The emotional and highly publicized case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became a touchstone and rallying cry for American radicals in the early 20th century. The two Italian immigrants were accused in 1920 of murdering a paymaster in a holdup. Although the evidence against them was flimsy, they were readily convicted, in large part because they were immigrants and anarchists. Despite international protests, they were executed on August 23, 1927. Novelist John Dos Passos became deeply involved in the case after he visited Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts prisons. In the fall of 1920 he joined the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. Facing the Chair was the committee’s official report. In it Dos Passos dissected the complicated legal case, countering the prosecution account and excoriating the miscarriage of justice. In addition to its rhetorical argument, Facing the Chair appealed to readers' humanity with poignant descriptions of the two men’s long imprisonment. Dos Passos’s bitterly ironic subtitle—“The Americanization of Two Foreign-born Workingmen”—pointed to the nativist sentiment that colored the prosecution.
Where are Sacco and Vanzetti in all this? A broken man in Charlestown, a broken man in a grey birdcage in Dedham, struggling to keep some shreds of human dignity in face of the Chair? Not at all.
Circumstances sometimes force men into situations so dramatic, thrust their puny frames so far into the burning bright searchlights of history that they or their shadows on men’s minds become enormous symbols. Sacco and Vanzetti are all the immigrants who have built this nation’s industries with their sweat and their blood and have gotten for it nothing but the smallest wage it was possible to give them and a helot’s position under the bootheels of the Arrow Collar social order. They are all the wops, hunkies, bohunks, factory fodder that hunger drives into the American mills through the painful sieve of Ellis Island. They are the dreams of a saner social order of those who can’t stand the law of dawg eat dawg. This tiny courtroom is a focus of the turmoil of an age of tradition, the center of eyes all over the world. Sacco and Vanzetti throw enormous shadows on the courthouse walls.
[Defense Lawyer] William G. Thompson feels all this dimly when, the last affidavit read, he pauses to begin his argument. But mostly he feels that as a citizen it is his duty to protect the laws and liberties of his state and as a man to try to save two innocent men from being murdered by a machine set going in a moment of hatred and panic. He is a broadshouldered man with steely white hair and a broad forehead and broad cheekbones. He doesn’t mince words. He feels things intensely. The case is no legal game of chess for him.
“I rest my case on these affidavits, on the other five propositions that I have argued, but if they all fail, and I cannot see how they can, I rest my case on that rock alone, on the sixth proposition in my brief—innocent or guilty, right or wrong, foolish or wise men—these men ought not now to be sentenced to death for this crime so long as they have the right to say, ”The government of this great country put spies in my cell, planned to put spies in my wife’s house, they put spies on my friends, took money that they were collecting to defend me, put it in their own pocket and joked about it and said they don’t believe I am guilty but will help convict me, because they could not get enough evidence to deport me under the laws of Congress, and were willing as one of them continually said to adopt the method of killing me for murder as one way to get rid of me."
[Prosecution lawyer] Ranney’s handling of the case has been pretty perfunctory throughout, he has contented himself with trying to destroy the Court’s opinion of [Celestino] Madeiros’s veracity. A criminal is only to be believed when he speaks to his own detriment. He presents affidavits of the Morelli’s and their friends denying that they had ever heard of Madeiros, tries to imply that [Lawrence] Letherman and [Fred J.] Weyand were fired from the government employ and had no right to betray the secrets of their department. He knows that he does not need to make much effort. He is strong in the inertia of the courts. The defence will have to exert six times the energy of the prosecution to overturn the dead weighty block of six other motions denied.
Thompson comes back at him with a phrase worthy of Patrick Henry.
“. . . And I will say to your honor that a government that has come to honor its own secrets more than the lives of its citizens has become a tyranny whether you call it a republic or monarchy or anything else.”
Then the dry, crackling, careful voice of Judge [Webster] Thayer and the hearing is adjourned.
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, all who have had business before the honorable the justice of the superior court of the southeastern district of Massachusetts will now disperse. The court is adjourned without day.
God Save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Court refused to grant a new trial. The Court has decided that Sacco and Vanzetti must die.
God Save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. . . .
How is all this possible? Why were these men ever convicted in the first place? From the calm of the year of our Lord 1926 it’s pretty hard to remember the delirious year 1920.
On June 3rd 1919 a bomb exploded outside the Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In the previous months various people had received bombs through the mail, one of them blowing off the two hands of the unfortunate housemaid who undid the package. No one, and least of all the federal detectives ever seems to have discovered who committed these outrages or why they were committed. But their result was to put a scare into every public official in the country, and particularly into Attorney General Palmer. No one knew where the lightning would strike next. The signing of peace had left the carefully stirred up hatred of the war years unsatisfied. It was easy for people who knew what they were doing to turn the terrors of government officials and the unanalyzed feeling of distrust of foreigners of the average man into a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, dissenters of all sorts. The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent revolution. All the horrors of Russian Bolshevism were about to be enacted on our peaceful shores. That fall the roundup began. Every man had his ear to his neighbor’s keyhole. This first crusade culminated in the sailing of the Buford, the “soviet ark” loaded with alien “anarchists” and in the preparation of the famous list of eighty thousand radicals who were to be gotten out of the way.
