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Lydia Beidel

Famous American Labor Trials

The State of Massachusetts versus Sacco and Vanzetti

(August 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 35, 30 August 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Electrocuted by the State of Massachusetts on
August 22, 1927, at midnight

Statements made by the prisoners upon hearing the death sentence pronounced against them by judge Thayer on April 9, 1927:


“I know the sentence will be between two classes, the oppressed class and the rich class and there will always be collision between one and the other. We fraternize the people with the books, with the literature. You persecute the people, tyrannize them and kill them. We try the education of people always. You try to put a path between us and some other nationality that hates each other. That’s why I am here today on this bench, for having been of the oppressed class. Well, you are the oppressor!”



“If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, uhonored, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words – our lives – our pains – nothing! The taking of our lives – lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler – all! That last moment belongs to us – that agony is our triumph!”

Background of the Case:

At the end of World War I, upon the demobilization of the AEF, a crisis hit American economy. Unemployment and starvation led first to panic and then to unrest among the workers. To crush the rebellious spirit of the masses, the federal government launched a vicious assault upon trade unions and radical organizations and especially against those foreign-born workers who had militant influence among the unskilled in the basic industries of the country. Headquarters were wrecked, meetings broken up, homes raided, workers mercilessly beaten and subjected to “third-degree” tortures. This brutal period is known in labor history as the time of the Palmer raids, named for the then Attorney-General of the United States.

Among the victims of this attack was an Italian immigrant, Andrea Salsedo, whose body hurtled fourteen stories to a New York pavement on May 3, 1920, after a “third degree” questioning by the police. The crime aroused Italian workers in every city. In the neighborhood of Boston, two friends of Salsedo’s, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, prepared to conduct an investigation into Salsedo’s violent death and to urge their comrades to protect themselves against similar outrages.

Basis of the Frameup:

Oh December 24, 1919, at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, a payroll holdup was attempted by a gang of bandits driving a Buick car.

On April 15, 1920, at South Braintree, Massachusetts, a successful payroll robbery resulted in the fatal shooting of Frederick A. Parmeniter, paymaster, and Alexander Berardelli, guard, for the Slater and Morrill shoe plant. This holdup was also conducted by a gang using a car for their get-away.

The Arrest:

On May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested as they rode on a streetcar in Brockton, Massachusetts, on their way to the homes of some f their Italian comrades to organize a meeting of protest against the terror which had resulted in Salsedo’s death. Each of them carried a gun, a practice which the nature of their work had demanded for many years. Their first reaction to the crude questioning of the detectives was to protect the identity of those associated with them in the arrangements of the meeting. Believing that they were being arrested for a political crime, they lied about their destination and purposes. When these statements were proven false, the behavior of the men was entered into the court as “consciousness of guilt” and their explanations entirely disregarded.

They admitted having tried to borrow a friend’s Buick car, which happened to resemble the one used in the South Braintree crime. This car, the “consciousness of guilt,” and the “foreign” appeara’rice and behavior of the men constituted the bulk of the case against them.

The Victims:

Nicola Sacco was a skilled shoe-worker, active in union organization among his fellow-workers.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti was a fish peddler, seriously devoted to the radical education and organization of Italian workers. He was an avid student of revolutionary philosophy.

The Trials:

Vanzetti was rushed to trial for complicity in the robbery at Bridgewater. He was bewildered at the conduct of the trial and was foolishly not permitted by his attorney to testify in his own defense. Witnesses offered perjured testimony for the prosecution; the testimony of nine witnesses who testified to having bought eels from Vanzetti miles from Bridgewater on the day of the crime was disregarded. The court was viciously anti-radical and anti-alien; conviction with a fifteen-year jail sentence resulted.

Later developments made it clear that this conviction on a lesser charge was secured in order to establish a “criminal record” for the more important of the two prisoners when the Braintree case came to trial.

Indictments against the two prisoners in the payroll murders at South Braintree were brought on September 14, 1920. From May 31 to July 14, 1921, the farce of this notorious trial went on before Judge Webster Thayer at Dedham, Massachusetts.

