BOSTON – Ninety years ago Wednesday, Italian immigrants and avowed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Boston after one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 20th century.
Today, their legacy lingers. Far from resolving the case, the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti on Aug. 23, 1927, have become a touchstone for generations of activists, historians, and citizens still debating what lessons can be learned from their trial.
The pair was executed amid fierce anti-immigrant sentiment. Scholars say it resonates today as the U.S. ponders immigration and the role and reach of law enforcement.
Fifty years after the execution, Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis — a son of Greek immigrants — proclaimed Aug. 23 as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day.
Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested several weeks after a payroll clerk and a security guard were shot and killed during an armed robbery at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree in 1920.
The 1921 trial, which came during a time of heightened suspicion of immigration from Europe and a specific fear of Italian anarchists, drew international attention.
After they were convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, political dissidents, unionists, Italian immigrants and other supporters — including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay — demonstrated across the U.S. and Europe, arguing the two were targeted for their political beliefs and immigrant status.
The two maintained their innocence throughout the trial and appeals, but were executed in 1927 at the state prison in Charlestown.
GRAPPLING WITH HISTORY
In the decades since, Massachusetts has struggled to put the case into a larger context, looking for morals about justice, immigration and prejudice.
In his 1977 proclamation, issued in English and Italian, Dukakis said the trial "was permeated by prejudice against foreigners and hostility toward unorthodox political views."
A sculpture of Sacco and Vanzetti by Gutzon Borglum, who designed Mount Rushmore, is housed at the Boston Public Library.
It includes an inscription from a letter written by Vanzetti that reads: "What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood in their real being and serve as a tremendous lesson to the forces of freedom so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain."
THE DEATH PENALTY
Of the many ways to interpret the case, one of the more enduring has been through Massachusetts' tortured relationship to the death penalty.
Capital punishment was common in the state's earliest days. Mary Dyer was put to death in Boston in 1660 after she was banned by the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being a Quaker. A few decades later, 19 people were hanged and one crushed to death during the 1692 Salem witch trials.
But the Sacco and Vanzetti case turned out to be perhaps the state's most infamous death penalty case — and a rallying cry for death penalty critics.
Massachusetts hasn't executed anyone since 1947, and the state's highest court essentially banned capital punishment in 1984.