Precisely 80 years on, the Sacco-Vanzetti case still resonates like a mournful chord. Almost instantly elevated to the status of myth, the trial and execution of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti remains one of the blackest pages in the American national story, a cautionary tale of lethal passions fueled by political fear and ethnic prejudice.
Yet few Americans recall exactly why the two men were arrested, what went on at their trial or why emotions were stirred so powerfully around the world by the plight of two humble Italian immigrants, characterized forever by Vanzetti as "a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler" in an interview with The New York World.
Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruce Watson's spirited history of the affair, does a great service in rescuing fact from the haze of legend and disentangling Sacco and Vanzetti from the symbols they all too quickly became. It restores immediacy to a wretched series of events that first need to be understood on their own terms.
As the Jazz Age dawned, the US was a nation gripped by fear, for reasons that feel quite contemporary. Watson begins his story in late April 1919 with an audacious act of terrorism: the mailing of 30 bombs, disguised as free samples from the Gimbels department store, to a list of prominent Americans, including John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan Jr and lesser-known political figures known for suppressing radicals.
The plot failed - the bombers did not put enough postage on their packages - but shock waves rocked the country. Class war of the kind unfolding in Russia looked as if it might start up in the US, a dread reinforced by further bombings and proclamations by shadowy radical organizations that more were on the way. Watching events with grim satisfaction were two dedicated anarchist foot soldiers: Sacco, an edge trimmer at the Three-K shoe factory in Stoughton, Massachusetts, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler in nearby Plymouth. Both men belonged to the Gruppo Autonomo, an anarchist cell in East Boston that favored the violent overthrow of the government. "Sacco and Vanzetti may have been lambs, but they belonged to a wolf pack," Watson writes.
When two payroll guards were murdered in a daylight robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, in April 1920, frantic police officers tracked down what they thought was the getaway car. Sacco and Vanzetti turned up a few nights later to claim the car, carrying loaded pistols. The police pounced. The two men would spend the next seven years in jail, protesting their innocence to the end.
No one knows what Sacco and Vanzetti were up to that night. Both told multiple lies to the police. Vanzetti later claimed that he had simply wanted to avoid naming friends and fellow anarchists. Watson, although highly sympathetic to both men and, like most historians, almost certain that they did not commit the payroll murders, points out that no one can explain what Sacco and Vanzetti were up to the night of their arrest and that, "no matter how much one wants to shout their innocence, questions remain."
They might have been preparing to collect incriminating radical literature from the houses of their associates, fearing raids as May Day approached. This was Vanzetti's explanation. Or, Watson, writes, they might have planned to hide dynamite, or to prepare for a payroll robbery.