Visitors to the courtroom were searched. Bomb scares were thrown out. “Witnesses” for the prosecution poured out fantastic and obviously perjured testimony Witnesses for the defense were terrorized and fired from their jobs after testifying. Snobbery and hatred of the foreign-born and the “agitator” thickened the atmosphere. The prejudice of Judge Thayer appalled even his reactionary associates.

After five hours’ deliberation of the mountainous record of testimony, cross-questioning and debate, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced the two men to death in the electric chair.

The Seven-Year Defense:

The more alert organizations of the working class – militant trade unions and radical political parties – sensed at once that this case was something beyond the simple framing of two Italian workers; that it was an act of terror on the part of the bourgeois state against the working class.

The liberal American bourgeoisie was horrified at the crass misconduct of the case. It organized for the defense of two unfortunate Italians.

Two defense committees launched their campaigns: the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, composed of indignant liberals with Eugene Lyons as secretary; and the International Labor Defense, with James P. Cannon as secretary.

The Defense Committee oriented itself on the court record. It publicized the flagrant errors and evidences of prejudices on the part of judge, specialists, and witnesses. It sought to force a reversal by legalistic maneuverings and indignant speeches.

The International Labor Defense, on the other hand, played every legalistic angle to its limit and went further. It handled the case as an encounter in the class war: the capitalist state vs. the working class.

The Defense Committee compiled a long list of impressive names of intelligent, highly respected people of means and social station who considered the conviction a miscarriage of American justice. They fired the attorney for the men – a fighting westerner connected with a number of I.W.W. cases. To them his presence in court was an affront to the culture and dignity of Judge Thayer. He was replaced by a man whose cultural background did not clash with the judge’s.

The I.L.D. fought with revolutionary vigor. Street demonstrations were organized not only in every American industrial center but in every city were there was an organized proletariat. Moscow, London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Canton, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney – all of these and more shook with demonstrations against American class justice. In Paris, the proletariat threatened to take the American consulate building apart brick by brick. The names of Sacco and Vanzetti became the tocsin of an aroused working class fighting the bourgeois state.

For seven years the fight raged. Motions for a new trial were denied; higher courts of the State of Massachusetts upheld their Judge Thayer; Governor Alvan T. Fuller reviewed the case and stood behind his class brother, denying a pardon. The liberals on the U.S. Supreme Court bench, expressing a cowardly sympathy with the defendants, refused to stick their necks out and move to review the case.

The Counter-Campaign of the Bourgeoisie:

The ruling class was frightened.

It resorted as always to terror and further frameup. Black-jacks and night sticks, even tear-gas, then relatively untested in civilian disorders) were given a good work-out on the demonstrators.

Mysterious, unexploded bombs were “discovered” under circumstances that cast a shadow on militant workers. “Anarchists” and “bolsheviks” were uncovered in very alley. Sacco and Vanzetti were almost forgotten and the assault of the state went directly where it was intended – to the organized working class.

Almost two years before the execution, a fellow prisoner, Celestino F. Madeiro, confessed to Vanzetti and the police that he had been involved in the South Braintree murders. He swore that neither Sacco nor Vanzetti was implicated and although he declined to name any of the participants, the police were able to identify them as members of a certain Morelli gang which operated in the neighborhood of Boston. Despite this spectacular turn in the case, a new trial was denied and Maeleiros died in the electric chair with Sacco and Vanzetti.

The Execution:

Twice, the fury of an aroused working class forced the State of Massachusetts to grant a reprieve, once to the week of August 10 and again to August 22, 1927.

A wild hope surged in the breast of the proletariat. Its sense of power and determination to fight grew. For a while it forgot that the bourgeois state was still on top and believed that the two symbols of working class strength and revenge might be released.

The world-wide demonstrations for the two men were climaxed in a magnificent wave on the night of August 22. Tens of thousands of demonstrators milled through the streets of the citadels of capitalism, waiting for midnight. The police were apprehensive. At 12:19 the news flashed that Sacco was dead. Five minutes of stunned silence gripped the masses of waiting workers until word came that Vanzetti too had been burned to death by the class enemy. The silence broke in a torrent of rage and a bitter resolve that the names of the two great martyrs of labor must be inscribed on the red banners under which the working class marches to its final victory.

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Last updated: 23 May 2016