wrongful execution of sacco and vanzetti occurred eighty-five years ago today

by Tim Phillips

Six months after Italian militant Carlo Valdinoci’s bomb exploded in front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in June 1919, accidentally killing Valdinoci, Palmer began carrying out raids against immigrants. The Department of Justice (DOJ) used such raids to arrest suspected radicals who weren’t citizens, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Thousands were held in prolonged seclusion, brought to secret hearings, or deported. Even the FBI now concedes that “politics, inexperience, and overreaction got the better of Attorney General Palmer and his department.”

In May 1921, two comrades of Valdinoci living in the Boston area, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were charged with a holdup and murder at a shoe factory. Even though the DOJ agents working on the case believed the pair had nothing to do with the offense, the department collaborated with the District Attorney in a frighteningly successful prosecution.

Felix Frankfurter – then a Harvard Law School professor and later one of the most respected U.S. Supreme Court justices – accused the District Attorney of colluding with DOJ agents “to rid the country of Sacco and Vanzetti” because of their radical activities. “Every reasonable probability points away from Sacco and Vanzetti” as participants in the crime, he wrote in a comprehensive article in the Atlantic Magazine in March 1927, six months before their execution. He emphasized two former DOJ agents’ affidavits:

Although the opinion of the agents working on the case was that “the South Braintree crime was the work of professionals,” and that Sacco and Vanzetti, “although anarchists and agitators, were not highway robbers, and had nothing to do with the South Braintree crime,” yet they collaborated with the District Attorney in the prosecution of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder. For “it was the opinion of the Department agents here that a conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder would be one way of disposing of these two men.”

This collaboration resulted in the wrongful execution of Sacco and Vanzetti on August 23, 1927. The message their deaths sent reverberated through generations. As Howard Zinn wrote in the introduction to the 1978 edition of Boston (1928), Upton Sinclair’s extraordinary novel about the case,

The American system keeps control not only by a lottery of rewards (only a few make it, but everyone has a chance), but also by a lottery of punishments (only a few are put away or killed, but it’s better to play it safe, be quiet).

On this anniversary, we remember how the reckless persecution of activists serves to fortify the status quo against much-needed transformation.