Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born US anarchists who were convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company on April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, United States, and were executed by the electric chair seven years later at Charlestown State Prison. Both adhered to an anarchist movement that advocated relentless warfare against what they perceived as a violent and oppressive government.
After a few hours’ deliberation, the jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of first-degree murder on July 14, 1921. A series of appeals followed, funded largely by the private Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee. The appeals were based on recanted testimony, conflicting ballistics evidence, a prejudicial pre-trial statement by the jury foreman, and a confession by an alleged participant in the robbery. All appeals were denied by trial judge Webster Thayer and eventually by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. By 1925, the case had drawn worldwide attention. As details of the trial and the men’s suspected innocence became known, Sacco and Vanzetti became the center of one of the largest causes célèbres in modern history. In 1927, protests on their behalf were held in every major city in North America and Europe, as well as in Tokyo, Sydney, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg.
Celebrated writers, artists, and academics pleaded for their pardon or for a new trial. Harvard law professor and future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter argued for their innocence in a widely read Atlantic Monthly article that was later published in book form. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death in April 1927, accelerating the outcry. Responding to a massive influx of telegrams urging their pardon, Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller appointed a three-man commission to investigate the case. After weeks of secret deliberation, which included interviews with the judge, lawyers, and several witnesses, the commission upheld the verdict. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed via electric chair on August 23, 1927. Subsequent riots destroyed property in Paris, London, and other cities.
Investigations of the case continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The publication of the men’s letters, containing eloquent professions of innocence, intensified belief in their wrongful execution. Additional ballistics tests and incriminating statements by the men’s acquaintances have clouded the case. In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Writer Bruce Watson, in his introduction to the 2007 re-printing of “The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti,” noted “Sacco and Vanzetti are still on trial and probably always will be.”