The Defense of Sacco and Vanzetti


Amidst a seeming wave of domestic terrorism, the 1920 murder of two payroll guards in Braintree, Massachusetts, exploded into what could arguably be described as the trial of the century. Earlier that year, a plot had been exposed in which thirty bombs, disguised as free samples from the Gimbels department store, had been sent to such pillars of American capitalism as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, as well as to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was responsible for the prosecution and deportation of thousands of radicals, including labor organizers, peace advocates, and other “undesirables.” Although the plot had not succeeded for lack of sufficient postage, in the resulting atmosphere of shock, fear, and repression, two working-class Italian Americans with anarchist connections, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, were not only accused of the crime, but also became scapegoats in the reaction to the supposed threat of the combined forces of labor unrest, new waves of immigration, and the advance of the “red menace” that followed the end of World War I.

This exhibition both commemorates the eightieth anniversary of the execution of the much-mythologized “good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler,” and celebrates the 1967 installation of the Ben Shahn mural at the heart of the Syracuse University campus. It is not our purpose to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendants in the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Rather, we wish to highlight not only the creative response to the perceived injustice of the prosecution and sentence, but also the decades of continuing protest over what Katherine Anne Porter described as “the never-ending wrong.”

To understand the depth and breadth of the outcry over the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it is important to note that seven years elapsed between the time of their arrest in May of 1920 and their execution. The trial itself was characterized by years of wrangling over the admission of evidence that produced a series of legal motions at all levels of the Massachusetts justice system. However, the outcome of the trial and the response to it were as much influenced by what had happened outside the courtroom as by what took place under the watchful, if not unbiased, eyes of Judge Webster Thayer. The controversy over the “guilty” verdict was not simply the natural outcome of the contested evidence presented at the trial; it was also a consequence of the widely held suspicion that “alien” forces were threatening the American way of life.

Looking back, it appears that few people, if any, maintained a neutral stance toward the case, and, indeed, tensions ran extremely high on both sides of the issue. Despite Judge Thayer’s characterization of the defendants as “anarchist bastards,” a series of appeals against perjured testimony and judicial bias were denied. The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, supported by novelist John Dos Passos, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and artist Rockwell Kent, among others, upheld the innocence of the accused with a series of publications and other fund-raising activities in an effort to draw attention to the arbitrary actions of the prosecution in its denial of the civil rights of the defendants.

Each decade since the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, scores of books and essays have grappled with the evidence and transcripts of the case, and have reached varying conclusions about the nature of American justice. Yet, even if the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti were definitively established, the ongoing perception of the injustice of the trial itself will forever engender outrage. It is that same sense of injustice that continues to erode the image of America at home and abroad. We remain haunted today, if not condemned, by the inconsistency in the application of our laws.


Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Library
Syracuse, NY 13244
Last modified: June 09, 2012 12:35 PM
URL: /digital/exhibits/s/SaccoVanzetti/index2.htm