On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in the small industrial town of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a paymaster named Frederick Parmenter and a guard named Alessandro Berardelli set out to carry cash boxes — which contained the payroll of the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company — from the factory's upper office to a lower one at the end of Pearl Street.
Due to a spate of recent payroll robberies, many of which were committed by gangs of Italian immigrants, Berardelli was armed. South Braintree lay ten miles outside of Boston, and as Parmenter and Berardelli passed by its stables, poolrooms, meeting halls, and factories, they chatted with some of the city's 15,000 residents. Parmenter was in his early forties — a burly, loquacious man. Berardelli was a quiet and withdrawn 28-year-old. Each held a steel box fastened with a Yale lock. Taken together, the boxes contained $15,776.51
Midway up Pearl Street, Parmenter and Berardelli were attacked by two men who had been idling beside a fence. One wore a cap; the other, a felt hat. The man in the cap grabbed Berardelli's shoulder, swung him around, and fired three shots into his chest. Parmenter had been walking slightly ahead of his partner, and as he turned the man in the cap shot him in the chest. Parmenter staggered, turned once more, and received a shot in the back. According to an eyewitness, as the men lay "twitching" in the street, the robber in the felt hat snatched up the cash boxes, the man in the cap fired a shot in the air, and a green touring Buick sputtered down the street, arriving slowly enough that a host of people remembered its noisy shifting of gears, as well as the two men inside.
Just as the robbers jumped in, a wounded Berardelli raised himself up on hands and knees, and a fifth man ran out from behind a pile of bricks, leapt onto the Buick's running board, and shot him once more. The bullet severed Berardelli's great artery, and he fell back into the gutter, blood bubbling from his mouth. Berardelli died a few hours later; Parmenter, the next day.
The men arrested for the crime were named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Seven years later, Sacco (a 36-year-old shoemaker) and Vanzetti (a 39-year-old fish peddler) sat in their cells in Massachusetts's Charlestown prison — near the obelisk monument to revolutionary resistance at Bunker Hill — and waited for the executioner to arrive.
Demonized as Italians, anarchists, and antiwar activists, they'd been found guilty in 1921. The prosecution's case had been based on conflicting eyewitness testimony and unconvincing ballistics evidence, but despite nine appeals — including two to the Supreme Courts of Massachusetts and the United States — and the confession of a man who claimed to have participated in the shooting itself, they were denied a new trial and sentenced to death. By 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti's case had become the most famous in American history, with a majority of working people, and a great many of the world's intellectuals, convinced of their innocence.
And so, on the evening of August 22, 1927, more than 500 policemen in blue uniforms enforced a mile-long barricade that encircled the prison. Most carried tear gas and gas masks. Mounted horses clip-clopped on the cobblestones, firemen stood ready with hoses, machine guns peeked over the top of the prison's red granite wall, and searchlights probed the surrounding darkness. The thousands of protesters who milled against the barricade included Dorothy Parker and John Dos Passos, as well as a host of anarchists, immigrants, day laborers, and a claque of garment workers, who kept up a constant round of "Solidarity Forever." The crowd swelled, with placards reading "JUSTICE IS CRUCIFIED" swaying overhead. Militants from the Hog Carriers' Union ran at the prison gate, and mounted troopers charged the masses. Several were hurt, many more were arrested. A cheer had gone up at the appearance of Sacco's wife, who'd brought their two children, and Vanzetti's sister, who'd arrived recently from Italy. But the women — who had bid Sacco and Vanzetti farewell a few hours earlier, then hurried to the governor's office, got down on their knees, and begged for a stay of execution — were defeated.
The condemned men's white-tiled chambers contained a cot, a chair, a table, and a toilet. Electric lamps burned within the cells and in the corridor that led to the electric chair. Sacco and Vanzetti were close enough to talk but didn't. Perhaps they were weak — they hadn't eaten for most of the previous month, saying they wouldn't be fattened for their execution. At 11:15, the warden appeared. "It is my painful duty to inform you that you have to die tonight," he told each man. From below, they could hear the crowd chanting: "No God! No Master!"
