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Culture History

Executed for Being Italian: The Story of Niccola Sacco and Batholemew Vanzetti

August 23, 1927: The day two immigrants were executed for being Italian.

The crime allegedly committed by Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti took place on April 15, 1920, when two men transporting payroll for the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company were robbed and killed in Braintree, Massachusetts. Weeks later, the two Italian immigrant anarchists were arrested under suspicion of committing the murders without being told why they were being apprehended. Sacco and Vanzetti believed their political beliefs were the reason for their arrest, as Sacco was carrying a poster detailing Vanzetti’s upcoming speaking engagement at an anarchist rally. This led to inconsistencies in their stories after being separated and questioned by police, which was ultimately used as “proof” of their guilt.

From this moment forward, the injustices these men faced as they were prosecuted for crimes they did not commit were enumerable.

The first obstacle that Sacco and Vanzetti faced was Judge Webster Thayer, who specifically requested to preside over the case to ensure that the defendants “got what they deserved.” He did so by refusing to prevent certain lines of questioning which had nothing to do with the alleged crime, but rather, the Italian immigrants’ loyalty to America. He also waited months before dismissing multiple defense motions for a retrial, even after another convicted murderer came forward and claimed responsibility for the crime. The actual murderer, a man named Celestino Medeiros, was a member of a gang from Providence, Rhode Island. Medeiros knew intimate details of the crime that were even kept secret at trial, such as the number of vehicles used in the murder, and the location where the two cars were switched in the next town over. Some of the other motions included an affidavit from a friend of the jury foreman who allegedly said, “Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!”, and an affidavit by Captain William Proctor stating he could not prove that Bullet III — the bullet that killed one of the victims —  was shot from Sacco’s .32 Colt pistol. Several days after denying the appeals, Thayer attended a football game at Dartmouth College, where he uttered to Professor James Richardson: “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day? That should hold them for a while.”

The next key injustice of these proceedings was the sheer lack of evidence used to convict them.

A .38-caliber Harrington Richardson belonging to one of the victims, security guard Alessandro Berardelli, was missing from the scene of the crime and was the same type of gun found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest. Although thousands of this exact gun were produced, the prosecution made the deceitful argument that since the gun was made by the same manufacturer, it must have also been the gun used in the crime. The prosecution would also definitively learn that Vanzetti’s gun did not belong to Berardelli, as the serial numbers did not match. However, the prosecution failed to disclose this information to the court, as they feared it would hurt their chances for a conviction.

It is also worth noting that in the 1920s, there was no way to prove whether a particular bullet or cartridge case came from a specific gun beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, the man who performed the autopsy, George Burgess McGrath, gave testimony that he believed all four bullets fired were from the same weapon. This was a conclusion not rooted in actual evidence but in opinion. The casings were later found to have not been fired from the same gun based on the slope of the grooves left on the bullets that sloped in opposite directions from one casing to the other, confirming that at least two different weapons were used.

Even further, both defendants had alibis from over a dozen witnesses who either saw them or were with them on the day of the murders. For Vanzetti specifically, no witnesses testified to seeing his very unique mustache, and the defense even presented 16 witnesses who testified that they bought eels — a fish commonly eaten by Italian families on Christmas Eve — from him in Eastertide, MA. However, all of these eyewitnesses were deemed unreliable due to their use of imperfect English and the need for translators in delivering their testimony because they spoke Italian.

Every witness used by the prosecution also had holes in their stories. The witness closest to the crime scene was a gate tender, who claimed he saw Vanzetti driving the getaway car. However, Vanzetti did not even know how to drive a car. Two other witnesses, Carlos Goodridge and Louis Pelzer, had an opportunity to see the getaway driver in the car, but they claimed what they saw was very fleeting. Yet, Goodrich claimed that Sacco pointed a gun at him, in contrast to statements made by four others who claimed that he ducked inside a pool hall as soon as shots were fired. His real name was Erastus Corning, having changed his name after racking up a lengthy criminal record in New York. One of these charges was perjury in order to obtain a marriage license to commit bigamy, making him unreliable at best. As for Pelzer, he worked in a nearby factory and testified to seeing Sacco and the license plate number of the getaway car during the robbery. However, 2-3 witnesses later testified that he jumped under a bench as the shooting began as well.

Despite the dozens of clear problems with the prosecution’s case, both men were convicted and sentenced to death. On August 23, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by electric chair after spending over 7 years in prison for crimes that they did not commit. The men were given an opportunity for final statements during their sentencing in April of the same year. At this time, Vanzetti said:

“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. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical. I have suffered because I am an Italian and indeed I am an Italian. 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.”

After all efforts to circumvent the unjust sentence were exhausted, Sacco’s wife Rosina went to the office of the Governor of Massachusetts, Alvin Fuller, and got down on her hands and knees, begging him to spare her husband’s life. Her request was immediately denied. 

As Vanzetti prepared to die, he shook the hand of the warden and thanked him for all that he had done for him. “I wish to say to you that I am innocent. I have never done a crime, some sins, but never any crime. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only this one but of all. I am an innocent man. I now wish to forgive some people for what they are doing to me,” said Vanzetti, blindfolded, strapped down to the chair that would shoot two thousand volts through his body.

Those were his last words.

Today, Sacco and Vanzetti’s names are synonymous with miscarriage of justice in America. The injustice committed against them serves as a grave reminder of the deadly consequences of anti-Italian bigotry that was rampant in America at the time.

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