11 Things You Should Know About the Sacco and Vanzetti Case

Nicola Sacco (right) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (third from right, with mustache) head back to jail accompanied by deputy sheriffs.
Nicola Sacco (right) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (third from right, with mustache) head back to jail accompanied by deputy sheriffs. / Boston Public Library, Digital Commonwealth // CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

We may never know who killed paymaster Frederick A. Parmenter and his bodyguard, Allesandro Berardelli. Both worked for the Slater and Morrill Shoe Factory in Braintree, Massachusetts; at about 3:05 p.m. on April 15, 1920, they were ambushed on the job and fatally gunned down, then robbed of $15,776.51 (over $200,000 today).

Two Italian anarchists were put on trial for the crime: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. History has not looked kindly on the proceedings, with many experts, including a future Supreme Court justice, calling their trial unfair. Let’s recap the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case.

1. Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a criminal record before his arrest.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco both immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1908. Sacco worked as a skilled shoemaker and Vanzeti sold fish. Neither led a life of crime.

Folllowing the Parmenter and Berardelli murders, the chief of police in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, kept close watch on a van he believed was connected to the crime. Four men eventually came to pick up the vehicle at a local mechanic’s garage; two were Sacco and Vanzetti. Law enforcement arrested them on May 5, 1920.

2. The Sacco and Vanzetti case followed a wave of anti-communist sentiment.

During Sacco’s interrogation, police ignored his request for a lawyer. No one told him or Vanzetti they were suspected of robbery and murder; instead, the two Italians assumed they’d been arrested over their staunch anarchist views. The 1917 Russian Revolution had sparked America’s first Red Scare, a time of widespread panic about the threat of communism and anarchism on U.S. soil, and police raids at anarchist gatherings soon became a regular occurrence. (Questions about the raids’ constitutionality led to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920.)

3. Sacco and Vanzetti were caught lying during questioning.

Accused murderer Nicola Sacco
Accused murderer Nicola Sacco / Boston Public Library, Digital Commonwealth // CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

At their first interrogation, Sacco and Vanzetti denied ever visiting the garage in question. Vanzetti later said he had lied to protect his friends and fellow anarchists. But the prosecution argued that the lie indicated their “consciousness of guilt.”

4. Jurors may have been against Sacco and Vanzetti from the start.

On May 31, 1921, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti began in the Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts. The jurors included a landlord named John Ganley, who’d been quoted as saying, “They ought to hang every damn one of those Italians by the balls.” Jury foreman Walter Ripley was accused of making a similar statement. According to a friend’s affidavit, when Ripley had been asked if the defendants might be innocent before the actual trial began, Ripley replied, “Damn them, they ought to hang anyway.” No Italians were picked for the jury.

5. A hat left near the crime scene came up during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

The evidence presented against the defendants was circumstantial. At one point, the prosecution asked Sacco to try on a gray cloth cap that had been found near Berardelli’s body a full day after the crime occurred. When Sacco placed it on his head, it didn’t fit. Sacco’s wife Rosina told the jury he never wore caps of that style anyway, because “he don’t look good in them.”

6. Sacco and Vanzetti spent six years on death row.

Accused murderer Bartolomeo Vanzetti
Accused murderer Bartolomeo Vanzetti / Boston Public Library, Digital Commonwealth // CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Convicted of first-degree murder on July 14, 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually sentenced to death. On August 23, 1927, the two met their end in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison. Before he died, Vanzetti said:

“I never committed a crime in my life … I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and for my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that you can only kill me once but 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.”

7. Around the world, people protested the Sacco and Vanzetti verdict.

Socialist attorney Fred Moore served as Sacco and Vanzetti’s first defense counsel. Though the trial didn’t go their way, Moore got in touch with outside labor organizations, spreading the word about their predicament. From Germany and Norway to China and Paraguay, protesters gathered to condemn the Sacco-Vanzetti verdict. Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter joined this chorus of opposition, writing a scathing critique of the trial for the March 1927 issue of Atlantic Monthly.

8. Sacco and Vanzetti's appeals came to nothing.

Judge Webster Thayer had presided over the original trial in 1921. Noted for his strong opposition to radicals and anarchists, he was criticized by a governor-appointed oversight committee for speaking out against Sacco and Vanzetti off the bench. The defense appealed for a new trial on the basis of new testimonies—including one which suggested a well-known gang was responsible for Parmenter and Berardelli’s deaths. But those motions were struck down.

9. Thousands attended Sacco and Vanzetti’s funeral procession.

A huge crowd joins Sacco and Vanzetti's funeral procession on Hanover Street in Boston.
A huge crowd joins Sacco and Vanzetti's funeral procession on Hanover Street in Boston. / Boston Public Library, Digital Commonwealth // CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The New York Times reported 7000 people joined Sacco and Vanzetti’s funeral procession as it marched for eight miles across Boston. Almost 200,000 onlookers had gathered on the streets to watch the bodies pass by, while another 10,000 assembled in the cemetery. Many came to protest what they viewed as injustice perpetrated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Some of the spectators wore armbands that read, “Remember Justice Crucified August 22, 1927.”

10. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed “Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day" in 1977.

August 23, 1977 marked the 50th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution. Dukakis declared “that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.” The proclamation had its critics; in the state senate, there was a motion to censure Dukakis over his comments, but it was defeated. “It was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it,” Dukakis said. “I’ve been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty and the Sacco and Vanzetti case is one of the reasons for that.”

11. Francis Ford Coppola’s uncle wrote an opera about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

“Sacco and Vanzetti,” by Anton Coppola, premiered at Opera Tampa in 2001. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel called the lavish production “undeniably compelling.” But this wasn’t the first time Sacco and Vanzetti’s case inspired works of art. Upton Sinclair, whose socialist novel The Jungle helped transform sanitary laws in the U.S., published Boston: A Documentary Novel of the Sacco Vanzetti Case in 1928.