But that was not enough to satisfy the desire for victims of the country at large, and the greed of the detectives and anti-labor operatives of different sorts who were making a fat living off the Department of Justice. So the January raids were planned. . . .
[Vanzetti’s account] After a two-day railway ride across France and more than seven days on the ocean, I arrived in the Promised Land. New York loomed on the horizon in all its grandness and illusion of happiness. I strained my eyes from the steerage deck, trying to see through this mass of masonry that was at once inviting and threatening to the huddled men and women in the third class.
In the immigration station I had my first great surprise. I saw the steerage passengers handled by the officials like so many animals. Not a word of kindness, of encouragement, to lighten the burden of fears that rests heavily upon the newly arrived on American shores. Hope, which lured these in, migrants to the new land, withers under the touch of harsh officials. Little children who should be alert with expectancy, cling instead to their mothers' skirts, weeping with fright. Such is the unfriendly spirit that exists in the immigration barracks.
How well I remember standing at the Battery, in lower New York, upon my arrival, alone, with a few poor belongings in the way of clothes, and very little money. Until yesterday I was among folks who understood me. This morning I seemed to have awakened in a land where my language meant little more to the native (so far as meaning is concerned) than the pitiful noises of a dumb animal. Where was I to go? What was I to do? Here was the promised land. The elevated rattled by and did not answer. The automobiles and the trolleys speed by, heedless of me.
I had note of one address, and thither a fellow-passenger conducted me. It was the house of a countryman of mine, on—street, near Seventh Avenue. I remained there a while, but it became all too evident that there was no room for me in his house, which was overstocked with human beings, like all workingmen’s houses. In deep melancholy I left the place towards eight in the evening to look for a place to sleep. I retraced my steps to the Battery, where I took a bed for the night in a suspicious-looking establishment, the best I could afford. Three days after my arrival, the compatriot already mentioned, who was head cook in a rich club on West street overlooking the Hudson River, found me a post in his kitchen as dishwasher. I worked there three months. The hours were long; the garret where we slept was suffocatingly hot; and the vermin did not permit me to close an eye. Almost every night I sought escape in the park.
Leaving this place, I found the same kind of employment in the Mouquin Restaurant. What the conditions there are at present I do not know. But at that time, thirteen years ago, the pantry was horrible. There was not a single window in it. When the electric light for some reason was out, it was totally dark, so that one couldn’t move without running into things. The vapor of the boiling water where the plates, pans and silver were washed formed great drops of water on the ceiling, took up all the dust and grime there, then fell slowly one by one upon my head, as I worked below. During working hours the heat was terrific. The table leavings amassed in barrels near the pantry gave out nauseating exhalations. The sinks had no direct sewerage connection. Instead, the water was permitted to overrun to the floor. In the center of the room there was a drain. Every night the pipe was clogged and the greasy water rose higher and higher and we trudged in the slime.
We worked twelve hours one day and fourteen the next, with five hours off every Sunday. Damp food hardly fit for dogs and five or six dollars a week was the pay. After eight months I left the place for fear of contracting consumption.
That was a sad year. What toiler does not remember it? The poor slept outdoors and rummaged the garbage barrels to find a cabbage leaf or a rotten potato. For three months I searched New York, its length and its breadth, without finding work. One morning, in an employment agency, I meet a young man more forlorn and unfortunate than I. He had gone without food the day before and was still fasting. I took him to a restaurant, investing almost all that remained to me of my savings in a meal which he ate with wolfish voracity. His hunger stilled, my new friend declared that it was stupid to remain in New York. If he had the money, he said, he would go to the country, where there was more chance of work, without counting the pure air and the sun which could be had for nothing. With the money remaining in my possession we took the steamboat for Hartford, Connecticut, the same day. . . .
From Worcester I transferred to Plymouth (that was about seven years ago), which remained my home until the time I was arrested. I learned to look upon the place with a real affection, because as time went on it held more and more of the people dear to my heart, the folks I boarded with, the men who worked by my side, the women who later bought the wares I had to offer as a peddler.
In passing, let me say how gratifying it is to realize that my compatriots in Plymouth reciprocate the love I feel for them. Not only have they supported my defense—money is a slight thing after all—but they have expressed to me directly and indirectly their faith in my innocence. Those who rallied around my good friends of the defense committee, were not only workers, but businessmen who knew me; not only Italians, but Jews, Poles, Greeks and Americans.