Vanzetti paced; Sacco finished a letter. A church clock tolled 12 times, and Celestine Madeiros — who'd been convicted of a separate murder and had then confessed to being in the Buick that carried Berardelli and Parmeter's killers — was walked to the death chamber. There, Madeiros's arms and legs were strapped to the electric chair. A metal helmet was placed on his head, his calves were wired with electrodes, and his eyes were masked. The warden nodded and the executioner, who stood behind a screen, connected a switch that ran electrical current through the electrodes and into Madeiros's body. Madeiros stiffened, convulsed, and turned red. Observers smelt burning hair. The executioner then disconnected the current and connected it again — three times in all. Sacco followed, and Vanzetti entered last.
A friend of Sacco's — an Italian immigrant asked, by the condemned man, to witness his death — would later say: "His time came. He walked to the chair. He told the guards, 'Don't touch me.' He went by himself. He made a little speech. He had the courage to say he was forgiving some of the people who was doing what was going to be done to him. He say goodbye to his wife, he say goodbye to his friends, he say goodbye to his children. He say, 'Long Live Anarchy!' He shook hands with the warden and he say, 'Thank you.' "
Vanzetti's final words were, "I am an innocent man."
The next morning, San Diego's daily newspapers ran banner headlines: "Sacco and Vanzetti Electrocuted: Radicals Die Game," one read. "Rioting Begins as Sacco, Vanzetti Die: Execution Dignified," read another. But in truth, most riots took place overseas and were squelched quickly, while in America protestors simply wept from exhaustion. Both the San Diego Union and the San Diego Sun had been covering the death watch on a daily basis — after all, it was the biggest story since Lucky Lindy's flight across the Atlantic, which had taken place just a few months earlier.
This week marks the 78th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti's execution. And yet, evidence of Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence — or, at least, doubts about their guilt — has continued to accumulate. Countless college courses, websites, and library projects have been dedicated to the case. Dozens of attorneys, scholars, and historians continue to apply themselves to its minutiae, and Felix Frankfurter's Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was published in early 1927, remains a most compelling argument for the never-granted retrial.
In brief, Frankfurter, a Harvard Law School professor — and from 1939 to 1962, an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court — argued that the first trial was tainted by prejudice and incompetence and that the following evidence had emerged during the six years Sacco and Vanzetti spent awaiting execution:
— Sources charged that the presiding judge, Webster Thayer, made statements — "Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day?"; "those sons of bitches"; "those dagos" — which compromised his objectivity.
— The jury foreman had referred to Italians as "guineas" and said they "ought to hang anyhow, guilty or not."
— Italians who could back up Sacco and Vanzetti's alibis — Sacco claimed to be in New York applying for a visa, while Vanzetti swore he was delivering eels to his customers — were considered to be too sympathetic to their fellow countrymen and barred from testifying.
— Eyewitnesses who were said to have placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime did not pick them out of a lineup, despite the fact that the police had forced them to pose with guns in their hands.
— Eyewitnesses admitted after the trial that they were coached by the prosecution to testify to certain facts and not others.
— A ballistics expert confirmed that the bullet that killed Berardelli was "consistent with having been fired from that gun," which had been taken to mean Sacco's 32-caliber Colt automatic. He later testified, under oath, that he'd meant a Colt .32, but not necessarily Sacco's. Neither the judge nor the defendants' counsel challenged or clarified this testimony.
— Every subsequent appeal was heard by Judge Thayer himself.
— Madeiros, who was executed just before Sacco and Vanzetti, confessed in 1925 that he rode with a certain Morelli, who had committed the South Braintree murders, and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not participated in the crime.
