How the Sacco and Vanzetti Trial Worked

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. A big warm welcome to my new cohost, Sarah Dowdey! Sarah just came back from Boston and had an interesting tale to tell.

Sarah: I did. I was in Boston a little while ago, and I was walking around the North End - kind of on a cannoli tour, I'll be honest - but a plaque caught my attention, and it was commemorating the site where the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee functioned from 1925 to '27. It seems like it was kind of operating as maybe a yoga studio now judging by the number of people with mats headed in. But it looked like it was the site of an important historical event.

Katie: It was, and we've actually gotten a lot of reader requests for the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, so I'm glad we're doing this today. But they were two Italian immigrants accused of murder back in the 1920s. To give a little background, maybe we should talk about their lives before they were caught here.

Sarah: Yeah. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti both immigrated in 1908. Sacco was an edge trimmer at a shoe factory in Massachusetts, Vanzetti a fish peddler in Plymouth, so, pretty basic guys.

Katie: And they were both involved in a lot of anarchist activities which is sort of where the trouble starts. They had both written for the Cronaca Sovversiva - sorry if I'm not pronouncing that correctly - but it was an Italian anarchist newsletter. So, their names were already on the list of people to watch at the time.

Sarah: And they both belonged to the Gruppo Autonomo - sorry, again - an anarchist cell in East Boston that was really into the violent overthrow of the government. So, probably not the best thing to be involved in!

Katie: No, lots of discovered bomb plots with that particular group. So, to go back to what they're actually accused of, on April 15th in 1920, these two men were outside a shoe factory and they had the payroll - something about $15,000 - and they were both shot and killed by a group of men.

Sarah: The eye witnesses say that the robbers looked Italian, and that's definitely where the trouble starts.

Katie: So, they had, I believe, seen a Buick that the men had gone away in. So, the police started with that one particular clue. They were going to look for a Buick, and they found one in a nearby town at a garage. I think they talked to the mechanic and said if anyone came to call on it, let them know. So, when Sacco and Vanzetti showed up to -

Sarah: Carrying their pistols, unfortunately - not so good. Nothing's working out for these guys.

Katie: They showed up to pick up the car, and of course, the mechanic gave a call into the police and told Sacco and Vanzetti that they didn't want to pick up the car right then, it had the wrong plates, so they should come back. And when they did return, the police were waiting for them. And they also happened to lie to the police, which later at the trial was used as a "consciousness of guilt" excuse.

Sarah: Yeah. Over the course of the trial, there were a lot of different stories that came out from both of them. Vanzetti later said he was kind of trying to protect his friends and fellow anarchists, but that's not really gonna fly -

Katie: In a court of law.

Sarah: But the trial in general ended up being a real mess. Judge Webster Thayer, of the Massachusetts Superior Court, who tried the case - here's a little language warning coming up - had already called them anarchist bastards. So, his opinion was clearly skewed from the start. And a lot of other problems - a really incompetent lawyer - even though he was very invested in the case, he was just not up to par.

Katie: I don't think he was a local, and he wasn't really familiar with how things went in that part of the country. The jury was also very, very especially hand-picked in a way that wasn't impartial either.

Sarah: Yeah. And the witnesses were kind of brow-beaten. People who sort of knew something about their alibis - the Italian witnesses were especially pressured. It wa s just all a big mess.

Katie: And adding to the confusion, Sacco and Vanzetti didn't speak great English, and their interpreter, it's very possible, wasn't giving them the questions that the judge -

Sarah: That really helps, doesn't it?

Katie: It does! They weren't getting the right questions, and he may or may not have been relaying the correct answers. So, they eventually replaced the first translator with someone else. But when there's a language barrier, that's a big deal.

Sarah: It is. So, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty by the jury on July 14th and sentenced to death.

Katie: But the trial went on for another, what, seven years, six years, afterwards?

Sarah: The debate went on for sure. People kept on calling for a retrial. Why this case is so famous and why people are still talking about it is the effect after the trial. Intellectuals and leftists really took up the cause of getting these guys a new trial, for one thing, because it had been so unfair, but also, a lot of people felt that they had been tried on their anarchist beliefs not for the crime.

