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. The case was commemorated in an outpouring of literary expression.On the first anniversary of the execution, the Nation published Malcolm Cowley’s “For St. Bartholomew’s Day.” The poem ended in defiance and resolve, when Cowley invoked Sacco and Vanzetti as saints martyred to the cause of freedom. In an ironic gesture, he used images of Catholicism to commemorate the two devout anarchists (and thus atheists) and to proclaim them as spiritual leaders.
Outside the prison gawk
the crowds that you will see no more.
A door slams shut behind you. Walk
with turnkeys down a corridor
smelling of lysol, through the gates
to where the uneager sheriff waits.
St. Nicholas who blessed your birth,
whose hands are rich with gifts, will bear
no further gifts to you on earth,
Sacco, whose voice is heard in prayer
neither to Pilate nor a saint
whose earthly sons die innocent.
And you that would not bow your knee
to God, swarthy Bartholomew,
no God shall seek your liberty
nor Virgin intercede for you
nor bones of yours make sweet the plot
where governors and judges rot.
A doctor sneezes, a chaplain maps
the streets of heaven, you mount the chair,
two jailers buckle tight the straps
like those which aviators wear,
the surgeon makes a signal.
lost symbols of our liberty.
Beyond the chair, beyond the bars
of day and night your path lies free.
Yours is an avenue of stars.
March on, O dago Christs, while we
march on to spread your name abroad
like ashes in the winds of God.
Source: Malcolm Cowley, “For St. Batholomew’s Day,” Nation, 22 August 1928, 175.