Ferdinando Nicola Sacco (April 22, 1891 – August 23, 1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (June 11, 1888 – August 23, 1927) were two Italian-born American laborers and anarchists, who were tried, convicted and executed via electrocution on August 23, 1927 in Massachusetts for the 1920 armed robbery and murder of two payroll clerks.
Their controversial trial attracted enormous international attention, with critics accusing the prosecution and presiding judge of improper conduct, and of allowing anti-Italian, anti-immigrant, and anti-anarchist sentiment to prejudice the jury. Prominent Americans such as Felix Frankfurter and Upton Sinclair publicly sided with citizen-led Sacco and Vanzetti committees in an ultimately unsuccessful opposition to the verdict. Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s execution elicited mass-protests in New York, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo, worker walk-outs across South America, and riots in Paris, Geneva, Germany and Johannesburg.
On August 23, 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation declaring, “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.” Dukakis said, “We are not here to say whether these men are guilty or innocent. We are here to say that the high standards of justice, which we in Massachusetts take such pride in, failed Sacco and Vanzetti.” Dukakis stated that he probably would have pardoned them; however, Massachusetts law did not permit the governor to grant pardons posthumously. The case is still officially open.
Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s actual guilt remains a source of speculation and controversy. In addition to doubts about the fairness of their murder trial, significant post-trial evidence emerged suggesting both guilt and innocence. These include modern ballistics tests on the alleged murder weapon, revelations of mishandled evidence, and statements by individuals involved in the case.
Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of the murders of a shoe factory paymaster and Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard, and of the theft of US$15,766.51 from the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company, on Pearl Street, in South Braintree, Massachusetts during the afternoon of April 15, 1920.
Sacco was a shoe-maker born in Torremaggiore, Foggia. Vanzetti was a fishmonger born in Villafalletto, Cuneo. The judge in the case, Webster Thayer, stated to the jury “This man, (Vanzetti) although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”
What is certain is that the two men were followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist, who advocated revolutionary violence, including bombing and assassination. Galleani published Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle), a periodical that advocated violent revolution, as well as an explicit bomb-making manual (La Salute è in voi!) that was widely distributed among his followers. At the time, Italian anarchists ranked at the top of the government’s list of dangerous enemies, and had been identified as suspects in several violent bombings and assassination attempts (even an attempted mass poisoning), going back to 1913. Cronaca Sovversiva was suppressed in July 1918, and Galleani and eight of his closest associates were deported on June 24, 1919. Most of the remaining Galleanists sought to avoid arrest by becoming inactive or going underground.
However, some 60 militants considered themselves engaged in a class war that required retaliation. For three years, they waged an intermittent campaign of terrorism directed at politicians, judges, and other federal and local officials, especially those who had supported deportation of alien radicals. Chief among the dozen or more terrorist acts the Galleanists committed or are suspected of committing was the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home on June 2, 1919. In that incident, one Galleanist, Carlo Valdinoci (an associate of Sacco and Vanzetti), was killed when the bomb intended for Attorney General Palmer exploded in his hands as he was placing it.
Sacco and Vanzetti had been involved at some level in the Galleanist bombing campaign, although their precise roles have not been determined. This fact may explain their suspicious activities and behavior on the night of their arrest, May 5, 1920. Two days earlier they had learned that a fellow Galleanist named Andrea Salcedo had plunged to his death from the Bureau of Investigation offices on Park Row in New York. Salcedo worked in a Brooklyn print shop, where federal agents had traced a Galleanist leaflet found in Attorney General Palmer’s bombed house. The Galleanists knew that Salcedo had been held for several weeks and reportedly beaten, and could infer that Salcedo and his comrade Roberto Elia had made important disclosures concerning the bomb plot of June 2, 1919, disclosures later confirmed by Attorney General Palmer. The Galleanist plotters realized that they would have to go underground and dispose of any incriminating evidence. Sacco and Vanzetti were found to be in receipt of correspondence with several Galleanists, and one letter to Sacco specifically warned him to destroy all mail after reading.
