In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti
Whether you are reading this book as a classroom student, book club
member, or on your own, the Overview and Discussion Questions below
will sharpen your understanding of a case that divided the nation.
Feel free to reproduce the guide.
It started with a brutal crime—robbery and murder in broad daylight on the streets of South Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. In the controversial court proceedings that followed, two Italian-born anarchists, laborers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In 1927 they went to the electric chair professing their innocence, as supporters around the world staged demonstrations in a futile attempt to save them.
In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti makes extensive use of primary sources, many previously untapped, to give an intimate account of the private lives of the two men at the center of the case, and to portray the turbulent times in which they lived, times marked by nighttime raids and midnight bombings, and colored by battles over immigration, unionism, draft dodging, and violent anarchism. The book also presents an intriguing new theory about how the crime at the heart of the case may have been planned. Many issues that shadowed the long-ago case—ethnic profiling, domestic terrorism, homeland security, and wrongful convictions—continue to challenge society today.
1. Before reading this book, what did you know about Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and their case? Do you view the men or the case differently now, after reading the book? Why, or why not?
2. How did Sacco and Vanzetti each relate to his own family of origin in Italy, and to his supporters in the United States? How did Vanzetti’s English proficiency color people’s perceptions of him? How did Sacco’s concerns about his wife and children affect him in prison? How do you explain the fact that Vanzetti was less successful at acquiring job skills and earning a living than Sacco, yet often was described as the more intelligent of the two?
3. A surge in immigration to America in the early twentieth century prompted laws to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe. How are today’s arguments over immigration reform similar to those of a century ago? How are they different? Do you think the successful assimilation of previous European immigrants and their descendants will be duplicated by current and future immigrants from other parts of the world, or is assimilation more difficult now?
4. How did a 1912 strike by mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, affect Sacco and Vanzetti?
5. Attorneys Fred Moore and William Thompson led the Sacco-Vanzetti defense team at different stages. How did they differ in professional experience? In legal strategies? Why did Judge Webster Thayer find Moore objectionable? How might the outcome of the case have been different if Thompson had been in charge from the start?
6. How might the fate of the defendants have been different if any of their three motions for separate trials had been granted?
7. Why did District Attorney Frederick Katzmann decide to put Vanzetti on trial alone, for a lesser crime, before the joint trial of Sacco and Vanzetti began? Was it a smart move by the prosecution? How did it play out?
8. Convicted murderer Celestino Madeiros said he confessed to taking part in the South Braintree crime because he knew Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent and he felt sorry for Sacco’s children. The prosecution implied that Madeiros confessed for money, and to delay his own execution. What do you think his motives were?
9. In 1917, after the United States went to war, Sacco and Vanzetti briefly left the country to avoid being drafted. In your opinion, why were they cross-examined at their 1921 trial about draft dodging, an offense unrelated to the charges against them?
10. How does the inclusion of numerous first-person accounts—quoted from letters, memoirs, oral histories, police reports, court records, and interviews—affect your perception of the characters in the story? How does it affect the flow of the narrative?
11. Sacco and Vanzetti subscribed to the newspaper of Luigi Galleani, who published instructions for making bombs and advocated what today would be described as domestic terrorism. Galleani’s followers were suspected of carrying out dozens of bombing attacks and attempted attacks in the United States. How did you feel after the terrorist attacks against America on September 11, 2001? Do those feelings give you any insights into how Americans might have viewed supporters of Galleani?
12. Did Katzmann cross-examine Sacco and Vanzetti about anarchism so that they would be deportable even if they were acquitted of murder, as former federal agents claimed? Were Sacco and Vanzetti targeted for their Italian ethnicity, labor activism, and World War I draft dodging, in addition to their anarchist beliefs, as they themselves claimed? Or was the case simply about “murder…and nothing else,” as Katzmann claimed?
13. Late in the case, the defense requested a new trial on grounds that Sacco and Vanzetti had been denied due process because of Judge Thayer’s prejudice. What do you think of the fact that Thayer did not recuse himself from ruling on this motion, that he denied it, and that the state attorney general supported his action?
14. Discuss Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation about the case, that a “thousand-fold worse cases of negroes come up from time to time, but the world does not worry over them.” How have things changed, or not changed, in this regard?
15. As the execution date for Sacco and Vanzetti approached, protests erupted around the world. Did foreign support for the condemned men help or hurt? Explain.
16. The author uncovered evidence that Alessandro Berardelli, murdered by bandits in South Braintree, may have known about the crime in advance, been coerced into helping the bandits, then been double-crossed and killed. Why might Berardelli have cooperated with the perpetrators? Why might they have betrayed him?
17. What is your conclusion about Sacco and Vanzetti? Were they both innocent of the charges against them, both guilty as charged, or one guilty and the other innocent? Explain.
18. Vanzetti said that he and Sacco would die in triumph, having furthered the cause of justice. Do you believe their role as symbols of class struggle was worth dying for? Did they believe it was worth dying for?
19. In your opinion, who are the heroes/heroines of this case? Who are the villains? Explain.
Questions based on
In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti
by Susan Tejada
Northeastern University Press, 2012