Eighty years ago yesterday two anarchists by the name of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed. That execution has never been forgotten by many millions around the world.
On the 75th anniversary of the execution Juliet Ucelli of Italian Americans for a Multicultural Society made the following short speech:
Today, Italian Americans are integrated into U.S. society as White Americans. But that wasn’t so in the early years of this century. People of Southern Italian background were considered non-White well into the 1920s. We were called aliens, wops--meaning "without papers," just like today’s undocumented immigrants are called aliens. Nicola Sacco and Bartomoleo Vanzetti were derided as "dirty dagoes, reds" and "anarchistic bastards" (by their trial judge, Webster Thayer of Massachusetts). Anarchists were considered terrorists. Sound familiar?
When they were arrested and put on trial for murder, Sacco and Vanzetti got support from radical and genuinely democratic people of all nationalities and walks of life. Italian Americans who were poor, working class, new immigrants, much of the lower middle class, particularly identified with their suffering and stigmatization. My mother remembers her uncle saying, "Those men were murdered because they were Italian." [The well known poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote her famous poem "Justice Denied in Massachusetts" to commemorate the deaths of the labor organizers. She had marched with Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy and other progressive and well informed intellectuals in defense of the two men, but many turned a deaf ear on their plight.]
Sacco and Vanzetti themselves knew why they were being targeted. In Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s immigrant dialect he said these words:"I would not wish to a dog or to a snake what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian; I have suffered more for my family and my beloved than for myself; but I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already."
Today, Sacco and Vanzette are long-dead and it's safe to feel sympathy for them. And, many Italian Americans look back with nostalgia, from a comfortable position of white privilege, at this era when we actually were an oppressed national minority subject to persecution. But when Sacco and Vanzetti were facing execution and needing support, lots of Italian Americans--the establishment, some professionals, the wealthy--would have nothing to do with them. They didn‚t want to be associated with those radicals and 'terrorists'.
So I pose this challenge: If you won’t stand up now for the Arabs, Muslims and South Asians who are being held without any Constitutional rights for supposed association with terrorists, you wouldn‚t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either. If you won’t stand up for Mumia Abu Jamal, the former Black Panther, journalist and exposer of the crimes of the Philadelphia Police Department who was railroaded and faces the death penalty for supposedly killing a Philadelphia police officer, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either.
And if you won’t stand up against Bush’s endless war on whatever country is not bowing down to the dictates of the U.S. elite, you wouldn’t have stood up for Sacco and Vanzetti either.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti understood well that most wars are called for by the rich to protect their wealth, their oil wells, their sources of profit. We shouldn’t forget what they knew.
Long live the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti!
Free the detainees!
Free Mumia Abu Jamal!
Abolish the death penalty!
No to Bush’s war!
What appears below obviously came from Democracy Now.
Sacco and Vanzetti: 80 Years After Their Execution, A Look At The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed eighty years ago on August 23, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-American anarchists who were arrested and accused of murder at the height of the post-Bolshevik Revolution Red Scare and debates over immigration quotas.
After a highly controversial trial in 1920 they were sentenced to death by a judge who called them "anarchistic bastards."
Their execution is infamous around the world and came to symbolize the intolerance of the American establishment towards immigrants and radical dissenters. Protests against their execution rocked every major city across the world in the days leading up to their execution.
"Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind" is a detailed new book that explores the lives and ideas of these two men and the enduring relevance of their trial. Bruce Watson is the author of this definitive new history of Sacco and Vanzetti. We spoke to Bruce yesterday from Boston, where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed 80 years ago.
Bruce Watson, author of "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind."
AMY GOODMAN: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed eighty years ago today in Boston, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian-American anarchists who were arrested and accused of murder at the height of the post-Bolshevik Revolution Red Scare and debates over immigration quotas.
After a notoriously prejudiced trial in 1920, they were sentenced to death by a judge who called them "anarchistic bastards." Their execution is infamous around the world and came to symbolize the intolerance and injustice of the American establishment towards immigrants and radical dissenters. Protests against their execution rocked every major city around the world in the days leading up to their execution.
Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind is a new book that explores the lives and ideas of these two men and the enduring relevance of their trial. Bruce Watson is author of the new book. I spoke to him yesterday from Boston, where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed eighty years ago, and asked him to talk about the context of the United States in 1920.
