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News from an Italian-American perspective

Q & A with Susan Tejada, author of  In Search of Sacco & Vanzetti

Primo: Tell us a little about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. What were they like as individuals? Did you find anything in their background that might suggest they had the acumen to become cold-blooded killers?

Tejada: Let me start by emphasizing that they were complex individuals full of contradictions—like most human beings!

Sacco, from southern Italy, was the third son in a very large family. He was 16 when he immigrated to America with an older brother in 1908. He became a skilled factory worker, earned a good living, married, and started a family. He was achieving the American dream yet felt compelled to support striking workers (although he himself never joined a union, and in fact was on excellent terms with his own boss).

Vanzetti, from northern Italy, was the eldest son in a smaller family; he was close to one sister, but barely knew the two younger siblings who were born after his father had sent him away from home at age 13 to learn a trade. At age 20, grieving the recent death of his mother, Vanzetti resolved to come to America on his own, also in 1908. He never married. He never became a skilled worker or earned a steady paycheck. His relationship with his father was strained; the two men stopped corresponding two years into Vanzetti’s seven-year imprisonment.

Vanzetti read widely in prison and kept up a large correspondence with his supporters. His English fluency was better than Sacco’s. As a result, many people assumed that he was more intelligent than his co-defendant, but Vanzetti himself disagreed. “I am a better babbler than he is,” Vanzetti wrote, “but many, many times…remembering his heroism I felt small small at the presence of his greatness.”

Apart from Sacco’s arrest in 1916 for speaking without a permit, a charge later dismissed, neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a prior arrest record. They were kind and gentle men in their private lives, yet they did support [anarchist publisher Luigi] Galleani, who condoned violence in some situations, and whose followers were the likely perpetrators of two terrifying waves of bombing in the United States in 1919. However, there is no evidence that Sacco or Vanzetti participated in bomb plots or any other acts of anarchist violence, and I think it unlikely that they ever did. In the book I also explain at some length why I think it’s unlikely that that they had anything to do with the crime in South Braintree.

Excerpted from the website of Primo Magazine.
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Q & A with author Susan Tejada: Former Providence resident explores one of America’s most famous trials

JVHRI: Is there a “Jewish angle” to the Sacco and Vanzetti story?

Tejada: Jewish lawyers played important roles in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Attorney Herbert Ehrmann assisted chief counsel William Thompson in the final years of the case. It was Ehrmann who investigated and developed the case against the Morelli gang [of suspected perpetrators], who helped argue for clemency before the governor, and who later wrote two important books about the case.

Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard Law School professor, wrote an analysis of the case that had a major impact on public opinion. His mentor, Louis Brandeis, than an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, helped fund Frankfurter’s work on this and other progressive causes.

One of the biggest surprises in my research was the discovery about Alessandro Berardelli [whom Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of murdering]. An Italian immigrant who married a Jewish woman born in Russia, Berardelli began to observe Jewish customs after his marriage. Upon his death in 1920, he was buried in a Jewish cemetery. Previously, details of his life had been unknown, and I confess that it was an amazing experience to learn about him.

Excerpted from The Jewish Voice, June 8, 2012