Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World
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Review by Lucas A. Powe, Jr.
Looking back at 20th century American trials, one might think every decade produced its own “trial of the century.” But the trial that remains the best for its before, after, and during is that of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for two murders during a robbery in South Braintree, Masschusetts in 1920. Although there is already considerable literature on the case, Susan Tejada’s In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case that Shook the World is a welcome addition for its bringing together so many strands of the saga.
Sacco and Vanzetti were among the 129,000 Italians to immigrate to the United States in 1908, the 17-year-old Sacco to Boston, the 20-year-old Vanzetti to New York City, both to rising anti-Italian xenophobia. They would not meet until 1917, five years after both of them had become followers of the violent anarchist Luigi Galleani (although there is no hard evidence either engaged in bombing during the post-war Red Scare). When the US declared war on Germany, both headed to Mexico as draft dodgers. That was decidedly unhelpful when it was introduced—prejudicially—in their trial for murder, where evidence conclusively shows that in their initial interrogations by police, each lied.
The trial, before Judge Webster Thayer, had little to commend it; Thayer’s out-of-court statements about the two defendants were prosecutorial, not judicial, and his contempt of the defendants’ lead lawyer was palpable. Not surprisingly, Thayer thought he did a fine job of presiding and he denied motions for a new trial from 1921-23. “Let them go to the Supreme Court [of Massachusetts] and see what they can get out of them” Webster stated, knowing of the limited review available by that court—which indeed ruled in 1926 that it found no reversible error in the trial.
Meanwhile interest in a new trial was growing. Harvard Professor Felix Frankfurter, among many others, took up the cause, and the Boston Herald, in a switched position, editorialized for a new trial. The governor then appointed an advisory committee consisting of the presidents of Harvard and MIT and a retired judge (who was on the Harvard Board of Overseers). While this was initially cause for optimism, the report exonerated Thayer, and the governor refused to stop the executions.
There can never be a definitive judgment on events now nine decades old. Sacco and Vanzetti were probably guilty of something, but not necessarily murder—although it seems probable that Sacco, but not Vanzetti, was. They did not get a fair trial, and the Massachusetts establishment saw to it that they did not have the opportunity of a retrial. In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti shows Vanzetti’s observation that he would be “a vanquished man, but a formidable shadow” still holds true.
Hardcover Book : 400 pages
Publisher: Northeastern Univ Press ( April 10, 2012 )
Item #: 13-564291
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.0inches
Product Weight: 20.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)