Controversial Execution of Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti
After 85 years, historians and legal scholars still disagree about the trial, conviction, and execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The men died in the electric chair of the state prison in Charlestown, Ma., on Aug. 23, 1927, charged with the murder of two men during an armed robbery in Braintree, Ma., on April 15, 1920. Sacco, Vanzetti and their lawyers fought a protracted, tangled legal battle for seven years trying to clear their names, but lost in the end.
To this day, some people are convinced the two men—most especially Sacco—were guilty. Others insist they were innocent, killed not for committing a crime but simply because of prejudice and strong fear of Italian anarchists, who had been conducting a bombing campaign in the U.S. in the 1920s. Along with questions about their guilt or innocence, another controversy centers on whether the judge gave them a fair trial.
Some things are crystal clear about this case. One, both men were Italians, having immigrated to America in 1908. Two, they were both anarchists, followers of the controversial Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani—who had been deported from the U.S. along with eight of his followers on June 24, 1919, for advocating bombings and assassinations. Third, neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a criminal record. Fourth, there was never a shred of physical evidence linking Vanzetti to the crime scene.
Everything else about the case is murky, beginning with how fairly Judge Webster Thayer conducted the trial—an assignment he had specifically requested. He had given speeches warning that anarchism was a great threat to America. Four years after the trial, in 1924, he referred to Sacco and Vanzetti as “those anarchistic bastards”—even though the appeal process was ongoing, and Thayer remained involved in the case. The ballistics evidence tying Sacco’s gun to the murders was suspect, his pistol was tampered with, many witnesses for both the prosecution and defense provided confusing and contradictory accounts, and there were allegations of coerced testimony. Nonetheless, the jury pronounced the two men guilty after deliberating only three hours.
Judge Thayer twice denied the defense’s motion for a new trial, in 1924 and again in 1926—the second denial coming even though another man, Celestino Madeiros, confessed in November 1925 that he was the Braintree murderer, not Sacco or Vanzetti. Both of Thayer’s denials were appealed to Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court, and upheld. Appeals to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller failed to save the men. With the appeals process exhausted, Thayer heard final statements from Sacco and Vanzetti on April 9, 1927, then sentenced them to die in the electric chair.
The prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti provoked international indignation and condemnation. There were protests in many cities, and American embassies were besieged with angry letters. Nobel laureate Anatole France wrote an impassioned letter to the American people saying the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti would “cover you with shame.” The two condemned Italian anarchists became a cause for many intellectuals. John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were all arrested during protest demonstrations. Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells wrote protest letters to Governor Fuller. Upton Sinclair’s novel Boston, based on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, came out one year after their execution.
On Aug. 21, 1927, 20,000 protesters demonstrated on Boston Common, but to no avail. Sacco and Vanzetti—along with Celestino Madeiros—were executed shortly after midnight, early in the morning of Aug. 23, 1927. Madeiros stayed silent during his execution. Sacco shouted “Long live anarchy!” His last words were: “farewell, mother.” Vanzetti’s calm, final words were: “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
The following copyrighted articles were all published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on Aug. 23, 1927, the day Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. The lead story appeared on the front page. Appended to it were several related stories, written the day before, describing the final appeals made on their behalf, the last visit from loved ones, and the condemned men’s final meal.
Sacco and Vanzetti Electrocuted after Seven-Year Battle
Final Appeals Fail, Radicals Suffer Death
Men Who Caused World-Wide Trouble Die for Double-Murder
Fight to Last Ditch
Third Man, Who Tried to Clear Them, Also Is Executed
Charlestown, Mass., State Prison, Aug. 23 (Tuesday) (AP).—Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti shortly after midnight Tuesday morning paid the penalty of death exacted by the State for murder.
Celestino Madeiros preceded them to the electric chair by a few minutes, the world-known radicals following as rapidly as the execution routine would permit.
Madeiros died at 12:09 a.m. for the murder of a Wrentham bank cashier. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for the murder of a paymaster and his guard at Brainbridge [correction: Braintree—ed.] more than seven years ago. Sacco was dead at 12:19 and Vanzetti at 12:26.
