mexico rather than register for the draft. Their purpose was not merely to avoid military service or imprisonment for draft resistance; they wanted to remain at liberty so they could join the revolution they expected to erupt in Italy in the wake of the March revolution in Russia. When revolution failed to spread and exile became wearisome, they reentered the United States, Sacco resuming work as an edge-trimmer in Stoughton and Vanzetti selling fish in Plymouth. By now, however, the government's antiradical campaign was intensifying, and Italian anarchists ranked at the top of the enemy list. Because of its antiwar stance, Cronaca Sovversiva was suppressed in July 1918, and Galleani and eight of his closest associates were deported on 24 June 1919. Most of the remaining Galleanisti sought to survive repression by becoming inactive or going underground. However, some sixty militants--including many who had gone to Mexico--considered themselves 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 involved in political repression. Chief among the dozen or more terrorist acts the Galleanisti committed were the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home on 2 June 1919 and the Wall Street explosion of 16 September 1920.

Sacco and Vanzetti were marginally involved in the bomb conspiracy, although their precise roles have not been determined. This fact explains much about their activities and behavior on the night of their arrest, 5 May 1920. Two days earlier they had learned that Andrea Salsedo had plunged to his death from the Bureau of Investigation offices on Park Row in New York. Salsedo was an anarchist to whose Brooklyn print shop federal agents had traced a revolutionary leaflet found at Palmer's bombed house. The anarchists knew that Salsedo had been held incommunicado for several weeks and repeatedly beaten. So when Palmer announced to the press that Salsedo and his comrade Roberto Elia had made important disclosures concerning the bomb plot of 2 June 1919, the Galleanisti realized that the attorney general was not making an idle boast. It was now imperative that they go deeper underground and get rid of incriminating evidence. Thus on the evening of their arrest, Sacco and Vanzetti may have been transferring Italian anarchist literature--including a bomb manual innocuously titled La salute è in voi (Health is in you)--to a safe place; or, more likely, they may have been hiding dynamite. Both men were carrying pistols and ammunition when arrested, and during their interrogation--initially about their radical activities, not payroll robbery and murders--they told lies and gave contradictory statements to the police. This behavior constituted "consciousness of guilt" to the authorities.

The trap that ensnared Sacco and Vanzetti had been set by Michael Stewart, the police chief of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who had been assisting the Justice Department in rounding up Italian anarchists for deportation. When one of them, Ferrucio Coacci, failed to report for deportation at the east Boston immigration station on 15 April 1920--the same day of the payroll robbery at the Slater & Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in which a guard and paymaster were killed--Stewart concluded that the robbery and murders must have been committed by Coacci and his comrades, among whom were Sacco, Vanzetti, Riccardo Orciani, and Mario Buda. Stewart also believed them responsible for a botched holdup of a shoe factory in Bridgewater the previous Christmas Eve. Justice Department agents in Boston believed the South Braintree crime had been committed by professionals, but since Sacco and Vanzetti were listed in their files as "radicals to be watched" and known comrades of the bomber Carlo Valdinoci, whose dismembered body had been found at Palmer's house, a murder conviction presented an effective way of eliminating them. The Justice Department subsequently furnished prosecuting authorities with information about Sacco and Vanzetti's radical activities, placed a spy in a cell adjacent to Sacco's, and infiltrated one or more informants into the Sacco-Vanzetti defense committee.

