Bartolomeo Vanzetti

Bartolomeo Vanzetti

Bartolomeo Vanzetti was born in the Italian town of Villaffalletto on 11th June, 1888. The son of a farmer, Vanzetti emigrated to the United States when he was twenty years old. Vanzetti settled in Plymouth, where he worked as a fish peddler.

Vanzetti was shocked by the way working class immigrants were treated in America and became involved in left-wing politics. He went to anarchist meetings where he met Nicola Sacco, an Italian immigrant working in a shoe-factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts. The two men became friends and often attended the same political meetings together.

Like many left-wing radicals, Vanzetti and Sacco were opposed to the First World War. They took part in protest meetings and in 1917, when the United States entered the war, they fled together to Mexico in order to avoid being conscripted into the United States Army. When the war was over the two men returned to the United States.

On 5th May, 1920, Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco were arrested and interviewed about the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, in South Braintree. The men had been killed while carrying two boxes containing the payroll of a shoe factory. After Parmenter and Berardelli were shot dead, the two robbers took the $15,000 and got into a car containing several other men, and driven away.

Several eyewitnesses claimed that the robbers looked Italian. A large number of Italian immigrants were questioned but eventually the authorities decided to charge Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco with the murders. Although the two men did not have criminal records, it was argued that they had committed the robbery to acquire funds for their anarchist political campaign.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco
Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco

Fred H. Moore, a socialist lawyer, agreed to defend the two men. Eugene Lyons, a young journalist, carried out research for Moore. Lyons later recalled: "Fred Moore, by the time I left for Italy, was in full command of an obscure case in Boston involving a fishmonger named Bartolomeo Vanzetti and a shoemaker named Nicola Sacco. He had given me explicit instructions to arouse all of Italy to the significance of the Massachusetts murder case, and to hunt up certain witnesses and evidence. The Italian labor movement, however, had other things to worry about. An ex-socialist named Benito Mussolini and a locust plague of blackshirts, for instance. Somehow I did get pieces about Sacco and Vanzetti into Avanti!, which Mussolini had once edited, and into one or two other papers. I even managed to stir up a few socialist onorevoles, like Deputy Mucci from Sacco's native village in Puglia, and Deputy Misiano, a Sicilian firebrand at the extreme Left. Mucci brought the Sacco-Vanzetti affair to the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, the first jet of foreign protest in what was eventually to become a pounding international flood."

The trial started on 21st May, 1921. The main evidence against the men was that they were both carrying a gun when arrested. Some people who saw the crime taking place identified Vanzetti and Sacco as the robbers. Others disagreed and both men had good alibis. Vanzetti was selling fish in Plymouth while Sacco was in Boston with his wife having his photograph taken. The prosecution made a great deal of the fact that all those called to provide evidence to support these alibis were Italian immigrants.

Eugene Lyons has argued in his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937): "Fred Moore was at heart an artist. Instinctively he recognized the materials of a world issue in what appeared to others a routine matter... When the case grew into a historical tussle, these men were utterly bewildered. But Moore saw its magnitude from the first. His legal tactics have been the subject of dispute and recrimination. I think that there is some color of truth, indeed, to the charge that he sometimes subordinated the literal needs of legalistic procedure to the larger needs of the case as a symbol of class struggle. If he had not done so, Sacco and Vanzetti would have died six years earlier, without the solace of martyrdom. With the deliberation of a composer evolving the details of a symphony which he senses in its rounded entirety, Moore proceeded to clarify and deepen the elements implicit in the case. And first of all he aimed to delineate the class character of the automatic prejudices that were operating against Sacco and Vanzetti. Sometimes over the protests of the men themselves he cut through legalistic conventions to reveal underlying motives. Small wonder that the pinched, dyspeptic judge and the pettifogging lawyers came to hate Moore with a hatred that was admiration turned inside out."

