Sacco and Vanzetti Executed on This Day in History: A Wolfsonian Reflection

It only seems fitting to mark the anniversary of the execution of Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti this day in 1927, as the library has just opened a new installation on Socialism, Communism, and other political “Isms.”

Politics of Isms Installation View04

So entwined have the names (and fate) of Sacco and Vanzetti become in legend, song, art, and history, that it would be difficult to imagine referring to either of the anarchists executed on this day without mentioning the other as well, as they were tried and died together. Although both men had been born in Italy and immigrated to the United States in 1908, neither the shoemaker and night watchman (Sacco) nor the fish peddler (Vanzetti) had known the other before meeting during a strike in 1917.

Both men opposed American intervention in the First World War, fled to Mexico, and upon their return at the war’s end, became committed followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated bombings, assassination, and violent revolution to end the deplorable working conditions endured by immigrant factory workers in America. After their leader and eight associates were rounded up and deported in June, 1919, the remaining sixty or so Galleanists either went into hiding or participated in retaliatory acts of terrorism, including a botched bomb attempt against U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Several Italian anarchists were arrested and interrogated, and one Galleanist, Andrea Salsedo fell to his death from the 14th floor of the Bureau of Investigation offices in New York. Two days later, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for an unrelated crime, tried, and condemned to death.


Painting by Peppino Mangravite

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

On April 15, 1920, the paymaster, Frederick Parmenter, and a guard, Alessandro Beradelli of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts were shot and killed by robbers who seized the company’s payroll boxes and sped away in a stolen Buick.

Speculating that the robbery—(and another several months earlier)—had been planned to finance the anarchists’ agenda, the police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti on May 5, 1920 when they and a couple of other Italian associates attempted to pick up a car presumed to be one of the getaway vehicles. Sacco and Vanzetti were both armed at the time of their arrest and lied about having any anarchist affiliations; they were charged with armed robbery and murder.

On September 16, 1920, a bomb exploded on Wall Street, killing 38 and seriously injuring 143. The explosion was the deadliest act of terrorism in U.S. history, and was presumed to have been a retaliatory strike by other Galleanists. It created an atmosphere of hysteria that undoubtedly prejudiced the judge and jury in the Sacco and Vanzetti case.


Getty Images

The prosecution made much of the defendants’ anarchist affiliations, and in the anti-anarchist hysteria of the period it is not surprising that the jury deliberated for no more than a few hours before finding both men guilty of first degree murder on July 14, 1921.


The Wolfsonian–FIU purchase with Founder’s fund

Before, during, and after the trial, the presiding judge, Webster Thayer made numerous public statements condemning Bolshevism and anarchism as grave dangers to America’s institutions, and he denied all of the defendants’ post-trial motions for a new trial.


Portrait of Judge Thayer by American Communist artist, Hugo Gellert

The Wolfsonian–FIU purchase with Founder’s fund

By 1925, the case had attracted worldwide notice, with rallies organized on their behalf in nearly every major city in North and South America, Europe, and the Far East.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift made by Ideal Gladstone, in memory of her husband, John.

While their April 1927 death sentence provoked worldwide demonstrations in support of their clemency or pardon, a three-man commission appointed by Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller upheld the verdict, and on August 23, 1927, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco died in the electric chair.


Design by Rockwell Kent commemorating the Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

~ by "The Chief" on August 23, 2016.

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