Well, I worked in the Stone establishment for more than a year, and then for the Cordage Company for about eighteen months. My active participation in the Plymouth cordage strike made it certain that I could never get a job there. . . . As a matter of fact, because of my more frequent appearance on the speaker’s platform in working class groups of every kind, it became increasingly difficult to get work anywhere. So far as certain factories were concerned I was definitely “blacklisted.” Yet, every one of my many employers could testify that I was an industrious, dependable workman, that my chief fault was in trying so hard to bring a little light of understanding into the dark lives of my fellow-workers. For some time I did manual work of the hardest kind in the construction undertakings of Sampson & Douland for the city. I can almost say that I have participated in all the principal public works in Plymouth. Almost any Italian in the town or any of my foremen of my various jobs can attest my industry and modesty of life during this period. I was deeply interested by this time in the things of the intellect, in the great hope that animates me even here in the dark cell of a prison while I await death for a crime I did not commit.
My health was not good. The years of toil and the more terrible periods of unemployment had robbed me of much of my original vitality. I was casting about for some salutary means of eking out my livelihood. About eight months before my arrest a friend of mine who was planning to return to the home country said to me: “Why don’t you buy my cart, my knives, my scales, and go to selling fish instead of remaining under the yoke of the bosses?” I grasped the opportunity, and so became a fish-vender, largely out of love for independence.
At that time, 1919, the desire to see once more my dear ones at home, the nostalgia for my native land had entered my heart. My father, who never wrote a letter without inviting me home, insisted more than ever, and my good sister Luigia joined in his pleas. Business was none too fat, but I worked like a beast of burden, without halt or stay, day after day.
December 24, the day before Christmas, was the last day I sold fish that year. A brisk day of business I had, since all Italians buy eels that day for the Christmas Eve feasts. Readers may recall that it was a bitter-cold Christmas, and the harsh weather did not let up after the holidays; and pushing a cart along is not warming work. I went for a short period to more vigorous, even if no less freezing work. I got a job a few days after Christmas cutting ice for Mr. Petersani. One day, when he hadn’t enough to go round, I shovelled coal for the Electric House. When the ice job was finished I got employment with Mr. Howland, ditch-digging, until a snow storm made me a man of leisure again. Not for longer than a few hours. I hired myself out to the town, cleaning the streets of the snow, and this work done, I helped clean the snow from the railroad tracks. Then I was taken on again by the Sampson Construction people who were laying a water main for the Puritan Woolen Company. I stayed on the job until it was finished.
Again I found no job. The railroad strike difficulties had cut off the cement supply, so that there was no more construction work going on. I went back to my fish-selling, when I could get none, I dug for clams, but the profit on these was lilliputian, the expenses being so high that they left no margin. In April I reached an agreement with a fisherman for a partnership. It never materialized, because on May 5, while I was preparing a mass meeting to protest against the death of [Andrea] Salsedo at the hands of the Department of Justice, I was arrested. My good friend and comrade Nicola Sacco was with me.
“Another deportation case,” we said to one another. . . .
The faces of men who have been a long time in jail have a peculiar frozen look under the eyes. The face of a man who has been a long time in jail never loses that tightness under the eyes. Sacco has been six years in the county jail, always waiting, waiting for trial, waiting for new evidence, waiting for motions to be argued, waiting for sentence, waiting, waiting, waiting. The Dedham jail is a handsome structure, set among lawns, screened by trees that wave new green leaves against the robins egg sky of June. In the warden’s office you can see your face in the light brown varnish, you could eat eggs off the floor it is 50 clean. Inside the main reception hall is airy, full of sunlight. The bars are bright with reflected spring greens, a fresh pea green light is over everything. Through the bars you can see the waving trees and the June clouds roaming the sky like cattle in an unfenced pasture. It’s a preposterous complicated canary cage. Why aren’t the birds singing in this green aviary? The warden politely shows you a seat and as you wait you notice a smell, not green and airy this smell, a jaded heavy greasy smell of slum, like the smell of army slum, but heavier, more hopeless.
Across the hall an old man is sitting in a chair, a heavy pear-shaped man, his hands limp at his sides, his eyes are closed, his sagged face is like a bundle of wet newspapers. The warden and two men in black stand over him, looking down at him helplessly.