Vanzetti and Sacco were disadvantaged by not having a full grasp of the English language. Webster Thayer, the judge was clearly prejudiced against anarchists. The previous year, he rebuked a jury for acquitting anarchist Sergie Zuboff of violating the criminal anarchy statute. It was clear from some of the answers Vanzetti and Sacco gave in court that they had misunderstood the question. During the trial the prosecution emphasized the men's radical political beliefs. Vanzetti and Sacco were also accused of unpatriotic behaviour by fleeing to Mexico during the First World War. The trial lasted seven weeks and on 14th July, 1921, both men were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death.

Vanzetti commented in court after the sentence was announced: "The jury were hating us because we were against the war, and the jury don't know that it makes any difference between a man that is against the war because he believes that the war is unjust, because he hate no country, because he is a cosmopolitan, and a man that is against the war because he is in favor of the other country that fights against the country in which he is, and therefore a spy, an enemy, and he commits any crime in the country in which he is in behalf of the other country in order to serve the other country. We are not men of that kind. Nobody can say that we are German spies or spies of any kind... I never committed a crime in my life - I have never stolen and I have never killed and I have never spilt blood, and I have fought against crime, and I have fought and I have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes that the law and the church legitimate and sanctify."

The Sacco and Vanzetti Case received a great deal of publicity. Many observers believed that their conviction resulted from prejudice against them as Italian immigrants and because they held radical political beliefs. The case resulted in anti-US demonstrations in several European countries and at one of these in Paris, a bomb exploded killing twenty people.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti
Bartolomeo Vanzetti

In 1925 Celestino Madeiros, a Portuguese immigrant, confessed to being a member of the gang that killed Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli. He also named the four other men, Joe, Fred, Pasquale and Mike Morelli, who had taken part in the robbery. The Morelli brothers were well-known criminals who had carried out similar robberies in area of Massachusetts. However, the authorities refused to investigate the confession made by Madeiros.

Many leading writers and artists such as John Dos Passos, Alice Hamilton, Paul Kellog, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Dorothy Parker, Ben Shahn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Howard Lawson, Floyd Dell, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells became involved in a campaign to obtain a retrial. Although Webster Thayer, the original judge, was officially criticised for his conduct at the trial, the authorities refused to overrule the decision to execute the men.

Eugene Lyons was a regular visitor to see Vanzetti in prison: "With every year of imprisonment Vanzetti seemed to grow calmer, gentler, more philosophic. His was the consolation of genuine martyrdom in which there was no rancor but an ever-deepening understanding. Where, Saco had acquired his anarchist beliefs at second-hand, more attracted by its harsh code than its philosophy, Vanzetti had read and studied the poets and prophets of his faith. His mind was crystal clear and expanded immensely in the enforced leisure of his seven years' isolation. Some of his letters and speeches from the prisoners' cage have the ring of enduring literature-this despite his use of English, an alien, half-apprehended tongue. Certainly the scene while he was being strapped into the electric chair, when he proffered his forgiveness to those who were about to snuff out his life, belongs among the high moments in the history of the human spirit."

By the summer of 1927 it became clear that Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would be executed. Vanzetti commented to a journalist: "If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. 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. On 23rd August 1927, the day of execution, over 250,000 people took part in a silent demonstration in Boston.

Soon after the executions Eugene Lyons published his book, The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti (1927): "It was not a frame-up in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a far more terrible conspiracy: the almost automatic clicking of the machinery of government spelling out death for two men with the utmost serenity. No more laws were stretched or violated than in most other criminal cases. No more stool-pigeons were used. No more prosecution tricks were played. Only in this case every trick worked with a deadly precision. The rigid mechanism of legal procedure was at its most unbending. The human beings who operated the mechanism were guided by dim, vague, deep-seated motives of fear and self-interest. It was a frame-up implicit in the social structure. It was a perfect example of the functioning of class justice, in which every judge, juror, police officer, editor, governor and college president played his appointed role easily and without undue violence to his conscience. A few even played it with an exalted sense of their own patriotism and nobility."

