At summer's end exactly 80 years ago, who were the most famous people on earth? Charles Lindbergh, you might guess, after his solo transatlantic flight that May, or Leon Trotsky, the demon Bolshevik about to be driven into exile. But you would be wrong. The distinction belonged to Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two humble Italian immigrants who had just died in the electric chair in the Massachusetts state prison in Boston for two murders they almost certainly did not commit.
Sacco and Vanzetti is the case that never goes away. At the time, their executions on 23 August 1927 caused massive demonstrations and gigantic front-page headlines in newspapers around the world – and even now, although we may not be sure why, we still vaguely know their names.
Normally, the 80th anniversary of an event is no occasion for special reflection. But this one has prompted two books and a film, to add to the mountains of already existing literature and drama on the subject – and for excellent reason. The long-ago tragedy of "the good shoemaker and the poor fish peddler" is a story of our own day. It tells of what can happen in an age of fear, provoked by terrorist outrages carried out in the name of a barely understood ideology and shows, yet again, how when circumstances are much the same, human nature is much the same too.
Only fools believe history repeats itself exactly. But consider the parallels between then and now. Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists – and a century ago, anarchism, fuelled by the heartless excesses of early industrial capitalism, and a sense that governments and states had failed ordinary people, was the Islamic radicalism of its time.
Since 1881 anarchists had killed, among others, a Russian czar, French and US presidents, an Italian king and an Austrian empress. Just five days after Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the murders in September 1920, anarchists exploded a bomb outside the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street, killing 38 people.
Then as now, America was scared stiff about a threat from abroad. This one originated not in the Middle East but in Europe, and was brought to America's shores by the huddled masses from places such as Germany, Russia and Italy. With them, it was maintained, immigrants also brought the deadly virus of anarchism (and its close relative Bolshevism) to incubate in the ghetto-like neighbourhoods where immigrants lived.
Today's post-9/11 paranoia has led to curbs on civil liberties. To which one can only say, plus ça change. Back in 1918, Congress had passed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to criticise the government or armed forces in time of war. Now, when a bomb goes off, the impulse is to look for anyone with a Middle Eastern-sounding name. Back then during the "Red Scare", even in common crimes, the automatic first suspects were immigrants, with their funny names and seditious political beliefs.
Such was the national mood when on 15 April 1920 gunmen in a car shot dead two men who were carrying the weekly payroll of $15,000 to a shoe factory in the town of Braintree, just south of Boston, and made off with the money. The tale is brilliantly retold by Bruce Watson in his new book, Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders and the Judgement of Mankind, about what it is hard to believe was not a colossal miscarriage of justice. Eyewitness accounts were all over the place, but Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested three weeks later, largely on the basis of claims the criminals had "looked Italian".
The two, it must be said, did not serve their cause by telling lies to investigators – not in order to cover up any involvement but to protect their associates in the anarchist movement. Nor did it help that they were both armed on the night of their arrest. But the portrait of Sacco and Vanzetti that emerges from Watson's wonderfully written and researched book is of two dreamers and idealists, theorists of anarchism rather than common criminals. "If I was arrested because of 'the Idea', I am glad to suffer," Sacco, a devoted husband and family man, said later. "If I must I will die for it. But they have arrested me for a gunman job."
And so the legal travesty went on. Alibis were ignored. The two were vilified as "dagos" and "wops". Afterwards, the judge in their trial, in the spring and early summer of 1921, referred to them as "sons of bitches", and "anarchistic bastards". The strongest evidence was a bullet purportedly fired from Sacco's gun. But it was the only one of four bullets in the body of one murdered guard that matched, and many suspected it had been planted by police afterwards.
On 14 July, after less than a day's deliberation, the jury found both defendants guilty, and they were duly sentenced to die. But outrage, not only in Europe but in the US itself, was building at convictions based upon such dubious evidence. In the 1920s, death sentences were usually carried out within weeks, or a few months, of conviction. Sacco and Vanzetti, however, lived for a further six years, even though their appeals were rejected, efforts to secure a fresh trial failed, and the US judicial establishment turned its back on them.
Did they commit the murders? Eighty years on, it is impossible to be 100 per cent sure they did not, and afterwards surviving jurors were adamant they would have reached a similar verdict had a second trial been granted. Even so, the indelible impression that emerges from Watson's vivid pages is of two innocent men whose misfortune was to live in the wrong place at the wrong time. At a minimum, the evidence demanded a retrial. A man is innocent until he is proved guilty, and but in 1921 that fundamental legal assumption was cast aside for two poor immigrants.
Could such things happen in today's new age of terrorism? To be sure, modern ballistic and forensic technology might well have secured the acquittal of Sacco and Vanzetti, whatever the prejudices of the court. But the present US government gets around such inconveniences. Take the case of hundreds of "material witnesses," many of them immigrants, held for months after the 9/11 attacks on the flimsiest of evidence, or of the American citizen José Padilla, imprisoned without charges for three years at a naval brig on accusations he was plotting bomb attacks. Finally he was convicted last month on far lesser, nebulous charges that make a mockery of the original case. Sacco and Vanzetti would understand instantly. Except that these days, anarchists are described as "illegal enemy combatants".Reuse content