Sorrowful Centennial, part 2: The Trial Begins

On May 31, 1921, one hundred years ago, the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on charges of robbery and murder began in a Massachusetts courthouse. The trial would become notorious for many reasons, not the least of which was the unabashed prejudice of the judge, Webster Thayer. The following account of the early days of the trial is adapted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

ON MAY 31, 1921, THEY CAME TOGETHER at last in Superior Court in Dedham—the lawyers, reporters, federal undercover agents, defense supporters, and the defendants themselves, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. As they took their seats in a heavily guarded courtroom, jury selection got underway.

Five hundred citizens of Norfolk County made up the initial jury pool—at the time reportedly the largest jury pool ever called in the state.

Lawyers did not question potential jurors directly; it was up to Judge Webster Thayer to approve and ask all the questions. Most jurors who were excused from duty got off for opposition to the death penalty, but not before undergoing “a scorching and scornful inquiry” from Thayer. “Do you set your opinions above the law?” he asked one. To another: Do you lack courage? And to another: Did you ever do anything to get the law changed?

By the end of the third day, only seven jurors had been chosen. The pool of five hundred potential jurors was exhausted, and the county sheriff and his deputies had to round up two hundred more candidates overnight, anywhere they could find them, in buildings wherever they saw a light still burning.The last juror was chosen after midnight on June 4.

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Labor lawyer Fred Moore headed up the defense team. For more than ten years Moore had represented the miners, migrant workers, and other itinerants who made up the core of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In the first few days of the trial, before a single syllable of the opening statements had been uttered, Webster Thayer revealed such a visceral antipathy to Moore that it would become the stuff of legend. The conservative judge and the radical lawyer got on each other’s last nerve. According to local lawyer Tom McAnarney, who was a member of the defense team, whenever Moore addressed the court, “it was quite similar to waving a red flag in the face of a [bull].” Moore’s remarks, McAnarney observed in an understatement, “got under Judge Thayer’s skin.” Tom McAnarney’s brother and fellow lawyer, John McAnarney, also observed the Thayer-Moore interplay in court. To his brother, he tersely summed up his reaction: “Your goose is cooked.”

Judge Webster Thayer

During the trial it was the custom of reporters, lawyers, and the judge to walk to the Dedham Inn when court recessed for lunch. On these midday breaks Thayer often spoke about the case to reporters. Walking back to the courthouse after lunch one day during the first week of the trial, he “proceeded to discuss Attorney Moore,” reporter Frank Sibley later recalled. Thayer “exclaimed, ‘I’ll show them that no long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!” Another reporter, John Nicholas Beffel, recalled Thayer expressing his anger during the first week at Moore for objecting to the court’s unorthodox method of enlarging the jury pool. Thayer shook his fist, Beffel recalled, and told the reporters, “You wait till I give my charge to the jury. I’ll show em!”

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For seven blisteringly hot weeks that summer, the long trial continued. It ended with each defendant found guilty of two counts of murder in the first degree.

Three months after the trial, Frank Sibley sent a confidential letter to the attorney general of Massachusetts. In it, Sibley listed multiple examples of what he saw as Judge Thayer’s unfairness and objectionable behavior: belittling defense lawyers in court, working with the prosecution to “[force] the defendants to connect up state’s evidence,” and “taking at face value the testimony of an obviously coached and perjured policeman….”

Over the course of the next six years, the defense would file six motions for a new trial—some based on new evidence, others on recanting witnesses, and one based on a confession by another prisoner, admitting to his participation in the crime and stating in writing that “Sacco and Vanzetti was not in said crime.”

Under state law in effect at the time, the judge who would rule on all motions for a new trial would be the same judge who had ruled at the original trial. Thayer denied all the motions. On April 9, 1927 he sentenced Sacco and Vanzetti to death.

≈ ≈

One of the most shocking episodes of this already controversial case was about to occur.

Thayer was already widely viewed as behaving more like an advocate than an arbitrator, an opinion that had intensified in March 1927, when then-Harvard Law School professor Felix Frankfurter had published a scathing attack on the prosecution’s tactics and the judge’s misrepresentations.

In August, the defense filed a seventh motion for a new trial, zeroing in on a single issue: judicial prejudice. The motion stated that, in violation of the Constitutions of both the United States and of the Commonwealth of Massachsetts, “the Honorable Webster Thayer…was so prejudiced…that the defendants…have never had such a trial…as constitutes due process of law.” The defense requested that a judge other than Thayer be assigned to hear this new motion. The chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court denied the request.