Of the five suspects, Coacci was deported, Orciani was released because he had strong alibis for the days both crimes were committed, and Buda disappeared to plot revenge (the Wall Street explosion) for the indictment of the remaining two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. Because the evidence linking him to South Braintree was weak, Vanzetti was tried first for the lesser crime at Bridgewater (Sacco's alibi for that day was solid) so that he would go before the second jury as a convicted felon. Held in Plymouth from 22 June to 1 July 1920, Vanzetti's trial was a travesty. The presiding magistrate, Webster Thayer, despised foreigners and considered anarchism "cognate with the crime." The prosecutor was Frederick G. Katzmann, a cunning and unscrupulous district attorney willing to suborn perjury and manipulate and withhold evidence to obtain a conviction. Vanzetti's attorney, John Vahey, who became Katzmann's law partner in 1924, performed so poorly that he was suspected of collusion with the prosecution. The testimony of more than twenty witnesses who had seen Vanzetti selling eels on the day of the Bridgewater crime was discounted because the individuals were all Italians. Prosecution witnesses--typified by a newsboy who caught a glimpse of a perpetrator and "knew by the way he ran he was a foreigner"--were believed. Found guilty, Vanzetti was condemned by Judge Thayer to serve twelve to fifteen years in prison.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for the South Braintree murders was held in Dedham from 31 May to 14 July 1921. The atmosphere in court was transfused with the nativist and reactionary sentiments still pervading American society in the wake of the Red Scare. District Attorney Katzmann was able, therefore, to try Sacco and Vanzetti not only for murder but, in effect, for being anarchists, atheists, foreigners, and draft dodgers. Judge Thayer, repeating his role as presiding magistrate, had no objection to Katzmann's interjecting such extraneous and inflammatory information, despite its prejudicial effect on the jury. Nor did he interfere with Katzmann's coaching and cajoling of prosecution witnesses to obtain descriptions of the shooting and of the perpetrators that were remarkably more detailed and incriminating than those they had provided to Pinkerton investigators more than a year earlier. With defense witnesses, especially Italians, Katzmann was patronizing and disdainful, implying that they were lying to defend their compatriots. Several witnesses whose testimony would have helped the defendants were never called to testify or brought to the attention of the defense. Katzmann's handling of the alleged murder weapons and ballistics evidence was likewise unethical. The prosecution's chief expert, Captain William Proctor of the state police, did not believe that Sacco's Colt .32-caliber automatic had fired the bullet that killed the guard. (The remaining five bullets taken from the two bodies could not have been fired from the guns found on Sacco and Vanzetti.) Nevertheless, by prearrangement with Katzmann, Proctor testified when asked about the bullet in question that "it is consistent with having been fired from that gun," meaning any Colt .32-caliber automatic, not Sacco's weapon. Katzmann also knew that the .38-caliber revolver found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest could not have been taken from the slain guard, as the prosecution claimed. The guard's weapon was a .32-caliber revolver with a different serial number--evidence withheld from the defense. Katzmann's manipulation of evidence may even have included substituting a test bullet fired from Sacco's gun for the real fatal bullet.

Outmatched by Katzmann in the courtroom, defense attorney Fred Moore, a radical lawyer previously involved with Industrial Workers of the World cases, sought to demonstrate that the proceedings against Sacco and Vanzetti were politically motivated, the result of collusion between local and federal authorities seeking to suppress Italian anarchists. Moore's strategy generated widespread publicity and support for Sacco and Vanzetti but failed to thwart the prosecution. The weight of evidence--the weapons, ballistic tests, and eyewitness testimony--and the issue of consciousness of guilt (independently stressed by Judge Thayer in his instructions to the jury) as well as the prejudice Katzmann had evoked against the accused combined to ensure a guilty verdict on 14 July 1921.

A six-year struggle to save Sacco and Vanzetti followed the trial. Countless observers worldwide were convinced that political intolerance and racial bigotry had condemned two men whose only offense was that of being foreigners, atheists, and anarchists. Edmund Wilson, like many others, believed that the case "revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system." This perception was reinforced by the dignity and courage Sacco and Vanzetti displayed throughout their ordeal. That such men were capable of common murder struck many as inconceivable. Sacco and Vanzetti defenders eventually included radicals, trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, and even some conservatives, such as Boston lawyer William G. Thompson, who replaced Moore as chief defense counsel in 1924, and Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter. Arrayed against them were the upholders of traditional conservative values and institutions associated with patriotism, religion, and capitalism. They were intransigent in their belief that the American system of justice could do no wrong and that the two subversives were guilty as charged, had been fairly tried, and deserved the maximum penalty.

But the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti was not decided in the arena of public opinion. Eight motions for a new trial--in accordance with Massachusetts law--were submitted to Judge Thayer. Several pertained to perjured testimony by prosecution witnesses and to collusion between local police and Justice Department agents. Another addressed a jailhouse confession by a convicted bank robber, Celestino Madieros, who claimed he and other members of the Morelli gang of professional criminals had committed the South Braintree holdup and murders. Still another was based on comments Judge Thayer himself had made after rejecting a previous motion, namely, "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day? I guess that will hold them for a while." Each motion was denied. Finally, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that no errors of law or abuses of discretion had been committed, Judge Thayer sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death on 9 April 1927. In the face of mounting criticism of the legal proceedings and the impending death sentence, Governor Alvan T. Fuller appointed a committee on 1 June headed by A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, to review the case and advise him on the issue of clemency. The Lowell committee ignored exculpatory evidence the defense had discovered since the trial while validating the prosecution's every step. Even Judge Thayer's remarks about "those anarchistic bastards," although deemed a "grave breach of decorum," did not cause the committee concern. Reporting its findings to Governor Fuller on 27 July, the Lowell Committee declared that the trial and appeals process "on the whole" had been fair and advised against clemency. Governor Fuller followed the committee's recommendation, and in the face of worldwide protest and demonstrations, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison on 23 August 1927.

