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The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti

The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti

Louis Joughin
Edmund M. Morgan
Introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger
Copyright Date: 1976
Pages: 608
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  • Book Info
    The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti
    Book Description:

    "A definitive history of the case...notable alike for its clarity and its fairness....Professors Joughin and Morgan conclude that Sacco and Vanzetti were the victims of a sick society, in which prejudice, chauvinism, hysteria, and malice were endemic. Few who will read this moving work will doubt that they have proved their point."-The New York Times

    "This was not merely a trial in court nor even a sociological phenomenon in the history of the United States. It was a spiritual experience and setback which only a fundamentally healthy America could have endured....What influence was it that brought such world figures as Clarence Darrow, William Borah, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Brisbane, William Allen White, Fritz Kreisler, Albert Einstein and others to plead for men entirely unknown to them? Joughin and Morgan tell you why with the clarity and thoroughness of scholars and with the authority which their long study, impartiality, and sincerity assure and guarantee. It is a book that will excite and anger you."-The New Republic

    Originally published in 1978.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6865-0
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. PREFACE (pp. v-vii)
    Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan
  4. Table of Contents (pp. ix-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION (pp. xi-xii)

    The postwar twenties afford the time setting of the drama. A triangular bit of Massachusetts soil, with its corners at Plymouth, Bridgewater, and Boston, provides the stage. Two obscure aliens are the central figures, though the whole cast includes many others of both high and low degree. The general public compose the audience and, in a sense, the jury. History stands silently by in the wings.

    This combination of circumstances created an atmosphere of popular tension, dread and crisis without parallel in Massachusetts annals since the exiling of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and the witch persecutions of the seventeenth...

    • Chapter I WHAT HAPPENED (pp. 3-25)

      The chief events of the Sacco-Vanzetti case—from their simple beginning with the theft of a car, to the grim day of execution—occurred within a triangular area which has Boston at the northern point, Bridgewater to the south, and Plymouth to the southeast. Five places are important: an unsuccessful holdup was attempted at Bridgewater, and Vanzetti was convicted of this crime at Plymouth; a payroll was seized and two men were killed in South Braintree, and both Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of this murder in a Dedham courtroom; subsequent appeals and hearings were held in Boston. Bridgewater...


      Between seven and seven-thirty o’clock on the morning of December 24, 1919, Alfred E. Cox, paymaster of the L. Q. White Shoe Company, of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, received from the Bridgewater Trust Company in Bridgewater three metal boxes containing more than $33,000. He carried them to a Ford truck, then standing on Summer Street in front of the Trust Company, and put them into a larger metal box fixed to the floor of the truck. The driver of the truck was Earl Graves, and on the seat beside him was Benjamin F. Bowles, a police officer, armed with a revolver. Cox...

    • Chapter III THE DEDHAM TRIAL (pp. 58-113)

      At the close of the preliminary hearing of Vanzetti at Brockton on the Bridgewater holdup the prosecution informed Judge Thorndike that the Commonwealth had witnesses who would positively identify Vanzetti in connection with the murders at South Braintree. About a week later, on May 26, a preliminary hearing on the murder charge was held at Quincy at which Sacco alone appears to have been the accused. No record of this hearing has been published, but counsel at the trial used transcripts of the testimony then given, referring to it as the testimony at Quincy or in the lower court. On...

    • Chapter IV LEGAL CONTROVERSY, JULY, 1921-AUGUST, 1927 (pp. 114-157)

      Numerous proceedings took place in the trial court after the verdict. Judge Thayer and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts treated each proceeding and each alleged error and irregularity as if it stood alone; but a more accurate estimate of the character and validity of the conduct of the trial and subsequent motions and rulings may be made by examining them in their completeness. Legally as well as factually it is erroneous to consider each fragment of newly discovered evidence by itself; legally as well as factually it is improper to weigh in the abstract the effect of the prejudice...

