The Biggest Trial of the 1920s Continues to Resonate
Sacco and Vanzetti were on trial for their Italianness and their political leanings as much as for their alleged crimes
People have been asking if Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were guilty of the crime for which they were executed for almost a hundred years.
The two Italian-American men were each charged with two counts of murder relating to an armed robbery in Massachusetts, in which $15,000 was stolen–they both pled not guilty. Their trial was the event of the decade, according to many sources–it had political intrigue, anti-Italian racism, and drama inside and outside the courtroom over whether these two men had been unfairly accused.
On (July 14th,) 1921, both were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death–though the evidence against them was “mostly circumstantial,” in the words of historian Moshik Temkin, and their trial was laden with racism and anti-anarchist sentiment. Years of appeals would follow before their eventual executions, which prompted riots in Paris and London and left many still asking: Did they do it?
Both men were involved with a direct-action anarchist movement, the same group that was later blamed for the 1920 Wall Street bombing while they were in jail. But there was little to say they had carried out the armed robbery, writes Temkin, who does not believe it is likely that the pair were guilty.
What is certain is that the two defendants certainly looked guilty in the court room, he writes. Both men had been in America for over a decade, Temkin writes, but they had limited English. Their foreignness–at a time when anti-Italian racism was at a high–and their political leanings were used against them.
During their trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were seated in a barred metal cage in the center of the court, a constant reminder of the supposed menace they presented to respectable American society.
The evidence against the two men… was mostly circumstantial, save for the prosecutor’s disputed attempt to tie Sacco’s cap to the scene of the crime and his revolver to the shooting. The prosecution could not even show that the two men possessed any of the money from the robbery.