1921 and 1927, the trial and appeals of two individuals, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti,, dominated the news and were the inspirational source for many political movements throughout the world (Frankfurter). The profound and wide ranging effect that these two Italian immigrants had on society in the 1920 is remarkable and provides an excellent topic for discussion.
The incident giving rise to the Sacco and Vanzetti controversy occurred on April 15, 1920. The payroll of a South Braintree, Massachusetts factory was being carried by the company's paymaster and a guard for disbursement when the two men were suddenly robbed and killed by two men who retrieved the payroll and escaped in a waiting automobile. At first, the crime received only minimal attention on the local level around Boston but this would soon change as the two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were arrested for an unrelated crime and eventually charged with the Braintree robbery and murder. The arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti would trigger worldwide interest that would spread into a variety of different areas.
The trials of both individuals were highly controversial. In an unusual decision, the two accused were tried in different trials and the robbery and murder cases were also heard in different proceedings. Vanzetti was tried first and, despite the fact that there was compelling evidence as to his innocence, Vanzetti was found guilty and when the sentence that he received was inordinately more severe than expected it raised a red flag to those who were watching the proceedings. What developed, however, was much greater than anyone would have imagined and it brought to the forefront the social tensions that had been brewing.
The 1920s were a time of great political change in the United States. The murder of the Romanov family in Russia and the establishment of a Communist government in the form of the Soviet Union contributed substantially to the "Red Scare" in the United States. Seemingly overnight everyone was suspicious of their neighbors and their friends believing that they might be Communists or Communist sympathizers. This Red Scare came into play in the Sacco and Vanzetti cases as they were both characterized by the media as anarchist militants as they both had a history of being involved in labor strikes, political agitation, and antiwar movements. Neither of the two gentlemen, however, had any criminal record of any kind. What hurt them even more was their affiliation with the Italian language journal, Cronaca Sovversiva. The Cronaca had a long history of supporting militancy and revolutionary violence and the American media made a major issue of Sacco and Vanzetti's association with such publication. As a result, there was a great fear created in America that the two men were violent revolutionaries and that the Braintree robbery and murder was part of a major revolutionary movement. The fact that Sacco had a pamphlet in his pocket on the night of his arrest advertising an anarchist meeting where Vanzetti was to be the main speaker certainly did not help to quell the suspicions of the public.
The factor that turned the case into a national and international event was the trial strategy of the defendants' counsel. Instead of defending the two men solely against the charges, their lawyer, Fred H. Moore, a well-known socialist, decided to base their defense on the fact that the men were avowed anarchist and that the arrests were based on their radical activities and not on any real evidence (McGirr). Moore argued that Sacco and Vanzetti were the victims of the government's hidden agenda against Communists and anarchists.
The actual trials against the two defendants were lengthy but it was the aftermath of appeals and the related publicity that really made the case into a sensation (Roschwalb). Moore was an excellent manipulator of publicity and the press and he never missed an opportunity to politicize the various issues presented during the trial or the various appeal proceedings. Eventually his tactics began to create controversy among those who were supporting Sacco and Vanzetti and when Moore's tactics began to drain the available funds he was replaced by a lawyer who used more traditional methods of defense. Over the next three years, the defendants were represented by the respected Boston lawyer, William Thompson. Unlike Moore, Thompson did not share Sacco and Vanzetti's socialist views but still provided them with an aggressive defense. Moore spearheaded an international movement to have the Sacco/Vanzetti case reviewed by the Massachusetts Governor and a committee was appointed, headed by the President of Harvard University, but clemency was never granted and the defendants were executed on August 23, 1927.
Many observers of American society consider the Sacco and Vanzetti proceedings to be watershed moment in U.S. history. Prior to that moment America had been viewed as the great experiment in human history. It had been seen as representing utopia. The Sacco/Vanzetti verdict brought into question the flawed and unjust nature of American society; a society that served the interests of the rich and powerful and not the interests of fairness and justice. America was still suffering from the effects of the First World War. There was widespread concern about radicals and there were residual feelings of nationalism running throughout the country. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed the inherent problems in the American legal system that was unfair to foreigners, unfair to the poor and unfair to radicals who espoused political views that were not necessarily in the mainstream.
The controversy regarding Sacco and Vanzetti centers primarily on the post-trial evidence that brings their guilt into doubt and raises questions as to the fairness of their trials. Among the post-trial evidence includes ballistic tests on the alleged murder weapon, mishandled evidence, testimony by witnesses that was recanted, and a confession by a known bank robber. Over time, legal experts have raised questions as to the judicial judgment of the trial judge, Webster Thayer. There is evidence that Judge Thayer, on occasion, described the two defendants as "anarchist bastards." Additionally, Thayer allowed the prosecution to take excessive liberties introducing exhibits and information into evidence that should not have been admissible (Alba). These factors and concerns about strong anti-Italian prejudice and prejudice against immigrants may have combined to make it impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial.
It is easy to look back upon the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and to be critical of how those in authority handled the situation and how the media sensationalized the proceedings but the case must be reviewed in terms of its historical context. The political climate in America had a great impact on the case. There can be no arguing that the radical movement had a reached a peak following the end of the First World War. These radical groups included Socialists, Communists and anarchists and the fact that the Bolshevik Revolution had been successful in establishing a Communist government in Russia created great concerns among the American citizenry. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that a number of violent strikes broke out throughout the U.S. In the years just following the end of the War and there was a general feeling that these strikes were supported by radical groups.
In response to these situations there was considerable pressure placed on businesses and government officials to respond. For whatever reasons, the media took up the mantle and provided extensive coverage of the situation and there coverage seemed to add to the overall public reaction. A generalized state of hysteria developed. The U.S. Congress passed the Sedition Act that provided for the deportation of aliens who allegedly held objectionable economic or political views. Additionally, the federal government, under the direction of the newly appointed FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, spearheaded a nationwide manhunt for radicals that resulted in the…