Then, almost unbelievably, on August 8 Judge Thayer sat in judgment on himself.
“[T]here is not any [prejudice] now and never was at any time,” he reportedly said. He denied the request for a new trial and, the next day, he declined to revoke sentence or issue a stay of execution.

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Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died in the Massachusetts electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Less than six years later, Webster Thayer, age 75, died of a stroke.

He was the “most bitterly attacked judge in the history of the United States,” the Boston Globe reported upon his death. He “was known all over the world for just one reason”: the Sacco-Vanzetti trial.

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Sorrowful Centennial

A hundred years ago today, on April 15, 1920, Bartolomeo Vanzetti wheeled his pushcart through the streets of Plymouth, Massachusetts, offering fish for sale. Then he purchased some men’s suit fabric from a traveling salesman, and chatted with a fisherman on the shore who was putting a fresh coat of paint on his boat.

A hundred years ago today, Nicola Sacco took a day off from his job at a shoe factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts. He spent the day in Boston, trying to get a family passport from the Italian consulate there, and having lunch with friends at a restaurant in the Little Italy section of the city’s North End.

And a hundred years ago today, Frederick Parmenter, a paymaster, and Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard, perished. They were doing their job, delivering payroll
money to a shoe factory, when they were gunned down in broad daylight on the streets of South Braintree, Massachusetts, and the money boxes they carried were snatched from their hands.

The day after the murders, a news report on the South Braintree crime appeared on an inside page of the Boston Evening Transcript, shoehorned between an ad for Bond Bread and an ad for salted butter.

No one could have known at the time that the names of these four men—Sacco, Vanzetti, Parmenter, and Berardelli—would be remembered and linked forever in a tragic story of violence, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, and injustice.

Two men murdered. Two other men wrongfully convicted and executed for the murders. Four families grief-stricken.

On this centennial of an American tragedy, attention, as Arthur Miller wrote in a different context, must be paid.






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New Podcast on the Sacco-Vanzetti Case

Ninety-nine years ago.

That’s when Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested in Massachusetts for a crime they almost surely did not commit. They were convicted, but they “did not receive a fair trial,” according to a later statement by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, an institution at the very heart of the case. The backdrop of the controversial case resembles in uncomfortable ways the times in which we live today.

Listen to a podcast about the case on “Most Notorious,” the true crime history podcast hosted by Erik Rivenes. It’s available on Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and other platforms.


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Yes, Sadly, It Has Happened Here Before

As I write this on Friday afternoon, October 26, 2018, thirteen package bombs have been discovered so far this week, mailed to prominent critics of Donald Trump whom he likes to denounce, disparage, and denigrate.

Thankfully none of the bombs detonated, and a suspect has been arrested.

Nearly a hundred years ago, in an eerie prequel, a similar influx of infernal machines, or bombs, was terrifying Americans. 

Page One headline in the Boston Evening Transcript, June 3, 1919.

Suspects were questioned, but the investigation went nowhere. Technology available to law enforcement today fortunately makes
an unsuccessful outcome like that increasingly unlikely.

The following account of the so-called May Day package bombs of 1919 is adapted from my book, In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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BOMBING SEEMED to be in the air in the spring of 1919. In March came reports of an alleged radical plot to bomb Chicago. In April similar reports came from Pittsburgh. May 1, May Day, a kind of labor day for radicals, was fast approaching. It would prove to be a harbinger of fear, marking the discovery of a nationwide terrorist bombing conspiracy.

It began with a package bomb mailed from New York to Mayor Ole Hanson in Seattle and delivered to his office on April 28, 1919. The bomb failed to go off because the staff member who opened the package happened to do so from the wrong end. The next day another package bomb with similar markings was delivered to the Atlanta home of a former senator from Georgia who had chaired the Senate Committee on Immigration. He was not at home, but his wife and maid were injured when the bomb exploded.

The following day, April 30, 1919, a New York postal clerk reading a newspaper account of the package bombs realized that he had shelved sixteen identical packages for insufficient postage. It’s hard to believe that bomb-building terrorists could be so inattentive to detail that they would use the wrong amount of postage, but that’s what happened. The clerk notified authorities, and the sixteen packages were safely intercepted. All had been mailed from New York in late April.

Post offices around the country were put on alert for more bombs, and indeed more were found—more than thirty May Day bombs in all, mailed to a virtual hit list of anarchist enemies, including Cabinet officers, United States senators and representatives, governors, mayors, judges, district attorneys, a police commissioner, a newspaper editor, and three industrialists—John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and William Wood, president of the American Woolen Company of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

None of the bombs hurt its intended target, but the bold plot and wide net were alarming. Angry citizens disrupted radical meetings and parades in several cities on May Day.

Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, bombers struck again. On June 2, 1919, explosions blasted nine new targets, spreading what the Washington Post called “Nation-Wide Terror.” In Massachusetts, the homes of a judge in Boston and a state legislator in Newtonville were damaged. In New York City, the target was a judge’s home. In Paterson, New Jersey, it was a textile executive’s home, and in Cleveland, it was the home of the mayor. There were multiple targets in Pennsylvania.

Most shocking of all, a bomb rocked the Washington, D.C. home of the Attorney General of the United States.

More of the very long front-page headline deck from the June 3, 1919 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript.

Doors were blasted off, windows smashed, the front of the house shattered. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, sitting near an upstairs window, was showered with glass but unhurt. This strike in the nation’s capital, a mere two miles from the White House, “challenged the government,” the Post declared; anarchists were “trying to kill the man who has an army of agents on their trail.”

All the June 2 bombs exploded around midnight, a time clearly chosen for maximum impact, since most of the targets were private homes likely to be occupied at that hour by sleeping residents. Each bomb contained about twenty pounds of dynamite and caused extensive damage.

Miraculously none of the people presumed to be targets of the midnight blasts was seriously injured, which isn’t to say that no one died. A watchman in New York was killed, and the attorney general’s would-be assassin was “blown to atoms,” an early if accidental suicide bomber. Bits and pieces of his body flew up and down the street, onto doorsteps and roofs, through open windows into neighboring homes.

At each bomb site, investigators found identical leaflets with a chilling message:

“. . . [C]lass war is on. . . . [W]e have aspired to a better world, and you jailed us,
you clubbed us, you deported us, you murdered us. . . . Do not expect us to sit down
and pray and cry. . . . We mean to speak for [the proletariat with] the voice of dynamite, through the mouth of guns. . . .”

 Today a message like this would be blasted instantaneously around the world through social media. In 1919 it was printed on pink paper found scattered on lawns, in streets, and in the detritus of the bombed buildings.

Entitled “Plain Words,” the flyer was signed by a group calling itself The Anarchist Fighters. A group with a similar name—The American Anarchists—had signed “Go-Head!,” a flyer distributed a few months earlier in New England. Neither group issued additional statements claiming responsibility for specific bombings.

The synchronicity of “Plain Words” and the bombings of June 2, 1919 left little doubt
that the so-called Anarchist Fighters were behind the June bombs. “Forces of law and order, shocked into activity by the bomb outrages . . . , are today aligned against the anomaly of organized anarchy,” the Boston Evening Transcript announced on June 3. Agents from the Department of Justice and “police throughout the country are hunting the organized band of Anarchists who last night launched what they called an attempt to overthrow the government. . . .”

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TOO MANY BOMBS, too many threats of violence: Americans felt encircled and endangered by unseen, unknown forces. After the 1919 May Day bombs, newspapers reported that investigators were “sleeplessly” working on the case, arrests were “imminent,” and “the net tightens.” After the June bombs, “newspapers were again ablaze with police reports of rapid progress. . . . [T]he bomb-throwers were hourly on the verge of capture.” In fact, however, as the Washington Post noted, “no arrest has yet been made [in the May Day case], though a month has elapsed,” and in the June case the immediate investigative results were “practically futile.”

Attorney General Palmer was shaken by his close call. One day after the June explosions, he began a reorganization at the Department of Justice. Ten days after the explosions, he asked Congress for more money to prevent “the wild fellows of this movement” from “ris[ing] up and destroy[ing] the Government at one fell swoop.” Palmer recruited William Flynn, a former Secret Service director whom he called “the greatest anarchist expert in the United States,” to head the Department’s Bureau of Investigation.

In the immediate aftermath of the June 2 bombings, more than sixty suspects were taken in for questioning, without productive result. “Public Demands Action,” declared the Washington Post on June 4. A muscular new policy was needed: “Act First, Theorize Afterward.”

The perpetrators continued to remain at large, however. “No arrests are in sight at this time,” Flynn admitted on June 6.

By autumn 1919, the investigation into the Palmer house bombing had hit a wall. No suspects had been charged in any of the May Day or June 2 bombings.

The “lack of real ‘leads’ is remarkable,” commented Louis Post, Assistant Secretary of Labor at the time. “How was it possible for so gigantic a conspiracy of revolutionaries, if that is what it was, or so desperate an outburst of proletarian passion, if it was that, to have escaped detection when most of the detective agencies of the country . . . were pursuing the perpetrators of its crimes with tireless zeal? . . . [W]hat inference is possible, in all reason, except that the crimes were not of ‘ultra-radical’ origin, or else that the detectives were grossly inefficient?”