Fifty years later, on 23rd August, 1977, Michael Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation, effectively absolving the two men of the crime. "Today is the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. The atmosphere of their trial and appeals were permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views. The conduct of many of the officials involved in the case shed serious doubt on their willingness and ability to conduct the prosecution and trial fairly and impartially. Simple decency and compassion, as well as respect for truth and an enduring commitment to our nation's highest ideals, require that the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti be pondered by all who cherish tolerance, justice and human understanding."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Bartolomeo Vanzetti, letter to Governor Alvan Fuller, Governor of Massachusetts (28th 1927)

Now, Governor Fuller, you have told me that almost all those who have seen me and say to have seen me have identified me. Now to show you that only such people as witnessed the crime or the passing of the bandits, or something relating to it, I will tell how Bowles did identify me. For three or four consecutive days he brought with company trucks gangs of people from Bridgewater to identify us at the Brockton Police station, hundreds and hundreds of people. You have no idea how many people were brought to identify us by Bowles and others. I remember in the crowd a Chinaman, Japanese, Salvation Army people, Negroes, and people of every kind and class, even children. Even suppose that only a third of them came from Bridgewater. You see that there are a thousand or hundreds of people in a condition to see the crime or the bandits, and out of these several hundred only one or two persons said that they seen me and all the others deny it squarely. Out of the five or six witnesses that perjured voluntarily against me, only one or two have come to identify me when they come together with these hundreds of people. And one of these is Mrs. Georgina Brooks, and I am told she is half blind.

But not to make too long a story, I will also submit to you that these witnesses from Bridgewater came all together on the corridor at the trial, which was for them a real picnic. They laugh and jeer at the Italians that were there, and myself, and there was a clique of them to create a hostile atmosphere in the court against the general sympathy that I have by all the people who know me.

Of course your Excellency cannot expect that any of the jury will admit to you that they made a mistake, or that any witnesses for the Government will now come forward and throw doubt on their own testimony.

Just think of convicting a foreigner on the testimony of a boy who said he can tell a man is an Italian from the way he runs, or what nationality he is by the way he runs. Would that testimony convict an American before an American jury? He said that he identified me; he pointed to me and said, "The man in the booth," with all the despisement at his command, in order to impress the jury against me.

(2) Bartolomeo Vanzetti, statement to court after being sentenced to death (9th April, 1927)

What I say is that I am innocent. Everybody that knows these two arms knows very well that I did not need to go into the streets and kill a man or try to take money. I can live by my two hands and live well. But besides that, I can live even without work with my hands for other people. I have had plenty of chance to live independently and to live what the world conceives to be a higher life than to gain our bread with the sweat of our brow.

My father in Italy is in a good condition. I could have come back in Italy and he would have welcomed me every time with open arms. Even if I come back there with not a cent in my pocket, my father could have give me a position, not to work but to make business, or to oversee upon the land that he owns. He has wrote me many letters in that sense, and as another well-to-do relative has wrote me letters in that sense that I can produce.

Now, I should say that I am not only innocent of all these things, not only have I never committed a real crime in my life - though some sins but not crimes - not only have I struggled all my life to eliminate crimes, the crimes that the official law and the moral law condemns, but also the crime that the moral law and the official law sanction and sanctify, the exploitation and the oppression of the man by the man.

There is the best man I ever cast my eyes upon since I lived, a man that will last and will grow always more near to and more dear to the heart of the people, so long as admiration for goodness, for virtues, and for sacrifice will last. I mean Eugene Victor Debs. He has said that not even a dog that kills chickens would have found an American jury disposed to convict it with the proof that the Commonwealth has produced against us. That man was not with me in Plymouth or with Sacco where he was on the day of the crime. You can say that it is arbitrary, what we are saying from him, that he is good and he applied to the other his goodness, that he is incapable of crime, and he believed that everybody is incapable of crime.

