Sacco & Vanzetti Case Revisited (Book Review)

“Great trials express–bear–the soul of a nation…”

— The late historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. [1]

It reads like the kind of brutal crime – especially in that Roaring Twenties era – that might have been pulled off by a gang headed by a trigger-happy John Dillinger, or someone of that ilk. At 3 PM, April 15, 1920, two men robbed, and then shot to death, a shoe factory paymaster carrying about $16,000 in cash and his security guard. The incident took place in South Braintree, MA, near Boston. The two thieves got away in a car occupied by three other men. The cash from the robbery was never recovered.

About 20 days later, the cops arrested and charged two Italian-born immigrants, Nicola Sacco, a shoe worker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler. Neither had any police record, but they were political radicals who subscribed to the idea of militant anarchism. After a six-week trial that used dubious evidence and was presided over by a highly biased judge, they were both found guilty. Despite motions for new trials, appeals, and a bid for clemency, they were executed on Aug. 23, 1927. [2]

Back on March 1, 2007, Professor Deborah Contrada of the U. of Iowa decided to revisit that controversial case, in an informative lecture which she gave at Loyola College, in Baltimore, MD. Her interest in the matter was sparked many years before while growing up outside of Boston. She said: “My dad told us stories about [the case] over and over again…He said that they were executed ‘solely because…they were Italians’…[The story] fascinated me…It is as alive today as it was back in the 1920s.”

When asked why this case has such “a hold” on the imagination of so many people, Professor Contrada said it was because the subject is “actually timeless. We’ve changed the vocabulary. We’re not using the word ‘anarchist,’ perhaps. But, the issues we’re facing are the same. Now, we’re talking about civil liberties and homeland security. The problem of immigration and how we treat immigrants is very much alive and that may be part of it.” [3]

On hearing those words, the mistreatment of the Muslim detainees at Gitmo, and later at Abu Ghraib, came to mind. It also reminded me how, a little over a hundred and thirty years ago in the state of Pennsylvania, twenty Irish-born coal miners were executed in a notorious frame-up. These cases were tagged, “The Molly Maguires.” The prosecutor, a disgusting example of humanity, was the president of the then-largest railroad and coal company in the nation and the sick-oh judge was his crony. [4]

Later, a judicial critic labeled the trials: “A surrender of state sovereignty…to a private corporation…a private police force…and to private attorneys…to prosecute them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.” Others referred to it as “state-sanctioned murder.”

Professor Contrada posed this question: “Were Sacco and Vanzetti ‘murdering anarchist b……., who got what they deserved,’ as Judge [Webster] Thayer believed or were they unfortunate victims of a particularly intolerant moment in American history?” She then recounted the known facts about the case and some of the social history surrounding that period. She also mentioned the “Haymarket Riot,” which occurred on May 1, 1886.

Background: The Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia and the so-called “Red Scare” was rampant in the U.S. There was a rash of labor strikes and the “Palmer Raids,” led by the then-U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, had just taken place, too. Anti-immigrant bias was high and intolerance towards Italian immigrants was well documented. As for the anarchists, they had opposed WWI and were being deported by the thousands by federal authorities, led by a brash young upstart – J. Edgar Hoover. Anarchists had also set off a bomb at Palmer’s house and at other government facilities and public places. [5] Professor Contrada added: “An informant,” possibly a government agent,” claimed, “the crime [at Braintree] was the work of Italian immigrants.”

An expert on the case, Professor Richard Polenberg, said that the evidence used against the two defendants was “tainted.” [6] The authors of a 1985 book, “Postmortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti,” David E. Kaiser and William Young, went even further. They wrote: “Virtually every piece of evidence against the two men ultimately rested upon falsehoods and fabrications.” Also, anyone who thinks “science is the gospel” should think again. There are plenty of recent examples of forensic scientists getting it wrong, even at the FBI. [7]


When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, Professor Contrada underscored, the cops never told them they were “suspects” in the Braintree holdup and murders. Both men had loaded guns on them. A few days earlier one of their associates either leaped or was pushed to his death from a 14th-floor federal detention center in NYC. The duo feared instant deportation or worse. They thought they were being questioned because of their anarchist backgrounds, so therefore many of their answers to the police were deceptive. At the trial, the prosecutor, Frederick Katzmann was permitted by Judge Thayer to hammer away at this issue and to label it as a “consciousness of guilt.” When the defendants took the stand in their own behalf, the prosecutor was also allowed, despite the repeated objections of defense counsel, to question them on cross-examination about their “political beliefs,” which, of course, had nothing to do with the charges against them and had to prejudice the jury’s views of the defendants.

At the trial, the eyewitness testimony for the State, according to Professor Contrada, was both weak and “contradictory.” A factory window, from which two witnesses said they were looking out on the date in question, was shown on a video screen by Professor Contrada. It was so blurry, you couldn’t tell whether it was rainy outside or not. How could one have accurately identified someone out on the street? Another witness said one of the robbers had a “close-cropped mustache.” Professor Contrada pointed out, via a picture of Vanzetti, that his mustache was anything but “close-cropped.” On the defendants’ side, Vanzetti had six alibi witnesses who swore he was selling fish the day in question. Sacco insisted he was in Boston visiting the Italian Consulate office, and that he had lunch at Boni’s restaurant with friends. (8) Seven witnesses testified they saw him there. [9]

The ballistic evidence was also highly disputed at the trial. The state charged that a gun, like Sacco’s, was used in the killing of the security guard, Alessandro Berardelli. The defense produced two experts who denied that charge. The forensic science of matching bullets to a specific weapon was in its infancy at this time. There were also serious questions about the chain of custody with respect to Sacco’s .32 Colt automatic and the bullets. Authors Kaiser and Young believed the critical bullet in the case was “switched.” The state could only allegedly tie one of the four bullets found to a pistol like Sacco’s. Where did the other three bullets come from, if there was only one supposed shooter of Berardelli, who had four shots fired into him, according to several witnesses? (8) Professor Contrada showed photos of the four spent bullets. They left a lot to the imagination.

Another wrinkle in the case was an admission by an imprisoned gangster, Celestino Madeiros, that he, along with other members of the notorious Joe Morelli mob, had actually pulled off the robbery and murders. The State did little to investigate his claim. Professor Contrada showed a photo of Morelli, alongside one of Sacco, and the resemblance was, indeed, striking. (8) Professor Contrada said: “If I were on a jury today [in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti] I would have to say [as to their guilt] reasonable doubt, easily.” Her talk was part of the Center for Humanities program at the school. She was introduced by Loyola’s Professor Leslie K. Morgan. Meanwhile, a landmark 90-minute documentary film, “Sacco and Vanzetti,” debuted in NYC on March 30th, and on April 6th, 2007, in Los Angeles. [10]

Professor Contrada concluded that regarding the failure of justice in the Sacco and Vanzetti matter: “What we learn from history is that we don’t learn ‘anything’ from history!’ We just keep falling into the same traps.” (3)