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Death Comes for Sacco and Vanzetti

Mug shots of Nicola Sacco, 29, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 31 (with ID tag), taken after their arrest on May 6, 1920.

Mug shots of Nicola Sacco, above, age 29, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 31, after their arrest on May 6, 1920.

7-Mug-Vanzetti Ninety years ago this August, more than 700 law enforcement officers stood guard in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. It was August 22, 1927, and Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were scheduled to die in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison at midnight.

In 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Their imprisonment and motions for a new trial had played out against a background of rising immigration restriction and domestic terrorism. By 1927, the case had become an international cause célèbre.

This post describes the men’s final hours.


Monday, August 22, 1927

Defense attorneys reflexively went through legal motions. Barring a miracle, the last grain of sand in the Sacco-Vanzetti hourglass would fall at midnight.

Around the world people who believed in the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti took to the streets. There was a bombing in Argentina and “feverish interest” in Germany. Twelve thousand demonstrators gathered in Hyde Park in London. There was a call for general strikes in Australia and in Paraguay. Protestors marched in Mexico and Switzerland. In Paris, police were reported to be mobilizing against “Sacco outbreaks,” as if support for the prisoners was spreading like the plague. In the United States police were on red alert. Officers in Chicago received instructions “to rush every Sacco-Vanzetti assemblage and to be liberal in the use of tear bombs.” Special guards were assigned to protect monuments and government buildings in Washington, and bridges and subways in New York.

Police break up a demonstration of "Sacco backers" protesting at the Massachusetts State House. As the date of the executions drew near, support for the condemned men intensified.

Police break up a demonstration of “Sacco backers” protesting at the Massachusetts State House. As the date of the executions drew near, support for the condemned men intensified.

In Boston, at the center of the action, demonstrators maintained their State House protest. A bystander told Mary Donovan, secretary of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, that he would “be damn glad when they fry those wops tonight and get this thing over.”

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Vanzetti’s sister, Luigia, and Sacco’s wife, Rosina, tried to keep busy. They called on William Cardinal O’Connell, archbishop of Boston. Luigia appealed to the cardinal for his help, but was said to understand that the prelate’s role was “strictly spiritual.”

Rosina and Luigia also went to the State House to plead with Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller. According to attorney Michael Musmanno, who interpreted for them at this interview and who later reconstructed the scene, Mrs. Sacco appealed to Fuller as a family man: “My husband was always good and faithful to me. He was devoted to his home. Is that the way bandits act? . . . Governor, help my children! Do not kill their father! Please, please, have mercy and have justice. . . . Won’t you see how innocent Nick is?”

For her part, Luigia Vanzetti appealed to the governor as a religious man: “[My brother’s] innocence is assured. Of that there can be no doubt. God has recorded that on the books; the only problem in this long case has been to have those in authority read God’s handwriting. . . . On my knees, oh, Governor! I implore you, do not let America become known as the land of cruelty instead of mercy. I beg of you, I pray you for mercy!”

The governor said he was impressed by the two women, but had no doubts about the prisoners’ guilt.

≈ ≈

Although Governor Fuller was not about to change his mind, he stayed in his office until midnight on August 22, making himself available to just about anybody who wanted to see him.The visitors streamed in.

Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay met with him, then sent a follow-up letter begging the governor to ask himself: What would Jesus do? Jesus would not, she believed, have walked “the way in which your feet are set! . . . There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.”

Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York met with Fuller. Ten years earlier the two men had served together in the United States House of Representatives. Now, La Guardia told reporters, “There is about one chance in a thousand” for a successful appeal.

Paul Kellogg, editor of the social policy journal Survey, met with the governor. Together with five other prominent citizens, he asked for a stay of execution until doubts could be resolved. Fuller accused the group of being manipulated by Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School and author of a blistering and influential analysis of the case.

Nearly a thousand letters and telegrams, most urging clemency, also swamped Fuller’s office that day.

Inside Charlestown State Prison


Rosina and Luigia arrived for the first of three visits they would make to the prison that day. The women entered the death house “with faltering steps,” the Boston Globe reported, and left an hour later showing “evidences of great sorrow.”


Robert Elliott arrived. The professional electrician worked as a free-lance executioner for several states, including Massachusetts. He did an equipment check on Charlestown’s heavy wooden electric chair with its straps, high back, broad arms, rubber-padded headrest, and legs bolted to the floor:

“I make certain [for each execution that the chair] is hooked up and that no wires are broken. I inspect the adjusting screws, test the strength of the straps, and determine whether the buckles work freely. A strap did break during an execution, and I try to prevent a repetition of this.