The Sacco-Vanzetti case was an international cause célèbre in the 1920s and still remains one of the most controversial legal proceedings in modern history. Decades after they were sentenced to death, Sacco and Vanzetti still have their partisan defenders and accusers. Historians of the case, manifesting the same biases, continue to disagree. Some pronounce Sacco definitely and Vanzetti possibly guilty on the evidence of ballistics tests and rumors attributed to a few Italian anarchists. Others contend that both men were innocent victims of a frame-up, based on the prosecution's collusion with federal authorities, suppression of evidence, and manipulation of ballistics tests. Preoccupation with guilt or innocence has resulted in the neglect of more important dimensions of the case such as the atmosphere in which the trial and appeals took place, the conduct of the officials involved, and the broader implications of the proceedings for American society. Even Sacco and Vanzetti themselves--their personalities, ideas, and writings--have not received sufficient attention from historians, although recent work establishing their revolutionary credentials represents a significant step in that direction. Thus the Sacco-Vanzetti case will probably remain, in the words of attorney Herbert B. Ehrmann, "the case that will not die."


A wealth of original sources is available to scholars, including The Sacco-Vanzetti Case: Transcript of the Record of the Trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the Courts of Massachusetts and Subsequent Proceedings, 1920-1927 (6 vols., 1928-1929); The Sacco-Vanzetti Case Papers, microfilm (23 reels, 1986); the Aldino Felicani Sacco-Vanzetti Collection, Boston Public Library; the Herbert H. Ehrmann Papers, Harvard Law Library; the Massachusetts State Police Sacco-Vanzetti Files, Massachusetts State Archives; and the Department of Justice/FBI Sacco-Vanzetti Files, National Archives, Washington, D.C. The most influential book written about the trial, amounting to a devastating critique of Judge Thayer and the prosecution, is Felix Frankfurter, The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen (1927). The principal works written during the 1930s and 1940s, asserting the innocence of the accused and the unfairness of the legal proceedings, are Osmond K. Fraenkel, The Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1931), and Louis G. Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti (1948). The first book to argue that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty and fairly tried was Robert H. Montgomery, Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth (1960). An important work that posits a split-guilt thesis (Sacco guilty, Vanzetti innocent) is Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1962). Russell subsequently asserted Vanzetti's guilt in numerous articles and in Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved (1986). Seriously critical of Russell is William Young and David E. Kaiser, Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti (1985), which argues on the basis of new evidence pertaining to ballistics testing and the alleged murder weapons that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent men framed by the prosecution. The most thorough and well-balanced study of the case, written by a former member of the defense team, is Herbert B. Ehrmann, The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti (1969). Indispensable for an understanding of the Italian anarchist movement to which Sacco and Vanzetti devoted their lives is Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991). Letters written by the condemned men to relatives and friends have been collected in Marion D. Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson, eds., The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti (1928; 1960), and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Non piangete la mia morte (1962).

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 16:49:58 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

sacvan.jpg (88919 bytes)Robert D'Attilio

SACCO-VANZETTI CASE. At 3:00 P.M. on 15 April 1920, a paymaster and his guard were carrying a factory payroll of $15,776 through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a small industrial town south of Boston. Two men standing by a fence suddenly pulled out guns and fired on them. The gunmen snatched up the cash boxes dropped by the mortally wounded pair and jumped into a waiting automobile. The bandit gang, numbering four or five in all, sped away, eluding their pursuers. At first this brutal murder and robbery, not uncommon in post-World War I America, aroused only local interest.

Three weeks later, on the evening of 5 May 1920, two Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, fell into a police trap that had been set for a suspect in the Braintree crime. Although originally not under suspicion, both men were carrying guns at the time of their arrest and when questioned by the authorities they lied. As a result they were held and eventually indicted for the South Braintree crimes. Vanzetti was also charged with an earlier holdup attempt that had taken place on 24 December 1919 in the nearby town of Bridgewater. These events were to mark the beginning of twentieth-century America's most notorious political trial.

Contrary to the usual practice of Massachusetts courts, Vanzetti was tried first in the summer of 1920 on the lesser of the two charges, the failed Bridgewater robbery. Despite a strong alibi supported by many witnesses, Vanzetti was found guilty. Most of Vanzetti's witnesses were Italians who spoke English poorly, and their trial testimony, given largely in translation, failed to convince the American jury. Vanzetti's case had also been seriously damaged when he, for fear of revealing his radical activities, did not take the stand in his own defense.

For a first criminal offense in which no one was hurt, Vanzetti received a sentence that was much harsher than usual, ten to fifteen years. This signaled to the two men and their supporters a hostile bias on the part of the authorities that was political in nature and pointed to the need for a new defense strategy in the Braintree trial.

