Sacco and Vanzetti eighty years on

Sacco and Vanzetti were two anarchist militants, framed in an unfair trial at a time of anti-radical repression and executed as enemies of the state. Their names still strike sparks of controversy, illuminating the limits of democratic state ‘justice’, what the powerful will do to their enemies, and the strength of human resistance.


Bartolomeo Vanzetti was born in 1888 in Villafalletto, Piedmont (South of Turin, near Italy’s border with France). Nicola Sacco was born in 1891 in Torremaggiore, Puglia (across the ‘ankle’ of Italy from Naples). They both sailed for America in 1908 where their experiences as overworked and underpaid labourers, of ‘poverty and squalor in the midst of plenty’ [1] turned them into anarchists. Their anarchism was made in America, not imported.

Vanzetti defined the anarchist attitude: ‘The anarchist go ahead and says: All what is help to me without hurt the others is good; all what is help the others without hurting me is good also, all the rest is evil. He look for liberty in the liberty of all, for his happiness in the happiness of all, for his welfare in the universal welfare. I am with him.’ [2]

But Sacco and Vanzetti were not ‘philosophical anarchists’, whatever their defenders felt forced to say. They were militants, followers of Luigi Galleani, Galleanisti. Galleani was the leading figure among Italian anarchists in America and a captivating speaker. He originally studied law (like Pietro Gori and Francesco Saverio Merlino) but devoted his whole life to the anarchist movement. Galleani’s attitude was simple: ‘We do not argue about whether property is greedy or not, if masters are good or bad, if the state is paternal or despotic, if laws are just or unjust, if courts are fair or unfair, if the police are merciful or brutal. When we talk about property, state, masters, government, laws, courts and police, we say only that we don’t want any of them.’ [3]

The Galleanisti had no faith in trade unions or any formal organisations, which they thought would hold back and try to control the inevitable revolt. Revolt was what they praised and practised, revolt against church, state and capitalism from strikes up to and including explosions and assassinations.


The United States entered the First World War in 1917. Initially, Sacco and Vanzetti moved to Mexico with other Galleanisti to avoid registering for the draft (not because they were pacifists, but because they refused to fight for any government) and to be ready to sail to Italy when revolution broke out there. Within six months they had returned to find the war had led to an escalating repression against radicals of all kinds.

Nor did the end of the war change anything. ‘During the preceding years the public had been whipped up by patriotic propaganda to a pitch of nativist excitement, and such emotion could not be instantly turned off. Instead, wartime hatred of Germans transformed itself into peacetime horror of radicals, especially alien radicals. If only the menace of un-Americanism could be eliminated, it was widely felt, the nation would be cleansed, its difficulties and tensions mitigated.’ [4]

Thus began the ‘Red Scare’, one of many post-war repressions. After their seizure of power, the Bolsheviks in Russia would crush their anarchist and Socialist-Revolutionary rivals to consolidate a new state in the name of the working class. Italian fascists (many ex-servicemen and supported by the forces of the state) would crush the working class in the name of the nation after near revolution, and go on to take over the state. In the United States, vigilantes, ex-servicemen and police crushed the radical movement in the name of the nation. Official political life remained unchanged. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer gave the justification: ‘The Red Movement is not a righteous or honest protest against alleged defects in our present political and economic organization of society … Each and every adherent of this movement is a potential murderer or a potential thief, and deserves no consideration.’ [5]

The Galleanisti responded to the repression with a series of bombings, including one of Palmer’s own house. Sacco and Vanzetti may have been involved, but there’s no evidence they were. However, they certainly knew what was going on: ‘we were at war with the government.’ [6]

The arrest of anarchist printers Roberto Elia and Andrea Salsedo, both Galleanisti, in New York began a fatal chain of events. First came the death of Salsedo on 3 May 1920. Sacco, Vanzetti and their comrades needed a car to dispose of incriminating evidence before they too found themselves at the tender mercies of Bureau of Investigation. At which point, 5 May, they ran into the theory of Michael E. Stewart, Bridgewater chief of police. Stewart’s theory was that Italian radicals were behind the Bridgewater attempted hold-up (24 December 1919) and the South Braintree killings and robbery (15 April 1920). When arrested Sacco and Vanzetti lied to the police about what they’d been doing, who they knew and why they were armed. This led to the accusation of ‘consciousness of guilt’ which was the strongest evidence against them.

This was not what they’d expected. ‘Sacco could barely contain his indignation. “If I was arrested because of the Idea [anarchism] I am glad to suffer,” he said. “If I must I will die for it. But they have arrested me for a gunman job.” [7] The Bureau of Investigation on the other hand, saw this as a stroke of luck.