BRUCE WATSON: It was a very jittery time. It was supposed to be a time of peace, but, in fact, 1919 was a year of tumultuous strikes. There had just been a plague flu epidemic that had just ended. Of course, 100,000 soldiers, American soldiers, had died. And it was a very tumultuous year, as I say.
And that year, in April of that year, someone, a group of anarchists, mailed a bunch of -- thirty bombs to the leading capitalist of the day, to John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, several others, anyone who had suppressed anarchists. And only one of the bombs went off. It blew off the hands of a maid who opened it. So the bombs were -- about six weeks later, the same group decided to deliver those bombs in person. And so, at midnight on June 2, 1919, eight bombs in eight cities went off all up and down the East Coast, in churches, in homes. In fact, one man blew himself up on the steps of the attorney general’s home, the attorney general of the United States, right across the street from where FDR was living at the time.
Well, this set in motion a huge crackdown that later became known as the Palmer Raids. And hundreds of radicals were rounded up and deported. And right after that, as that was waning, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. It was right on the edge of that hysteria. And they were tried a year later, when some of that was still going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce, can you explain who the targets were of this series and the first bombings?
BRUCE WATSON: It was anyone who had suppressed anarchists. If you look at a list of the thirty targets, they ranged from senators or former senators to, as I mentioned, Morgan and Rockefeller; Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was later baseball commissioner, but at that time he was a federal judge, and he had presided over a trial that set a lot of IWW Wobblies to jail; other local judges who had ruled against anarchists. So the targets were specifically anarchist.
I should mention that the bombs that went off at midnight were all -- they were found at the site of each bombing a little pink flier that was signed “the Anarchist Fighters.” And there was a long manifesto that said, “You have jailed us, you have beaten us, you have robbed us. Now you must know that vengeance is coming.”
And I should also not neglect to mention that Sacco and Vanzetti were members of that group. And the people who had perpetrated that, including the man who blew himself up on the steps of the attorney general's home, were very close friends of Sacco and Vanzetti. They had fled the draft a couple years ago, going to Mexico. Down in Mexico, there -- something went on there with their suffering, and they decided they were ready for vengeance. Now, no one knows to this day what Sacco and Vanzetti did during that bombing, whether they watched it, said nothing, participated, but they were part of that group.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Bruce Watson, author of Sacco and Vanzetti. So explain the story of who Sacco and Vanzetti were.
BRUCE WATSON: Sacco and Vanzetti each came to America independently in 1908, basically to work, for the reason that so many other Italian immigrants came over. Vanzetti had an extra reason: his mother had just died, and he said, “I had to put the seas between me and my grief.” So he came over. Sacco came over. And they did not have any contact with each other. They didn’t know each other until a few weeks before the draft in 1917.
They met at an anarchist meeting. They took the same train down to Mexico, and then they came back independently. And then they were in the same anarchist circle in East Boston that met every Sunday through 1919 and then eventually into 1920. And they happened to be together on the night of their arrest. And then, of course, their names are forever linked now.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did they come from? Tell the story of where they were born, how they came to the United States, and how they became political.
BRUCE WATSON: OK, I actually went to Italy. I take any excuse I can to go to Italy. But I went back to Italy to Sacco -- they were from very different parts of Italy. Sacco was from a little town called Torremaggiore in southern Italy, on the tip of -- near the heel of the boot. And Vanzetti was from a very prosperous northern town near Turin.
And so, as I say, they came over for slightly different reasons, but their politicization was somewhat similar. Sacco came over as a real innocent, naive man. He was only seventeen when he came -- fifteen, I think, when he came over. But as -- and Vanzetti was a little older. Vanzetti had already started to read different political theories. And both of them, however, began to labor in the American system that was very unfair to Italians at the time. They were on the very bottom of the ladder. They were doing the most menial jobs -- Vanzetti, in particular. He worked as a dishwasher in a totally slimy kitchen at a very rich restaurant. He worked loading bricks and building dams and just the absolute most menial labor, spent a lot of time homeless living on the street. Sacco had a little bit better life. He worked as a shoe trimmer. He took a course and learned -- an apprenticeship and learned to be an apprentice shoe trimmer in the Boston area, where there are a lot of shoe factories, and he actually made pretty good money. But Vanzetti was not in that situation at all.