Police suspicions regarding the South Braintree robbery and a previous one in South Bridgewater centered on local Italian anarchists, though little in the way of hard evidence suggested a connection between the crimes and the anarchist movement. On May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested. In an apparent attempt to avoid deportation as anarchists, they told lies to the police, lies which would come back to weigh heavily on their case.
Vanzetti was tried for the South Bridgewater robbery, though not Sacco, who was able to prove by a time-card that he had been at work all day. The presiding judge was Webster Thayer. Vanzetti’s lawyer was James Vahey, a distinguished Boston trial lawyer and former two-time candidate for governor in Massachusetts. Although Vahey and Vanzetti produced 16 witnesses—Italians from Plymouth who claimed they had bought eels for the Christmas holiday from him—as a fishmonger he had no time-card. Jurors were swayed by several witnesses who identified Vanzetti as being at the scene of the attempted robbery and by shotgun shells found on Vanzetti when he was arrested five months after the Bridgewater crime. Jurors did not know that several prosecution witnesses had been interviewed by Pinkerton detectives shortly after the crime and later changed their initial descriptions of both the getaway car and the shotgun-toting bandit. Vanzetti was found guilty and Judge Thayer sentenced him to two 12-15 years’ imprisonment.
Later Sacco and Vanzetti both stood trial for murder in Dedham, Massachusetts for the South Braintree killings, with Thayer again presiding. Well aware of the Galleanists’ reputation for constructing dynamite bombs of extraordinary power, Massachusetts authorities took great pains to defend against a possible bombing attack. Workers outfitted the Dedham courtroom where the trial was to be held with cast-iron bomb shutters (painted to match the wooden ones fitted elsewhere in the building) and heavy, sliding steel doors that could protect that section of the courthouse from blast effect in the event of a bomb attack.
Vanzetti again claimed that he had been selling fish at the time. Sacco for his part claimed that he was in Boston in order to gain a passport from the Italian consulate and have dinner with friends. The prosecution argued that the date of Sacco’s visit to the consulate could not be established with certainty (though the consulate employee Sacco claims to have met with was deposed and testified that Sacco had indeed been at the consulate on April 15 at 2P.M.). The consulate clerk in Boston, whom Sacco said he visited, could not remember him (although this is not surprising, since the clerk saw several hundred persons per day.) The prosecution also pointed out that Sacco’s dinner companions were fellow anarchists.
District attorney Frederick Katzmann raised the political views of the two accused, and the fact that Sacco had changed his name. Though both men as resident aliens were not eligible for the draft (though required to register), Katzmann nevertheless implied the men had fled to Mexico to avoid conscription during World War I. Under cross-examination, Sacco did admit having lied to Katzmann during interviews in Brockton prison and made a lengthy speech attacking the treatment of the working-class by the ruling class of America. But Katzmann also took advantage of Sacco’s bad English, berating him for dodging the draft and for loving America only for the wages he could earn in its factories. The confrontation between Katzmann and Vanzetti was equally stormy with the DA shouting at the Italian immigrant while Vanzetti shook his finger and insisted he had never killed a man “no never in my life!”
Much of the trial focused on material evidence, notably bullets, guns, and a cap. Prosecution witnesses testified that the .32-caliber bullet that had killed Berardelli was of a brand so obsolete that the only bullets similar to it that anyone could locate to make comparisons were those in Sacco’s pockets. Yet ballistics evidence, which was presented in exhaustive detail, was equivocal. Katzmann, after initially promising he would not try to link any fatal bullet with Sacco’s gun, changed his mind after the defense arranged test firings of the gun. Sacco, claiming he had nothing to hide, had allowed his gun to be test-fired, with experts for both sides present, during the trial’s second week. The prosecution then matched bullets fired through the gun to those taken from one of the slain guards. In court, two prosecution experts swore that one of the fatal bullets, quickly labeled Bullet III, matched one of those test-fired. Two defense experts said the bullets did not match.
