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On This Day: Italian-Born Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti Executed

August 23, 2011 06:00 AM
by James Sullivan
On Aug. 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Boston for two murders committed during a 1920 robbery. Observers and critics called their trial “blatantly unfair,” citing jury bias toward the defendants for their radical beliefs.

Anarchists Condemned

In April 1920, payroll clerk Frederick Parmenter and security guard Alessandro Berardelli were transporting $15,776 through South Braintree, Mass., when they were fired upon and killed, then robbed by two men who escaped in a waiting automobile. Three weeks after the crime, two Italian immigrants from Brockton were arrested and eventually indicted on charges of murder and robbery.

After a controversial trial—criticized as being unfair for the political and social biases of the judge, jury and prosecution—and after a six-year “legal and extra legal battle unprecedented in the history of American jurisprudence,” Sacco and Vanzetti, along with a young Portuguese man named Celestino Madeiros, were executed by electric chair in Boston’s Charlestown State Prison.

Both men proclaimed their innocence until the very end, and the defense team never ceased its advocacy for their rights.

According to a New York Times account of the execution, Sacco’s last words included a call of "Long live anarchy" in his native Italian, and farewells to his wife, children, friends and mother in English.

Vanzetti used his final moments to again assert his innocence and offer forgiveness to those involved in his execution. "I wish to tell you that I am innocent, and that I never committed any crime but sometimes some sin … I am an innocent man. … I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me."

An Unfair Trial

Historians continue to debate what role, if any, Sacco and Vanzetti played in the robbery and murders. “On one subject, however, there should be no debate. Sacco and Vanzetti did not receive a fair trial,” according to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

In an online exhibit dedicated to the case, the Court discusses the unfavorable political climate during the time of the trial.

The crime and trial occurred during a time in U.S. history referred to as the “Red Scare.” The period, between 1919 and 1920, was “marked by numerous labor strikes, widespread fear of radicals, and a series of bomb attacks against government officials.” World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia led to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and a strong prejudice against those espousing “radical ideas of anarchism, communism, or socialism.”

Within this context, “The trial judge permitted the prosecution to present extensive evidence about [Sacco and Vanzetti’s] anarchist ideology, immigrant background, and refusal to register for the military draft during World War I.”

Additionally, the state Supreme Court had no authority to review evidence in the case, leaving the decisions regard a retrial solely to the trial judge, who denied all "the defendants' repeated and compelling motions for a new trial."

For a more detailed overview of the case, see this article written by Robert D'Atillio, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania.

What Is Anarchism?

Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists. Today, anarchy is often associated with the black-clad youths who protest WTO conferences and G8 Summits. But what do anarchists actually believe, and how long have they been around for?

“Anarchism … is a political theory that aims to create a society which is without political, economic or social hierarchies. Anarchists maintain that anarchy, the absence of rulers, is a viable form of social system and so work for the maximisation of individual liberty and social equality. They see the goals of liberty and equality as mutually self-supporting.” This basic definition of anarchism comes from “An Anarchist FAQ,” a widely circulated publication first released by a group of international social anarchists in 1995. A complete copy of the extensive document can be found online at the Anarchist Writers Web site.

BBC Radio 4 host Melvyn Bragg explores the history and theory of Anarchism in a 45-minute program with guests John Keane, Professor of Politics at Westminster University; Ruth Kinna, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University; Peter Marshall, philosopher and historian.

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