Both men came to anarchism in around 1912 or ’13. And anarchism was a creed at that time, widespread among Italian immigrants. You have to remember these are people who came over and had an American dream. They felt that this was going to be the land of plenty, and they saw quite the opposite. They were discriminated against. They were beaten down. They were denied jobs. Cops often arrested them. And they were drawn to this creed of Italian anarchism. Italian anarchists in those days would tour the country to speak to Italian immigrants, and they would sing. Some of them would sing songs, and they accompanied themselves on the mandolin. They were dodging police. They cut a very romantic figure that appealed to Sacco and Vanzetti and many other immigrants.
Anarchism is basically the belief that someday humanity will come to the point where they won't need a government. Italians, of course, had had nothing but an oppressive government, as far as they could remember, and they couldn't imagine a government of the people, by the people, for the people that would actually work for the people. All they knew was a government that oppressed and hounded and spied on people, etc. So they hoped, they dreamed that someday there would be no government, no need for a government.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, they come to the United States, and how did they end up both in Massachusetts?
BRUCE WATSON: They sort of -- Sacco landed in Massachusetts. He landed with his brother in Boston -- they didn't even go through Ellis Island -- and began to work in a local Italian community there. There were many Italian enclaves, and they -- so he stayed in Boston the whole time.
Vanzetti came through Ellis Island and worked in New York for awhile, as I say, as a dishwasher and other things. He came up to New England with a friend looking for a job. He worked around in farms and other factories and eventually settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, because he could get a job there at a rope factory. He worked loading heavy cords of rope on a loading dock. And he just stuck around, because he -- Vanzetti worked -- got to know an Italian immigrant family, came to know and love their children very much. He was like a second father to them.
AMY GOODMAN: So the night that they were arrested, explain where they were going, how they ended up in the same train, how they knew each other, how Sacco and Vanzetti knew each other.
BRUCE WATSON: Well, they knew each other from the Italian anarchist circle that they had been involved in, and that circle was pretty strongly linked. By now, we know, they were the ones who had done those midnight bombings. And after the Palmer Raids, one of the -- the police, of course, were hot on the trail of whoever might have done this, and they traced the flier -- they actually traced through -- by looking at the font on the flier, they traced it to a printing shop in Brooklyn, and they arrested two men and held them without bail or anything in the fourteenth floor in New York, on the fourteenth floor of a federal building. These are good friends of Sacco and Vanzetti. And the whole anarchist circle was very worried about them and what was going to go on. There was rumors that they were being tortured. And one of the men actually threw himself out the window and was found dead on the sidewalk a couple weeks after the Braintree crime.
Vanzetti went down to Brooklyn, down to New York to find out anything he could. And he came back about May 1, 1920, with the word that another raid was imminent. This is according to his testimony in the trial. And they all felt that there was going to be another Palmer raid, another raid rounding up anarchists. And they -- according to their testimony, they were out on the night of May 5. They had gotten a car, a friend with a car. They armed themselves, and they went out to gather radical literature and hide it. And so, they went to pick up the car. It had been in the shop. And the police had traced this car. They thought this was the getaway car. They had a reason to believe it was involved in a previous crime and this was the getaway car. And so, they had set a trap. They said, “If somebody comes to this car, you call us.” So these four men -- Sacco, Vanzetti and two other Italians in their circle -- came and got the car -- or they tried to get the car. And the woman who was the mechanic’s wife called the cops. It was a very dramatic situation.
Sacco and Vanzetti and the others, maybe they knew that the phone call was made, maybe they don’t. People still debate it. But all of the sudden, they said, “We’re not going to get the car tonight. Never mind, we don't need it.” Sacco and Vanzetti were walking back through the darkness. They got on a streetcar. Police got word of that. They pulled a police wagon up in front of the car, boarded the car. Sacco and Vanzetti were alone at the back of the streetcar. “You’re under arrest.” They said, “Why?” “Suspicious characters.”
They took them in for questioning. As I said, they did not tell them what they were arrested for. They began to ask them questions about anarchism, about communism. And the men lied and lied and lied. Only the following day, after their mug shots had been taken -- rather sinister-looking mug shots, I should add, that were spread across the newspapers all over Massachusetts -- only the next day did they learn they were being arrested for murder.
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Bruce Watson, author of Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. So talk, then, about the trial, about the evidence, about what happened to Sacco and Vanzetti.