    • Chapter V AN UNPUBLISHED CHAPTER IN THE RECORD (pp. 158-176)

      On the record Vanzetti appears to have had a fair trial at Plymouth. The verdict was amply supported by the evidence. There was no substantial error in the rulings of the trial judge. The prosecutor was guilty of no misconduct. Vanzetti’s counsel may have been remiss or unwise in their preparation of the case or in the conduct of the trial or both, but in what respect or to what extent, if any, the transcript of the proceedings does not disclose. There is nothing to indicate what the people of the community may have been thinking or saying about the...

    • Chapter VI THE LEGACY OF DOUBT (pp. 177-198)

      Why keep this controversy alive? The most vulnerable spot in all the proceedings lay in the function and power of the trial judge in dealing with the motions for a new trial. Had the conduct of the prosecution with reference to the cross-examination of Sacco, the prearranged questions to Proctor, and the failure to disclose the existence of witnesses favorable to the defense been presented to an unprejudiced tribunal, it is highly probable that a new trial would have resulted. If there had been added the newly discovered evidence, including that impeaching some of the state’s important witnesses, it is...

    • Chapter VII “MEN OF NORFOLK” (pp. 201-220)

      When Sacco and Vanzetti entered the Dedham courtroom on May 31, 1921, the community in which they were to be tried must already have had at hand a good deal of fact and opinion about the defendants. They had been in jail or prison for more than a year. Vanzetti was a convicted felon. Gossip, particularly in the newspapers, had made its contribution. For good or for ill, much was known about them before the opening of formal proceedings.

      To begin with, everyone knew that the men were foreigners and Italians. It was probably assumed—correctly—that they were aliens...

    • Chapter VIII TWO NATIONS (pp. 221-252)

      The central issue which divided national and world opinion on the Sacco-Vanzetti case was the question of whether the two men should live or die. In itself it was, of course, a crude and simple issue devoid of much significance; life or death, as Vanzetti said, “that is nothing.” The human race has never shown itself particularly sensitive or intelligent about the death of its individual members; the graves of those who die silently by starvation or in battle attest to the unimportance of mere extinction. What counted in this issue of mortality, as in all others, was the related...

    • Chapter IX TWO NATIONS (Continued) (pp. 253-271)

      In the spring of 1927, the issue of life or death for Sacco and Vanzetti reached a degree of extraordinary intensity and touched the thought and emotions of millions. A triple shock was the cause. In the March issue of theAtlantic Monthly,¹ Felix Frankfurter, professor of law at Harvard, reviewed the case with great skill; later in the same month he published his findings in a small book.² This was no ordinary happening; a legal authority of the very highest reputation had seen fit to comment upon a case while it was still under consideration by the Supreme Judicial...

    • Chapter X AUGUST, 1927 (pp. 272-297)

      The highest degree of public interest in this case was reached in the twenty days before the executions. It resulted from the accumulated pressure which had developed over seven years and from a number of specific events. The chief of these were:

      August 3. The adverse decision of the Governor, denying clemency.

      August 7. The publication of the Advisory Committee report.

      August 10. The stay of execution forty minutes before the appointed hour.

      August 11 to 22. Dramatic but largely hopeless legal efforts.

      August 23. The executions.

      In this period, agitation is so general that groupings break down to a...

    • Chapter XI THE GOVERNOR AND HIS COMMITTEE (pp. 298-309)

      The history of this case has now been brought down to the date of execution. Before continuing with the story, it will be useful to examine closely the part played by Governor Fuller and his advisory committee. Here was a new type of social instrument created to meet a very special need. The executive authority of Massachusetts did not have much precedent for its guidance, and, once established, the committee was not subject to well-defined procedural rules. This opportunity for flexibility could offer hope to Sacco and Vanzetti or it could spell their doom. Let us see what happened.


    • Chapter XII THE AFTERMATH: 1927-1929 (pp. 310-346)

      The issue of life or death was settled with the execution of the men, and can no longer serve as a touchstone for the analysis of events or opinions. The dynamic impulse which animated groups and individuals ended abruptly on August 23, 1927. New attitudes developed during the years to follow, and a new approach is needed if we are to deal satisfactorily with the subsequent history of the case.

