Ben Shahn created this poster to protest the execution of Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicolo Sacco who were electrocuted in 1927. He chose as the text a statement Vanzetti made to a reporter shortly before their deaths. A few months later, in February 1928, the Atlantic Monthly published a detailed account of Vanzetti's last conversation with his attorney the night before the executions.
The Sacco-Vanzetti Case became the legal cause celebre of the 1920s. As Frederick Lewis Allen noted in his classic account of the decade, Only Yesterday (1931), there was initially no interest in the case at all:
At the height of the Big Red Scare - in April, 1920 - there had taken place at South Braintree, Massachusetts, a crime so unimportant that it was not even mentioned in the New York Times of the following day - or, for that matter, of the whole following year. It was the sort of crime which was taking place constantly all over the country. A paymaster and his guard, carrying two boxes containing the pay-roll of a shoe factory, were killed by two men with pistols, who thereupon leaped into an automobile which drew up at the kerb [curb], and drove away across the railroad tracks. Two weeks later a couple of Italian radicals were arrested as the murderers, and a year later the Italians were tried before Judge Webster Thayer and a jury and found guilty.
By 1927 everyone knew about Sacco and Vanzetti. Prominent writers and artists in the United States and abroad organized petition campaigns to get their death sentences overturned. Future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a devasting critique of their trial and of the handling of the appeals process. Upton Sinclair, whose The Jungle had alerted readers to conditions in the Chicago stockyards, wrote a "documentary novel" about the case, Boston. In addition to the poster shown at left, Ben Shahn also painted "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti," which shows the two in their coffins as those prominent in their conviction and execution stand by, clad in top hats and formal dress or, in the case of Harvard President Lowell who chaired the commission which found no evidence of bias in the trial or appeals process, in academic robes. Behind them, in a courthouse portal, is a portrait of Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial and the appeal process.
To their supporters, the electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti was proof that freedom of thought and freedom of expression were hollow phrases. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in "Justice Denied in Massachusetts," wrote of their executions as a betrayal of America's revolutionary heritage:
What from the splendid dead
We have inherited -
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued -
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does not overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.
Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.
Fifty years later, the noted writer Katherine Anne Porter wrote of the Sacco-Vanzetti case as "The Never-Ending Wrong." As a young woman she had taken an active part in the protests against the executions. Nor has interest in the case lessened in the last two decades. There have been numerous books, a film, an opera, and countless websites devoted to the case.
We will use the case as one of several jumping-off places, one of several ways of immersing ourselves in the period. We will start with some open-ended questions which, you will note, do not include: Were they quilty? The omission does not mean that you cannot ask the question yourself. It does mean I will not permit that to become the focus of our discussions.
There is a rich array of resources about the case available.
- The richest single collection is at Doug Linder's Famous Trials site. This includes excerpts of trial testimony, analyses of the evidence, biographical sketches of the leading participants, Vanzetti's famous speech at the sentencing, appellate rulings, and much else.
- The Modern American Poetry site devoted to Edna St. Vincent Millay contains several excellent and comparatively brief introductions to the case.
- Felix Frankfurter's critique, "The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti," is available at the Atlantic Monthly archives as are the essays by W.G. Thompson, "Vanzetti's Last Statement," and Katherine Anne Porter, "The Never-Ending Wrong."
- There are four editorial cartoons from The Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the American Communist Party, here.
- Leo Robert Klein, Web Coordinator and Digital Resources Developer at the William and Anita Newman Library, Baruch College, CUNY. has created a Red Scare Image Database with numerous editorial cartoons.
Here are some initial questions:
- How did the case become so important?
- What light do the trial, the appeals, the protests, shed upon the "Great Red Scare" of 1919-1920?
- What light do they shed on the successful movement to restrict immigration, especially from southern and eastern Europe?
- What can the case, and the uproar it aroused, tell us about the United States in the 1920s?