The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

The Sacco and Vanzetti trial inflamed divisions among the American public regarding immigration and radicalism. It raised further controversy over the fairness of the American legal system and the role of personal biases in affecting legal decisions.

Who Were They?

Nicola Sacco:

Photograph of Sacco and Vanzetti
Photograph of Sacco and Vanzetti

  • Born in Italy 1891, moved to Boston in 1908
  • Moved from unskilled labor to skilled labor, operating a shoemaking machine
  • Joined social clubs and naturalization groups, later became involved with unions and anarchist groups

Bartolomeo Vanzetti:

  • Born in Italy 1888, immigrated to NY in 1908
  • Started with unskilled labor, then moved to Plymouth, MA to load coils of rope at a shipping dock
  • Also became involved in the labor and anarchist movements, was a writer and speaker advocating them


  • Met at an anarchist movement in May 1917
  • A week later, they fled to Mexico with other anarchists to avoid registering for the draft
The Crimes

December 24, 1919:

  • Two armed robbers attempted to hold up a truck delivering a payroll to a factory in Bridgewater, MA
  • Shots were fired at the truck - fired two shots back, then raced away
  • The truck then crashed, luckily no one was hurt and the payroll was safe
  • The Pinkertons investigated, but leads did not turn up anything conclusive

April 15, 1920:

  • Two men shot and killed: a payroll clerk (Frederick A. Parmenter) and his guard ( Alessandre Berardelli) on a busy street in South Braintree, MA
  • Payroll amounted to $15,733.59
  • As they were about to enter the factory, Beradelli was shot - he tried to run away, but was shot twice more. Parmenter started running away but was shot twice, then once more after crimals were in a getaway car

The Trial

Eye Witnesses:
  • Prosecuter provided 11 eyewitnesses
  • During the pretrial, told judge the events happened too quickly to provide definite identification
  • At the trial, they were certain to have seen Sacco and Vanzetti
  • Ballistics was very new - scientists could not identify three of the bullets as Sacco's
  • One bullet had distinctive markings, allowed scientists to match it to Sacco's gun
  • Vanzetti's gun was the same kind as that which killed guards
Conciousness of Guilt:
  • Lied about how they knew eachother, why they were in Bridgewater
  • Venzetti lied about when and where he got his gun
  • Lied in order to not self-incriminate about anarchist activities
  • Judge Webster Thayer allowed this as evidence - the information about their political beliefs used to influence jury
Judge Thayer approved, and even participated in the prosecutors  approach of soliciting the defendants' views on the economy, socialism, patriotism, and the recent war in order to play to the jurors' biases
Judge Thayer approved, and even participated in the prosecutors approach of soliciting the defendants' views on the economy, socialism, patriotism, and the recent war in order to play to the jurors' biases


- Both men were found guilty and sentenced to death in 1921
- Electrocuted in 1927

external image 0000077546.gif

The Aftermath/Reactions

Environment of the Times:
  • Trial took place at height of the Red Scare
  • Nativist, anti-radical, and anti-Union sentiments were widespread - people feared Bolshevism, foreigners, bombings, and labor unrest
  • To many, Sacco and Vanzetti embodied these threats
  • Trial criticized by many as corrupt, a denial of justice
  • Enraged by flimsy evidence used, suspected that men were persecuted for immigrant backgrounds and anarchist beliefs
  • Others fully supported the conviction, eager to blame crimes on men who represented "anti-American" values
  • Execution only fueled tensions between opposing sides
  • Nation was divided (also created uproar in Europe)

1927 Political Cartoon Criticizing Case
1927 Political Cartoon Criticizing Case

Influential Participants in the Debate:
  • Felix Frankfurter - Harvard Professor, later Supreme Court Justice, condemned Thayer for prejudices and procedural errors (failing to disclose eyewitness evidence favorable to defense, etc.)
  • Trial's fairness was defended by commission that included presidents of Harvard and MIT

Current Views:

  • Most historians believe Sacco was probably guilty, Vanzetti was innocent
  • Evidence presented was ambiguous, insufficient to convict either one
  • Trial was steeped in prejudice against Italians, Immigrants, and Anarchists

Links to Today:

  • Nativism is still present
  • Mexican immigrants are often blamed for "stealing" American jobs, a lot of violence at the Mexican-American border
  • After the 2001 terrorist attack, people of Middle-Eastern heritage were widely discriminated against (this included immigrants and non-immigrants)
  • These and other various forms of bias continue to corrupt the fairness of trials and legal charegs (Ex. Racial Profiling)
  • The presence of these biases - racial, ethnic, religious, etc. - has continued to create tension and division among Americans. While many embrace this nation as one of diversity, this diversity is not accepted by all
  • Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society - hopes to remind people of how justice was crucified in the trial

external image sv08232009a_by_fclow.JPG