Book Review: “The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti” by Rick Geary 11/20/11
For anyone looking for an accessible history of the Sacco and Vanzetti case, I would recommend Rick Geary’s book, “The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti”. It is not your standard history. Instead of a dry academic recitation of facts, Geary tells the story in cartoon form. The book is in the tradition of Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb, and Harvey Pekar, serious comic artists who have used their craft to tell a good story.
Geary artfully tells the story of the trial in relatively brief fashion. He describes the crime, the accused, the case for the defense, and the legal history. While Sacco and Vanzetti became a cause celebre, it has been many years since their execution in 1927. If you are like me, you know the names but not much about what crimes they were accused of and what case was made against them.
The book details the crimes. On April 15, 1920, a paymaster and his guard who were carrying a factory payroll were shot without warning by two men who had been hanging on the street. The crime occurred in South Braintree, Ma. The shooters pumped some additional shots into the two men who were down. A car quickly appeared; the bandits jumped in and escaped. The two men who were shot, died. There had also been an earlier failed robbery in Bridgewater Ma. in December 1919. Police initially thought the crimes were linked and the assumption was that they had been the work of professional thieves.
The crimes took place against the backdrop of the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 had stirred fears among conservatives. In January 1920, more than 6000 immigrants were rounded up and put on a track toward deportation. Most of the people who were rounded up were concentrated in the Massachusetts cities of Bridgewater, Lawrence, and Lowell.
In considering what happened to Sacco and Vanzetti, it is impossible to overestimate the role of the political climate. Sacco and Vanzetti were both immigrants and anarchists. They was a hysterical atmosphere of fear similar to other periods like the McCarthy period and also more recently, the anti-Muslim hysteria post- 9/11. Sacco and Vanzetti were on trial as much for their political beliefs as any alleged act.
Three weeks after the April 1920 robbery, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested as “suspicious characters”. Vanzetti was charged with the attempted December 1919 Bridgewater robbery. Although he had a strong alibi, he was convicted of assault with the intent to rob and murder on the strength of eyewitness testimony. When arrested, both Sacco and Vanzetti were carrying weapons. They were intensely interrogated. Both lied about a number of facts including their anarchist associations. When the police searched their homes, the police found stacks of anarchist literature.
With Judge Webster Thayer presiding, Vanzetti was found guilty of the Bridgewater robbery. A problem for Vanzetti was that his witnesses spoke Italian, with little grasp of English. Although they testified, they had little impact on the jury who did not understand them.
Another big problem was Judge Thayer. He had a reputation even before the trial of disliking immigrants and radicals. After the jury convicted, Judge Thayer sentenced Vanzetti to 15-20 years in prison. This was an extraordinarily harsh sentence for a first offense. Vanzetti was known in the Italian community as a gentle and poetic soul. As noted, he had never been convicted of any crime and he had worked selling fish from a push cart on the streets of Plymouth.
Sacco was an equally unlikely robber. He was married, had a son and he worked at a shoe factory in Stoughton Ma. In his spare time, he tended a large flower and vegetable garden.
On September 11, 1920, less than three months after Vanzetti’s conviction for the Bridgewater attempted robbery, Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted for murder in the South Braintree robbery. The same trial judge, Judge Thayer, who heard Vanzetti’s case, asked to be assigned to the South Braintree robbery case. He got his wish and he sat on the second trial.
You have to wonder about a trial judge who looks to assign himself to a case, particularly a judge who wants to preside over the same defendant whom he has just played a role in convicting. I think it was improper for Judge Thayer to seek out the case and for the court system to have allowed it. It smells bad. There is both the appearance of partiality and impropriety. Judges should be assigned to sit on the basis of impartial rotation.
The second trial, the famous trial, occurred in the aftermath of a large explosion on Wall Street in New York City. 38 citizens were killed and 200 were wounded. It was suspected that an anarchist associate of Sacco and Vanzetti, upset at their prosecution, had set off the bomb. The trial was held in Dedham Ma. The state created a metal cage which was placed in the center of the courtroom as a place for the defendants to sit during the trial. It is hard to imagine a clearer message. Sacco and Vanzetti were scary.Meanwhile hordes of federal agents, police and state bomb squad members patrolled outside the courtroom.
While there are many aspects to the trial that deserve discussion, I wanted to focus on the behavior of the trial judge, Judge Thayer. Thayer’s reputation for bias was based on an earlier case in 1920 in which a jury had not convicted another immigrant anarchist. His behavior there was unusual in focusing on the literature of the anarchists and their lack of loyalty to the United States. At the Sacco and Vanzetti trial he sneeringly overruled every defense objection. Thayer allowed extensive irrelevant cross examination about whether the defendants loved America, about the fact they avoided military service, and about their subversive literature. He argued with defense counsel about whether the literature in the defendants’ possession was in the interest of the United States.
On July 10, while he was golfing and relaxing at Worcester Country Club, he told a friend, “I’ll get those Bolsheviki bastards good and proper. I’ll get those guys hanged. No bunch of parlor radicals can intimidate Web Thayer.”