He knew, and not only he knew, but every man of understanding in the world, not only in this country but also in other countries, men to whom we have provided a certain amount of the records of the case at times, they all know and still stick with us, the flower of mankind of Europe, the better writers, the greatest thinkers of Europe, have pleaded in our favor. The scientists, the greatest scientists, the greatest statesmen of Europe, have pleaded in our favor.

Is it possible that only a few, a handful of men of the jury, only two or three other men, who would shame their mother for worldly honor and for earthly fortune; is it possible that they are right against what the world, for the whole world has said that it is wrong and I know that it is wrong? If there is one that should know it, if it is right or if it is wrong, it is I and this man. You see it is seven years that we are in jail. What we have suffered during these seven years no human tongue can say, and yet you see me before you, not trembling, you see me looking you in your eyes straight, not blushing, not changing color, not ashamed or in fear.

We were tried during a time whose character has now passed into history. I mean by that, a time when there was a hysteria of resentment and hate against the people of our principles, against the foreigner, against slackers, and it seems to me - rather, I am positive of it, that both you and Mr. Katzmann have done all what it were in your power in order to work out, in order to agitate still more the passion of the juror, the prejudice of the juror, against us.

The jury were hating us because we were against the war, and the jury don't know that it makes any difference between a man that is against the war because he believes that the war is unjust, because he hate no country, because he is a cosmopolitan, and a man that is against the war because he is in favor of the other country that fights against the country in which he is, and therefore a spy, an enemy, and he commits any crime in the country in which he is in behalf of the other country in order to serve the other country. We are not men of that kind. Nobody can say that we are German spies or spies of any kind.

We believe more now than ever that the war was wrong, and we are against war more now than ever, and I am glad to be on the doomed scaffold if I can say to mankind, "Look out; you are in a catacomb of the flower of mankind. For what? All that they say to you, all that they have promised to you - it was a lie, it was an illusion, it was a cheat, it was a fraud, it was a crime. They promised you liberty. Where is liberty? They promised you prosperity. Where is prosperity?

I never committed a crime in my life - I have never stolen and I have never killed and I have never spilt blood, and I have fought against crime, and I have fought and I have sacrificed myself even to eliminate the crimes that the law and the church legitimate and sanctify.

This is what I say: I would not wish to a dog or to a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earth - I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that you can only kill me once but if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.

(3) Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (1937)

With every year of imprisonment Vanzetti seemed to grow calmer, gentler, more philosophic. His was the consolation of genuine martyrdom in which there was no rancor but an ever-deepening understanding. Where, Saco had acquired his anarchist beliefs at second-hand, more attracted by its harsh code than its philosophy, Vanzetti had read and studied the poets and prophets of his faith. His mind was crystal clear and expanded immensely in the enforced leisure of his seven years' isolation. Some of his letters and speeches from the prisoners' cage have the ring of enduring literature-this despite his use of English, an alien, half-apprehended tongue. Certainly the scene while he was being strapped into the electric chair, when he proffered his forgiveness to those who were about to snuff out his life, belongs among the high moments in the history of the human spirit.

(4) Bartolomeo Vanzetti, comment to a reporter before his execution (1927)

If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. 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.

Edna St. Vincent Millay protesting againstthe proposed execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Edna St. Vincent Millay protesting against
the proposed execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

(5) Edna St. Vincent Millay, Justice Denied in Massachusetts (1927)

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home

And sit in the sitting-room.

Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under the cloud?

Sour to the fruitful seed

Is the cold earth under this cloud,

Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;

We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.

Not in our day

Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,

Beneficent upon us

Out of the glittering bay,

And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea

Moving the blades of corn

With a peaceful sound.

Forlorn, forlorn,

Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.

And the petals drop to the ground,

Leaving the tree unfruited.

The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted -

We shall not feel it again.

We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead

We have inherited -

Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued -

See now the slug and the mildew plunder.

Evil does not overwhelm

The larkspur and the corn;

We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,

Here in the sitting-room until we die;

At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;

Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,

And this elm,

And a blighted earth to till

With a broken hoe.