10 Famous People Who Protested Sacco and Vanzetti's Conviction

Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons / Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons

On the afternoon of April 15, 1920—exactly 95 years ago today—the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts became the site of one of the most infamous crimes in modern American history when an attempted robbery turned into a double homicide. While performing the routine task of transporting the company’s payroll from the shoe factory to its headquarters, Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter—a security guard and company paymaster, respectively—were ambushed by two men in an attempt to take the money and run. In a matter of minutes, both Berardelli and Parmenter were dead and several bystanders were trapped in a hail of gunfire as the robbers made off with the loot with the help of a waiting (and stolen) getaway car.

On May 5, 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for the crime. On July 14, 1921, they were convicted of first-degree murder. On August 23, 1927—after years of appeals and protests—they were executed. But the case against them was hardly clear-cut; much of the evidence was circumstantial at best. As the story of these two possibly wrongfully convicted men spread, many of the world’s most powerful and respected thinkers joined in the cause célèbres to protest their conviction.


In 1947, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their execution, Albert Einstein wrote that, “Everything should be done to keep alive the tragic affair of Sacco and Vanzetti in the conscience of mankind. They remind us of the fact that even the most perfectly planned democratic institutions are no better than the people whose instruments they are.”


Though he initially traveled to Boston as a journalist covering the case, author John Dos Passos quickly saw through the faulty evidence against the duo and helped to organize The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, even authoring the 127-page review of the case, Facing the Chair: Story of Americanization of Two Foreign-Born Workmen. Following the pair’s execution, Dos Passos wrote the poem “They Are Dead Now” as a eulogy to the men.


In 1927, Dorothy Parker’s attendance at a protest for Sacco and Vanzetti ended with her arrest for “loitering and sauntering.” She was slapped with a $5 fine.


According to Moshik Temkin’s book, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial, noted playwright George Bernard Shaw “confessed privately that in spite of their best intentions, foreigners who tried to pressure the Massachusetts authorities to show leniencies toward Sacco and Vanzetti had ultimately underestimated Americans’ resistance to ‘outside opinion.’”


Following the case in England, legendary sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells wrote a piece about it in 1927 entitled, “Outrages in Defense of Order: The Proposed Murder of Two American Radicals,” which was refused publication. He eventually included it in his 1929 collection of essays, The Way the World is Going.


In 1996, Philip V. Cannistraro published an article [PDF], “Mussolini, Sacco-Vanzetti, and the Anarchists,” in The Journal of Modern History about the empathy that the Italian dictator felt toward the convicted men, noting that “As late as 1934, [Mussolini] continued to speak of Sacco and Vanzetti in a way that suggests personal sympathies for them and for anarchism, attitudes unrecognized by historians who emphasize his unremitting crusade against the left.”


Noted poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t let a little thing like being arrested while picketing the State House stop her from fighting for what she believed was the justice owed to Sacco and Vanzetti. After meeting with then-Governor Alvan T. Fuller and making an in-person plea to recognize the flaws in their case against the men, she sent him a written appeal, asking: “Think back. Think back a long time. Which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?—Oh, not the way in which your feet are set!”


In 1928, The Jungle author Upton Sinclair published Boston, which he described as “a documentary novel” about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. But the story didn't end there, at least not in Sinclair’s case: In 2005, a letter from Sinclair to his lawyer was discovered at an auction house in Irvine, California in which the author shares how he met with the men’s lawyer—who told him they were guilty!


In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt was among the many dignitaries who signed a public declaration that the city of Boston should display a sculpture created to honor the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti. But then-Governor Robert Bradford’s opinion was that there was “no useful purpose in stirring up the bitter passions and prejudices of 20 years ago.”


He may not have pardoned them, but former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977 (the 50th anniversary of their execution) Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day, stating that, “Any stigma and disgrace shall be forever removed from their names.”