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.

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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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