Equal doubt surrounded Vanzetti’s gun. The prosecution claimed it had originally belonged to the slain guard and that it had been stolen during the robbery. No one testified to seeing anyone take the gun, but the guard, while carrying $15,776.51 in cash through the street, had no gun on him when found dead. The prosecution traced the gun to a Boston repair shop where the guard had dropped it off a few weeks before the murder. The defense, however, was able to raise doubts, noting that the repair shop had no record of the gun ever being picked up and that the guard’s widow had told a friend that he might not have been killed had he claimed his gun. Still, the jury believed this link as well.
The prosecution’s final piece of material evidence was a flop-eared cap it claimed had been Sacco’s. Sacco tried the cap on in court and, according to two newspaper sketch artists who ran cartoons the next day, it was too small, sitting high on his head. But Katzmann insisted the cap fitted Sacco and continued to refer to it as his.
Further controversy clouded the prosecution witnesses who identified Sacco at the scene of the crime. One, a bookkeeper named Mary Splaine, precisely described Sacco as the man she saw firing from the getaway car. Yet cross examination revealed that Splaine had refused to identify Sacco at the inquest and had seen the getaway car for only a second and from nearly a half-block away. While a few others singled out Sacco or Vanzetti as the men they had seen at the scene of the crime, far more witnesses, both prosecution and defense, refused to identify them.
When the jury began deliberating, many expected acquittal or at least an overnight deliberation. But after deliberating for only three hours, then breaking for dinner, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. Supporters later insisted Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted for their anarchist views, yet every juror insisted anarchism had played no part in their decision. First degree murder in Massachusetts was a capital crime. Sacco and Vanzetti were therefore bound for the electric chair unless the defense could find new evidence.
Motions, appeals, and clemency investigation
Appeals, protests, and denials continued for the next six years. While the prosecution staunchly defended the verdict, the defense, led by radical attorney Fred Moore, dug up many reasons for doubt. Three key prosecution witnesses admitted they had been coerced into identifying Sacco at the scene of the crime. But when confronted by DA Katzmann, each changed their stories again, denying any coercion. In 1924, controversy continued when it was discovered that someone had switched the barrel of Sacco’s gun. Three weeks of private hearings followed but the mystery was never solved. Other appeals focused on the jury foreman and a prosecution ballistics expert. In 1923, the defense filed an affidavit from a friend of the jury foreman who swore that prior to the trial, the man had said of Sacco and Vanzetti, “Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!” That same year, a state police captain retracted his trial testimony linking Sacco’s gun to the fatal bullet. Captain William Proctor claimed that he never meant to imply the connection and that he had repeatedly told DA Katzmann there was no such connection but that the prosecution had crafted its trial questioning to hide this opinion.
Adding to the growing conviction that Sacco and Vanzetti deserved a new trial was the conduct of trial judge Webster Thayer. During the trial, many had noted how Thayer seemed to loathe defense attorney Fred Moore. Thayer frequently denied Moore’s motions, lecturing the California-based lawyer on how law was conducted in Massachusetts. On at least two occasions out of court, Thayer burst into tirade. Once he told astonished reporters that “No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!” According to onlookers who later swore affidavits, Thayer also lectured members of his exclusive clubs, calling Sacco and Vanzetti Bolsheviki! and saying he would “get them good and proper.” Following the verdict, Boston Globe reporter Frank Sibley, who had covered the trial, wrote a scathing protest to the Massachusetts attorney general condemning Thayer’s blatant bias. Then in 1924, after denying all five motions for a new trial, Thayer confronted a Massachusetts lawyer at his alma mater, Dartmouth. “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?” the judge said. “I guess that will hold them for a while! Let them go to the Supreme Court now and see what they can get out of them!” The outburst remained a secret until 1927 when its release heightened the suspicion that Sacco and Vanzetti had not received a fair trial.