It was the opinion of Department [of Justice] agents here that a conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder would be one way of disposing of these two men.’ [8]


Judge Webster Thayer, who tried Vanzetti alone for the Bridgewater crime, asked to try Sacco and Vanzetti for the South Braintree killings and robbery as part of his personal anti-Red crusade. There is no question that Thayer was biased: ‘Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?’ [9] but he was wise enough to leave no evidence. As William G. Thompson, later to join the Sacco-Vanzetti defence told the Lowell Committee: ‘It wasn’t what he said, it was his manner of saying it. It looked perfectly straight on the record; he was too clever to do otherwise. I sat there for a a while and I told [defence lawyer] John McAnarney “Your goose is cooked. You will never in this world get these men acquitted. The judge is going to convict these two men and see that nothing gets into the record; he is going to keep his records straight and you have no chance.”’ [10]

In 1886, at the Chicago Haymarket trial, the prosecutor was able to say ‘Anarchy is on trial!’ and get a conviction, despite having no evidence proving the defendants had committed the crime they were charged with. Those convictions were later overturned. Though also held at a time of anti-radical frenzy, this was to be a much more sophisticated frame up.

Ripley, the foreman of the jury, had replied to the suggestion, before the trial, that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent with ‘Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway.’ [11] There’s a strong probability that ballistic evidence was tampered with. Prosecution witnesses were coached. It was arranged that William H. Proctor would testify one of the bullets was ‘consistent with’ having been fired from Sacco’s Colt, meaning that had come from some Colt. The prosecution and judge would claim Proctor thought it came from Sacco’s gun. [12] Every attempt to tell what had happened to Salsedo which would explain an unwillingness to ‘help police with their enquiries’ was blocked [13] Thayer quoted non-existent evidence in his ruling (he invented a cross-examination of Sacco) [14]

Their attempt to counter the ‘consciousness of guilt’ argument merely opened the door to prosecutor Frederick Katzmann’s incitement of prejudice against foreign-born, radical opponents of the war. Prejudice was everywhere and was essential to the conviction. The start of Thayer’s charge to the jury played up wartime unity, sacrifice and loyalty: ‘The Commonwealth of Massachusetts called upon you to render a most important service. Although you knew such service would be arduous, painful and tiresome, yet you, like the true soldier, responded to that call in the spirit of supreme American loyalty. There is no better word in the English language than “loyalty.” For he who is loyal to God, to country, to his state and to his fellow men, represents the highest and noblest type of true American citizenship, than which there is none grander in the entire world.’ [15] Clearly the wartime power of patriotism had continued into the ‘Red Scare’. ‘At war, the individual becomes almost identical with his society. He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of opponents or heretics he is invincibly strong; he feels behind him all the power of the collective community.’ [16]


After the conviction in July 1921, there was a long series of appeals. Thayer, an expert in the art of protesting too much, was asked to rule on his own bias and if the discrediting of prosecution witnesses and appearance of new evidence would justify overturning the verdict or holding a new trial. Unsurprisingly, he found himself unbiased, nothing new was found to be relevant and nothing disturbed his ‘consciousness of their guilt’. The supreme court of Massachusetts, apparently only able to act on solid proof of insanity or corruption, refused to intervene. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in April 1927.

Vanzetti berated Thayer for his delays in responding to the appeals of the defence. If, as seems obvious, Thayer was intent on upholding the original verdict and confident of support from higher courts, why the delay? Was it to give an illusion of due process and considered decisions? The delays gave the Sacco-Vanzetti Defence Committee vital time to publicise the injustice of the case.

Alongside the legal arguments, a political campaign grew. Gradually expanding from their anarchist comrades, the Sacco-Vanzetti Defence Committee fought to overturn the conviction. Inevitably some campaigners found similarities which appealed, even if they misrepresented reality. Liberal humanitarians saw them as ‘philosophical anarchists’, some taking their opposition to capitalist wars as pacifism. Communists (with their own committee and own agenda) saw them as working class militants, so they became ‘labor organizers’.

