Sacco and Vanzetti on Trial

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The trial, and subsequent execution of these two Italian immigrants illustrate the growing intolerance during the Roaring Twenties.

The Crime

On Thursday, April 15, 1920, a murder-robbery occurred in the town of South Braintree, Massachusetts, ten miles outside of Boston. At about 3:00 PM, a paymaster and a guard employed by the Slater and Morrill shoe factory were gunned down by a gang of robbers who stole more than $15,000 of the company payroll and escaped in a stolen car. The crime was viscous; witnesses saw a robber mercilessly pump bullets into the already-fallen guard.

The Background

America in the 20’s wanted nothing to do with Europe or its people, particularly the immigrants who, in their minds, took jobs and brought controversial ideas with them. Many of these ideas challenged the principles of democracy on which President Wilson urged America to fight World War I. In addition, the government was actively arresting (the Palmer Raids) and deporting "known" anarchists back to Europe.

The Players

Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and self-proclaimed anarchists, were arrested three weeks after the crime. Sacco worked at a shoe factory in Soughton, Mass., and Vanzetti was a fish peddler in Plymouth, Mass.

Judge Webster Thayer served as judge at the trial and eventually ordered Sacco and Vanzetti to die. He reportedly told an acquaintance, "We must protect ourselves against them, there are so many reds in the country."

The Jury Foreman was said to have remarked, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway."

The Witnesses (Prosecution)

Lewis Pelser worked at a factory overlooking the crime scene. He claims he saw Sacco shoot the payroll guard, shoot the paymaster and shoot the window through which Pelser was watching the crime.

Frances L. Delvin, a bookeeper, said she saw Sacco shoot into a crowd of onlookers as the car drove away from the crime.

Lola Andrews, a passerby, said she spoke to Sacco who was working under a car on Pearl St. In South Braintree, where the robbery occurred later that day.

Harry Dolbeare repaired pianos and said he saw Sacco in a car with other Italians in South Braintree in the morning before the crime.

Michael Levangie tended to a railroad gate in South Braintree and claims that Vanzetti was driving the getaway car as it drove past his shack.

The Witnesses (Defense)

Dominik Ricci worked as a carpenter and said he saw Sacco at the train station in the morning waiting fr the train.

Angelo Monello, a contractor, said he saw Sacco in Boston’s North End at the time of the crime.

Carlos Affe, a Boston grocery store owner, said he conducted business with Sacco.

LeFarve Brini was friends with Vanzetti and said she was given fish by him that morning.

Melvin Corl was a fisherman and said he spoke to Vanzetti for an hour-and-a-half while Corl painted his boat.

Angel Guidobone also said she purchased fish from him that morning.

Physical Evidence

Sacco owned the same type of pistol (.32 caliber Colt automatic) that was used in the shooting.

There were four bullets found in the corpses. One bullet most likely came from Sacco’s gun - the other three definitely did not.

Vanzetti’s pistol (.38 caliber revolver) was said to be the same type of gun the guard owned and was taken from the scene of the crime. No one knew for sure what type of gun the guard had or even if he wore one that day.

You Be The Judge

What really happened that day? How would you determine the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti? What pieces of evidence convinced you?

Things to Think About

Sacco and Vanzetti both were suspects in a series of bombings that led to the 1919 Palmer Raids. The District Att’y. Could never get enough evidence to bring them to trial.

Sacco and Vanzetti both were involved in illegally selling anarchist literature.Three of Lewis Pelser’s co-workers said he hid underneath a bench during the entire episode.

Lola Andrews failed to identify photo of Sacco.

Vanzetti did not know how to drive.

Both Ricci and Affe were anarchists.

Witnesses disagreed over the number of shots (total) that they heard or saw fired, but did agree they all came from one shooter.