Home / General / This Day in Labor History: August 23, 1927

This Day in Labor History: August 23, 1927


On August 23, 1927, the state of Massachusetts executed two Italian immigrant anarchists by the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the murder of two men in a 1920 armed robbery in South Braintree. Although the two men may or may not have been involved in the crime, as Italian anarchists, they were on trial for their beliefs as much as the murder. Despite the lack of concrete evidence and international outrage over the miscarriage of justice, the state of Massachusetts railroaded them into the electric chair.

Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists, men deeply affected by the terrible labor and social conditions of the early 20th century. Both immigrated from Italy in 1908, though they didn’t meet for nearly a decade. The seeming inability for the capitalist system to treat working people with dignity and respect drove many to desperation. By the 1890s, anarchism was a growing threat in the United States, perhaps most personified by Leon Czoglosz’s assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Although that and other incidents convinced enough upper and middle-class Anglo-Saxons to enact limited reforms during the Progressive Era, the fundamental conditions of working-class urban life had changed little by 1920.

Sacco and Vanzetti both followed the teachings of Luigi Galleani, an anarchist theorist who advocated violence to overthrow the state. The Galleanists did in fact use violence in the United States. They were believed to be the group behind the bombing of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in 1919. Palmer, already cracking down on radicalism with the help of his young eager assistant by the name of J. Edgar Hoover, built upon this incident to intensify the Red Scare, that nation-wide crackdown on radicalism in all forms during and after American entry into World War I.

It was in this atmosphere that men like Sacco and Vanzetti were suspects in murders like that which took place on April 15, 1920, when armed robbers attacked a company payroll, killing two men. Although the evidence was indirect, the police suspected the greater Boston anarchist community, which was suspected in a series of other robberies to fund their activities. The police also discovered that one anarchist, Mario Buda had worked in two shops subjected to similar robberies. Upon questioning, Buda let slip that the local anarchist community had an automobile under repair, leading police to stake out the repair shop. The police convinced the garage owner to notify them when the anarchists arrived to pick up the car. When 4 men did, including Buda, Sacco, and Vanzetti, they sensed a trap and fled, but Sacco and Vanzetti were soon picked up. Both had guns at their homes; Sacco having a loaded .32 Colt similar to that used in the killings.

I’m not going to get into the details of the case, they are easy enough to read about if you want. Suffice it to say that the evidence was dicey that these two men committed the crime. It is at least possible that Sacco was directly involved, but Vanzetti was an intellectual and not a man of action; as John Dos Passos wrote in his defense of the men, “nobody in his right mind who was planning such a crime would take a man like that along.” Given the firearm evidence, the case against Vanzetti was far weaker than that against Sacco.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

The trial was a farce. The judge, Webster Thayer, was a conservative who had openly called for a crackdown against Bolsheviks and anarchists and held deep prejudice against immigrants. Taylor asked for the assignment so he could make an example of Sacco and Vanzetti. After denying an appeal motion, Thayer famously told a lawyer, “Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?” He told reporters that “No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!” Despite his bias, Thayer controlled the trial proceedings until the executions.

What can’t be denied is that Sacco and Vanzetti called for violent revenge due to their arrest, trial, and conviction. And their friends delivered. Mario Buda set off a bomb on Wall Street after their indictment, killing 38 people. He then fled the country, returning to Italy. Neither Sacco or Vanzetti ever renounced the sort of violence that they were accused of committing. Vanzetti called for the murder of Thayer. In 1932, a bomb blew up Thayer’s home in Worcester, Massachusetts, injuring his wife and housekeeper.

Aftermath of the Wall Street bombing

Sacco and Vanzetti’s case became the cause celebre of the 1920s. Not everyone claimed their innocence, but the behavior of Thayer and the unfair trial led to worldwide calls for a retrial. Although anarchists and other radicals dominated the defense committee itself, the case caught the attention of many around the world who thought justice poorly served. People ranging from Albert Einstein to Edna St. Vincent Millay to H.G. Wells thought it a miscarriage of justice. Even Benito Mussolini was ready to request clemency from the governor of Massachusetts if he thought it might do some good. Among others, future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter called for a new trial. Thayer refused all these requests and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

Protest in favor of Sacco and Vanzetti

Wrote John Dos Passos in New Masses after the execution:

This isn’t a poem

This is two men in grey prison clothes.

One man sits looking at the sick flesh of his hands—hands that haven’t worked for seven years.

