By Bill Stewart
On April 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco, 36, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 39, were executed by the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison. The verdict by the jury on July 14, 1921, brought worldwide protests from major cities in the United States and around the world, including Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Montevideo, Johannesburg and Aukland. The two men had been convicted of the April 15, 1920, murders of a paymaster and the guard accompanying him during a robbery at a shoe factory in Braintree.
Sacco was a shoemaker and night watchman, born in Torremaggiore, Italy. He came to the United States at the age of 17. Vanzetti was a fishmonger in Villafalletto, Italy, at the age of 20. They both left Italy in 1908 and did not meet until a strike in 1917. The men were believed to be followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist and an advocate of revolutionary violence, such as bombing and assassination.
The Galleanists group published tracts advocating upheaval and fell into a U.S. government list of most dangerous criminals. His newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva, was suppressed by the government in July 1918, and he and eight of Galleani’s compatriots were deported in June of 1919. Several of the remaining groups remained active for three years, waging a campaign of violence that included bombings. One of the bombings was at the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer on June 2, 1919. Carlo Valdinoci was killed when the bomb exploded prematurely. Radical pamphlets titled “Plain Words” signed by “The Anarchist Fighters” were found at the bombing and at other attempts on that evening. Several of the associates were suspected and interrogated, and two days before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, a member of the group fell to his death from the 14th floor of the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation offices at 15 Park Row in New York City. An anarchist, Roberto Elia, testified that Andrea Salsedo jumped from the window, but later stated that Salsedo was tossed by U.S. Agents.
Before the robbery and killings in Braintree, a similar attempt was made in Bridgewater. Police Chief Michael Stewart speculated that the robberies were committed to finance the activities of the anarchists. He thought that two vehicles were used. The police suspected Ferruccio Coacci and Mario Buda of the robbery attempt, and the chief went to the Coacci home, where Buda also lived, and found a gun, a .32 caliber Spanish pistol, and a technical manufacturer’s diagram for a Model 1907, the exact type used in the Braintree robbery and killing. On May 5, 1920, Stewart and his policemen went to a garage where he suspected the anarchists were – Buda, Sacco, Vanzetti and Ricardo Orciani. Sacco and Vanzetti had left by streetcar just before the police arrived, but they were tracked down and arrested. On searching the homes, Sacco was found to have an Italian passport, anarchist literature and a loaded .32 Colt Model 1903 automatic pistol and many .32 automatic cartridges, which were of the same type found at the crime scene. Vanzetti had 12-gauge shotgun shells and a 5 shot .38 caliber revolver, the same as that carried by the Braintree guard. The guard’s weapon was not found at the scene.
Sacco was working the day of the Bridgwater attempt, but Vanzetti was not. Sacco was charged with only the Braintree robbery and killings, but Vanzetti was charged with both. The murder indictments were followed by the Galleanists and anarchists in the United States and abroad beginning a campaign of retaliation. A time-delay bomb was set off in a Wall Street building, which killed 38 people and wounded 134. A bomb was mailed to the American ambassador in Paris, exploding and wounding his valet. American embassies all over the world for the next six years had bombs exploding on or near the buildings.
The first trial was that of the Bridgewater episode. Vanzetti was represented by John P. Vahey, a future state court judge, and James Graham was added. The prosecutor was Frederick G. Katzmann, the Norfolk and Plymouth Counties District Attorney. Vanzetti railed against his lawyer Vahey, whom he said “sold me for thirty golden money like Judas sold Jesus Christ.” The jury deliberated for four hours before returning the first degree murder and robbery sentence.
Next up was the Braintree court. Sacco and Vanzetti went on trial for the Braintree case on May 21, 1921, at Dedham, Norfolk County, Massachusetts. The judge, Webster Thayer, who conducted the Bridgewater case, also was chosen to handle the Braintree case. Fearing bombers during the trial, the building was reinforced with heavy, sliding steel doors and heavy police security.
Both defendants offered alibis that were backed by several witnesses, many of them anarchists. The trial was centered on material evidence: bullets and guns that were confiscated by Stewart. After Sacco allowed his gun to be tested, with experts of both sides present, the prosecution matched bullets fired from the gun to those taken from the slain men in Braintree.
The 12 jurors were sequestered at the courthouse for the whole six weeks of the trial, sleeping on cots in the grand jury room and bathed in the basement of the jail. For the Fourth of July celebration, the jury went to Scituate for a lobster dinner. On July 14, 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of murder and robbery in Braintree. There were many appeals over the next six years, but none reversed the verdict. The executions were carried out on April 22, 1921.
Arguments continued through the years as to the fairness of the trials. On August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of the executions, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation that Sacco and Vanzetti were unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”
(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, who is better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)