Anarchists, Murder and a Divisive U.S. Trial

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Anarchists, Murder and a Divisive U.S. Trial


Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On Aug. 23, 1927, the State of Massachusetts electrocuted two men - Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti - thereby assuring that at least their names would live on for a very long time. And, with dozens of books, hundreds of articles, several plays and poems, and one documentary film devoted to the subject, they have.

There are 928,000 Internet pages that mention the pair, according to the Google search engine. Among the links to the case and cause are such well-known names as Felix Frankfurter, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Will Rogers, Walter Lippman and Dorothy Parker, all of whom felt that the two Italian immigrants, believers in the political doctrine of anarchism, were either innocent or unfairly convicted or both.

On the other side there has been an almost equal number of prominent figures, writers, lawyers and even several judges who firmly believed that, despite the global protests, both peaceful and violent, that occurred during the seven long years between arrest and execution, Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty as charged and fairly tried, and therefore justice was served.

Comes now Bruce Watson, a writer with a most inquiring mind. In addition to some 40 articles written for Smithsonian Magazine, as well as pieces in Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, he's the author of two books, "Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for The American Dream" and "The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made," a biography of A.C. Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set.

A resident of Massachusetts, Mr. Watson set out to take a serious and unbiased look at what was probably, all things considered, the biggest case of the 20th century. For the most part, he has succeeded admirably, especially in regard to his major goal of fairness. While I do have some objections, they go only to style, and do not significantly diminish readability. Indeed, this is just the book you want for those long winter nights.

The basic facts of the case are these: On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, a small town south of Boston, in the middle of the street as well as the middle of the day, armed bandits stole a $15,000 cash payroll meant for a local shoe factory, in the process gunning down and killing two men, and then raced away in a shiny new Buick with a canvas top and "flapping" side curtains. The killers escaped. The crimes had taken all of one minute.

Earlier in the day, the same car and two men had been noticed in town, apparently waiting for someone or something, at times peering into the engine of the Buick. The men were later described by several witnesses as "Dagos" who spoke "a foreign language." At 10 p.m. May 5, a policeman boarded a streetcar in nearby Brockton and noticed two "foreign-looking" men seated in the back. Asked where they had been, they said Bridgewater. After arresting both of them - as "suspicious characters" - the officer discovered they were carrying handguns and bullets.

The men, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, and Ferdinando Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, matched the general descriptions of the killers given on the day of the shootings. Some two dozen witnesses to the crime, quickly brought to Brockton from Bridgewater, quickly identified Sacco and Vanzetti as the killers. Both men had alibis for their whereabouts on April 15, but the authorities, convinced they'd caught the cold-blooded killers, dismissed them as lies.

It took a year to bring the men to trial and another five before their various appeals and pleas (including a prestigious three-man investigative commission, one of the members the president of Harvard) were exhausted. In the meantime, the world weighed in with its verdict, which in some cases was as much or more anti-America as it was pro-Sacco and Vanzetti. …

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