Katie: Exactly. And some of it didn't even make sense, to go to the specifics of the trial. They were talking about identifying these men as the people who came to commit the murder, and one of their eyewitnesses was someone who originally had said, no, she couldn't tell from where she was who it was because she had seen him from a distance of 60-80 feet away. And originally, she had said that no, she couldn't recognize him. But then, she was giving really detailed descriptions of, say, his hand. There were other people who, again, at the time, said maybe they weren't even there or they weren't looking, or when they saw guns they had hidden and then later said no, they could identify these men. But there never was a strong identification. Actually, in the beginning, many of the police officers had said that they thought it was a gang of professional criminals and not two immigrants who had absolutely nothing on their records other than these anarchist activities.

Sarah: Yeah. That actually - the gan of professionals seemed even more plausible when Celestino Madeiros - who was already under a sentence for murder - this was a bit after the trial - actually confessed to the crime. He said he did it with the Joe Morelli gang. So, a group of seasoned criminals, not a fishmonger and shoe factory trimmer.

Katie: Another thing about the trial - they never even tried to trace where the money would have gone from this robbery. Where did that $15,000 go? Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had it in their bank accounts, nor had they changed anything about their lifestyles, nor had the people in their lives seem to have any more money. So, if we can't identify them, and they don't have the money, where is it coming from?

Sarah: What was the point? What happened?

Katie: Except the prejudice in the court and the judge who, over and over again, gave these ridiculous - you can read his summaries. One of them, I think, near the end of the court, is 25,000 words about how what they've done was fair and they don't need a retrial. But it's clearly not even remotely objective if you give it a read.

Sarah: Yeah, and just to show how concerned people were, there were demonstrations all around the world after this trial, especially nearing the execution date which was a long time after they were tried. Seven years they were in jail. The governor of the state set up an independent advisory committee that had Harvard president, MIT president, a former judge, trying to decide if the trial had been fair. One big signifiers of how concerned people were about whether this trial was fair is the governor actually felt compelled to make an independent advisory committee consisting of Harvard's president, MIT's president, a former judge, to actually go over everything. Instead of - this would be to decide if they were going to do a retrial or not or whether he was going to issue clemency. He decided not to. The advisory committee stood with him. So, they were out of luck again.

Katie: When you look at some of the things that happened during the trial, it seems impossible that they didn't have a retrial. At one point, I think they had a ballistics expert - or at least an officer of the law - who had prearranged with the prosecutor how he wanted to present the evidence of the gun that Sacco had. They arranged it to say - the expert couldn't come in and say that it was shot from Sacco's gun, because it wasn't, and he said, "That would be perjury. I can't come into a court of law and say that." So, instead, they arranged the language beforehand so what the prosecutor said and what the expert answered made it sound like -

Sarah: Some double-negatives going on.

Katie: Exactly. And when the court interpreted it to the jury that is, of course, how they interpreted it, and for some reason the defense attorney didn't pick up that line of questioning. So, it was just dropped.

Sarah: He was pretty hapless it seemed.

Katie: And later, when the expert came and told that this happened, you would think that that would be grounds for a retrial right there.

Sarah: Yeah. In 1969, a Supreme Court justice, William Douglas, actually wrote that someone reading the courtroom transcript would have difficulty believing that the trial in which it deals took place in the United States. It was just that backward.

Katie: Some of it's heartbreaking when you are reading the transcript. I was reading one little excerpt between - I can't remember if it was Sacco or Vanzetti - and the lawyer, and you can tell that he doesn't understand the questions because they're asking him, "Are you a Bolshevik?" And he says he doesn't know what Bolshevism means. He said, "Are you a Soviet?" No, he doesn't know what Soviet means. Then they said, "Are you a communist." And he answers, yes; he bought some books on astronomy.

Sarah: So, we know the trial didn't go well. But do we have any information now that helps us know, "Did these guys commit the crime?"

