Anarchism and the Arrests
Almost from the moment of their arrest in May 1920, the issue of antiradical or antialien prejudice has clouded the controversy over the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. From the beginning their defenders saw them as victims of prevailing hysteria and bigotry whom the Massachusetts judiciary could not possibly judge fairly. Such, indeed, is the theme of the two most recent books on the case. 1 Judge Thayer's antiradical prejudice has long been a matter of record, and we shall see that he had spoken out strongly against anarchism even before the trial, but for the most part he carefully kept any prejudice out of the trial record, exhorting the jury to judge the defendants as if their forefathers had sailed on the Mayflower. A federal agent of Italian descent who attended the first week of the trial reported intense anti-Italian feeling in the courtroom, but one cannot tell whether such feeling affected the jury. 2 Direct evidence of prejudice among the twelve Dedham jurymen that convicted Sacco and Vanzetti of murder is contradictory and inconclusive. One defense motion for a new trial included an affidavit from a Quincy contractor, William Daly, relating a conversation he had at the beginning of the trial with the since deceased jury foreman, a retired policeman named Walter Ripley. When Daly expressed his belief in the two men's innocence, Ripley replied, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway." 3 But other jurors strongly asserted their freedom from bias in talks with Governor Fuller and with a newspaper reporter thirty years later, and the juror John Dever, who later became an attorney, emphatically denied any prejudice in a manuscript he wrote about the case in the I950s. And just as contemporary pamphleteers and authors like Feuerlicht and Brian Jackson have seemed to suggest that the existence of prejudice in some sense proves the two men innocent, others like Francis Russell and Robert Montgomery have implied that evidence of a lack of prejudice indicates their guilt.
In fact, the issue of prejudice must to some extent be separated from that of the defendants' guilt or innocence. An impartial jury can err, and a prejudiced one can stumble upon the truth. We can neither convict nor exonerate Sacco and Vanzetti because of their beliefs or because of the unpopularity of their beliefs; our ultimate judgment must rest upon more specific evidence. Yet, in another sense, their anarchist affili