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Sacco-Vanzetti: The Unfinished Debate

May 2024
13min read

Today, thirty-two years after Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for the murder of a paymaster and his guard in South Braintree, Massachusetts, the ghosts of the cobbler and the fish-peddler are not at rest. As recently as last year a joint senate-house committee of the Massachusetts legislature was asked to recommend that the governor issue posthumous pardons, thus correcting “an historical injustice which had besmirched the reputation and standing of Massachusetts in the eyes of the entire world.” No pardons were forthcoming.

In October of 1958 AMERICAN HERITAGE published an article about the case entitled “Tragedy in Dedham,” whose author, Francis Russell, concluded that the two men were innocent of the Braintree crime. Recently we received a letter in reply from Mrs. Dorothy G. Wayman, now a librarian at St. Bonaventure College in upper New York State, but formerly a newspaperwoman who covered the SaccoVanzetti trial. It is published here in the interests of historical fairness, with a brief defense of his original thesis by Mr. Russell.


Reading recently in AMERICAN HERITAGE that the SaccoVanzetti case in 1921 was a miscarriage of justice, I was led to the conclusion that the propaganda of the 1920’s is becoming enshrined in amber. The article in question was written by one who candidly confessed he was a boy in grammar school in 1921.

I was “working press” in those years. I interviewed the prisoners, knew the counsel for both sides, was familiar with the scene and the people of the times.

From the day that Captain Charles Van Amburgh, ballistics expert for the Massachusetts State Police, showed me, in the state police laboratory, how the bullet that had killed Alessandro Berardelli matched test bullets fired from the revolver found on Nicola Sacco at his arrest on a Brockton streetcar, I have been as convinced as the twelve Norfolk County jurymen of the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti.

First, let us rehearse, factually, the events in the payroll robbery, involving two murders and the theft of $15,776, which became a cause célèbre , with six years of litigation and thirty years of ideology.

Life was going on peacefully in April of 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts. I know Braintree, some twenty miles south of Boston, because I grew up in the next town, Randolph. Across from the South Braintree railroad station and a bit downhill on Pearl Street you came first to the Rice & Hutchins shoe factory (where Nicola Sacco had worked under an assumed name); and next to it, the Slater & Morrill shoe factory.

(A few miles further south, in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, four months earlier, on December 24, 1919, there had been an attempted robbery of a payroll for a Bridgewater shoe factory, with gunplay in the street. That payroll was in a guarded truck, the guards returned the shots, and the robbers escaped. You will not find in reference works that Bartolomeo Vanzetti was identified and convicted of participation in that affair and was a convict under sentence when tried, in 1921 with Sacco, for the South Braintree murders. However, it is true.)

Thursdays were paydays at Slater & Morrill. On the morning of Thursday, April 15, 1920, Express Agent Shelly Neal received as usual a consignment of cash for the company. He worried a little because an unfamiliar large black automobile, with engine running, was parked outside the station, and its driver watched Neal cross from the express office with the bundle of money to the office of Slater & Morrill. The car, however, drove off toward the village square. Two hours later, with no train due, William Heron, a railroad detective, noticed two strange men—Italians, he thought —enter the station and loiter by the restroom. (After the arrest, a fortnight later, Heron identified Sacco as one of them.)

Shortly before Heron saw the men in the railroad station, Mrs. Lois Andrews, looking for a job at the Slater & Morrill factory, saw a large, black automobile parked in front of the factory and a man bent under the hood as though tinkering with something. She tapped the man on the back and asked about the other shoe factory. He stood up and told her which door to go in for the employment office at the Rice & Hutchins factory.

Two or three hours elapsed while the Slater & Morrill payroll was being put in the individual pay envelopes.

Frederick Parmenter was the official paymaster for the Slater & Morrill shoe factory; Alessandro Berardelli, his armed guard. During the robbery and murder, Berardelli’s Harrington & Richardson revolver disappeared.

The two set out that sunny April afternoon about three o’clock to walk, as they did every Thursday, the short distance across the railroad tracks, down the hill, from the office to the Slater & Morrill shoe factory. Office employees watched them from the second-story window with a clear view. Each man was carrying a long, flat tin box, like a covered tray, filled with pay envelopes stacked in order.