BRUCE WATSON: The trial took place a full year later, because it took them a long -- took their defense lawyer a long time. He was tracking down a man in Italy, or a consulate clerk who had gone back to Italy. Sacco's alibi was always that on the day of the crimes he had been in the North End in Boston, the Italian section, trying to get his passport. And he said, “I talked to a clerk. Maybe you can find him.” And so, the clerk turned -- they dug up the clerk, and they found him, and he said, “Yeah, I remember that guy.” So Sacco's defense lawyer was desperately trying to get this man to come to America to testify. But the man was sick, and he couldn't come. During these -- so there was a delay of a year.
Finally, on Memorial Day, or the day after Memorial Day in 1920, the trial began in a fully armed courtroom in a little town that was not at all used to having anarchists in their town. Anarchists, remember, were the terrorists of their time. So they had assassinated -- an anarchist had assassinated President McKinley, some other world leaders. There had been bombings attributed to anarchists. And so, the whole little town of Dedham was terrified of the fact that these anarchists were in their town. And so, out of the -- from the jail two blocks away come marching these two guys, completely surrounded by police. They march up the steps and into this cage, and the trial begins.
And seated at the trial is -- seated at the bench is a man named Judge Webster Thayer, an absolute devout hater of anarchists. He’s a super patriot. He has sworn -- he said many times he's desperately afraid of the anarchist doctrine, of the Red Scare, the Red Doctrine. He's sworn that he's going to do anything he can to stop anarchism from taking over.
He begins -- they begin to probe the jury, and it takes them three days. They have to grill something like 675 people who were willing to possibly risk their lives, because they expect retaliation for -- if there's a guilty verdict. So they finally get the jury seated, and then the trial begins.
The prosecution wages an absolutely textbook perfect case. If you want to study a good prosecution, study that prosecution. They bring out the bloody shirts of the guards at first, and everybody gasps. They bring out several witnesses who swear that Sacco -- they identify Sacco, especially, at the scene. They bring out -- by the way, they took the jurors on a whole tour. They put them in cars and took them to the scene of the crime, took them to several places that have to do with the trial. And then they keep this coming with the defense -- with ballistics evidence. They have four bullets they pulled from the guard. They’ve tested -- test-fired the bullets. They had to get Sacco's permission to do this. Sacco said, “Go ahead. I have nothing to hide.” They test-fired the bullets, four bullets pulled from one of the deceased guards. And they say, interestingly enough, one of these four bullets has been linked to Sacco's gun. We have proof that one of them came through Sacco's gun. Now, later people will ask, “Wait a second. Four bullets pulled out of the guard. A witness says they think they see one guy pumping these bullets in. Only one of them is tied to the gun? How could that be?” But nobody ever asked these questions at the time. They go on with -- two ballistics experts identify the bullets. They identify Sacco’s gun. They say Vanzetti's gun is the same gun that has been stolen from the guard. Nobody ever saw anybody lift the gun from the guard, but this goes on through.
And so, finally the defense comes in, and unfortunately Sacco and Vanzetti had a rather scattered lawyer. He was a former IWW lawyer, and his name was Fred Moore. And he was brilliant at publicity, but he was very wobbly in court. In addition, his politics were well known to Judge Thayer. And Moore had, quote-unquote, “long hair” at the time. He looked a little bit like James Cagney. He had a disturbing habit of taking off his coat, sometimes his shoes, in court. Judge Thayer was just shocked by this “longhaired arnachist,” he called him, from California. Judge Thayer called them “arnachists.” He said -- out of the trial, he said to press, “No longhaired anarchist from California is going to run my court. I’ll show him.” And so, this case -- every time Moore speaks up in court, Judge Thayer snaps at him, overrules his objections.
Moore waged a very staggered and disjointed defense. He called witness after witness after witness, some hundred witnesses, all of whom swearing Sacco and Vanzetti were not the man. They saw Vanzetti in Plymouth that day. They saw Sacco in the North End. But by then, the jury seemed to have pretty much made up his mind.
Then, finally, a key thing happened toward the end of the trial, when they called first Vanzetti and then Sacco. There was a reason they had to do this. They had to explain: why were they out on that dark night, armed to the teeth? What were they hiding? What were they trying to do? They looked pretty suspicious. The judge had decided they weren’t supposed to tell. He said, “We're not going to allow politics in this court. We’re not trying them for anarchism.” But it was actually the defense that said, “We have to bring this in. We have to explain. They were anarchists. They were afraid.” And so, they actually brought up their politics.