“Then I look to see if the mask is where it should be, and ascertain whether its strap and buckle are sound. The mask, usually a black leather band with an opening for the nostrils and mouth, serves a double purpose: that of shielding the face and holding the head in place. . . .

“A pail of brine—nothing more than a solution of common salt and water—is prepared. In this are soaked the sponges of the electrodes to insure a good contact. . . .

“My next step is to test the apparatus. This is accomplished in either of two ways. One is to attach a board of electric lights to the wires leading to the chair. . . . The other is to put the two electrodes in a bucket of water, with perhaps a pinch of salt, and close the circuit.”

Inside the prison, the atmosphere was tense, Elliott observed. Nerves were almost at the breaking point.

Late afternoon

Rosina and Luigia visited again, then attorney William Thompson arrived. Thompson had represented Sacco and Vanzetti in the final years of the case. He had received a message that Vanzetti wanted to see him before he died.

Lawyer and client spoke of battles they had fought, and of the future. Vanzetti gave Thompson “his most solemn reassurance . . . with a sincerity which I could not doubt, . . . that both he and Sacco were absolutely innocent of the South Braintree crime.” Vanzetti said he understood more clearly than ever that he would not have been convicted “had he not been an anarchist, so that he was in a very real sense dying for his cause. He said it was a cause for which he was prepared to die. He said it was the cause of the upward progress of humanity. . . . He asked me to do what I could to clear his name. . . .”

They talked about Christianity. The condemned man “asked me whether I thought it possible that he could forgive” his persecutors. Thompson replied that he did not know, but suggested that Vanzetti try, “for his own peace of mind, and also because an example of such forgiveness would in the end be more powerful . . . than anything else.” Vanzetti said he would think about it.

Before leaving the death house, Thompson said farewell to Sacco, in the adjacent cell. The two men had often disagreed about strategy. Now Sacco told Thompson that “he hoped that our differences . . . had not affected our personal relations, thanked me for what I had done for him, showed no sign of fear, shook hands with me firmly [through the bars], and bade me goodbye. His manner also was one of absolute sincerity.”

Five o’clock

Suppertime at Charlestown. A light supper was brought to the prisoners in the death house. No one was hungry.

Six o’clock

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the autodidact who had kept up such an extensive correspondence with so many people during seven years behind bars, sat down to write his last known letter. It was a message for lecturer and liberal activist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, namesake of his famous literary grandfather. Vanzetti thanked him for “all that you have done for Nicola, I, and for our families.” He asked Dana for a final favor: “What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood . . . and serve as a tremendous lesson . . . so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain.”

Aldino Felicani arrived at the prison while Vanzetti was writing this letter. By law, someone was required to claim the bodies of electrocuted prisoners before they died. “It was up to me to do that,” said Felicani, the friend who had started the men’s defense committee and had supported them untiringly.

Journalist Gardner Jackson accompanied Felicani to the jail. “The whole city was an armed camp,” Felicani recalled. “My heart was beating fast. The trip . . . was made in silence. . . . We reached the jail. The atmosphere that prevailed was suspense and fear. . . . Inmates appeared to be watching in the shadows. . . . Everyone, at the entrance, in the lobby, in the office, was busy with the details of the execution. I entered the office. The warden, Mr. Hendry, was there. He was drunk. I asked him what the procedure was and he gave me the papers to sign. It was in such a manner that I claimed the bodies of my friends, who were then still alive.”

Seven o’clock

Rosina and Luigia returned for a few final moments of farewell. “Leave-Taking Pathetic,” one headline summed up; “Doomed Men Stretch Arms Through Cell Bars in Efforts to Embrace Wife and Sister.”

Starting at seven “and continuing throughout the evening,” radio station WBET aired live coverage of execution night.

Eight forty-five

Warden Hendry went to the death house. The latest petition for a writ of habeas corpus had been denied. Any faint glimmer of hope for an eleventh-hour reprieve was gone. Hendry stopped at each cell. “I am sorry,” he told each prisoner, “but it is my painful duty to inform you that you have to die tonight. Your lawyers have exhausted their efforts.”

Celestino Madeiros, a convicted murderer scheduled to be executed that night along with Sacco and Vanzetti, was asleep when Hendry went to his cell. Madeiros woke up, listened, and went back to sleep. (Two years earlier, Madeiros had confessed to being in on the South Braintree crime and had exonerated Sacco and Vanzetti, but the motion for a new trial based on the confession had been rejected.)