For their part, Sacco and Vanzetti seemed alternately defiant, despondent, and despairing. The June 1926 issue of Protesta Umana published by their Defense Committee, carried an article signed by Sacco and Vanzetti that appealed for retaliation by their colleagues. In an ominous reference to Luigi Galleani’s bomb-making manual (covertly titled La Salute è in voi!), the article concluded Remember, La Salute è in voi!. Yet both Sacco and Vanzetti wrote dozens of letters sincerely expressing their innocence. Sacco, in his awkward prose, and Vanzetti in his eloquent but flawed English, insisted they had been framed because they were anarchists. Supporters, historians, and others who remain convinced of their innocence, point to these letters as proof. When the letters were published after the executions, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, “If Sacco and Vanzetti were professional bandits, then historians and biographers who attempt to deduce character from personal documents might as well shut up shop. By every test that I know of for judging character, these are the letters of innocent men.”
Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had any previous criminal record, but they were known to the authorities as radical militants and adherents of Luigi Galleani who had been widely involved in the anarchist movement, labor strikes, political agitation, and anti-war propaganda. Sacco and Vanzetti both claimed to be victims of social and political prejudice and both claimed to be unjustly convicted of the crime for which they were accused. However, they did not attempt to distance themselves from their fellow anarchists nor their belief in violence as a legitimate weapon against the government. As Vanzetti said in his last speech to Judge Webster Thayer:
“I would not wish to a dog or a snake, to the most low and misfortunate creature of the earth—I would not wish to any of them what I have had to suffer for things that I am not guilty of. But my conviction is that I have suffered for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical, and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I am an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian… If you could execute me two times, and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done already.” (Vanzetti spoke on April 19, 1927, in Dedham, Massachusetts, where their case was heard in the Norfolk County courthouse.1)
Many famous socialist intellectuals, including Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bertrand Russell, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, campaigned for a retrial, but were unsuccessful. Famed lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter also argued for a retrial for the two men, writing a scathing criticism of Thayer’s ruling which, when published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927, was widely read.
While in Dedham prison, Sacco met a Portuguese convict named Celestino Madeiros. Madeiros claimed to have committed the crime of which Sacco was accused. However, Sacco’s motion for a new trial was again denied. However, Medeiros, whose vague confession contained many anomalies, steered defense lawyers to a gang many still think committed the Braintree murders. Prior to April 1920, gang leader Joe Morelli and his men had been robbing shoe factories in Massachusetts, including the two in Braintree where the murders occurred. Morelli, investigators discovered, bore a striking resemblance to Sacco, so striking that several witnesses for both prosecution and defense mistook his mug shot for Sacco’s. When questioned in 1925, while in prison, Morelli denied any involvement but six years later he allegedly confessed to a New York lawyer. And in 1973, further evidence against the Morelli gang emerged when a mobster’s memoirs quoted Joe’s brother Frank as confessing to the Braintree murders.
On April 8, 1927, their appeals exhausted, Sacco and Vanzetti were finally sentenced to death in the electric chair. A worldwide outcry arose and Governor Alvin T. Fuller finally agreed to postpone the executions and set up a committee to reconsider the case. By this time, firearms examination had improved considerably, and it was now known that an automatic pistol could be traced by several different methods if both bullet and casing were recovered from the scene (as in Sacco’s case). Automatic pistols could now be traced by unique markings of the rifling on the bullet, by firing pin indentations on the fired primer, or by unique ejector and extractor marks on the casing. The committee appointed to review the case used the services of Calvin Goddard in 1927, who had worked with Charles Waite at the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York. Goddard was a genuine firearms expert trained in ballistics and forensic science. He had originally offered his services to the defense, who had rejected his assistance, continuing to rely on Hamilton’s testimony which they felt best fitted their view of the case.