Several of the prosecution eyewitnesses had changed their stories prior to the execution, and in the weeks leading up to it, their accusations of coercion were taken up by anarchists, unions, and scholars like Frankfurter, who agitated for a new trial, a new venue, and a new judge.
In major cities, where "factories" were synonymous with child labor, 12-hour workdays, and unsafe working conditions, protests erupted. Upon Sacco and Vanzetti's sentencing, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in front of U.S. embassies in Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Thousands in Italy looked upon Sacco and Vanzetti as Italians first, and Americans second, and sympathizers urged Benito Mussolini to make some dramatic gesture that might save them. (Mussolini did not interfere.) President Calvin Coolidge was placed under heavy guard as bombs — referred to in the press as "infernal machines" — destroyed the mayoral residences in Baltimore and Cincinnati. In New York, two subway stations were blown up, and a week before the execution, some 150,000 New York barbers, pocketbook makers, clothing workers, and mill hands walked off the job for an afternoon. "There was no picketing," a reporter wrote. "The workers put down their tools and left without disorder."
In Los Angeles — a city otherwise engrossed in a feud between Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother — 11 men and women circulated mimeographs calling for a general strike and were arrested for "suspicion of criminal syndicalism."
And in San Diego?
San Diego saw little, if any, protest on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf. True, our distance from Boston and the nonanarchist character of San Diego's Italian community may well have contributed to the city's nonchalant reaction to the execution. And yet, in the early 1900s, San Diego had been a center for radical activity -- of the shipped-in variety. Years before the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the Wobblies -- members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW -- had descended on the city, spreading the gospel that workers should own the means of production, that men should go on strike and stage boycotts, and that, if necessity called, they should commit sabotage. The Wobblies spoke on "soapbox row" -- a free-speech spot on E Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues -- calling for "direct action" on the part of San Diego's workers. Despite denials that they worked to overthrow the U.S. government, they were branded enemies of law and order.
In 1912, San Diego's city council caved in to pressure from business leaders and passed an ordinance forbidding street-corner meetings (ostensibly for traffic concerns). The Wobblies and their partisans defied the order -- more than a hundred were arrested, and the showdown, which became known as San Diego's "free-speech fight," eventually attracted 5000 radicals to the city. Many were arrested and taken to the county line near Fallbrook, where they were run through a gauntlet of clubs and forced to kiss the American flag. Sometimes, they were tarred and feathered before being given the boot.
One of the lawyers who represented the Wobblies and their attorneys in 1912, and who would play a role in defending Sacco and Vanzetti, was Fred H. Moore, who hailed from Spokane, Washington, and is described in Francis Russell's 1971 study Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case as a "bohemian lawyer." One afternoon, Russell writes, "when a casual IWW acquaintance arrested in a free-speech fight in San Diego telephoned him for help, Moore picked up his broad-brimmed hat and a revolver, told his associates he would be back shortly, and walked out of the promise of his law career." According to another historian, the eccentric and unstable Moore was "an able attorney who was prone to nervous attacks which kept him out of court."
According to the San Diego Sun, Moore was in San Diego in May of 1912, defending the IWW. Moore alleged in an affidavit that he, his law partner, and their stenographer, were told by more than a dozen businessmen that Fred Moore and his ilk had "better leave town" or "take the consequences." The San Diego Union -- the paper of John D. Spreckels, which had always railed against militant dissent -- reported that San Diego Chief of Police J. Keno Wilson had picked Moore "up in an automobile, carried him to Sorrento and there told him to leave the city and not return."
Soon afterwards, the Union reported that the IWW, and Moore, were leaving San Diego to its own devices. Labor conditions in Los Angeles were far worse, the IWW alleged, and the Wobblies would agitate for a new law guaranteeing the eight-hour workday. The IWW songwriter Joe Hill -- who would someday be shot by a firing squad, after a suspect murder conviction that brought Sacco and Vanzetti's trial to mind -- had this to say of the city: "There is too much energy going to waste organizing locals in jerkwater towns of no industrial importance. A town like San Diego, for instance, where the main 'industry' consists of 'catching suckers,' is not worth a whoop in Hell from the rebel's point of view. Still there has been more money spent on that place than there ever was on Pittsburgh, Detroit and other manufacturing towns of great importance."