Sacco was writing a letter to his father in Italy when Hendry went to his cell next. He told the warden he wanted to be sure that his father received the letter, and Hendry promised he would personally see that it was mailed. Sacco thanked the warden “for this and other kindnesses” during his imprisonment.

Vanzetti, in the last cell, was pacing back and forth. He had been at Charlestown, and known Hendry, the longest. He appeared momentarily shocked when Hendry gave him the news. Then Vanzetti too thanked the warden for his kindnesses, and resumed pacing.

Prison chaplain Father Michael Murphy accompanied Hendry. All three condemned men rejected his entreaties to return to their religious faith before dying.

Nine forty-five

Father Murphy went back to the death house cells with Hendry, but his ministrations were again rejected. The prisoners, he told a reporter, said they preferred to die as they had lived.

Ten o’clock

In the presence of Robert Elliott, prison electricians tested the chair one last time.


The official witnesses headed to the white-walled, brightly lit death chamber: five government doctors, three corrections officials, and a “newsgatherer” selected by lot, William Playfair of the Associated Press. Scores of other reporters waited across the prison yard in a guards’ building.

“When more than one person is ticketed for death on the same night, the order of their going is determined in advance. The weakest—that is, the one least able to stand up under the ordeal of waiting his turn—is first. The others follow according to their physical and mental condition.” Thus Robert Elliott described the procedure for deciding the order of multiple executions, a procedure that in Charlestown dictated the prisoners’ cell assignments: Celestino Madeiros in Cell One, Nicola Sacco in Cell Two, Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Cell Three.

“The death march began three minutes after twelve,” Elliott recalled. “With a guard on each side, Madeiros entered the death chamber in a semi-stupor. . . . He spoke not a word.” He was strapped down. Elliott “threw on a current of 1400 to 1900 volts. Three times the current was thrown on and off, and at 12:09:35 [a.m.], four examining physicians declared officially that Celestino Madeiros was dead.”

Behind a screen stood “three green slabs awaiting three corpses.” The body of Madeiros was removed from the chair and placed on one of the waiting slabs. He was 25 years old when he died.

One telegraph operator was sitting near the death chamber; another, in the guards’ building where the press was hunkered down. “Within a minute of the time that Madeiros had died, the ticker . . . flashed out the news. Instantly other tickers . . . went into action, and within a matter of minutes the news went racing across the world.”

Nicola was next. To Bartolo, he called out “Goodbye.” Then he walked “slowly but steadily” into the death chamber. Elliott noticed that Sacco was “deathly pale.” Nick “sat down without protest.”

Many years had passed since the day he had sat down in another chair, posing for a portrait in a photographer’s studio, exuding youthful ambition and confidence. Many years, too, since he had mastered his shoemaking craft, since he had fallen in love, since he had carried his son in his arms. “As the guards swung about to adjust the straps [and apply the electrodes], Sacco sat bolt upright in the chair of death. Casting about wildly with his eyes, he cried [out] in Italian, ‘Long live anarchy!’”

“Everything was now ready,” Elliott said, “except the placing of the mask over his face. But the mask could not be found. The guards and I searched frantically for it. I could feel beads of perspiration starting out on my forehead. Meanwhile, Sacco continued to speak. ‘Farewell, my wife and child and all my friends,’ he cried in broken English.” “Then, seeming to become cognizant of the witnesses as individuals . . . , he went on politely, ‘Good evening, gentlemen.’”

“As Sacco was saying these things,” Elliott recalled, “a guard strode back into the room with the mask. It had been caught in Madeiros’s clothing, and carried from the chamber when his body was taken out for autopsy. Had it not been for Sacco’s talking, the incident might have been noticed. As it was, the only reporter present failed to observe what had happened, and no mention was made of it in the newspapers. I have often since been thankful that the little Italian was so talkative as he sat in the chair awaiting the end.”

Guards slipped the recovered mask over Nick’s face. He called out to his dead mother, “Farewell, mia madre.” An “extra heavy current” was administered, 1800 to 2000 volts. At 12:19:02 a.m., Nicola Sacco was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 36 years old when he died.

The guards went to the cells for the last time. They unlocked the third cell, and “escorted Vanzetti over the twenty short steps to the door of the death chamber.” Elliott noted that the last prisoner was the “most composed. . . . When guards came for him, he shook their hands. . . .” He thanked Warden Hendry “for everything you have done for me.”

Vanzetti took his place in the heavy chair. The survival skills he had developed as a lonely teenager far from home had served him well throughout his life, and now, staring death in the face, he stayed calm. As the guards adjusted straps and electrodes, Vanzetti spoke to the witnesses: “I wish to tell you I am innocent, and never committed any crime, but sometimes some sin. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only of this, but all. I am an innocent man.”