As they walked, they met James E. Bostock, machinist at the Slater & Morrill factory, who, leaving the factory to come uphill, had seen two foreign-looking strangers—he thought they were Italian fruit-peddlers—loafing near the factory. Parmenter spoke to Bostock about a pulley that needed repair. The two with the payroll went on down the hill. A moment later, Bostock heard shots and turned around. As recorded in the official trial transcript, Bostock testified:

Parmenter had started [to run] across the street … There was probably eight or ten shots … [a man] stood over Berardelli. He shot, I should say, he shot at Berardelli probably four or five times … Probably I was away from him 50 or 60 feet … and as I turned they swung around and shot at me twice … The automobile came up the street … saw the two that done the shooting and one other that got off the runningboard … he got out and helped throw the two cans, or boxes … that had the payroll, in … I saw it was a Buick car … As it passed me, I went back to where Berardelli was laying … He laid, he set, just off the sidewalk … He laid in a kind of crouched position and I helped lay him down and everytime he breathed, blood flowed and was coming out his mouth.

One of the four bullets fired into Berardelli’s body as Bostock watched in horror was extracted at the autopsy and was proved, ballistically, to have been fired from the Colt .32-caliber revolver that police found concealed on Sacco at his arrest.

There were a number of other eyewitnesses. Their cumulative testimony may be read in the transcript of the trial. The jury heard their living voices, watched as they made identifications of the accused on trial.

Let us pass on to the sworn testimony of Sacco and Vanzetti concerning their actions from April 15 to May 5, 1920, and the circumstances of their arrest.

Ever since the attempted payroll robbery in Bridgewater the previous December, police throughout southern Massachusetts had been investigating “suspicious characters.” One whom they had under surveillance was an Italian named Boda who lived in Bridgewater; he had been seen driving a large, black Buick like that described in the Braintree payroll robbery. A Braintree shoeworker named Pelzer had seen the robbery and had written down the license number of that car. It was soon found, abandoned in woodland; the number plate had been stolen in December.

Boda owned an Overland car, which he had taken for repairs to the garage of Simon Johnson, a law-abiding citizen. Police asked Johnson to notify them if Boda or anyone else came to claim the Overland.

On the evening of May 5, 1920, after the Johnsons had gone to bed, four men knocked at their door. Mrs. Ruth Johnson opened the door and saw, by the headlight of a motorcycle, Boda and three others. While her husband detained Boda in conversation, Mrs. Johnson went to a neighbor’s house and telephoned police. Two of the men, whom she later identified as Sacco and Vanzetti, followed her, going and coming back.

Her husband, meanwhile, had convinced Boda that without 1920 license plates the latter could not drive his Overland out of the garage onto the highways. Boda and another man, testified to have been one Orciani, then mounted the motorcycle, drove away and were never subsequently apprehended by police.

Sacco and Vanzetti walked away in the direction of the electric streetcar line to Brockton (nearest point to Stoughton, where Sacco lived and Vanzetti was temporarily visiting him). Police, alerted by Mrs. Johnson’s telephone call, boarded the next streetcar from Bridgewater and arrested the pair. When searched at the Brockton police station Sacco was found to be carrying the Colt .32-caliber revolver with a number of cartridges to fit it. On Vanzetti was a Harrington & Richardson revolver, similar to the one missing from the body of the murdered payroll guard, Berardelli.

All the eyewitnesses of the Braintree crime were given an opportunity to view Sacco and Vanzetti at the police station, and a number identified them. This is important, as it happened only two weeks after the crime, although their indictment by a Norfolk County grand jury and their trial at Dedham Courthouse did not come until a year later. Part of the delay was due to the trial (and conviction) of Vanzetti for the attempted payroll robbery in Bridgewater in December, 1919, which had priority.

Under Massachusetts law, no reference was made, at the Dedham trial, to Vanzetti’s previous trial and conviction. No eyewitness testified to seeing Vanzetti fire a shot, but again under Massachusetts law, an accessory present and participating in a crime where murder occurs is equally subject to the death penalty.

In retrospect, the extraordinary thing, to me and to other reporters and citizens of the area, was the instant organization—May 7, 1930—of an enthusiastic Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. My newspaper editor sent me often to the Defense headquarters at 256 Hanover Street, Boston, to interview the various people that congregated there—professed anarchists, sympathetic liberals, and emotional Italians. The Defense Committee brought from California, as chief defense counsel, a lawyer who had previously defended persons accused of anarchist violence. In four years, The New York Times reported on October 4, 1925, the Defense Committee collected and accounted publicly for the spending of nearly a third of a million dollars. They subsequently carried the litigation, with reiterated appeals, to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to the governor of Massachusetts, and to several justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, for two more years, exhausting every legal resource before the death sentence was carried out on August 23, 1927.

In thirty years as a reporter on a metropolitan newspaper, never again did I see such lavish outlay of money, or such public furor as was elicited for the defense of two aliens, arrested carrying guns, convicted of murder in connection with a payroll robbery.