Inside and outside the high prison wall stood a small army of armed guards. Waiting also were the press wires to inform the world that the long fight to save the men was at an end. The fight in behalf of the men continued until the last minute.
Both Sacco and Vanzetti made brief speeches in the death chamber before they took their seats in the chair, Vanzetti protesting his innocence to the last.
Vanzetti Calmest of All
Sacco, pale but steady, shouted in Italian, as he sat in the chair: “Long live anarchy!”
Then in broken English he went on: “Farewell, my wife and child and all my friends.”
The straps were being adjusted as he said his last words: “Good evening, gentlemen; farewell, mother.”
Vanzetti entered the death chamber the calmest of all the three men. Shaking hands with two of the guards as he came through the door of the execution chamber, he walked unassisted to the chair and seated himself.
As the guards began the hasty adjustment of straps to his head and body he began a speech.
“Innocent!” He Declares
In the broken English that characterized his dramatic plea for “justice” when sentence was passed on him in Dedham April 9, he declared:
“I wish to tell you I am innocent and never connected with any crime, but sometime some sin. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only of this one, but all. I am an innocent man.”
Just as the guards slipped the straps and headcap in place, cutting off further speech, he shouted:
“I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
A moment after the official witnesses entered the death chamber, Madeiros was led in between two guards. The youth, who had won five respites because of his confession that a gang with which he was connected committed the South Braintree murders, was stolid and expressionless. His eyes wandered about the little group of witnesses as he was strapped to the chair, but he said nothing.
Madeiros came in at 12:02:47. At 12:03:37 the shock was applied. He was pronounced dead at 12:09:35.
Relatives to Claim Bodies
The left leg of the trousers of each man had been slit up to the knee to permit the application of the electrodes to the flesh.
In each case examination was made by Dr. George Burgess Magrath, medical examiner for Suffolk County; Surgeon Gen. F. P. Williams; Dr. Joseph I. McLaughlin, prison physician; and two physicians who were present as guests of the warden. These were Drs. Howard A. Lothrop of Boston and William Otis Faxon, Dedham jail physician. The other official witnesses were Warden William Hendry; Deputy Warden James Hogsett; Sheriff Samuel Capen of Norfolk County; and W. E. Playfair of the Associated Press.
The bodies were removed from the death chamber shortly after the execution and taken to the North Grove Street Mortuary, where an autopsy was to be performed by Dr. Magrath. Arrangement were made Monday night by Gardner Jackson, representing the Sacco-Vanzetti defense committee, to claim the bodies later on behalf of the relatives.
Governor Denies Plea
Boston, Mass., Aug. 22 (AP).—A final appeal to Governor Fuller to grant “any form of clemency” to Sacco and Vanzetti rather than allow the two men to be executed was made Monday night by Michael A. Musmanno of defense counsel. It was denied.
While a habeas corpus petition was being argued before Judge Lowell in United States District Court, Musmanno arrived at the State house shortly after 6 o’clock and was immediately admitted to the Governor’s office.
The attorney, before entering, said that Arthur D. Hill of defense counsel had been detained in Maine and could not return to Boston before Tuesday.
Battle until Last
Boston, Mass., Aug. 22 (AP).—The seven years’ fight for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti drew near its end Monday night, with only a few hours’ lease of life facing the two men; their attorneys told the Associated Press that their fight would continue “up to the last minute.”
The plea of four New York attorneys, representing defense counsel, for a stay of execution was denied here early Monday night by Federal District Judge James A. Lowell. The attorneys asked the stay on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which Sacco and Vanzetti had refused to sign.
Earlier in the day Justice Stone of the United States Supreme Court had refused, at his summer home at Isle au Haut, Maine, to grant a stay of execution. Similarly, Judge Fisk of the Massachusetts Superior Court had declined to intervene. Governor Fuller, who had before him a petition for another respite, spent the day at the State house, receiving several delegations and individuals who pleaded for clemency for the two men.