Bartolo must have spent his final hours on earth thinking about his conversation with William Thompson, for he pronounced his last words with great precision: “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”

Guards slipped the mask over Vanzetti’s face, and “current was applied,” 1400 to 1800 volts. At 12:26:55 a.m., Bartolomeo Vanzetti was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 39 years old when he died.

≈ ≈

Robert Elliott, another job professionally done, took a taxi back to his hotel.

The special police forces stationed around the prison went off duty.

In Detroit, Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers in Cadillac Square clashed with police. Anarchist Attilio Bortolotti was clubbed on the head. He went to the offices of the Detroit News later and learned that the executions had taken place as scheduled. “I don’t know how I got home that night,” Bortolotti said.

In New York, protestors in Union Square sobbed uncontrollably when the executions were announced. Valerio Isca and his comrades eventually “went home to Brooklyn on the subway. When we emerged at the Montrose [Avenue] station, we were still crying.”

There were tears, too, in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill in Providence. The executions were a “moment of great defeat,” Thomas Longo recalled.

It rained all night in Boston. At home with her family, waiting by the phone for news, defense supporter Cerise Carman Jack felt “emotional [and] sad.” Powers Hapgood, who had traveled to Boston to join the last-minute protests, was devastated. “[N]othing has ever ravaged my soul and feelings” like the executions, he wrote his parents.

Aldino Felicani and Gardner Jackson walked the dark streets of Boston in silence that night. So did Felix Frankfurter and his wife. When a radio loudspeaker blared out the announcement of the deaths, Marion Frankfurter collapsed.

Luigia Vanzetti, at the apartment where she had taken refuge, cried in silence. With her, Rosina Sacco wept without restraint. Her “piercing cries” were said to echo through the neighborhood.


Adapted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti
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Flowers in the Dark

yellow flower
Summer. Time to cultivate one’s garden.

Even in prison.

“Officials from San Quentin in California to Rikers Island in New York have turned dusty patches into powerful metaphors for rebirth,” the Washington Post reports in a recent story on horticultural therapy. Inmate-garderners find purpose and a measure of inner peace, learning to grow something in dirt that will feed others or simply flourish in beauty.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, prisoners themselves nearly a century ago in Massachusetts, would have known this instinctively.

grapes 2

Grapes in a vineyard.

As a youth growing up in southern Italy at the start of the twentieth century, Nick was already close to the land. He helped tend a family vineyard and garden, watering plants at sunrise and shooing wandering animals away at night, when he sometimes slept in the vineyard. Come morning, he carried baskets of fruits, vegetables, and flowers back to his home in town, straying off the beaten path to search for his mother’s favorite roses. The countryside, he would later recall in idiosyncratic English, was an “enchanted scene of beautiful.”

Sacco came to America in 1908. After he had been here a while, acquired job skills, started a family, and settled in a rented cottage on the property of Michael Kelley, his boss in Stoughton, Massachusetts, Nick’s inner horticulturalist emerged. He planted a garden by the cottage. He was there among the plants, Kelley later recalled, “at four o’clock in the morning, and at the factory at seven o’clock, and in his garden again after supper and until nine and ten at night, carrying water and raising vegetables beyond his own needs, which he would bring to me to give to the poor.”

Vivid memories of time spent working the soil sustained Sacco during seven years in the “terrible hole” of a cramped dark cell in Dedham Jail. If he ever spotted a familiar flower from childhood—in a doctor’s buttonhole, in a supporter’s bouquet, from afar through a jailhouse window—he felt a momentary sense of solace. He enjoyed hearing the latest seasonal crop news from Folly Farm, the experimental nursery where Cerise Jack, his English tutor in prison, lived with her botany-professor husband. He wished he could be free, he wrote her, “to help you to gather all the peaches [hanging] on the trees.” Eventually, overwhelmed by prison and separation from his family, Sacco had a nervous breakdown, but recovered in no small part due to farm work outdoors on the grounds of a prison psychiatric hospital.

Lacking Sacco’s practical gardening experience, Bartolomeo Vanzetti nonetheless took deep delight in the beauty of flowers. From his cell at Charlestown State Prison, he reminisced about his childhood in northern Italy, where wildflowers bloomed, nightingales sang, and “the nearby hills are all a fruit-garden.”


Mayflowers in bloom.