Goddard used Philip Gravelle’s newly-invented comparison microscope and helixometer, a hollow, lighted magnifier probe used to inspect gun barrels, to make an examination of Sacco’s 0.32 Colt, the bullet that killed Berardelli, and the spent casings recovered from the scene of the crime. In the presence of one of the defense experts, he fired a bullet from Sacco’s gun into a wad of cotton and then put the ejected casing on the comparison microscope next to casings found at the scene. Then he looked at them carefully. The first two casings from the robbery did not match Sacco’s gun, but the third one did. Even the defense expert agreed that the two cartridges had been fired from the same gun. The second original defense expert also concurred. Though many of its own actions were later called into question, the committee upheld the convictions.
Execution and aftermath
In spite of major protests and strikes all over the world, Celestino Madeiros, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair on August 23, 1927. The execution sparked riots in London and Germany. The American Embassy in Paris was besieged by protestors and the facade of the Moulin Rouge was wrecked. Both Sacco and Vanzetti famously refused a priest but both men went peacefully and proudly to their deaths. Sacco’s final words were “Viva l’anarchia!” and “Farewell, mia madre.” Vanzetti, in his final moments, gently shook hands with guards and thanked them for their kind treatment, read a statement proclaiming his innocence, and finally said, “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
Fellow Galleanists did not take news of the executions with equanimity. One or more followers of Galleani, especially Mario Buda, were suspected as the perpetrators of the infamous and deadly Wall Street bombing of 1920 after the two men were initially indicted. At the funeral parlor in Hanover Street, a wreath announced Aspettando l’ora di vendetta (Awaiting the hour of vengeance). In 1921, a grenade mailed to the American ambassador in Paris exploded, wounding his valet. Other bombs sent to American embassies were defused. In 1926, Samuel Johnson, the brother of the man who had called police the night of Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest (Simon Johnson), had his house destroyed by a bomb.
Following the sentencing of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, a package bomb addressed to Governor Fuller was intercepted in the Boston post office. Three months later, bombs exploded in the New York subway, in a Philadelphia church, and at the home of the mayor of Baltimore. One of the jurors in the Dedham trial had his house bombed, throwing him and his family from their beds. Less than a year after the executions, a bomb destroyed the front porch of the home of executioner Robert Elliott. As late as 1932, Judge Thayer himself was the victim of an attempted assassination when his home was wrecked in a bomb blast. Afterwards, Thayer lived permanently at his club in Boston, guarded 24 hours a day until his death.
Many historians, especially legal historians, have concluded the Sacco and Vanzetti prosecution, trial, and aftermath constituted a blatant disregard for political civil liberties, especially Thayer’s decision to deny a retrial. Judge Webster Thayer, who heard the case, allegedly described the two as “anarchist bastards.” An American lawyer who claimed to have known Thayer very well stated that he was “full of prejudice.”
Both men had previously fled to Mexico, changing their names, a fact used against them by the prosecutor in their trial for murder. This implication of guilt by the commission of unrelated acts is one of the most persistent criticisms leveled against the trial. Sacco and Vanzetti’s supporters would later argue that the men merely fled the country to avoid persecution and conscription, their critics, to escape detection and arrest for militant and seditious activities in the United States. But other anarchists who fled with them revealed the probable reason in a 1953 Book:
Several score Italian anarchists left the United States for Mexico. Some have suggested they did so because of cowardice. Nothing could be more false. The idea to go to Mexico arose in the minds of several comrades who were alarmed by the idea that, remaining in the United States, they would be forcibly restrained from leaving for Europe, where the revolution that had burst out in Russia that February promised to spread all over the continent.
