Sacco and Vanzetti
Bruce Watson
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Buy *Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind* by Bruce Watson online

Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind
Bruce Watson
448 pages
August 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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"If it had not been for those things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died unknown, unmarked, a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by an accident."
These were the words, perhaps mildly embellished, transcribed by a newspaper reporter who interviewed Nicola Vanzetti in his prison cell two months before his execution. They are words that have been quoted in plays and literature and are emblazoned forever in the history of leftist politics in America. But the story behind them has become dim with time and the change in scene. Few people outside a handful of diehard radicals now remember Sacco and Vanzetti, but while they lived, for the seven years they languished in prison, their names appeared in headlines all over the world. Both men had come to America from Italy in the early part of the 20th century to pursue the typical American dream. Ironically, once they found themselves in an atmosphere that countenanced freedom of speech and assembly, they were swept up in a belief system that challenged the governance of the U.S., challenged the right of any person to govern another. Both became anarchists, and both were firebrands in the cause.

Bartolomeo Sacco was a married man who had a good job, having paid for an apprenticeship in a shoe factory. He made a high salary for the times and was supporting a wife and son. Vanzetti, the darker of the two figures, was something of a poet who wrote angry letters to the radical papers of the day and scraped by financially as a fish peddler who often did other jobs to supplement his low earnings. Drawn together by the threads of history, the two men were part of a plot to wipe out prominent politicians and financiers by sending them packages containing bombs, marked as free samples from Gimbel's Department Store. Stupidly, the two terrorists failed to put enough postage on the bombs and the plot was foiled. Not long afterwards, they were accused of perpetrating a payroll heist/killing and locked up for the rest of their lives, lives that ended on August 23, 1927 in the electric chair. Evidence against them was scant, hazy, and, some believe, planted. Another man later confessed to having been part of the robbery and stated that Sacco and Vanzetti were wrongfully accused of involvement.

The trial of the two anarchists was a showcase for two deeply polarized camps. In the wake of World War I, Americans had been known to shoot people who did not stand up for the National Anthem. Leftist thinking was rife and vibrant with the fall of the tsarist regime in Russia and the worldwide ascendancy of a new kind of political philosophy that lionized the common man. People on the left were labeled "Reds", "pacifists" and "sob sisters," while those on the right were considered by men like the two Italians to be ruthless fascists and heartless capitalists. At the time, journalist Bruce Watson relates, a tiny fraction of the American people held 50 percent of the national wealth, so Communism had fertile ground to plough. Leftists of all sorts dug deep into their pockets and used every possible platform to plead for Sacco and Vanzetti. In the end they were unsuccessful, and the men were put to death. Self-styled patriots crowed, while some of the great writers and artists of the day (John Dos Passos, Edna St Vincent Millay) wept and composed eulogies.

Watson's book thoroughly examines the trials, the evidence, the outcome, and concludes that at the very least the men should have been given a second trial based on the questionable tactics used against them in the first. The judge was heard soon after to brag about what he did to those "anarchistic bastards." Yet, Watson makes clear, there has never been a satisfactory explanation of what Sacco and Vanzetti were doing on the night of the crime, or why they returned a few days later to claim the car used in the shootings, carrying weapons. Watson holds his own opinions in check to write this account, but even with all bias set aside it is hard to believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were given a fair trial. Their personalities shine through the narrative - two men who believed passionately in a botched ideal, who were willing to die for a cause but not for a crime of which they never stopped protesting their innocence. In the end, knowing the world was watching, they dignified their struggles as a "good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler" ground down and finally obliterated by an uncaring system.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2007

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