Taft Refuses to Intervene
Chief Justice Taft telegraphed from his summer home in Canada his refusal to intervene because the matter was out of his jurisdiction.
Justice Holmes of the United States Supreme Court also refused to interfere.
In the death house at the State penitentiary, Sacco and Vanzetti and Celestino Madeiros, condemned to die at the same time for another murder, spent the day reading, eating the prison fare and receiving visits from counsel and relatives. After one of his visits, Attorney Michael A. Musmanno said Sacco and Vanzetti both seemed depressed, but Sacco still was interested in the legal moves being made for the two.
During the day there were several attempts at picketing in front of the State house. As fast as a picket line developed the police broke it up. More than a hundred persons were arrested.
Sympathetic Strike Fails
The response to a call sent out by the Sacco-Vanzetti defense committee for a sympathetic strike Monday was small in Boston, where labor union officials had refused to sanction it. Only a few hundred workers left their benches. In Montpelier and Barre, Vt., granite manufacturing centers, a large number of workers left the granite sheds and paraded.
Many echoes of the situation came from outside New England. A State trooper was killed after dispersal of a Sacco-Vanzetti demonstration in Springdale, Pa. Expressions of sympathy with the two men came from many points abroad.
At Washington, the defense petition seeking to have the United States Supreme Court review the record of the case was docketed for the October term. It required the approval of some Justice of that court, however, before it could actually come before the court.
Judge Holds Open Court
Holding court open for an hour after regular closing time to give the attorneys a chance to reach the Federal Court, Judge Lowell held an open hearing in one of the press galleries, listened to an hour and a half argument for the petition and then declined to act on the ground that the matter was outside his jurisdiction.
The petition for writ and stay was based on affidavits charging conspiracy between District Attorney Katzmann of Norfolk County, who prosecuted Sacco and Vanzetti, and United States Department of Justice officials. Judge Lowell declined to examine the affidavits, after declaring that the matter was one entirely for consideration of the State courts.
The Judge several times interrupted the arguments to stress his point that the entire matter was outside his jurisdiction and in conclusion stated briefly:
“I am of the opinion that this is not a question for this court, and I therefore deny your petition.”
Wife and Sister Calm
Boston, Mass., Aug. 22 (AP).—Mrs. Sacco and Miss Vanzetti left the prison when the noon meal was served. The two women then showed no signs of breaking down. They were met by Dr. Edith Jackson of New Haven, in whose automobile they left the place. Three hours later they returned for the final visit. They remained with the two men for an hour and a half. When they left both women showed the effects of the farewell. Mrs. Sacco was crying and Miss Vanzetti was supporting her, the latter with a handkerchief to her face.
Shortly after the women left the men were given their supper, the last meal they expected. It consisted of soup, beef, toast and tea. Both men, as well as Madeiros, ate the food.
During the afternoon they were visited also by Attorney Musmanno with a habeas corpus petition which he asked them to sign. Vanzetti signed, but Sacco refused, as he refused when a similar petition was presented previous to the respite granted twelve days ago.
No Preparations to Make
The condemned men faced nothing in the way of preparation for execution. The clothing which they had worn regularly was to be unchanged, differing only in the fact that the trouser legs had been slit to receive the electrodes through which the death current is sent. Their heads were unshaven, although one electric contact is made at the top of the head by means of a dampened sponge in the leather mask placed over the face and head.
Within the death chamber all preparations had been completed. The chair was made ready several weeks ago for the execution that was then deferred. The executioner, Robert Elliott, whose arrival was secret, was said to have tested out the apparatus.
Short Time for Execution
The execution itself was expected to consume less than a half hour for the three men, Madeiros, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were to die in that order. At midnight the first was due to start the short walk from his cell across the corridor and through the death chamber to the chair. Approximately seven minutes is the usual time required for an execution and the second was to follow the first without delay and the third immediately after the second.
Only official witnesses, accredited newspaper men and those with special authority from the warden were allowed within the prison. Several scores of newspaper writers, including many from other cities assigned to report the execution, were inside the walls. A dozen wires were set up to carry the story sent out by the representatives of newspapers and press associations.