At last Sacco has come out of his cell and sits beside me. Two men sitting side by side on a bench in a green, bird cage. When he feels like it one of them will get up and walk out, walk out into the sunny June day. The other will go back to his cell to wait. He looks younger than I had expected. His face has a waxy transparency like the face of a man who’s been sick in bed for long time; when he laughs his cheeks flush a little. At length we manage both of us to laugh. It’s such a preposterous position for a man to be in, like a man who doesn’t know the game trying to play chess blindfolded. The real world has gone. We have no more grasp of our world of rain and streets and trolley cars and cucumber vines and girls and garden plots. This is a world of phrases, prosecution, defence, evidence, motion, irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial. For six years this man has lived in the law, tied tighter and tighter in the sticky filaments of law-words like a fly in a spider web. And the wrong set of words means the Chair. All the moves in the game are made for him, all he can do is sit helpless and wait, fastening his hopes on one set of phrases after another. In all these law books, in all this terminology of clerks of the court and counsel for the defence there is one move that will save him, out of a million that will mean death. If only they make the right move, use the right words. But by this time the nagging torment of hope has almost stopped, not even the thought of his wife and children out there in the world, unreachable, can torture him now. He is numb now, can laugh and look quizzically at the ponderous machine that has caught and mangled him. Now it hardly matters to him if they do manage to pull him out from between the cogs, and the wrong set of words means the Chair.
The warden comes up to take down my name. “I hope your wife’s better,” says Sacco. “Pretty poorly,” says the warden. Sacco shakes his head. “Maybe she’ll get better soon, nice weather.” I have shaken his hand, my feet have carried me to the door, past the baggy pearshaped man who is still collapsed half deflated in the chair, closed crinkled eyelids twitching. The warden looks into my face with a curious smile, “Leaving us?” he asks. Outside in the neat streets the new green leaves are swaying in the sunlight, birds sing, klaxons grunt, a trolleycar screeches round a corner. Overhead the white June clouds wander in the unfenced sky.
Going to the State Prison at Charlestown is more like going to Barnum and Baileys. There’s a great scurry of guards, groups of people waiting outside; inside a brass band is playing Home Sweet Home. When at length you get let into the Big Show, you find a great many things happening at once. There are rows of chairs where pairs of people sit talking. Each pair is made up of a free man and a convict. In three directions there are grey bars and tiers of cells. The band inside plays bangingly “If Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot.” A short broadshouldered man is sitting quiet through all the uproar, smiling a little under his big drooping mustache. He has a domed, pale forehead and black eyes surrounded by many little wrinkles. The serene modeling of his cheek-bones and hollow cheeks makes you forget the prison look under his eyes.
This is Vanzetti.
And for the last six years, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, yesterday, today, tomorrow, Sacco and Vanzetti wake up on their prison pallets, eat prison food, have an hour of exercise and conversation a day, sit in their cells puzzling about this technicality and that technicality, pinning their hopes to their alibis, to the expert testimony about the character of the barrel of Sacco’s gun, to Madeiros’s confession and Weeks' corroboration, to action before the Supreme Court of the United States, and day by day the props are dashed from under their feet and they feel themselves being inexorably pushed towards the Chair by the blind hatred of thousands of wellmeaning citizens, by the superhuman, involved, stealthy, soulless mechanism of the law. . . .
What is going to be done if the Supreme Judicial Court continues to refuse Sacco and Vanzetti a new trial? Are Sacco and Vanzetti going to burn in the Chair?
The conscience of the people of Massachusetts must be awakened. Working people, underdogs, reds know instinctively what is going on. The same thing has happened before. But the average law-admiring, authority-respecting citizen does not know. For the first time, since Judge Thayer’s last denial of motions for a new trial, there has been a certain awakening among the influential part of the community, the part of the community respected by the press and the bench and the pulpit. Always there have been notable exceptions, but up to now these good citizens have had no suspicion that anything but justice was being meted out by the courts. Goaded by the New York World editorials, Chief Counsel Thompson’s eloquence, by the Boston Herald’s courageous change of front, they are getting uneasy. It remains to be seen what will come of this uneasiness. The Boston Herald suggests an impartial commission to review the whole case. All that is needed is that the facts of the case be generally known.
Everyone must work to that end, no matter what happens, that the facts of the case may be known so that no one can plead ignorance, so that if these men are killed, everyone in the State, everyone in the country will have the guilt on them. So that no one can say “I would have protested but I didn’t know what was being done.”
Tell your friends, write to your congressmen, to the political bosses of your district, to the newspapers. Demand the truth about Sacco and Vanzetti. Call meetings, try to line up trade unions, organizations, clubs, put up posters. Demand the truth about Sacco and Vanzetti.
If the truth had been told they would be free men today.
If the truth is not told they will burn in the Chair in Charlestown Jail. If they die what little faith many millions of men have in the chance of Justice in this country will die with them.
Source: Save Sacco and Vanzetti.John Dos Passos, Facing the Chair: Story of the Americanization of Two Foreignborn Workmen (Boston: Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee, 1927), 44–47, 60–63, 68–71, 126–127.