On April 15, 1921, two employees of the Slater and Morrill shoe company in South Braintree, Massachusetts, left their office, carrying some $16,000 of the company's payroll to its factory. Two armed bandits approached. Shots rang out, and in seconds the payrollmaster and guard lay dead. The bandits grabbed the money and made their getaway in a Buick touring car with three other men inside. Those were just about the only facts that anyone ever agreed on about the small-town robbery that would soon reverberate around the world and is still being felt today. The reason for the uproar was the arrest, conviction and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, "the good shoemaker and the poor fish peddler" for the crime they said they did not commit after a trial they--and millions of their supporters--claimed was not fair.
The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was conducted in the overheated atmosphere of the Red Scare, when, under the direction of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, radicals around the country were beaten by mobs, arrested and deported. For most of them, their "crimes" were nothing more than organizing labor unions, opposing war or just being foreigners. If this sounds familiar, it's because here in the twenty-first century foreigners -- mostly of Arab descent -- have been languishing in jails around the country since 9/11, held on the flimsiest of excuses and having committed no crimes and not being charged with any, either.
If most of them end up being deported, they will have been lucky compared to Sacco and Vanzetti, who were imprisoned for some seven years before their execution on August 22, 1927. Their treatment cast the US in a harsh new light. The Statue of Liberty, once a beacon of hope, was now the Statue of Irony, a symbol of justice gone wrong and freedom denied. Their execution set off worldwide protests. The Nation and other publications predicted that it would set back American relations with the rest of the world for years to come. They weren't wrong. Alas, that's another lesson yet to be learned, as many members of the world community object to heavyhanded American tactics not only in Iraq but also in regard to the environment and the enforcement of repressive free-trade policies.
On the last day of his life, Vanzetti wrote in a letter to Sacco's son, "What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom -- so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain."
In This Pack
The Sacco and Vanzetti Cases
Elizabeth Glendower Evans | The Nation's first article on the case discusses the impending trial and the charges against the two men (June 15, 1921). Editorial The Nation reports that Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of first-degree murder (August 3, 1921).
Letter to the Editor
A reader says The Nationwas wrong when it called Judge Webster Thayer's charge to the jury "fair" and writes that Sacco and Vanzetti were on trial for their political beliefs (August 31, 1921).
Sacco-Vanzetti: A Reasonable Doubt
Arthur Warner | After examining the evidence and, perhaps more important, the personalities of the two defendants, the author suggests that the two were framed (September 28, 1921).
Anatole France to the People of America
Anatole France | A call for justice in the United States from the French perspective (November 23, 1921).
A important prosecution witness now says her testimony was coerced (September 27, 1922).
Chileans Condemn "Yankee Justice"
Chilean members of the Industrial Workers of the World express their outrage at the verdict, which, they say, stemmed from the pro-labor sympathies of the defendants (July 4, 1923).
The Nation notes that a prosecution ballistics expert now says that the "mortal bullet" taken from one of the victims was not fired from Sacco's gun (February 20, 1924).
The Nation reports that a new affidavit filed for the defense places the responsibility for the South Braintree murders on a gang from Rhode Island (June 30, 1926).
A motion for a new trial is to be heard on behalf of the defendants (September 22, 1926).