Do you know how long a year is?

Do you know how many hours there are in a day

when a day is twenty-three hours on a cot in a cell,

in a cell in a row of cells in a tier of rows of cells

all empty with the choked emptiness of dreams?

Do you know the dreams of men in jail?

They are dead now

The black automatons have won.

They are burned up utterly

their flesh has passed into the air of Massachusetts their dreams have passed into the wind.

“They are dead now,” the Governor’s secretary nudges the Governor,

“They are dead now,” the Superior Court Judge nudges

the Supreme Court Judge,

“They are dead now” the College President nudges

the College President

A dry chuckling comes up from all the dead:

The white collar dead; the silkhatted dead;

the frockcoated dead

They hop in and out of automobiles

breathe deep in relief

as they walk up and down the Boston streets.

they are free of dreams now

free of greasy prison denim

their voices blow back in a thousand lingoes

singing one song

to burst the eardrums of Massachusetts

Make a poem of that if you dare!

Woody Guthrie also contributed to the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti:

This is the 39th post in this series. The series is archived here.

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  • AndrewJ

    Ben Shahn did a lot of Sacco & Vanzetti artwork. During the 1960s he created a mosaic to them on the Syracuse University campus.

  • Joseph Slater

    For those interested in more information on this (beyond Erik’s excellent post), I highly recommend this film:

  • ScottRS

    At the risk of being pedantic about an otherwise excellent post, the Judge was Thayer, not Taylor.

    • Mike

      This has now been changed in one of the two appearances of “Taylor”.

      • firefall

        well, he hasnt finished tailoring this post yet

    • Since you all are volunteering to serve as editors, send us your e-mail and you can edit this stuff for us.

      • Njorl

        You don’t need our email addresses. You have this comment section.

        As long as people restrict themselves to offering corrections about substance, rather than being weenies about homophones and commas, I see nothing wrong with offering respectful, useful corrections.

        • Joseph Slater

          “Weenies about homophones” would be a good name for an album, or even a band.

      • That’s exactly how I ended up assistant editor at HNN…

  • snarkout

    Great post – I’d also mention that the miners’ strike that led to Columbine massacre of 1927, which I believe you’ve written about for this series, began as a solidarity strike in protest of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

  • Been waiting for this one, Erik.

    I couldn’t find it on the YouTubes with my Google Stick, but around 1930 avant-garde composer Ruth Crawford wrote a sort of spoken-song (long story) with a poem about S&V, text by some Chinese dissident IIRC, that’s pretty cool. I have a copy somewhere if anyone’s interested. I think it’s simply called “Sacco, Vanzetti.”

    Moreover, it speaks to the (largely unsuccessful) way that the intelligentsia/avant-garde of the 20s and 30s, because they were ideologically sympathetic with e.g. the Labor Left, tried to form bridges between the plight of the working class/downtrodden and their own modernist techniques and ideals. Crawford and her eventual husband Charles Seeger (Pete’s dad) wrote songs for the American Communist party and so forth, and of course her stepson went on to use less…difficult music towards the same ends.

    • Actually I would be very interested in that. There is also an opera about Joe Hill by Wayne Horvitz that isn’t really all that great, but is interesting at least.

    • Just Dropping By

      They had Chinese dissidents in 1930?

      • Just about anyone with any political views was a dissident somewhere in China in the 1930s.

      • Hogan

        There’s one you may have heard of.

  • Marek

    Charlie King wrote a song about them also, called “Two Good Arms” I think.

  • Marek

    I think that the courtroom they were tried in is still in use in Dedham.

    • Hmmm…that sounds like a good exploration for me some weekend.

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  • Roger McCarthy

    And thank you so so much for sparing us a link to the God-awful Joan Baez dirge that was written for the 1971 S&V film….

    • I hereby promise never to link to a Joan Baez song for any reason ever.

  • mch

    So interesting to visit Worcester, MA now. What’s left of it as a normal city after all the post-WWII highway construction — and the abandonment of the mills and factories that brought Italians and other immigrants to the area in the first place. Well, now there’s the state med school and its hospital complex, along with a bunch of colleges, to keep things ticking. And a (still) wonderful museum and some grand buildings and houses to remind us of the Thayer class of folks. Truly, Worcester as a curious shell of an old Brahmin v. immigrant (largely Catholic, Italian or Irish) past. Now look what we’ve got: Brown v. Warren. Weird.

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