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Sacco and VanzettiNicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, “the good shoemaker and the poor fish peddler”, were charged with murdering two payroll clerks in a shoot-out in South Braintree in 1920. After a controversial trial and several appeals, they were executed in 1927. It has long been debated whether or not they were guilty of the crime; but there is wide consensus they did not receive a fair trial. Their status as Italian-born immigrants and anarchists conspired against them, and Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over their trial, is famously quoted as saying “These two men are anarchists; they are guilty. . . They are not getting a fair trial, but I am working it so that their counsel will think that they are.” *

At the time of the trial, up through and beyond the date of their execution, many Americans understood that justice was not being served. Twenty thousand people rallied on the Boston Common prior to the execution, and there were protests all over the world. The poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, along with hundreds of others, was arrested as part of a demonstration at the State House. Her poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” expresses her outrage. The artist, Ben Shahn, created an entire body of work dedicated to Sacco and Vanzetti, including his “Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” now at the Whitney. In 1945, Moses Asch commissioned Woody Guthrie to compose a song cycle about the case.

National and international outcry about the unfairness of the trial eventually prompted the Massachusetts Legislature to pass Chapter 341 of the Acts of 1939, “An Act Relative to Appeals in Capital Cases.” On the 50th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation to mark the day and reflect upon the unfairness of the trial and execution.

Today, you can learn more about the trial at Douglas Linder’s “Famous American Trials” website. The Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries have a wealth of material that you can investigate at your local public law library. A permanent exhibit, “Sacco and Vanzetti: Justice on Trial” is open to the public in the Great Hall on the 1st floor of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston.

* A.D.A. Dudley P. Ranney to Winfield M. Wilbar, July 22, 1925, Sacco-Vanzetti Case papers, Harvard Law School, Box 23, Folder 7.

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