Who were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti? Why was their execution controversial?

1 Answer
Jan 13, 2016

Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian anarchists who were accused of committing an armed robbery of a paymaster in 1920 and executed in 1927.


The early 20th century in the United States was a period of political upheaval. Movements such as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the labor movement, the Red Scare, immigration reform, and agitation for women's rights were just some of the forces of change in this period.

Another of these movements was anarchism. Anarchism is the belief that everyone would be better off with no government at all. Many of the theorists of the anarchist movement were foreign-born (such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman). In that time period, the idea of anarchy was frightening to most Americans; America had been founded on the idea that the best government was one made by the people.

Anarchists believed in the concept of "propaganda of the deed." This meant that committing some act (often what we would call a terrorist act) was an example to others of the best actions to take. Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of an Italian anarchist who advocated violent revolutionary action.

On the night of April 15, 1920, two men transporting payroll for a shoe company were set upon by armed robbers and killed. Sacco and Vanzetti came to the attention of the police during the investigation and were arrested. In the ensuing trial, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

Much of the evidence against them was circumstantial, and they were denied a retrial when someone else confessed. The presiding judge was obviously not impartial during the trial. Many people believed that they had been convicted for being anarchists and foreigners rather than because they were guilty and that their civil rights had been violated. The campaign for a retrial included such celebrities as Albert Einstein, John Dos Passos, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The effort failed and they were executed in 1927.

Most modern scholars believe that Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti was innocent of the murders.