Katie: Because it did become, as you had mentioned, quite the co-celeb of the day. Their second lawyer had spent quite a bit of money putting out pamphlets and things and very much trying to use the media to their advantage to get a fair trial for these men. So, do we think they were innocent men involved in this trial and just condemned before it ever started or was there some truth that maybe they had done some things they shouldn't have done?

Sarah: Well, later, FBI ballistics reports kind of suggested that Sacco probably was guilty, Vanzetti probably not, but there's a lot of disagreement on it still. In part, because all the evidence was so shoddy and the witnesses' testimonies are skewed and unreliable. Because there wasn't a retrial, it's hard to tell even today.

Katie: Some of the evidence was messed with, too. I think the gun was put together and taken apart so many different times, at some point they weren't sure if it had been damaged beyond belief.

Sarah: Yeah. The ballistics report has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Katie: Exactly. And there was a hat that was found at the crime scene that they'd made Sacco tried on, and it turned out there was a hole in it and someone said, "Oh, it was from a bullet." And no, actually, the police had actually -

Sarah: It's very proto-OJ, isn't it?

Katie: It is.

Sarah: Another thing to keep in mind is just the climate of the country at the time. It was not - these guys were Italian immigrants and they were known anarchists. That was a good step towards being guilty just to start. It was after World War I. Unemployment was really high. The economy was bad. And there was a red scare going on, which is not the red scare that we normally think of.

Katie: McCarthyism.

Sarah: It was long before that kind of started by President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, Palmer, who had a bomb explode outside of his house and then just kind of went on an anticommunist, antianarchist crusade, kind of gunning for a presidential bid himself a lot of people thought. But he was responsible sort of for heating up the country with all this red fear.

Katie: And you can see some of that in the trial transcripts, again, or even from things the judge said. There are a lot of examples talking about war, because Sacco and Vanzetti were also draft dodgers, which did not endear them to the jury in Massachusetts. So, they were asked several questions like, "Do you love your country?" and "Well, you ran away from your country, would you run away from your wife if she needed you?" and these ridiculous, hyperbolic arguments. The judge was talking about the pure light of truth a nd elevating them beyond the blindness and patriotism and, in general, inflaming the jury.

Sarah: Yeah. And just a few years before this crime, there were a lot of mass arrests and deportations due to Palmer and the creation of the General Intelligence Division, which was actually headed up by J. Edgar Hoover, not a - definitely anticommunist there. Immigration quotas started coming into play. So, there was a lot of ethnic fear going on, too.

Katie: And a lot of people say - and Sacco and Vanzetti later said - that the reason they lied in the beginning is because of fear because of all of these things that were going on, and they had recently had a friend - a fellow anarchist - arrested and put in custody and wasn't allowed to communicate with anyone. And I think he committed suicide.

Sarah: Yeah. He supposedly jumped off the 14th floor of a building.

Katie: And that's about the time they had decided maybe they should start getting rid of all of their anarchist pamphlets and such right as they got arrested.

Sarah: Yeah. And Vanzetti later said that's what he was doing. He was helping friends clear out their anarchist literature, kind of preparing for mayday raids.

Katie: It's been suggested that Sacco and Vanzetti were actually on some sort of list and that maybe this particular charge was trumped up to get them out at any cost and to get them deported. Sacco and Vanzetti were actually executed on August 23rd, 1927. Before they were killed, Sacco gave a quote. "But what good is the evidence and what good is the argument? They're determined to kills us regardless of evidence, of law, of decency, of everything. If they give us a delay tonight, it will only mean that they will kill us next week. Let us finish tonight. I'm weary of waiting seven years to die, when they know all the time that they intend to kill us." So, that gives you an idea of what those seven years of appeals and motions were like for Sacco and Vanzetti when they were sure that they were going to be executed, and they were.

Sarah: Yeah. Fifty years after their death, the Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, issued a proclamation saying that they had not been treated justly and that no stigma should be associated with their names - kind of a retrial too late, but nevertheless.

Katie: But something. So, whether you believe they're innocent or guilty, I think we can say with fairness that their trial should've been redone. If you'd like to learn more about controversial court cases, please check out the website and the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog at

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