And then the prosecutor jumped with both feet, and he began grilling Sacco. “Do you swear that you love this country? You didn't love this country when you ran away and refused to defend it in Mexico, did you? The only thing you like about this county is that you can make money. Isn’t that the truth?” And he grilled Vanzetti about his politics. And this just blew the case wide open. Finally, this was a little bit too much for the jury to take, and they returned within five hours. They returned a guilty verdict.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Watson, author of Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. When we come back from break, we go to part two of the interview. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to the interview with Bruce Watson, author of Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. I asked Bruce if the outcome of Sacco and Vanzetti's trial would have been different if their lawyers had used another strategy?
BRUCE WATSON: In 1924, Fred Moore finally left the case. He had done a great job of publicity. He had also done a very good job digging up doubts about the case. He dug up a lot of dirt, you could only call it, on several of the prosecution witnesses, the identifying witnesses. One turned out to be a -- pretty much a pathological liar. He went to her hometown in Maine and said, “Everyone said, ‘You can't trust anything that woman said.’” Another was basically a conman, a bigamist, who hated Italians. And there was all sorts of other things he dug up. But by 1924, no one trusted him anymore.
In steps a man who I think was the true hero of this whole book, my whole story. He was a corporate lawyer, William Thompson. He was a Boston Brahman, Harvard Law School graduate, taught at Harvard. He had no reason to take this case. He did not have to take it. He did not agree with Sacco or Vanzetti's politics. But he thought sincerely they had not gotten a fair trial. And he took the case -- I’m sure he lost many clients. He fought it beautifully. He was very eloquent. He argued the case before the supreme judicial court. He defended them brilliantly. They felt if they had had him as their initial lawyer, it would have been very different. They felt that they would not have been convicted.
AMY GOODMAN: But the appeal didn't work.
BRUCE WATSON: Well, by 1924 and ’25, Massachusetts was digging in its heels. The criticisms were starting to come from around the world. People were starting to look at these doubts that Fred Moore had dug up. An interesting thing that happened in 1927 was that Felix Frankfurter, the future Supreme Court justice, who was a Harvard Law professor at that time, wrote an article for Atlantic Monthly on the case, calling attention to all of these doubts, the bullet and the -- there was a cap that was supposed to fit Sacco that really didn't fit Sacco. And there was a confession in 1925, a death row inmate said, “I was there. I was in the car. Sacco and Vanzetti didn't do this job.” And they investigated and found some much more likely suspects. And Frankfurter called attention to all of this.
But as the criticism came in from all over the world, Massachusetts, a very proud -- I dare say pompous -- and provincial state at that time, very different than it is now, they began to dig in their heels. They were not going to accept the idea that a bunch of, as they saw it, radicals around the world could tell the Massachusetts courts what to do. And so, the supreme judicial court, when it finally went to their level, they looked at all the evidence, and they simply repeated everything that Judge Thayer had said. They repeated everything that he had said about the cap and the bullets and the guns without even mentioning the doubts.
And eventually it became so absurd that when the defense finally got around to filing a motion based on judicial bias, saying this man is biased. Judge Thayer, he called our clients “anarchistic bastards.” Don’t you think that suggests some bias? The supreme judicial court said, “OK, we're going to hear that motion. We’ll appoint a judge to hear on judicial bias.” And the judge that they appointed to rule on Thayer’s bias was Judge Thayer. And so, you had this absurdity of Judge Thayer sitting in court saying, “Prejudice? There was never any prejudice. I was not prejudice.” And that went on through.
So all of William Thompson's eloquence, all of his forceful arguments really were -- he was just fighting uphill. And when he finally resigned from the case, when he finally was -- they had appointed a judicial -- the governor had appointed a three-man commission with the president of Harvard, the president of MIT, to hear the case, and they finally ruled -- basically repeated the same things against Sacco and Vanzetti, William Thompson resigned. He said, “The case is remitted to the judgment of mankind.”
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Watson, what new information did you find in investigating this, well, more-than-eighty-year-old case? It’s been eighty years since the execution.
BRUCE WATSON: Well, there were many things that I found that had -- they were not necessarily -- they were out there waiting for people to dig up. But the literature of this case and the documentation is so vast that, I have to say, nobody can do more than dig into this part or that of it. So I can't blame previous authors for not finding this.