Fred Moore went on to represent two men who'd been falsely accused of murder in a Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike. He defended "Big Boy" Krieger, an IWW organizer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who'd been framed for the dynamiting of a home of a Standard Oil official. And he was on a team defending Washington State Wobblies who'd been charged with murdering two vigilantes during the November 1916 "Everett Massacre."
But in 1920, Moore was summoned to prepare a brief for the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which was set to begin the following year. Moore, who was in his late thirties and believed the case to be crucial to the cause of the working class, told a friend that "in saving them we strengthen our muscles, develop our forces preparatory to the day when we save ourselves." Francis Russell's description of Moore's efforts on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf brings William Kunstler to mind: "His long hair seemed to flow back from his forehead, he often wore sandals, and the broad-brimmed Western hat he brought with him from California became almost his trademark in Boston," he wrote.
America's entry into the First World War slowed the stirrings of working-class revolt, but the Bolshevik victory in Russia sparked new protests in America's industrialized cities. By 1919, reactionaries were grouping left-wing dissenters in with the Red Menace. Battle lines were drawn. Anarchists and communists organized strikes, whipped up by spontaneous meetings, and distributed anti-government propaganda. Bombs targeting elected officials convinced the United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer that anarchists were intent on overthrowing the government. He began with isolated arrests of foreign-born radicals and deported those for whom he had evidence -- sometimes scant -- of seditious activity. The self-avowed anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman, who had visited San Diego (and been kicked out of town) during the 1912 free-speech fight, was deported to Russia. And in the 1920 "Palmer Raids," thousands of "reds" were rounded up in 33 American cities. In the course of these sweeps, agents often disregarded the detainees' civil liberties; it was widespread shock at their strong-arm tactics that helped form the American Civil Liberties Union, but not before Palmer had arrested and begun deportation proceedings against hundreds of people.
The San Diego Union welcomed the crackdown: a 1919 editorial, "Suppress These Agitators," begins: "We confess...that we don't like to hear these persons uttering the indecencies of their crooked mentalities in depreciation of our form of government and the institutions we have erected upon it. Neither do we believe that they should be permitted to do so.... There are traitors of the tongue and pen as there are traitors of the bomb and rifle." Another item, in the San Diego Sun, cites General Leonard Wood's comments about the radicals: "I believe we should place them all on ships of stone with sails of lead and that their first stopping place should be Hell. We must advocate radical laws to deal with radical people."
In 1920, San Diego police arrested Jane Street, an "alleged IWW leader" who was seized in a rooming house on Market. Her crime was spreading propaganda and soliciting Wobbly membership, which warranted a charge of sedition under California's new syndicalist law. Not long afterwards, a Swede named Jacob Stromquist was arrested for the possession of anarchist leaflets. According to the Union, Stromquist had "advocated anticonservative theories." During his hearing, Stromquist told the judge that he claimed allegiance to no country. "I am an internationalist," he said, and a member of "the universal brotherhood of man." A few months later, Stromquist and Street were acquitted and released.
Like many of his contemporaries, Attorney General Palmer saw a direct link between ethnicity and crime. "Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many [Italians] leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime," he wrote. "From their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type." And one of the most notorious anarchists in America had, in fact, been an Italian -- Luigi Galleani, who'd been the author of a widely circulated manual on bomb-building and become the target of constant surveillance initiated by J. Edgar Hoover. (Hoover was then a 24-year-old director of the Justice Department's General Intelligence Division. Sacco and Vanzetti had met at a Galleani meeting.) Galleani was deported in 1919, by which time the press had branded him as the epitome of a "bomb-throwing Italian anarchist," and by 1920, every mustachioed, swarthy man of Italian descent who huffed about the boss became a "bomb-throwing Italian."
