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Sacco and Vanzetti at 80
The Splendid Dead

Manacled to bigotry

CHARLESTON STATE PRISON, Mass., Tuesday, Aug. 23 [1927]—Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died in the electric chair early this morning, carrying out the sentence imposed on them for the South Braintree murders of April 15, 1920. Sacco marched to the death chair at 12:11 and was pronounced lifeless at 12:19. Vanzetti entered the execution room at 12:20 and was declared dead at 12:26. To the last they protested their innocence, and the efforts of many who believed them guiltless proved futile…” So went the Times’ lead story eighty years ago this morning. Sacco and Vanzetti, of course were innocent,except of that old American crime, paradox of a culture at war with itself: they were immigrants.

One made shoes. The other sold fish. Both were working-class Italian. Both were anarchists, followers of Luigi Galleani, who liked his insurrections to be violent. On April 15, 1920, two men were killed and $15,700 stolen from the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The police had little to no evidence linking anarchists, let alone Sacco and Vanzetti, to the murders. But evidence has never stood in the way of police prejudice—not then, not now: if the two men hadn’t committed the murders, they damn well deserved to be imprisoned and executed for murders they were bound to commit. Didn’t they lie when they were arrested? They did: the two were facing deportation, so they made up stories. Besides, hadn’t Vanzetti been tried and found guilty of a robbery? He had, although he’d also produced sixteen witnesses proving that the morning of the robbery he’d been busy selling eels, but all the witnesses were Italian, which made them somewhat less than human and entirely un-American in the eyes of the police. So he got twelve to fifteen years, and that was probable cause enough to slap him with the Braintree murders as well.

Sacco had managed to get out of the earlier robbery charge: he had a time card proving him to be at work. But, well, he and Vanzetti were tight and they spoke lousy English, and there was the matter of those bullets in Sacco’s pocket (never mind that ballistic evidence ruled those out)… What mattered was that Sacco and Vanzetti were, in the very words of Webster Thayer, the judge who tried them, “anarchist bastards.”

Fifty years passed before the two men’s names were officially rehabilitated when Michael Dukakis, in his first term as governor of Massachusetts, declared their trial unfair and their name cleared. (Dukakis committed a grave error himself: he did not, as the Patriot-Ledger reported in 2005, “reach out to the families of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, the two men who were robbed, shot, and left to die on a Braintree street on April 15, 1920. “It was a terrible gap in my judgment; we didn’t seem to focus on that,” Dukakis said.)

Between ideological blindness and anti-immigration bigotry, the forces arrayed against Sacco and Vanzetti were too great for any evidence to clear them. “Apart from the spiritual, moral and political invasion of alienism the practical question of the day by day competition between the original American and the alien element turns upon the struggle for existence between the Americans and the aliens whose actions are controlled by entirely different standards of living and of morals,” Henry Fairfield Osborn had written in a 1923 essay entitled “Shall We Maintain Washington’s Ideal of Americanism?” and published in a eugenics journal; Osborn was an eminent professor at Princeton and Columbia and president of the New York Zoological Society, which is likely where he acquired his Zoological bigotries.

The year before Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, another zoologically inclined thinker, Henry Pratt Fairchild, that one a Yale and New York University eminence and an immigration agent for the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote a book called “The Melting-Pot Mistake.” He minced no words, comparing immigrants to vermin in a long metaphor involving plants and trees: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those foreign forces which, among trees, are represented by minute hostile organisms that make their way into the very tissue of the tree itself and feed upon its life substances, and among nations to alien individuals who are accepted as immigrants and by a process of ‘boring from within’ (in something much more than a trade-union sense) sap the very vitality of their host.”

If some of the nation’s leading intellectuals thought that way, imagine what more impulsive opinion was like. Not just then, but now: anti-immigration bigotry is still very much part of the nation’s sap. So is that ideologically driven fanaticism against “enemies” that the nation seems incapable of doing without: Reds and anarchists in the 1920s, communists during the cold war, “terrorists” (a euphemism for all things Arab and Muslim) now. Woe to whoever falls in that judicial snare these days. Guilt or innocence is irrelevant. The sentence has already been imposed.

On August 21, 1927, two days before the executions, the Times received a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, her contribution “to the registering of feeling many of us have about the Sacco-Vanzetti execution.” The paper ran the poem the next day, on page 2:


Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting-room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under the cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting-room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted -
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited -
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued -
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does not overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.


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