Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23

Eighty years ago today, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed at Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts for the murder of two shoe factory employees seven years before. The murders took place in the midst of the post-World War I “red scare,” and the arrest of two Italian anarchists -- a class considered by many Americans as the gravest threat to the nation -- surprised no one. Although physical evidence connecting the men to the crime was either ambiguous or nonexistent, a circumstantial case persuaded a jury of their guilt; Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the original trial, had set the tone for the proceedings by equating jury duty with military service.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts called upon you to render a most important service. Although you knew that such service would be arduous, painful and tiresome, yet you, like the true soldier, responded to that call in the spirit of supreme American loyalty. There is no better word in the English language than “loyalty.”
Thayer, who once berated a jury for acquitting an Italian anarchist, could not have been more clear about what might qualify as a “loyal” verdict.

Over the next six years, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti drew the world’s attention. As the execution date neared, workers in the United States and Europe protested vigorously. On August 7, 1927 hundreds of thousands of American workers threw down their tools and walked off their jobs. Appeals for clemency and motions for new trials had come to naught. The governor of Massachusetts appointed a commission to assess the fairness of the trial, though its conclusions were all but preordained. The United States Supreme Court declined to intervene.

As for the condemned themselves, they spent the last months of their lives writing letters to family, friends and supporters. In one of the most memorable of these, Nicola Sacco wrote to his daughter Ines:
I would like that you should understand what I am going to say to you, and I wish I could write you so plain, for I long so much to have you hear all the heart-beat, eagemess of your father, for I love you so much as you are the dearest little beloved one.

It is quite hard indeed to make you understand in your young age, but I am going to try from the bottom of my heart to make you understand how dear you are to your father's soul. If I cannot succeed in doing that, I know that you will save this letter and read it over in future years to come and you will see and feel the same heart-beat [of] affection as your father feels in writing it to you.

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