And so, when police began searching for the killers of the paymaster and his guard, they paid special attention to eyewitnesses who said the assailants were "Italian-looking." Within weeks, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. They carried radical propaganda and guns. They were self-described anarchists. But perhaps they were more guilty of being Italian.
This prejudice against Italians also manifested itself in San Diego. In 1925, Italian-Americans constituted just one percent of San Diego's 100,000 residents. Most of these paisanos were tuna fishermen or the families of tuna fishermen. The majority were immigrants, though a small contingent of Italian-Americans had arrived from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. San Diego was home to a booming cannery business, employing 2500 workers. But tuna fishermen, who spent much of their days at sea, kept to themselves. The last thing Italian-born men would do, without the backing -- some might say the order -- of union bosses, would be to march on behalf of inconclusively tried Italian hotheads in Boston.
And so, Little Italy was a conservative enclave, with few radicals or communists. There is no local record of the kind of anarchist culture that was rife in the Northeast. In fact, by the mid-1920s, organized labor in San Diego had dwindled; by 1926, work was so plentiful that some contractors were granting dollar-a-day raises to their workers.
Undoubtedly, many of San Diego's Italians were aware of the anti-immigrant rage that the Sacco-Vanzetti case had stirred up: As the Italian-American scholar Nunzio Pernicone describes it, this rage against foreigners was based on "Nordicism" -- a "racial hierarchy" that placed Scandinavians, Germans, and Anglo-Saxons at the top of the social ladder and Mediterranean peoples at the bottom. The worst of the bottom-dwellers were the southern Italians, who were not considered white. For Italian immigrants in San Diego, to support Sacco and Vanzetti in public was to court hostilities that already threatened to bubble over.
In Southern California, the San Diego Labor Leader was one of the few papers to take up Sacco and Vanzetti's case. A large-format weekly that propagandized for the trade-union cause, the paper featured strike news, stories urging workers to drink milk, and syndicated stories by prounion authors like Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers. A 1925 article claimed that one-fifth of San Diego's citizens belonged to unions and that 85 percent of them owned their own homes. These "members have their every interest in the building up of the city and are loyal San Diegans," the paper enthused. "How many unorganized workers own their own homes?"
During the summer of 1922, the paper reprinted "Vanzetti -- Tribute and Appeal" by Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle who was then working on a novel about the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Sinclair visited the two in jail, and his articles did much to give their story a human dimension. He had a particular affection for Vanzetti: "This humble Italian workingman is precisely what he pretends to be, an idealist and an apostle of a new social order," Sinclair wrote. "He is simple and genuine, open-minded as a child, sensitive and possessing that innate refinement which makes good manners without need of teaching."
Vanzetti, an autodidact who had become an elegant writer while in prison, had read Sinclair's novel, Jimmy Higgins. "It was very plain to me that he had entered into the soul of that working-class martyr," Sinclair wrote, approvingly. "That he had shared all those dreams, endured all those privations and conquered all those terrors. He is indeed 'Jimmy Higgins' incarnate -- the same as thousands of others who have vowed in their hearts that life has no meaning apart from freedom and that justice for all the oppressed of our social system is their god in life."
After putting forth an anarchist credo, Sinclair continued: "After meeting Vanzetti, one cannot think of legal systems, one can think only of the man. This brother of ours must be saved."
Still, for the next several years, only occasional mention of the case appeared in the Labor Leader. In "Are Sacco & Vanzetti 'Frame-Up' Victims?" the paper reported that "at her hearing for a divorce, Mrs. Jessie Henry Dodson stated that her husband, now serving a penitentiary sentence for automobile theft, was associated with the murders for which Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are now under sentence of death. A vigorous agitation by workers and sympathizers has been conducted since the trial against what is declared a 'frame up.' " The woman said her soon-to-be ex-husband told her that he got $1000 for driving the getaway car and that Sacco and Vanzetti had had nothing to do with the crime.