Some critics felt that the authorities and jurors were influenced by strong anti-Italian prejudice and prejudice against immigrants widely held at the time, especially in New England. Moore compared the chances of an Italian getting a fair trial in Boston to a black person getting one in the American South. Against charges of racism and racial prejudice, others pointed out that both men were known anarchist members of a militant organization, members of which had been conducting a violent campaign of bombing and attempted assassinations, acts condemned by the Italian-American community and Americans of all backgrounds. However, it is also true that their anarchist beliefs may have been held against them, in violation of their First Amendment rights. In fact there were no known ties at all between anarchists and robberies, something that experts the Federal Bureau of Investigation pointed out.
Others believe that the government was really prosecuting Sacco and Vanzetti for the robbery-murders as a convenient excuse to put a stop to their militant activities as Galleanists, whose bombing campaign at the time posed a lethal threat, both to the government and to many Americans. Faced with a secretive underground group whose members resisted interrogation and believed in their cause, Federal and local officials using conventional law enforcement tactics had been repeatedly stymied in their efforts to identify all members of the group or to collect enough evidence for a prosecution.
Today, their case is seen as one of the earliest examples of using widespread protests and mass movements to try to win the release of convicted persons. The Sacco-Vanzetti case also exposed the inadequacies of both the legal and law enforcement system in investigating and prosecuting members and alleged members of secret societies and terrorist groups, and contributed to calls for the organization of national data collection and counterintelligence services.
One piece of evidence supporting the possibility of Sacco’s guilt arose in 1941 when anarchist leader Carlo Tresca, a member of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, told Max Eastman, “Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was innocent.” Eastman published an article recounting his conversation with Tresca in National Review in 1961. Later, others would confirm being told the same information by Tresca. Others pointed to an ongoing feud between Tresca and the Galleanisti, claiming the famous anarchist was just trying to get even.
In addition, in October 1961, ballistics tests were run with improved technology using Sacco’s Colt automatic. The results confirmed that the bullet that killed Berardelli in 1920 came from the same 0.32 Colt Auto taken from the pistol in Sacco’s possession. Subsequent investigations in 1983 also supported Goddard’s findings, however, supporters of innocence have disputed both tests, noting that ballistics experts conducting the first test had claimed Sacco’s guilt even before the tests, and that by the 1980s, the old bullets and guns were far too corroded to prove anything. There was also no evidence Sacco had fired the gun.
The relevance of this evidence was challenged in 1988, when Charlie Whipple, a former Globe editorial page editor, revealed a conversation he had with Sergeant Edward J. Seibolt when he worked as a reporter in 1937. According to Whipple, Seibolt admitted that the police ballistics experts had switched the murder weapon, but Seibolt indicated that he would deny this if Whipple ever printed it. At the time, Whipple was unfamiliar with the specific facts of the case, and is not known if Seibolt was actually recalling Hamilton’s testimony and behavior on the stand when Hamilton attempted to switch gun barrels. However, recent study of the three-week gun barrel hearings held in 1924 has called into question the widely held notion that Hamilton switched the barrels. A full transcript of the hearings, on microfilm at Harvard Law School, shows that Judge Thayer was convinced in 1924 that Hamilton had made no such switch. The accusation that he had done so emerged only in 1935 in a pulp detective magazine article written by Charles Van Amburgh, the state’s key ballistics expert, who, it was pointed out in the hearings, had benefited from his testimony by getting a job in the state’s ballistics lab.
