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In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti

Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World

Susan Tejada

Publication Year: 2012

An in-depth reexamination with startling new insights into the controversial case It was a bold and brutal crime—robbery and murder in broad daylight on the streets of South Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920. Tried for the crime and convicted, two Italian-born laborers, anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, went to the electric chair in 1927, professing their innocence. Journalist Susan Tejada has spent years investigating the case, sifting through diaries and police reports and interviewing descendants of major figures. She discovers little-known facts about Sacco, Vanzetti, and their supporters, and develops a tantalizing theory about how a doomed insider may have been coerced into helping professional criminals plan the heist. The author takes a panoramic view of the case, allowing the reader to see the personalities as individuals. She also paints a fascinating portrait of a bygone era: Providence gangsters and Boston Brahmins; nighttime raids and midnight bombings; and immigration, unionism, draft dodging, and violent anarchism in the turbulent early years of the twentieth century. In many ways this is as much a cultural history as a true-crime mystery or courtroom drama. Because the case played out against a background of domestic terrorism, in a time that echoes our own, we have a new appreciation of the potential connection between fear and the erosion of civil liberties and miscarriages of justice.

Published by: Northeastern University Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

When young Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti arrived in the United States, they were indistinguishable from the nearly two million other Italians who sailed to American shores in the first decade of the twentieth century. Nicola docked in Boston in 1908; Bartolomeo landed in New York the same year. They were strangers to each other at the time, but nineteen years later, convicted of murder and on the brink of execution, they stood together at the ...

Note on the Text

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pp. xiii-xiv

Part One

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1 | Sudden Death

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pp. 3-8

Looking back, it would seem that suspicious-looking characters had been skulking around all over South Braintree that day.
Five men driving a car through the square looked like a tough bunch, Harry Dolbeare said. Two nervous men were acting “kind of funny,” sitting “beside the gent’s toilet” at the train station, according to William Heron. Two “light complexioned boys” sitting on a fence attracted Hans Behrsin’s attention. William ...

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2 | “This Human Flotsam”

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pp. 9-21

Life was good for young Bartolomeo Vanzetti. To be the eldest son, to grow up with an adoring mother and a successful father in a land of beauty and bounty—a boy with blessings like these could be happy and carefree. Small wonder that Bartolo, looking back on his childhood, would sigh, “I love my valley.”1

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3 | Crime Wave

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pp. 22-33

Murder and mayhem in Massachusetts. The cold-blooded killings in South Braintree were part of a reign of terror sweeping through the Boston area, said State Senator David McIntosh, and it had to be stopped.
The crime wave included a four-month-old attempted robbery, still unsolved, in the town of Bridgewater....

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4 | “Organize! O Toilers”

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pp. 34-57

Nicola Sacco’s seventeenth birthday was unlike any he had celebrated before. For the first sixteen years of his life he had lived in Torremaggiore, his hometown in Italy’s Foggia province. But as he turned seventeen on April 22, 1908, he was living in a kind of Little Foggia—Milford, Massachusetts, some forty miles outside Boston. Along with brother Sabino, Nick had been in the United...

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5 | Constructing a Case

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pp. 58-62

It was early spring in Massachusetts, but Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, and Ricardo Orciani could not enjoy it. On May 6, 1920, they were being held without bail, initially on minor charges: carrying concealed weapons for Sacco and Vanzetti and, for the motorcycle-driving Orciani, speeding and operating a vehicle without a taillight....

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6 | “Conscription Was Upon Them”

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pp. 63-74

Did Bartolomeo Vanzetti join the cheering crowd along the route of the Patriots’ Day parade in Plymouth on April 19, 1917? Did he see the marchers proudly sally forth—soldiers and policemen, Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls, members of the Bavarian Benefit Society and the Franco-Prussian Veteran Society? Did he agree with the Old Colony Memorial newspaper that the parade was “the greatest . . . showing of sentiment that the old town has ever...

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7 | Dry Run at Plymouth

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pp. 75-95

The Italians of Plymouth were concerned. In the rented rooms and company housing, at the Amerigo Vespucci and Cristoforo Colombo clubs, at Broccoli’s Market and the Plymouth Theater, on Suosso Lane, Court Street, Cherry Street, and South Cherry Street, people were talking. The housewives, the barbers and bakers, the fishermen and boat builders, the textile workers and rope makers and sardine packers, the...