But a couple curious things that I found. First of all, I found a curious thing about the woman who had -- that woman I mentioned earlier who had identified Sacco at the scene of the crime. She fainted during the middle of the court. As testimony -- it was very hot in the courtroom, and as she was on the stand for several hours, finally one day she just fainted dead away. Well, I discovered that when Fred Moore, their lawyer, went up to Maine to talk to her son, he just played a hunch. He said, “Have you ever known your mother to faint?” And this nineteen-year-old kid said, “Oh, my mother faints all the time, whenever anything comes up. And as anything gets harsh, she faints dead away. And then she gets up, and she talks to you about whatever you were just talking about.” So I’m sitting here reading this type of thing.
And then there was -- in 1923, Sacco, who was a very nervous, jittery type, was sent to Bridgewater State Mental Hospital, and he was found to be suffering delusions, they called them, of paranoia. Of course, he had pretty good reasons for being paranoid. But I found the transcript of the entire hearing, three weeks of private hearings, and sat and read the transcripts. And it showed that Judge Thayer thought that Sacco was faking it. Judge Thayer thought he was just trying to -- “Will he escape?” And he asked, “When he goes to Bridgewater, if he goes to Bridgewater, will there be bars on the cage? Will there be a guard around his door all the time?” And William Thompson said, “I’d like to thank the judge for making sure this half-starved man will not escape.”
And then in 1924, an even more suspicious thing came up, when someone switched the barrel on Sacco's gun. Now, this was the gun that was linked to the bullet, allegedly linked to bullet three, one bullet. They had called in -- the defense had called in a new ballistics expert, one of the top -- supposedly one of the top ballistics experts in America, written up in Scientific America, etc. And he wanted to test -- he wanted to test-fire a hundred bullets through the gun. And he discovered, as he went and got the gun one day at the courtroom -- he looked at it and said, “This barrel looks like it's been cleaned, and it's a little wider than the last time I checked it.” And he wasn't quite sure. The gun had been taken apart many times. But he wasn’t quite sure it had been switched. He didn’t go that far, but he said it looked like it had been a -- it was a very different barrel. And then the prosecution checked it out, and they said that someone has switched the bullets on this gun.
A couple weeks later, they called a hearing. Well, no one had ever discovered this, but there was a transcript of that hearing. And I discovered the entire hearing, which opened up whole new ideas of who might have switched the gun. And there was a moment, a key moment, when Fred Moore, the defense attorney, is approaching the key prosecution ballistics expert, and he's been told that this man knows almost nothing about ballistics and he's actually reading statistics from a book in his lap. And this is what he's been told. And Moore goes up, and he says, “Aren't you actually -- can you tell me -- please measure this bullet for me right now.” And the man looks at it, and he reads out these measurements. And Moore says, “Aren't you actually reading these from a book that you have in your lap? And didn’t you do that during the trial?” And the man is all flustered, and he says, “No,” and he reads out these statistics. But it was fascinating really to read this transcript. And so, that was something else I discovered. And many more things.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe the climate and the day that it all took place.
BRUCE WATSON: Well, the execution was originally set for July 10, when they were first sentenced, but then Governor Fuller appointed this three-man commission headed by the president of Harvard. They began to look into it. They couldn't start until their academic year was over, so he postponed it to August 10. When August 10 came, by then Governor Fuller, the entire nation and the world were awaiting the decision a week earlier on August 3. The governor made his decision right around midnight. And it was announced, “OK, the Lowell Commission thinks they're guilty. I’m going to go ahead with them. They're going to die on August 10.”
On August 10, the mood in Boston couldn't have been more tense, because there had already been some bombings -- subway bombings in New York. There had been bombings in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Anarchists were protesting this. They just couldn't take this lying down. And so there was a tense mood all over Boston and really all across America. There were armed guards at every building, every federal building in America by then, and every subway station in Boston and New York. And as midnight approached, it was thought this would be the time. But -- and so, again, there was just all this in the defense committee office in the North End, people were pacing and wondering, are they going to go through with it.
Finally at 11:34 p.m., the governor said, “We have an appeal pending.” They raced a taxi with the word that they were going to postpone it, raced it to Charlestown Prison. Sacco and Vanzetti already had had their heads shaved. They were ready to go to the chair. They called it off. You can imagine what they must have felt the next morning when they awoke. But they only gave them twelve days reprieve.
And in the meantime, there were more bombings, when a juror's home was bombed. And by that time, by the night of August 22, eighty years ago, there was a sense, really, in Boston of the inevitable. The city was wrung out. The tension had just exhausted everybody. There had been a knifing. There had been people -- a man in Denver had killed himself over the tension of the case. There was the world -- there were protests going on all around the world. And there was sort of the sense by then, they're going to go through with it now. There's almost nothing could be done.