Setting aside the public furor, the naked issue in the six-year controversy, quite simply, was the validity in our civilization of trial by jury. That issue was clearly recognized and upheld by the high court of Massachusetts and by the Supreme Court of the United States, both denying petitions for new trials, after prolonged hearings on appeals.


Anyone might think that a generation that has seen “blood purges” in Nazi Germany or “state trials” in Russia would recognize and defend the institution of trial by a jury of a man’s peers, with rights to counsel and appeal.

Sacco’s defense was an alibi. He swore that on April 15, 1920, he had spent the day in Boston, to get a passport to return to Italy. He could not produce a passport, but his story ran that he had taken in a large family photograph and was told he must have a regulation passport photo. The defense produced an affidavit made in Italy of a former clerk in the Boston consulate, whose memory was phenomenal. After a year, he not only recalled Sacco’s few minutes in the consulate, and the family group photo, but even fixed the time within fifteen minutes!

April 15 was a Thursday. Sacco, under oath at his trial, had testified that he needed the passport because “we were going Saturday to New York to get the steamboat.” Yet, instead of walking half a mile from the consulate to Scollay Square, Boston, which was lined with studios specializing in passport photos delivered immediately, he said that he had loafed around Boston all day in restaurants, and gone to work on Friday, telling his boss that the consulate was so crowded that he could not get his passport.

As for Vanzetti, whose alibi was that he had been selling eels all day around Plymouth, Massachusetts, he testified at the trial that on April 22 he went to Boston to consult with radical friends and thence to New York to see the lawyer for an Italian held for deportation. It is a fact that not one dollar of the Slater & Morrill payroll was traced by police to either Sacco or Vanzetti. It is also a fact that more than a third of a million dollars was forthcoming for their defense.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti admitted their anarchist affiliations at the trial. (Sacco’s last words, as he went to the electric chair, were “Long live anarchy!”) They admitted going with Boda and Orciani by prearrangement on the evening of May 5, 1920, to get Boda’s Overland car from the Johnson garage. They said they intended to visit radical friends to collect and secrete subversive literature to avoid deportation.

After the first appeals for a new trial had been denied, late in 1925, one Celestino Madeiros, a fellow prisoner with Sacco in the Dedham jail, suddenly “confessed” that he, with others he declined to name, had committed the South Braintree robbery and that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had been with them. Aside from palpable discrepancies, such as that the payroll was in a black bag (it was in two flat tin boxes) and that he and his gang had driven from Providence to Boston, back to Providence, from Providence to Braintree and then “spent some time in a speak-easy” before the three o’clock crime, his confession left unexplained Sacco’s possession of the Colt revolver.

When all the appeals to higher courts had been considered and denied, six years after the original trial, the Defense Committee sought a pardon for Sacco and Vanzetti, then under sentence of death. Governor Alvan T. Fuller of Massachusetts, a conscientious man, appointed as an advisory committee A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University; Samuel W. Stratton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Robert Grant, retired judge of the probate court in Boston. As a newspaper reporter I knew them all personally. I considered them to have been honorable men of ability and probity.

They interviewed the eleven jurors then surviving, the judge, district attorney, defense counsel, and forty-one witnesses for the prosecution and the defense. They went to the prison with Governor Fuller to interview Sacco, Vanzetti, and the “confessing” convict Madeiros. In the end, they published a report stating that on the evidence, they believed that the jury’s verdict was warranted.

During the six years, the furor of public opposition to the verdict had been not only vocal but violent. The defense enlisted statements in behalf of the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti from prominent people all over the world. Others, who remained anonymous, took more violent means of opposition. Starting in 1921, American embassies were bombed in Paris, Havana, and various South American countries. So, over the next few years, were the homes of the presiding judge, a juror, a key witness, and even Robert Elliott, the official executioner who threw the switch.

“The lovers of justice,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Harold Laski, “have emphasized their love by blowing up a building or two.”

Threats had been sent to Governor Fuller, Justice Holmes, and other officials, so that police had them under day-and-night guard in those days. Justice Holmes was one of four on the United States Supreme Court who had had petitions presented to them and, after consideration, had declined to intervene. The others were Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Harlan F. Stone and Chief Justice William Howard Taft. On the opinion of such men, I am willing to believe that the two gunmen were afforded every opportunity to have their innocence established, had they been innocent.

In the nearly forty years since a Braintree paymaster and his guard with the payroll were shot to death, the world has seen many attempts to destroy the democratic way of life. It is important for future generations that the record of facts be not distorted.