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8 | “Terrorist Plot Is Seen”

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pp. 96-122

Terror struck New York on a clear September day. Bloodied workers fled panic- stricken through the eye of the storm—the financial district, symbol of American capitalism.
A reporter who was on the scene at the moment of the attack described “a crash out of blue sky—an unexpected, death-dealing bolt.” He felt a concussion of air, then “a sharp resounding crash which shook to their foundations...

Part Two

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9 | Dedham: Curtain Rising

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pp. 125-131

Boston sizzled in the summer of 1921. A record heat wave blistered the parched city. In only two of the preceding 103 years had so meager an amount of rain fallen in June. Kids sought fleeting relief in the spray of fire hydrants. When night fell, perspiring families went outside in search of a breeze and a good night’s sleep, sprawling on tenement roofs and wharves, on the banks of the Charles River and the lawn of Boston Common.1...

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10 | Docket Nos. 5545 and 5546

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pp. 132-161

On Monday, June 6, 1921, as the Canopic sailed into the port of Boston with its shipload of newly illegal Italian passengers, the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti rolled into its second week. Taking the “dustiest ride on record in Massachusetts,” jurors, lawyers, reporters, and the judge were driven in open cars over dirt roads to view sites connected to the crime.1...

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11 | Dedham: Curtain Falling

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pp. 162-174

On July 13, 1921, in Plymouth, the months-long tercentenary celebration of the Pilgrims’ landing reached a dramatic peak with the grand premiere of the Pageant of the Pilgrim Spirit, complete with orchestra, three hundred choral singers, and a thousand actors performing on a large dirt-floor plaza. Over in Dedham on that same hot summer day, the crowd was smaller but the drama more intense. The time had arrived for closing arguments in Commonwealth vs....

Part Three

12 | Prison Crucible

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pp. 177-199

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13 | Battles In and Out of Court

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pp. 200-219

The wheels of justice grind slowly. If by starving himself Nick Sacco had hoped to speed up the legal process, it didn’t work. Time and effort were needed for appeals. Defense lawyers prepared and argued five supplementary motions for a new trial, all based on new evidence, between 1921 and 1923....

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14 | Clinging to Razor Blades

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pp. 220-244

Once upon a time, at the dawn of the twentieth century in the town of Torremaggiore, a child known as Nando gathered fresh vegetables in his father’s sunny fields and picked wild roses for his mother. Likewise, in Villafalleto a boy called Bartolo swam in the river and listened to the sounds of beating insect wings and trilling nightingales....

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15 | Groundswell

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pp. 245-254

Governor Fuller made the advisory committee report public on Sunday, August 7, 1927. That same day some five thousand people gathered on Boston Common to demand justice for Sacco and Vanzetti.1 Thousands more demonstrated in cities across the United States—Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Detroit; and around the world—Paris and London and Moscow and Rio; also in Morocco and Uruguay, South Africa and Sweden....

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16 | Brink

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pp. 255-271

If Robert Elliott, who grew up in northern New York, had met Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti under normal circumstances, the three of them might have had a good old time, swapping stories and reminiscing about their similar rural roots. But they did not meet under normal circumstances. When their paths crossed in 1927, Elliott was a professional executioner....

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17 | Afterlives

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pp. 272-287

Supporters hoped that the funeral of Sacco and Vanzetti would be a call to action. To stay a step ahead of the funeral planning, worried public safety officials put a wiretap on Felix Frankfurter’s home phone and planted an undercover agent on a pro-defense committee.1...

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18 | Two Mysteries

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pp. 288-310

Surprisingly, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, long dead, can still get people all riled up.
Pandemonium erupted at a public hearing in 1959. The Massachusetts legislature was considering a bill requesting Governor Furcolo to grant a posthumous pardon to Sacco and Vanzetti. Emotions ran wild on both sides of the...


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pp. 311-312

Abbreviations Used in the Notes

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pp. 313-314


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pp. 315-366

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 367-372


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pp. 373-386

E-ISBN-13: 9781555537784
E-ISBN-10: 1555537782
Print-ISBN-13: 9781555537302
Print-ISBN-10: 1555537308

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 31 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Murder investigation -- Massachusetts -- Case studies.
  • Sacco-Vanzetti Trial, Dedham, Mass., 1921.
  • Murderers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Anarchists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Sacco, Nicola, 1891-1927.
  • Vanzetti, Bartolomeo, 1888-1927.
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