On the advice of the anarchist militant and editor Carlo Tresca, a new legal counsel was brought in--Fred H. Moore, the well-known socialist lawyer from the West. He had collaborated in many labor and Industrial Workers of the World trials and was especially noted for his important role in the celebrated Ettor-Giovannitti case, which came out of the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike.

The arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti had coincided with the period of the most intense political repression in American history, the "Red Scare" of 1919-1920. The police trap they had fallen into had been set for a comrade of theirs, suspected primarily because he was a foreign-born radical. While neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had any previous criminal record, they were long recognized by the authorities and their communities as anarchist militants who had been extensively involved in labor strikes, political agitation, and anti-war propaganda and who had had several serious confrontations with the law. They were also known to be dedicated supporters of Luigi Galleani's Italian-language journal Cronaca Sovversiva, the most influential anarchist journal in America, feared by the authorities for its militancy and its acceptance of revolutionary violence. Cronaca, because of its uncompromising anti-war stance, had been forced to halt publication immediately upon the entry of the U.S. government into World War I in 1917; its editors were arrested and at war's end deported to Italy, in 1919. During this period the government's acts of repression, often illegal, were met in turn by the anarchists' attempts to incite social revolution, and at times by retaliatory violence, the authorities and Cronaca were pitted against each other in a bitter social struggle just short of open warfare. A former editor of Cronaca was strongly suspected of having blown himself up during an attentat on Attorney General Palmer's home in Washington, D.C., on 2 June 1919, an act that led Congress to vote funds for anti-radical investigations and launched the career of J. Edgar Hoover as the director of the General Intelligence Division in the Department of Justice. The Sacco-Vanzetti case would become one of his first major responsibilities. In 1920, as the Italian anarchist movement was trying to regroup, Andrea Salsedo, a comrade of Sacco and Vanzetti, was detained and, while in custody of the Department of Justice, hurled to his death. On the night of their arrest, authorities found in Sacco's pocket a draft of a handbill for an anarchist meeting that featured Vanzetti as the main speaker. In this treacherous atmosphere, when initial questioning by the police focused on their radical activities and not on the specifics of the Braintree crime, the two men lied in response. These falsehoods created a "consciousness of guilt" in the minds of the authorities, but the implications of that phrase soon became a central issue in the Sacco-Vanzetti case: Did the lies of the two men signify criminal involvement in the Braintree murder and robbery, as the authorities claimed, or did they signify an understandable attempt to conceal their radicalism and protect their friends during a time of national hysteria concerning foreign-born radicals, as their supporters were to claim?

Their new lawyer, Moore, completely changed the nature of the legal strategy. He decided it was no longer possible to defend Sacco and Vanzetti solely against the criminal charges of murder and robbery. Instead he would have them frankly acknowledge their anarchism in court, try to establish that their arrest and prosecution stemmed from their radical activities, and dispute the prosecution's insistence that only hard, nonpolitical evidence had implicated the two men in common crimes. Moore would try to expose the prosecution's hidden motive: its desire to aid the federal and military authorities in suppressing the Italian anarchist movement to which Sacco and Vanzetti belonged.

Moore's defense of the two men soon became so openly and energetically political that its scope quickly transcended its local roots. He organized public meetings, solicited the support of labor unions, contacted international organizations, initiated new investigations, and distributed tens of thousands of defense pamphlets throughout the United States and the world. Much to the chagrin of some anarchist comrades, Moore would even enlist the aid of the Italian government in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were still, nominally at least, Italian citizens. Moore's aggressive strategy transformed a little-known case into an international cause célèbre.

After a hard-fought trial of six weeks, during which the themes of patriotism and radicalism were often sharply contrasted by the prosecution and the defense, the jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder on 14 July 1921. This verdict marked, however, only the beginning of a lengthy legal struggle to save the two men. It extended until 1927, during which time the defense made many separate motions, appeals, and petitions to both state and federal courts in an attempt to gain a new trial.

Presented in these motions were evidence of perjury by prosecution witnesses, of illegal activities by the police and the federal authorities, a confession to the Braintree crimes by convicted bank robber Celestino Madeiros, and powerful evidence that identified the gang involved in the Braintree affair as the notorious Morelli Gang. All were ruled on and rejected by Judge Webster Thayer, the same judge who earlier had so severely sentenced Vanzetti. Judge Thayer would even rule on a motion accusing himself of judicial prejudice. His conduct--or misconduct--during the trials and the appeals became another of the controversial issues surrounding the case, but it, too, would prove insufficient to bring about a new trial.