There were last-minute appeals to Supreme Court judges. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “This is a state matter. I can't intervene.” He thought they didn’t quite get a fair deal, but he refused to overrule it. And so, it went ahead just after midnight on this night. First Sacco and then Vanzetti were led to the chair and given 2,000 volts and carried out.
AMY GOODMAN: Sacco's wife had pleaded with the governor on her knees?
BRUCE WATSON: Sacco’s wife had pleaded with the governor, and she was with Vanzetti's sister. Vanzetti never married and didn’t have a family, but his sister came all the way from Italy in the last weeks. The press charted her progress. She marched in Paris with a group. She came up to the port city of Le Havre and came over. The press noted everywhere. She landed in New York. She met a crowd there. She came to Boston. In tears, she met her brother in the jail, and they hadn't seen each other since 1908. And she finally on that night, the 22nd, she and Rosina Sacco, Sacco's wife, went to the governor on bended knee and pleaded with him. And he basically repeated phrases from his decision, said, “I can’t. I sympathize with your sorrow, but the Lowell Commission has found the men guilty.” And he ignored their pleas, and the execution went on.
AMY GOODMAN: And the response around the world?
BRUCE WATSON: Shock, sorrow, disbelief, a sense -- Katherine Anne Porter, the author, described being outside the jail, and she said, “Life felt grimy and full of shame and full of disgrace.” And one man who heard her said, “What do you mean? There's no such thing as disgrace anymore.”
And around the world, there were protests, there were riots. The people threw -- uprooted lampposts in Paris, threw them through plate-glass windows. They attacked embassies. The Moulin Rouge was damaged. In Geneva, people took it out on American targets. They targeted stores selling Lucky Strike cigarettes and theaters showing Douglas Fairbanks films. There were strikes all over South America, shut down transportation. The American flag was burned on the steps of the American embassy in Johannesburg. The riots went on. Three people were killed in riots in Germany. The riots went on for a few days, and then finally they stopped.
And Sacco and Vanzetti -- the funeral in Boston attracted 200,000 people that marched through the streets of Boston to the cemetery where they were cremated.
AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Watson, he's the author of Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind.
I want to end with an excerpt of a feature-length documentary by the same title, Sacco and Vanzetti, directed by Peter Miller, released by First Run Features. This clip explores how Sacco and Vanzetti were politicized, why they became anarchists. It features commentary from opera composer Anton Coppola and historians Nunzio Pernicone and Howard Zinn. It also includes John Turturro as the voice of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, reading from his prison writings.
HOWARD ZINN: Most anarchists have a kind of philosophy about what society should be like. And Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed to this philosophy.
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to go back to that excerpt of Sacco and Vanzetti. And if you want a copy of today's show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. You can also see the transcript of today's broadcast. Let's go back to Sacco and Vanzetti.
ANTON COPPOLA: When I came to America, and I saw that people were not living in America, but under America, he meant the bowels of the earth in the subterranean channels of the social strata. He was translating from the Italian. He was saying, “Non in America, ma sotto America.” He sounds very dramatic in Italian, of course. He expresses it in Italian, but if you translate it, it says “not in America, but under America.”
NUNZIO PERNICONE: He looks upon American society, basically American capitalist society, and says a society that allows this kind of exploitation and poverty should not be able to exist. Sacco came to the conclusion, as did Vanzetti, that the state, per se, whether it's a capitalist state or a communist state, is the enemy of freedom and liberty. Consequently, of all the isms available -- socialism, syndicalism -- anarchism was the ideology which to Sacco and Vanzetti, as well, was the purest, the one which promised the greatest hope of human emancipation.
Vanzetti had no personal life, he had no wife, he had no girlfriend. And, in a sense, he embraces anarchism as if it is, you know, a new focal point, a love interest in his life. He embraces it with a passion and dedication that is truly romantic.
BARTOLOMEO VANZETTI: [read by John Turturro] “I champion the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the simple and the persecuted. I maintain that whosoever benefits or hurts a man benefits or hurts the whole species. I sought my liberty and the liberty of all, my happiness and the happiness of all. I wanted a roof for every family, bread for every mouth, education for every heart, light for every intellect. I am convinced that human history has not yet begun, that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is diffused with the rays of the new millennium.” – Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of Sacco and Vanzetti, directed by Peter Miller, released by First Run Features.