Today, we go back to 1927, and the final moments for two Boston suspected criminals-turned-cause célèbre whose lives were immortalized by Woody Guthrie and whose story shaped the public policy of one of the Bay State's most renowned politicians.
By the time the first switch was thrown on the electric chair, shortly after midnight on Aug. 23, 1927, an enormous crowd had assembled outside the Charlestown prison, which was surrounded by 800 police. By 12:30, word was spreading through the crowd. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were dead.
"They were both Italian immigrants, they were both laborers and they were both followers of an anarchist in the United States named Luigi Galliani," said Susan Tejada, author of “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti.”
The men had been convicted of robbing, shooting and killing two guards who were delivering $16,000 in payroll to a shoe factory in South Braintree, Mass.
"The entire crime, from the first bullet to the getaway, took less than a minute," Tejada said.
The men were convicted despite scant, questionable physical evidence and multiple eyewitnesses who placed them both elsewhere at the time of the crime. Tejada says it’s because the narrative of the trial was not dominated by the facts of the case, but rather by four other factors: "Their anarchist beliefs, their labor activism, their Italian ethnicity and their draft dodging during World War I."
They languished in prison for years, as a dedicated defense committee sought publicity and fought for a new trial. Motion after motion was denied, despite the fact that witnesses recanted testimonies, another man admitted to the crime and that evidence came to light that the judge in the case, Webster Thayer, was less than impartial.
"Over the course of time he made astonishing prejudicial comments off the bench about Sacco and Vanzetti being reds and Bolsheviks and how we had to protect ourselves against them; about Sacco and Vanzetti being 'anarchist bastards,'" Tejada said.
Initially bashed in the press for everything for their draft dodging to their radical politics, public opinion slowly shifted — dramatically — in Sacco and Vanzetti’s favor - as people across the globe increasingly saw in their case a justice system that was blind to justice.
"It was astonishing," Tejada said. "Protests and demonstrations and strikes all over the United States, in Germany, England Australia, Switzerland, Paraguay, Mexico, on every continent except Antarctica."
In the end, it was that overwhelming support that sunk their last best chance. In the days before their execution Massachusetts Gov Alvan T. Fuller was urged to issue a pardon. He said that he might have issued a pardon but …
"He felt that worldwide interest in the case proved that there was a conspiracy against the United States," Tejada said. "That’s what he said."
And so on August 23, shortly after midnight, Sacco and Vanzetti were silenced, forever. But the story doesn’t end there. Fifty years after their death, another Massachusetts governor once again took up their case.
"I think today there’s a very bright consensus about this," said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. "A terrible injustice was done."
And so on the 50th anniversary of their execution, Dukakis issued an official proclamation, clearing their name.
"I couldn’t pardon them, posthumously," he said. "I mean, I couldn’t to that legally, but at least it seemed to me it was well worth issuing a proclamation that a grave injustice had been done."
The decree was not without it’s controversy. A state senator even threatened to impeach Dukakis over it. But looking back, Dukakis says it was worth it.
"I thought it was an important thing to do," he said. "It was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’ve been a lifelong opponent of the death penalty and the Sacco and Vanzetti case is one of the reasons for that. It doesn’t make any difference how innocent those folks might have been they’re gone. It had a very powerful influence on me."
And he points out the issues that surrounded the case, from immigration to class to racial profiling, make Sacco and Vanzetti strikingly relevant today.
"We’re looking at a suburb of St. Louis these days and most of us, I think, are appalled at what’s going on out there, so the idea that somehow these problems don’t continue is one that I don’t think you can seriously accept when you look at what’s happening out there," Dukakis said.
Tejeda agrees, and points out that, in the end, Sacco himself realized as much.
"At his trial he said that life in the U.S. is good for people with money but it’s not good for the working and the laboring class, and at his sentencing, he said, 'I know this sentencing will be between two classes, the rich class and the working class, and there will always be collision between one and the other.'"
Sacco and Vanzetti were tried and convicted of a crime that most people today conclude they never committed. And they were executed for it, right here in Massachusetts, 87 years ago this week.