Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed for the cold-blooded murder of two men during the course of a payroll robbery in April 1920. The case, which included a seven-week trial and a series of appeals, became a cause célèbre
, and it was not until August 1927 that they were sent to the electric chair.
Both men were Italian immigrants, and like many immigrants of that period they held political views that were anathema to the American establishment.
The arrest of the two coincided with the Red Scare
of 1919-20, but while the authorities do appear to have been out to get Italian anarchists in particular, the evidence against the two men was compelling; although they were not initially suspects, they fell into a police trap that had been set specifically for the factory payroll robbers, and were carrying guns at the time.
Of the vast literature on the case, the most compelling and well argued is probably the 1960 book Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder And The Myth
by Robert H. Montgomery of the Massachusetts Bar. Among other things, this author points out that by the time of their trial, Vanzetti had already been convicted of an attempted robbery and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years, that this trial appears to have been manifestly fair and the evidence of his guilt compelling.
Woody Guthrie - a champion of the American musical left - was commissioned to produce an album of songs related to the case, by the founder of Folkway Records (and lifelong socialist) Moses Asch, albeit the best part of two decades after their execution. "Vanzetti's Letter" is written as an appeal to Governor Alvan T. Fuller. Fuller was not impressed with the actual pleas for mercy. (Thanks, Alexander Baron - London, England. For more on Guthrie, see our interview with his granddaughter Anna Canoni