From the beginning, Moore's strategy of politicizing the trial in tradition-bound Massachusetts had been controversial and confrontational. His manner of utilizing mass media was quite modern and effective, but it required enormous sums of money, which he spent too freely in the eyes of many of the anarchist comrades of Sacco and Vanzetti, who had to raise most of it painstakingly from working people, twenty-five and fifty cents at a time. Moore's efforts came to be questioned even by the two defendants, when he, contrary to anarchist ideals, offered a large reward to find the real criminals. As a result, in 1924 he was replaced by a respected Boston lawyer, William Thompson, who assumed control of the legal defense for the last three years of the case. Thompson, a Brahmin who wanted to defend the reputation of Massachusetts law as well as the two men, had no particular sympathy for the ideas of the two men, but he later came to admire them deeply as individuals.

Thompson's defense no longer emphasized the political, but these aspects of the case, once they had been set into motion, could not be stopped and continued to gain momentum. Throughout America liberals and well-meaning people of every sort, troubled and outraged by the injustice of the legal process, joined the more politically radical anarchists, socialists, and communists in protesting the verdict against Sacco and Vanzetti. Felix Frankfurter, then a law professor at Harvard, who did more than any individual to rally "respectable" opinion behind the two men, saw the case as a test of the rule of law itself. Ranged against the defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti were conservatives and patriots who wanted to defend the honor of American justice and to uphold law and order. Many of them came to see these protests as an attack upon the "American way of life" on behalf of two common criminals.

On 9 April 1927, after all recourse in the Massachusetts courts had failed, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. By then the dignity and the words of the two men had turned them into powerful symbols of social justice for many throughout the world. Public agitation on their behalf by radicals, workers, immigrants, and Italians had become international in scope, and many demonstrations in the world's great cities--Paris, London, Mexico City, Buenos Aires--protested the unfairness of their trial. This great public pressure, combined with influential behind-the-scenes interventions, finally persuaded the governor of Massachusetts, Alvan T. Fuller, to consider the question of executive clemency for the two men. He appointed an advisory committee, the "Lowell Committee," so called because its most prominent member was A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University. The committee, in a decision that was notorious for its loose thinking, concluded that the trial and judicial process had been just "on the whole" and that clemency was not warranted. It only fueled controversy over the fate of the two men, and Harvard, because of Lowell's role, became stigmatized, in the words of one of its alumni, as "Hangman's House." "Not every wop has the switch to the electric chair thrown by the president of Harvard."

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on 23 August 1927, a date that became a watershed in twentieth-century American history. It became the last of a long train of events that had driven any sense of utopian vision out of American life. The workings of American democracy now seemed to many Americans as flawed and unjust as many of the older societies of the world, no longer embodying any bright ideal, but once again serving the interests of the rich and the powerful. American intellectuals were powerfully moved by the case. In his epochal masterpiece, U.S.A., John Dos Passas raged in his Camera Eye, 'All right you have won . . . America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out . . . they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch . . . all right we are two nations. . . , " while Edmund Wilson coolly observed that the Sacco-Vanzetti case "revealed the whole anatomy of American life with all its classes, professions, and points of view and all their relations, and it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system."

Up to the present, most writers have focused their attention on the legal, social, and cultural dimensions of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The legal dimension, in particular, has been rather exhaustively considered, and its two major issues--the fairness of the trial and the innocence or guilt of the two men--still dominates most of the literature about the case.

Earlier opinion almost unanimously felt that the two men were innocent and had been unjustly executed, but later revisionist points of view emerged: some totally, if implausibly, defending the verdict as correct, others more plausibly arguing that, based on new ballistics tests and words by Carlo Tresca and Fred Moore, Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent. No single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest, despite the two most recent books that have claimed to have done so, while arriving at almost directly opposite conclusions.

Surprisingly, although the Sacco-Vanzetti case is considered the political case par excellence, few accounts have taken the politics of the two men--their anarchism--very seriously and fewer still are knowledgeable about it. As in all great political trials, the figures of Sacco and Vanzetti have been transformed into passionate symbols, symbols that are often rather facile and far from the truth--philosophical anarchists, common criminals, working-class martyrs, dirty wops, communist agitators, dago Christs, "the good shoemaker and the poor fishpeddler." They allow too easily the essence of the case to be overlooked or misunderstood. A full and accurate account of the political dimension--and, in particular, the anarchist dimension--still remains to be written. The importance of the Sacco-Vanzetti case remains not only because it called into question some of the fundamental assumptions of American society, but because it calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions of American history.

From Encylopedia of the American Left. Ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Copyright © 1990, 1998 by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas.

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