Judging from a new film and two new books, Sacco and Vanzetti remain — 80 years after their controversial execution — the chosen poster boys of those seeking to stigmatize the American justice system.
Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco (18911927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (18881927) were electrocuted in 1927 after being found guilty of murdering two men during a robbery in 1920, amid much uproar about a biased trial and lack of evidence.
Ballistics evidence implicated Sacco, a Massachusetts shoe factory employee, and he was armed when arrested in 1920, as was Vanzetti, a fish peddler. Nevertheless, their contemporary defenders included future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter; Albert Einstein; and John Dos Passos, who argued for a retrial because their judge was biased.
Today their advocates, including Howard Zinn, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, go a step further and assert that they were surely innocent.
Then and now the actual facts of the case, where available, have usually taken a back seat to polemics by those who have an ax to grind.
“Sacco and Vanzetti,” a documentary newly available on DVD after a brief theatrical run in March, unapologetically argues the case for their innocence. Directed by Peter Miller, who previously worked with the omnipresent documentarian Ken Burns, the film features the voices of respected actors Tony Shalhoub (the obsessive-compulsive TV detective of “Monk”) and John Turturro (“Barton Fink”) reading the pair’s prison letters.
Mr. Miller plays up the suffering of Sacco and Vanzetti as downtrodden Italian immigrants. Ignored is the fact that Alessandro Berardelli, a factory security guard murdered in the 1920 robbery which they were accused of committing, was himself a humble Italian immigrant.
One fervent supporter in Mr. Miller’s film refers ardently to the “Passion of Sacco & Vanzetti,” echoing the title of a painting by Ben Shahn at New York’s Whitney Museum. A bronze plaque on Vanzetti’s birthplace in Villafalletto, Italy, calls him an “apostle of faith.” Yet, the halos of holy martyrs do not settle plausibly over the heads of Sacco and Vanzetti: As anarchists, both were militant atheists to the point of refusing to be consoled by a priest in their final hours.
As a bizarre coda to his film, the director tacks on images recently filmed at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp, to make “connections between past and present outrages,” as Mr. Miller helpfully told one interviewer. Lumping Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution and Gitmo together as equivalent “outrages” belies the historical integrity of both extremely complex situations.
Like Mr. Miller, Sacco and Vanzetti defenders have always cited the pair’s prison letters to beatify them. Columnist Walter Lippmann, for example, claimed: “By every test that I know of for judging character, these are the letters of innocent men.” In fact, there is no reliably edited version of these famous documents. Instead of fixing the flawed texts themselves, however, a new version of the “Letters” from Penguin Classics merely adds a new preface by Bruce Watson, journalist and author of the new “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind” (Viking, 440 pages, $25.95).
As Mr. Watson points out in his Penguin foreword, the letters were (not so innocently) expurgated before first being published in 1928 by Felix Frankfurter’s wife, Marion, and Gardner Jackson, a Colorado-born liberal activist. Some of the suppressed material makes the accused pair seem more violent. Omitted, for example, was a 1926 letter in which Vanzetti stated in inexact English about his judge: “I will try to see Thayer death before his pronunciation of our sentence.” In 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti sent their sympathizers a letter — also cut from the Penguin edition, but mentioned in the foreword — ordering them: “Revenge our death!”
These lacunae are meaningful because, as described in Mr. Watson’s book, the pair were disciples of the Italian terrorist Luigi Galleani (1861-1931), who advocated assassination as part of class war, planting bombs to overthrow capitalism. Although pooh-poohed in Mr. Miller’s documentary as a mere “Red Scare,” the Galleani bombings were full-scale terrorism that resulted in mass murder among the same working class ostensibly being defended by the anarchists.
The notorious Wall Street bombing of Sept. 16, 1920, for example, attributed to Galleani’s henchman Mario Buda, a close friend of Sacco and Vanzetti, killed 38 office clerks, messenger boys, and stenographers, and injured 400.
And bombings did ensue after Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution. As the historian Paul Avrich pointed out in his “Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background” (Princeton University Press, 1991), a five-year campaign of retaliatory bombings by Galleani’s anarchists followed the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, including a failed attempt to assassinate their judge, Webster Thayer, by bombing his home. Thenceforth, Mr. Thayer resided in his Boston club, under armed guard, until he died of natural causes in 1933.
Even after the principal players in the drama were buried, the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti marched on, and in their case at least, the passage of time does not seem to have added much clarity or perspective to historical events.
The documentary “Sacco and Vanzetti” is available on DVD from First Run Features (www.firstrunfeatures.com)