Sacco’s 0.32 Colt pistol is also claimed to have passed in and out of police custody, and to have been dismantled several times, both in 1924 prior to the gun barrel switch, and again between 1927 and 1961. The central problem with these charges is that the match to Sacco’s gun was based not only on the 0.32 Colt pistol but also on the same-caliber bullet that killed Berardelli as well as spent casings found at the scene. In addition to tampering with the pistol, the gun switcher/dismantler would have had also to access police evidence lockers and exchange the bullet from Berardelli’s body and all spent casings retrieved by police, or else locate the actual murder weapon, then switch barrel, firing pin, ejector, and extractor, all before Goddard’s examination in 1927 when the first match was made to Sacco’s gun. However, doubters of Sacco’s guilt have repeatedly pointed to a single anomaly—that several witnesses to the crime insisted the gunman, alleged to be Sacco, fired four bullets into Berardelli. “He shot at Berardelli probably four or five times,” one witness said. “He stood guard over him.” If this was true, many ask, how could only one of the fatal bullets be linked to Sacco’s gun? In 1927, the defense raised the suggestion that the fatal bullet had been planted, calling attention to the awkward scratches on the base of the bullet that differed from those on other bullets. The Lowell Commission dismissed this claim as desperate but in 1985, historians William Kaiser and David Young made a compelling case for a switch in their book “Post-Mortem: New Evidence in the Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.”
Evidence against Sacco’s involvement included testimony by Celestino Madeiros, who confessed to the crime and indicated that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti took part. Madeiros was also in possession of a large amount of money ($2,800) immediately following the robbery, whereas no links to the stolen money were ever found with Sacco or Vanzetti. Judge Thayer rejected this testimony as a basis for a retrial, calling it “unreliable, untrustworthy, and untrue.” Yet Medeiros’ confession, while it has numerous holes, steered defense lawyers toward the gang many are convinced did the Braintree job. Joe Morelli, who greatly resembled Sacco, had been robbing shoe factories, including those in South Braintree. The “Morelli hypothesis,” exhaustively detailed by defense lawyer Herbert Ehrmann in his book, “The Untried Case,” presents a compelling alternative to the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1973, this hypothesis was strengthened when a former mobster published a confession by Frank “Butsy” Morelli, Joe’s brother. “We whacked them out, we killed those guys in the robbery,’ Butsy Morelli told Vincent Teresa. “These two greaseballs Sacco and Vanzetti took it on the chin.“
Yet there are others who revealed different opinions, further muddling the case. In November, 1982 in a letter from Ideale Gambera to Francis Russell. In it, Gambera revealed that his father, Giovanni Gambera, who had died in June 1982, was a member of the four-person team of anarchist leaders that met shortly after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti to plan for their defense. In his letter to Russell, Gambera claimed, “everyone [in the anarchist inner circle] knew that Sacco was guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual participation in killing.”
On August 23, 1977, exactly 50 years after their execution, Governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that Sacco and Vanzetti had been treated unjustly and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.” Sacco was quoted as saying before his death, “It is true, indeed, that they can execute the body, but they cannot execute the idea which is bound to live.”
The involvement of Upton Sinclair
In 2005, a 1929 letter from Upton Sinclair to his attorney John Beardsley, Esq., was publicized (having been found in an auction warehouse ten years earlier) in which Sinclair revealed that he was told at the time he wrote his book Boston, that both men were guilty. Some years after the trial Sinclair met with Sacco and Vanzetti’s attorney Fred Moore.
Sinclair revealed that “Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth, …He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them. …I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point, I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case.” Sinclair furthermore said that he was “completely naïve about the case, having accepted the defense propaganda completely.” A trove of additional papers in Sinclair’s archives at Indiana University show the ethical quandary that confronted him.
In January 2006, more of the text of the Beardsley letter became public casting some doubt on the conclusion that Sinclair believed Moore’s statement: “I realized certain facts about Fred Moore. I had heard that he was using drugs. I knew that he had parted from the defense committee after the bitterest of quarrels. …Moore admitted to me that the men themselves, had never admitted their guilt to him; and I began to wonder whether his present attitude and conclusions might not be the result of his brooding on his wrongs.
If Sinclair did not give any credibility to Moore’s statement, it would not have been “the most difficult ethical problem of [his] life.” On the other hand, Sinclair’s public position was consistent in asserting the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. Both Moore’s statement and Sinclair’s skepticism of it were mentioned in a 1975 biography of Upton Sinclair, despite claims that the contents of the letter were a new or “original” development.