There exists a five-volume transcript of the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, but few have the time to read, analyze, and ponder it. At least, let the inaccuracies that have crept into the literature of the cause célèbre be corrected. Let Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself a Massachusetts man, a great jurist, one concerned in and cognizant of the trial, be quoted. At the time, he could not properly speak publicly, but he left the record. He wrote: “I think the row that has been made idiotical.” And again: “Sacco and Vanzetti … were turned into a text by the reds.”

Dorothy G. Wayman

Mr. Russell replies:

Mrs. Wayman may have seemed to make a good case for herself, but when her points are examined carefully none of them is tenable.

In the matter of the bullet, I think it is unquestionable that the one shown her by Captain Van Amburgh was from Sacco’s pistol. Yet all witnesses testified that only one man shot Berardelli, that this man stood over him and emptied his revolver into him. Four bullets were found in Berardelli’s body. When exhibited in court three of these were admittedly from a weapon not found on Sacco or Vanzetti. The fourth bullet was from a Colt of the type Sacco carried. Therefore either the murderer used two guns or else someone switched a bullet. Medical Examiner McGrath on removing the bullets marked each with a number. The Colt bullet, however, seems to have been marked with a different instrument than the other three. Furthermore, the man who shot Berardelli was seen to reload. Four shells were found near the body. When shown in court only one was from a Colt. Yet the gunman was observed to reload only once. Certainly he could not have ejected two kinds of cartridges from one revolver.

By Lois Andrews I presume Mrs. Wayman is referring to the witness Lola R. Andrews. Lola Andrews talked with a man in South Braintree the day of the murders whom she later identified in court as Sacco. Yet she talked with him in English, unaware of any accent, though Sacco at the time could scarcely speak English at all. Mrs. Andrews, a hysterical woman, later repudiated her court testimony.

James E. Bostock saw the shooting more closely than any other witness. The getaway car passed within feet of him. When at the trial he was asked if he could identify Sacco and Vanzetti, he replied, “No, sir.” To the question whether he could tell if the defendants were the two men he saw do the shooting he answered: “No, sir, I could not tell whether or not they was, no sir.”

For the eyewitnesses who identified Sacco and Vanzetti, an equal number denied they were the men. As Police Chief Gallivan of Braintree later remarked: “The Government would put on a witness there and then the defense would rush in to offset it … That’s the way the case appeared to me to be drifting along, to strive to see who could get the biggest crowd. In other words to see who could tell the biggest lies.” As to the identification procedure before the trial, it was most irregular. Witnesses were not asked to pick Sacco and Vanzetti from a line-up but were shown them alone. Again, Mrs. Wayman is wrong about Orciani. He was arrested the day after Sacco and Vanzetti, but as he was able to provide a time-clock alibi he was released.

Mrs. Wayman gives the impression that Vanzetti’s earlier trial was independent of the Dedham trial. Such is not the case. Neither he nor Sacco had been suspected of any crime until they were accidentally picked up by the police a few weeks after the Braintree crime. Vanzetti’s counsel was afterward able to show a receipt for eels that Vanzetti the fish-peddler had signed in Plymouth the day he was supposed to have made the earlier robbery attempt.

Sacco and Vanzetti were convinced anarchists, and it is quite true that anarchists all over the land rallied to their defense, just as it is true that the Communists found the case convenient for their own political ends. One of Mrs. Wayman’s colleagues on the Boston Globe , Frank P. Sibley, attended every day of the Dedham trial. Later he testified to the Lowell Committee: “His [Judge Thayer’s] conduct was very improper. What affected one more than anything else was his manner. It is nothing that you can read into the record. In my thirty-five years I never saw anything like it.”

Mrs. Wayman should realize that a jury’s verdict is not sacrosanct. Both Maine and Rhode Island abolished capital punishment after it was discovered that innocent men had been executed in those states. Four years ago a Santos Rodriguez was convicted by a Massachusetts jury of murder, a conviction aided by his own confession. Yet last year he was finally proven innocent, and released.

Madeiros in his confession admitted that he was drunk during the holdup. Some of the details he gave may be wrong or hazy, yet the confession does account for five men being at the robbery. Although all witnesses testified to the five men including a blond driver, the prosecution made no consistent attempt to account for the other three. Madeiros was a member of the notorious Morelli gang of Providence.

As for Governor Fuller and the Lowell Committee, Fuller was a hesitant parvenu and President Lowell of Harvard had a hard Yankee bias against foreigners.

In conclusion I should like to point out that though anarchists have in the past committed acts of political violence as a gesture of protest against society, their motivations, however misguided, have been idealistic ones for which they have been willing to sacrifice their lives. Such a sordid commercial crime as the one in South Braintree would never have come within the anarchist canon. Anyone who reads the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti must realize how incompatible a robbery-murder was with the two men’s characters.

Francis Russell


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