In her "News Notes and Notions" column, Binny Wallace misidentified Sacco and Vanzetti as "members of organized labor in Massachusetts" who "may yet be sent to the electric chair on 'circumstantial evidence' so flimsy that it would not hold thirty seconds were the two men grasping capitalists rather than union men. The latest deflection of the case is the testimony of Lola R. Andrews, the stellar witness against the men, who has confessed that her identification 'was in its entirety unqualifiedly false and untrue,' having been made 'under the intimidating and coercing influence' of police officers and the district attorney's office."
In 1923, Wallace wrote that Andrews "has changed her testimony since the trial first commenced some years ago. Twice she has disowned her testimony against the defense on the grounds that she had been 'coerced and intimidated' by the prosecution's lawyers and testified for the defense. Now she is again a prosecution witness with the same excuse, that she had been 'coerced and intimidated,' this time by the defense!"
Later that year, the Labor Leader prefaced a story about Sacco and Vanzetti with a quote from the New Testament: "Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false witness against Jesus, that they might put him to death; and they found it not, though many false witnesses came."
But in San Diego, at least, the Labor Leader's was a lone voice in full support of the condemned Boston anarchists. In the weeks leading up to the execution, the Sun, the Union, and the weekly San Diego Herald seemed to hedge their bets and filled the front page with standard-issue wire-service reports.
The Union steered to the center but once, in a lone editorial that read, in part: "Judicially, the Sacco-Vanzetti case is the fight for a retrial of two men convicted of the crimes of murder. Politically, it is the conflict between radicals and conservatives." The editors wrote that if there was no reprieve, then "the radicals would affirm a new victory of 'class prejudice'...while the ultra-conservatives would celebrate a new victory over radical agitation.... No one cares about the 'merits of the murder case against the men.' " According to the editors, the case had "degenerated" into little more than an "international popularity contest."
As the execution neared, the Herald did call for a new trial. "We have no proof that Sacco and Vanzetti are innocent, neither have we seen any evidence that furnishes conclusive proof of their guilt. Without such evidence it is a crime, an injustice and a national disgrace to execute them," the editors wrote, citing the case of 20 Wobblies who were sent to jail in Los Angeles under California's syndicalist law (which the Herald vehemently opposed). "If Sacco and Vanzetti are no more guilty than are the hobos who were convicted in our own state, then they are the victims of judicial prejudice or incompetence," the editors concluded. And two days before the execution, the Herald argued that Sacco and Vanzetti should be given a reprieve on the grounds that their deaths would instigate widespread violence: "The lives of thousands of innocent men and women...may be sacrificed by mobs as unreasoning as the public officials."
The Sun, which printed dozens of death-watch stories, seemed to take a middle course, contrasting Vanzetti's "philosophical anarchist" with Sacco's "practical" one and arguing that Vanzetti's death would only provide his cause with a ready martyr: "Compel him to live," the editors argued. "To prove that all governments are not evil. Compel him to serve as living proof that government -- our government at least -- can be humane, that government can go to the limit, even beyond the fixed limit to assure even the humblest fish-peddling immigrant his every right as a member of civilized society. Make him prove this with his life -- not by taking that life but by giving it back to him.... The electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti will make two anarchists for every one that exists in the world today."
After the execution, the Sun ran a front-page report by Scripps-Howard reporter Ruth Finney, who'd covered the prison death-watch that April: "The two wretched, tragic lives are ended," it read. "They died gallantly; there was no moaning from their cells.... The priest, whom the two men would not see, stood in the prison yard, under the dark sky, and prayed." But the last words belonged more properly to Sacco and Vanzetti themselves, and Vanzetti, in particular, made sure they were entered in the record: "If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men," he told a journalist on the eve of his death. "I might have died, 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, justice, for man's understanding of man, as now we do by accident. 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 belong to us -- that agony is our triumph."