Seven years in prison did not diminish Vanzetti’s appreciation or curiosity. He thanked one visitor for bringing him mayflowers, which reminded him of Plymouth “and of the woods which I love so much.”  He peppered Cerise Jack with questions about the large bouquet she had brought him: what were the English names for the yellow star flowers, for the white flowers “with petals bent backwards as wings of butterflies,” and for “that little funny blue thing alone among your flowers”? It reminded him, he told her, of his father’s garden. Kind people had brought him so many flowers and so much fruit, Vanzetti wrote another supporter, that he could open “a beautiful fruits-flowers stand in Boston.”

Such a happy prospect would, of course, never materialize. On August 23, 1927, as summer blossoms withered in Massachusetts, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died, executed for crimes which most people believe they did not commit. The men had long before abandoned the religious beliefs of their childhood years, but they never relinquished their spiritual need for the beauty of the natural world. In his cell, Sacco dreamed of seeing a “little sweet space of the nature” through iron bars. Vanzetti described sitting in prison and being able to look outside and see “a fragment of a meadow, a bush, three fragments of flowers, hedges among the thick dark foliages, gleaming under the sun….”

Treasured but barely seen, such fragments of nature comforted Sacco and Vanzetti until the end.


Mourners carrying floral wreaths lead the funeral procession for Sacco and Vanzetti. The press reported that spectators—more than 200,000 by one estimate—tossed so many flowers as the funeral cortege passed by that “the streets became red with the blossoms.”



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Definitely Not Bert and Ernie

The story of Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti has inspired historical and legal analyses, not to mention opera, ballet, folk songs, paintings, a graphic novel, documentary films, even musical comedy.

And now comes the multimedia puppet show.

Send for the Million Men, by Joseph Silovsky, uses animatronics, robotics, puppetry, and handmade projectors for a “captivating history-rethink” of the anarchists’ executions.

A HERE Resident Artist and Dream Music Puppetry Production, December 3-13, 2014, at HERE, 145 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10013.

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In Memoriam

In Memoriam

August 23, 1927
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

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Some of the country’s best-known artists created patriotic posters—including this one by August Hutof—to support American involvement in World War One. George Creel called the poster campaign the “battle of the fences.”

Some of the country’s best-known artists created patriotic posters—including this one by August Hutof—to support American involvement in World War One. George Creel called the poster campaign the “battle of the fences.”

“One White-Hot Mass”

It happened fast.

In April 1917, within a week of joining its allies to fight what was by then already a two-year-old war against Germany, the United States established the Committee on Public Information—the country’s first-ever effort, in the words of historian John Maxwell Hamilton, “to systematically shape public attitudes.”

George Creel, the experienced journalist who took the helm of the new Committee,  set out to win hearts and minds at home and overseas. In the process he virtually invented the modern global media campaign.

As Creel saw it, World War One differed from all previous wars in the “recognition of Public Opinion as a major force”:

“This ‘vast enterprise in salesmanship’ had one goal: to ‘weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct with fraternity, devotion, courage, and deathless determination.’

“The reach of the CPI would be the envy of any modern publicist. The Committee distributed more than seventy-five million pamphlets in the United States. It established a nationwide speakers’ bureau of volunteers who, Creel claimed, addressed more than 130 million people. Creel arranged for foreign journalists to go on press tours in the United States, and for American reporters to go on inspection tours of the front lines in Europe. The CPI poured ‘a steady stream of American information into international channels of communication.’ And the ‘best work of the best artists’ delivered patriotic messages from CPI-commissioned posters.”
(Excerpted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, Chapter 6, “Conscription Was Upon Them”)

Today, information warfare uses social media and other new technologies but, notes Hamilton, virtually all concerns about government propaganda tactics are rooted in measures that originated during World War One.

 To learn more about the lasting influence of the war, and about events to mark its centennial, visit The United States World War One Centennial Commission at And to learn more about the connection between World War One and the Sacco-Vanzetti case, read In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.

by Charles E. Chambers

by Charles E. Chambers


by Macinel Wright Enright

by Macinel Wright Enright


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Bad Day at Braintree

Bandits @ B'tree - Version 3
In 1920—on today’s date, April 15—the lives of four men changed forever.

Fred Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli crumpled and fell in a hail of bullets, mowed down by gunmen who seized the payroll cash the victims had been bringing to the factory that employed them in South Braintree, Massachusetts.

Laborers Nick Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of the murders. They were executed in 1927. Their guilt was, and remains, doubtful.

From the gunmen’s first shot to their escape in a getaway car, the crime in Braintree took less than a minute, but it was a minute with repercussions that would never end. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti would last seven weeks; their imprisonment, seven years; and the debate over their fate, 85-plus years and counting.

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