For all their shared political ideas, the two men responded differently to their situation. While always protesting his innocence, Sacco believed their enemies were intent on killing them and refused to waste time on appeals for mercy after the conviction. For him, it was better to get it over with. Vanzetti, on the other hand, was willing to keep fighting for as long as possible. “We expect nothing but injustice and abuse from our prosecutors but we will fight to the last.” [17]

The political pressure and widespread unease about how they had been convicted led Governor Fuller to examine the case, and appoint the Lowell Committee of worthies to advise him. By this stage the issue was not really about Sacco and Vanzetti but defending the state from criticism. The Lowell Committee was unable to find anything wrong, except that Thayer had committed a ‘grave breach of decorum’ in talking about the trial while it was in progress. This is like saying ‘You were wrong to stab him with a dirty knife’. Haywood Broun would comment ‘It is not every prisoner who has a President of Harvard University throw on the switch for him. If this is a lynching, at least the fish peddler and his friend the factory hand may take unction to their souls that they will die at the hands of men in dinner jackets or academic gowns.’ [18]

Fuller himself found no reason to save their lives. It wouldn’t take Machiavelli to think that somebody from the Bureau had pointed out that what they were suspected of being involved in was worse than what they were convicted of. Fuller in 1930 said ‘They belonged to a band of conspirators who attacked peaceful citizens with bombs and dynamite. They were for socialism and godlessness.’ [19] Thus ‘consciousness of guilt’ really means his consciousness of their anarchism, and a conviction that if they were innocent of what they were charged with, they were probably guilty of something worse, and as enemies of the state they should be disposed of by any means necessary.

Both men died bravely, just after midnight on 23 August 1927. Sacco proclaimed ‘Viva l’anarchia!’ (Long live anarchy!), Vanzetti declared his innocence and that he forgave some people for what they were doing. Five days later the Boston police paid them the compliment of violently attacking their funeral procession.


Eighty years is a long time, yet this case refuses to fade into the past. Maybe if it had been a less sophisticated frame-up, like Haymarket or the Mooney-Billings affair, it would now be forgotten by all but anarchists and local historians. It has the provocative ingredients of death, conflict and politics. A more important feature is doubt. The passage of time alone means the South Braintree killings are probably beyond solving now, but the human mind finds it hard to stay open and would prefer certainty. Inevitably some are drawn to reweighings of disputed testimony and doubtful evidence as if that is where the answers lie.

But it is political significance which keeps the Sacco-Vanzetti case alive: too symbolic to forget and too polarising to agree on. It feeds the family feud of liberals and conservatives about how America should be governed (remember Galleani: ‘we don’t want any of them.’) Like the ‘Red Scare’ generally it shows the puritan dilemma at the heart of American government: the desire for freedom, mixed with the desire to repress the ‘ungodly’; coupled with the universal taste for violence to preserve privilege.

But violence is not restricted to the powerful. One of the funeral wreaths bore the legend ‘Aspettando l’ora di vendetta’ - ‘awaiting the hour of vengeance’. [20] Presumably it was Galleanisti who bombed the houses of the executioner and Thayer. These isolated acts were not Sacco and Vanzetti’s lasting revenge, though. Their long martyrdom made their names an accusation against the American state. Vanzetti’s words to Phil Stong are justly famous:

If it had not been for this thing, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, 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, for joostice, for man’s onderstanding of man, as now we do by an 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 belongs to us - that agony is our triumph.’ [21]

You needn’t agree with the tactics of the Galleanisti, nor even be an anarchist, to agree that they understood how to die for a cause. They not only proved ‘laws are cobwebs for the rich and chains of steel for the poor’ (Proudhon). They showed that though you cannot choose your battles, there is part of the human spirit that can only be killed, but not broken.

Vanzetti’s appraisal of Sacco holds true for both of them: ‘Sacco’s name will live in the hearts of the people and in their gratitude when Katzmann’s and yours bones will be dispersed by time, when your name, his name, your laws, institutions, and your false god are but a deem rememoring of a cursed past in which man was wolf to the man.’ [22] The names of Sacco and Vanzetti will live as long as the lesson holds true: we only have the freedom we struggle for. We will remember them until freedom means ‘liberty in the liberty of all’, not a partial freedom allowed us by the powerful.


1 Paul Avrich, Sacco and Vanzetti: the anarchist background, p.26

2 Avrich, p.36

3 Luigi Galleani, The end of anarchism? p.48

4 Avrich, p.134

5 Avrich, p.173

6 (Sacco to William G Thompson) Francis Russell, Tragedy in Dedham, p.189

7 Avrich, p.204

8 Letherman affidavit, Russell, p. 341

9 Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, The legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, p.148

10 Russell, p.133

11 Brian Jackson, The black flag: a look back at the strange case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, p.52

12 Joughin and Morgan, p.128

13 Upton Sinclair, Boston, August 22nd, p.236

14 Joughin and Morgan, p.260

15 Russell, p.207

16 Randolph Bourne, ‘War is the health of the state’ in George Woodcock (ed.) Anarchist Reader, p.99

17 B. Vanzetti, Background of the Plymouth trial, p.13

18 Quoted in ‘Sacco and Vanzetti’ by Howard Zinn,

19 Joughin and Morgan, p. 357

20 Avrich, p212

21 Russell, p387-8

22 Joughin and Morgan, p.468-9