When he charged the jury, Thayer summed up the prosecution’s case with care but he said nothing about the defense case. The jury ended up convicting.
After conviction, the defense raised five supplementary motions. Due to a peculiarity in Massachusetts law, the judge who presided over the original trial heard all appeals. On July 1, 1924, Judge Thayer denied all five supplementary motions.
In November 1925, Sacco, who was being held in Norfolk County Jail was slipped a note from another prisoner, Celestine Madieros, a convicted murderer. Madeiros confessed he was part of the gang that did the crimes for which Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the conviction on appeal and then later denied the Madeiros defense motion. The case was remanded to Judge Thayer who not unsurprisngly sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death by electrocution. In August 1927 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts executed Sacco and Vanzetti. Over the next three days, more than 100,000 people lined up outside Joseph Lagone’s funeral parlor on Hanover Street in the North End to pay their respects. Sacco and Vanzetti had inspired a huge international outpouring of support. Demonstrations had been held world wide in the period prior to the executions. Among others, Albert Einstein, Clarence Darrow, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Dos Passos, H.L. Mencken and George Bernard Shaw threw their support behind Sacco and Vanzetti. Thayer had denied another last minute motion before execution based on his bias.
Harvard Law Professor (and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Felix Frankfurter wrote about the case that every reasonable probability pointed away from Sacco and Vanzetti as the perpetrators. Frankfurter ripped Judge Thayer for discrepancies between what the record disclosed and what his opinion conveyed.
On August 23, 1977, Gov. Michael Dukakis proclaimed Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. The Governor declared that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Sacco and Vanzetti. He ordered an investigation into the state’s railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. The report found “that there are substantial, indeed compelling, grounds for believing that the Sacco and Vanzetti legal proceedings were permeated with unfairness”.
My sister Lisa educated me about Sacco and Vanzetti. In her bedroom as a teenager, she had the Ben Shahn poster protesting their execution. I don’t know how Lisa learned about the case so early except she had unusual antenna for injustice. There have been many poems written about Sacco and Vanzetti. I wanted to close with two poems, only one of which is about the case but both seemed apropos to me.
You Felons on Trial in Courts by Walt Whitman
You felons on trial in courts,
You convicts in prison-cells, you sentenced assassins chain’d
and handcuff’d with iron,
Who am I too that I am not on trial or in prison?
Me ruthless and devilish as any, that my wrists are not
chain’d with iron, or my ankles with iron?
You prostitutes flaunting over the trottoirs or obscene in
Who am I that I should call you more obscene than myself?
O culpable! I acknowledge – I expose!
(O admirers, praise not me – compliment not me – you make
I see what you do not – I know what you do not.)
Inside these breast-bones I lie smutch’d and choked,
Beneath this face that appears so impassive hell’s tides
Lusts and wickedness are acceptable to me,
I walk with delinquents with passionate love,
I feel I am of them – I belong to those convicts and
And henceforth I will not deny them – for how can I deny
Climbing Milestone Mountain by Kenneth Rexroth
August 22, 1937
For a month now, wandering over the Sierras,
A poem has been gathering in my mind,
Details of significance and ryhthm,
The way poems do, but still lacking a focus.
Last night I remembered the date and it all
began to grow together and take on purpose.
We sat up late while Deneb moved over the zenith
And I told Marie all about Boston, how it looked
That last terrible week, how hundreds stood weeping
Impotent in the streets that last midnight.
I told her how those hours changed the lives of thousands,
How America was forever a different place
Afterward for many.
In the morning
We swam in the cold transparent lake, the blue Damsel flies on all the reeds like millions
Of narrow metallic flowers, and I thought
Of you behind the grille in Dedham, Vanzetti,
saying, “Who would ever have thought we would make this
Crossing the brilliant mile-square meadow
Illuminated with asters and cyclamen,
The pollen of the lodgepole pines drifting
With the shifting wind over it and the blue
And sulphur butterflies drifting with the wind,
I saw you in the sour prison light, saying,
In the basin under the crest
Where the pines end and the Sierra primrose begins,
A party of lawyers was shooting at a whiskey bottle.
The bottle stayed on its rock, nobody could hit it.
Looking back over the peaks and canyons from the last lake,
The pattern of human beings seemed simpler
Than the diagonals of water and stone.
Climbing the chute, up the melting snow and broken rock,
I remembered what you said about Sacco,
How it slipped your mind and you demanded it be read
into the record.
Traversing below the ragged arete,
One cheek pressed against the rock
The wind slapping the other,
I saw you both marching in an army
You with the red and black flag, Sacco with the rattlesnake
I kicked steps up the last snow bank and came
To the indescribably blue and fragrant
Polemonium and the dead sky and the sterile
Crystalline granite and final monolith of the summit.
These are the things that will last a long time, Vanzetti,
I am glad that once on your day I have stood among them.
Some day mountains will be named after you and Sacco.
They will be here and your name with them,
“When these days are but a dim remembering of the time
When man was wolf to man.”
I think men wil be remembering you a long time
Standing on the mountains
Many men, a long time, comrade.