This day in history

23 August - Sacco and Vanzetti are executed

Despite worldwide demonstrations in support of their self-proclaimed innocence, Italian-born anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are executed for murder on this day in 1927.

On 15 April 1920, a paymaster for a shoe company in South Braintree, Massachusetts, was shot and killed along with his guard. The murderers, who were described as two Italian men, escaped with more than $15,000. After going to a garage to claim a car that police said was connected with the crime, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with the crime. Although both men carried guns and made false statements upon their arrest, neither had a previous criminal record. On 14 July 1921, they were convicted and sentenced to die.

Anti-radical sentiment was running high in America at the time. Both Sacco and Vanzetti made no secret of their membership of a prominent Italian-American radical anarchist group called the Galleanists, which espoused revolution through violent means. The Galleanists were suspected of the Wall Street bombing on 16 September 1920 that killed 38 people and wounded hundreds more. Galleanist militants also attempted to blow up U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house on 2 June 1919.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was regarded by many as unlawfully sensationalist, and the presiding judge, Justice Webster Thayer, was accused of allowing media reports to influence him, as well as harbouring anti-immigrant and anti-Italian sentiments. Authorities had failed to come up with any evidence of the stolen money, and much of the other evidence against them was equivocal, especially ballistics evidence and witness testimony. However, the jury returned a ‘Guilty’ verdict.

Thayer’s part in the trial was criticised by future Supreme Court Justice and learned lawyer Felix Frankfurter, and many left-leaning writers and intellectuals of the time like Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Parker campaigned for a retrial for Sacco and Vanzetti.

During the next few years, sporadic protests were held in Massachusetts and around the world calling for their release, especially after a prisoner in Dedham Prison, Celestino Madeiros, then under a sentence for murder, confessed in 1925 that he had participated in the crime with the Joe Morelli gang. Appeals to the Massachusetts Supreme Court were refused. In the days leading up to the execution, protests were held in cities around the world, and bombs were set off in New York City and Philadelphia. On 23 August, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted.

In 1961, a test of Sacco's gun using modern forensic techniques apparently proved it was his gun that killed the guard, though little evidence has been found to substantiate Vanzetti's guilt. In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation vindicating Sacco and Vanzetti, stating that they had been treated unjustly and that the Massachusetts legal system had failed them, especially in the repeated denials of a retrial, and that no stigma should be associated with their names.

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