Jonathan Yardley

Protests prior to the scheduled execution
Protests prior to the scheduled execution (Boston Public Library/rare Books Department/from "Sacco & Vanzetti)
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 19, 2007


The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind

By Bruce Watson

Viking. 433 pp. $25.95

Eighty years ago this week, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed two first-generation immigrants from Italy, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for crimes they almost certainly did not commit. Before and after the executions, passions aroused by the case, in the United States and around the world, were incredibly intense. In part, this was because the case had strong political overtones at a time when much of the country was swept up in the Red Scare. In part, it was because, as the noted newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann wrote, "No man . . . should be put to death where so much doubt exists." And, in part, it was because Sacco and Vanzetti were appealing men, whatever one may have thought of their politics. In an interview with the New York World three months before his execution, Vanzetti was quoted as saying, in halting but powerful English:

"If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life, talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as we now do by dying. Our words, our lives, our pains -- nothing! The taking of our lives -- lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler -- all! That last moment belongs to us -- that agony is our triumph!"

Later, according to Bruce Watson, "the reporter admitted he had taken hasty notes and possibly enhanced them," but that is essentially beside the point. It is only slight exaggeration to say, as Watson does, that Vanzetti's "impromptu soliloquy became immortal." Certainly it seemed so to me a quarter-century later when, as a teenager, I listened over and over again to the 1920s volume of Edward R. Murrow's "I Can Hear It Now" recordings, which included a heavily accented but deeply moving recreation of Vanzetti's words. The indignation in Murrow's own voice as he summarized the details of the case was palpable and, I feel to this day, justifiable.

This has nothing to do with sympathy for the anarchist beliefs that Sacco and Vanzetti espoused; those beliefs were naive, sentimental and simplistic. Rather it has to do with the rank injustice of their prosecution, conviction and execution. Because many Americans under the age of 50 probably know little if anything about this important case, with its broad and lasting implications, it is good to have Watson's account. The literature of the case is vast, but surprisingly little of it provides as balanced and unemotional a survey as this volume does. It is also a considerable improvement upon Watson's previous book, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made, a biography of A.C. Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set, which told an interesting story in an uninteresting way.

This time around Watson keeps his inclination toward fictionalizing in check and does solid, extensive research. He clearly sympathizes with Sacco and Vanzetti, and believes they were innocent victims of what amounted to a witch hunt, but he acknowledges that in some respects their behavior was suspect and their explanations inconsistent. Removed by eight decades from the furor, he does not succumb to the heated passions of the day, but he does convey the full extent of popular feeling. For people who need an introduction to the case, his Sacco & Vanzetti will serve very well.

Similar legal controversies of somewhat more recent vintage are those of Alger Hiss, who spent almost four years in federal prison after being found guilty in 1950 on two counts of perjury involving his trial on charges of being a communist, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were found guilty of espionage and executed in 1953. All three cases took place in periods when American fears of communism and other alien political "isms" bordered on hysteria, and all aroused virulent feelings across the political spectrum. The chief difference is that Hiss probably and the Rosenbergs almost certainly were guilty, while Sacco and Vanzetti very likely were not.

The crime they were accused of committing took place in Braintree, outside Boston, in April 1920. About "five hundred pay envelopes containing $15,776.71," the weekly pay for a local shoe factory, were stolen, and the two men carrying the money, the paymaster and a guard, were shot to death. A "big, boxy Buick" picked up the two gunmen and raced into the distance: "It had all been over in a minute. One crime had been committed. One car had picked up the bandits. One bandit had fired from its passenger seat. But as the crowd began to babble, a kaleidoscope of impressions swirled around the scene."

That set the pattern for the seven years to follow. There were as many accounts of the crime as there were people to testify about it, and differences between the stories were significant. What mattered most to Sacco and Vanzetti, though, was that one of two suspicious-looking men seen in Braintree -- "smoking and speaking 'a foreign language' that identified them as 'Dagos' " -- "bore a striking resemblance to Nicola Sacco." In Massachusetts at the time, that was enough. It will be difficult for today's reader to grasp, but Massachusetts in the 1920s bore little resemblance to Massachusetts today. The state that is now regarded as the epitome of liberalism and all its attendant tics was a stronghold of old Yankee conservatism: "Between the Civil War and World War I, the Commonwealth never elected a single Democratic senator nor gave a majority of votes to a Democratic presidential candidate." Its former governor, Calvin Coolidge, was in the White House by 1925, and Massachusetts thought that was just fine.

Political conservatism went hand in hand with deep prejudice against the newer residents of what was by then "the most ethnically diverse region of America," and especially against Italians, who too often were pigeonholed inside the stereotype of the Mafia. So when, a couple of weeks after the Braintree murders, Sacco and Vanzetti were apprehended in questionable circumstances in nearby Bridgewater, their arrest and prosecution were foregone conclusions. Add their well-known activism in anarchist circles and that anarchists were known to have staged bomb attacks around the country, and they never had a chance.

Their trial took place "in the peaceful little town of Dedham," under the direction of Judge Webster Thayer, who was convinced of their guilt from the outset -- he told one friend that he "would get them good and proper!" and another that they were "anarchistic bastards" -- and who gave every benefit of the doubt to the prosecution. The trial was a farce, ending in the conviction of both men: The all-male, all-white, all-Yankee jury "reached a verdict in three hours but decided it would look hasty if announced so soon."

With that verdict began six years of what Sacco called "this long and dolorous Calvary . . . this terrible and iniquitous Bastile." The men's lawyers tried various strategies and came up with everything from ballistics tests to witnesses with altered stories, but all were swatted down, first by Thayer, then by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and ultimately by Gov. Alvan T. Fuller, who refused all appeals for clemency. As one of their lawyers finally said, in sorrow and exasperation, the case "is remitted to the judgment of mankind."

It has been there ever since, and arguments about what should be the correct judgment rage on to this day. The Internet is full of claims and counterclaims, declarations and speculations, to the extent that Watson must be commended for taking on a subject that is sure to bring him vilification from true believers of all viewpoints. My own view is that he has done a fair, workmanlike job, and deserves full credit for it. ยท

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