Living as we do in civilized societies, we doubtless hope that wrongdoing is appropriately dealt with and punished, and that the guilty will always be caught and the innocent always protected. Every now and then, however, something goes spectacularly wrong, people are erroneously sent to end prison (or executed), and demands for fresh justice are heard once again – though mistakes are rarely fully righted. Such was the case with two Italian immigrants who exactly ninety years ago were fried for a crime of which they were almost certainly innocent. Their end came at the end of a seven-year ordeal in which they endured a farcical trial that was anything but fair, and laudable but ultimately fruitless international campaigns for their release.
Commenting in his 2002 book Thirty-Six Murders and Two Immoral Earnings, the writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy remarked how shockingly frequent miscarriages of justice have tended to be in both the British and American legal systems. Anyone familiar with the cases of Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley, Edith Thompson, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, to name but a few examples, understands that – though the tendency still among British public opinion is to give the legal system the benefit of the doubt. Where the US and UK experiences differ, Kennedy wrote, was in ‘Britain’s willingness and America’s unwillingness to make amends after a mistake has been discovered’:
‘To the best of our knowledge,’ say the authors of In Spite of Innocence, ‘no state or federal officials have ever acknowledged that a wrongful execution has taken place.‘ And the reason? ‘There is no legal forum in which the innocence of the dead can be officially confirmed or even satisfactorily investigated.‘…
The reluctance of Americans ever to admit error, whether in correcting miscarriages of justice or in the fondness of their armed forces for opening fire on friendly troops or in the frequent cock-ups in everyday business or social life, would seem to stem from the macho image they have of themselves and their philosophy of ‘never apologise, never explain‘. When a mistake is pointed out – often after glowing promises of matchless efficiency – the invariable rejoinder is the dismissive ‘Too bad!‘ There is a restlessness in the American psyche, a dissatisfaction with the present that militates against reassessments of the past and can only think and feel in terms of the future and attainment of the American dream.
OK, old Ludo did tend to go a tad pompous at times – with passages like the above being a classic example – but he certainly put his finger on something with this assessment. In a book in which he looked back on a career dedicated to exposing cases where the wrong man (or woman) was convicted (and in some cases, done to death) in a court of law, he was also expressing a degree of frustration over the lack of interest in the States in any move to have Bruno Richard Hauptmann posthumously exonerated for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son and namesake. This was despite his masterful book The Airman and the Carpenter and a made-for-TV movie about the case, starring Stephen Rea as Hauptmann, and the considerable publicity surrounding both. It stood in stark contrast to his more successful exposés of miscarriages of justice in Britain.
The New Jersey cops who fitted up Hauptmann had, however, had a few good pointers on how to get away with it in the case a few years previously of two Italian immigrants who really proved to be a classic case of (pardon the cliché) Being In The Wrong Place at The Wrong Time. On 15 April 1920 a robbery outside a shoe shop in Boston, Massachusetts resulted in a paymaster and a guard being shot dead. Those conducting the hold-up managed to get away. Three weeks later police arrested two Italian immigrants called Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on firearms charges. The two men were subsequently charged with the double murder.
Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial in May 1921 turned into a farce, as the words “wops” and “dagos” were bandied about in a supposedly respectable setting. The presiding judge, Webster Thayer, managed to get away with an admission of hatred for foreigners. Indeed, the facts that the two men were immigrants from Italy and also held anarchistic beliefs (ie, they believed that all government is evil) were enough to convict them, as far as the prosecution were concerned. This did not, however, necessarily mean that they believed in breaking the law, much less committing violence and murder. Judge Thayer was also later heard to say, after the trial had concluded (with the two men being found guilty), ‘Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?‘
The very least that can be said about Sacco and Vanzetti is that they did not get a fair trial, and even at a time of the “Red Scare”, wherein people in the United States and beyond were encouraged to feel jittery about “Reds under the bed” in the wake of the violence and aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was enough enlightened opinion in America and elsewhere to build up an international campaign calling for justice for the two men. Supporters of the campaign included H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Albert Einstein, and there were protest marches as far afield as Paris and Buenos Aires in support of the Italians. The fact that in 1925 a convicted mobster by the name of Celestino Madeiros confessed to the crime of which Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted should have raised eyebrows among officialdom, but he was ignored.
Finally, in July 1927 a three-man committee was set up to look at the evidence again, but it concluded that the bullets that had killed the paymaster and guard had come from Sacco’s gun (although this doesn’t necessarily mean that the bullets hadn’t been planted. On 3 August Massachusetts’ State Governor refused a re-trial, and on 23 August both Sacco and Vanzetti went to the electric chair.
The two men themselves appear to have been resigned to their fate, whatever happened, as can be gleaned from their last letters. Sacco wrote his son Dante a moving letter:
…instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother…take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers here and there…But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself only…help the persecuted and the victim because they are your better friends…In this struggle of life you will find more and love and you will be loved.
As for the quieter, more reserved Vanzetti, he revealed how aware he was of the international symbolism of his and Sacco’s plight, that their case was unlike any other:
Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of men as now we do by accident…The last moment belongs to us – that agony is our triumph.
As time went on, the glaring errors behind the trial and conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti became more and more apparent. On 23 August 1977, the fiftieth anniversary of their execution, Massachusetts’ then Governor, Michael Dukakis, issued a proclamation that the trial had been unfair. He received little political leverage for his actions, and indeed his relatively liberal views on law and order would come back to haunt him in a big way when he challenged George H W Bush for the Presidency in the 1988 elections.
Ninety years after they were electrocuted, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti continues to interest and exercise many, as the late Italian-American historian Nunzio Pernicone judged in a 2006 documentary about the two men:
This is a case which is about political intolerance, this is a question about racial prejudice. It demonstrates aspects of American society that, then and now, still persist. If you espouse the wrong political views, if you are not a conformist, the chances of your getting a fair trial are substantially diminished. If Italians are no longer looked upon with the disdain and contempt that they were in 1920, they have been replaced by other ethnic groups.