      The essential quality about Sacco-Vanzetti interest after 1927 is that it is critical. The main purpose of all who have acted or written has been to “complete the record.” Demonstrators...

    • Chapter XIII THE LEGACY OF CONFLICT (pp. 347-372)

      After 1929 the Sacco-Vanzetti case is no longer a self-continuing action; there are sporadic outbreaks but its dynamic force is largely ended. On the other hand, legal writers maintain their interest, social historians frequently refer to the event, and the literary world becomes increasingly prone to draw upon the rich and complex story.

      The last official act of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee was the publication, in August, 1930, of theSacco-Vanzetti Memorial Bulletin;this was the nineteenth in theOfficial Bulletinseries. Its sixteen quarto pages present very interesting material: an article contrasting the judicial retraction of the seventeenth-century witchcraft...


      The literature which emerges from the Sacco-Vanzetti case offers a valuable kind of social criticism written from a specific point of view, and it is also, in many instances, worth reading for its artistic worth. Both aspects of the literary material will be considered in these chapters.

      The interest of a writer in historical events is much like that of any other person. As a member of society, he has the same concern with truth, justice, knavery, and the other complexities of civilization. A poem or a novel reflects the writer’s attitude toward his world in much the same way...

    • Chapter XV THE PLAYS (pp. 393-420)

      The story of the Sacco-Vanzetti case has a great deal to offer a dramatist; he may work with it as historical narrative, as tragedy of character, or as conflict in the social and moral order of the world. Several plays show this variety of treatment, some by way of allusion and others at full length. They are six in number:

      1928 Maxwell Anderson and Harold Hickerson.Gods of the Lightning.

      1929? Pierre Yrondy.Sept ans d’agonie: le drame Sacco-Vanzetti.

      1934 Samuel N. Behrman.Rain from Heaven.

      1935 Maxwell Anderson.Winterset.

      1939 James Thurber and Elliott Nugent.The Male Animal.


    • Chapter XVI THE NOVELS (pp. 421-454)

      The chief literary use of the case has been in prose fiction; since 1927, no less than eight novels and a satiric sketch have drawn heavily on the Sacco-Vanzetti material. Nearly all of these works are serious, well-written, and entitled to critical respect.

      The group includes the following titles:

      1927 Louis Thinet.Le drame Sacco-Vanzetti.

      1927 C. E. S. Wood. “God’s in His Heaven—All’s Wrong with the World,” inHeavenly Discourse(a collection of satiric conversations).

      1928 Upton Sinclair.Boston.

      1928 H. G. Wells.Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island.

      1930 Nathan Asch.Pay Day.

      1934 Bernard De Voto.We...

    • Chapter XVII THE MURDERERS (pp. 455-478)

      Familiarity with the events and documents of this famous case has led many persons to the belief that Sacco and Vanzetti themselves wrote the most penetrating historical analysis and the finest literature to emerge from the great struggle. This judgment must be tested by a searching examination of the behavior and utterances of the two men. If it is not sustained, the failure of proof will cast doubt upon much of the defense which was organized in their behalf. If the judgment stands, it will offer psychological evidence bearing upon their potentiality as criminals—and thus assist in the weighing...

    • Chapter XVIII THE MIND AND THOUGHT OF VANZETTI (pp. 479-500)

      The measure of an individual’s mental power can be arrived at with some degree of accuracy by the testing procedure of a psychological laboratory; but even then we can get finite results only for isolated simple processes. For the whole estimate of a man’s mind, we cannot as yet do much better than to render a practical judgment upon the manner in which he faced and solved his particular problems. This will be our approach to Vanzetti.

      The first part of this chapter considers Vanzetti’s conscious attempt to master the English language, the scope and nature of his reading, and...


      Literature customarily addresses itself to the future; and forward-looking thought seems by its psychological quality to carry with it a measure of hope. Writers, in search of material appropriate to an optimistic premise, therefore often seek out events and persons which have about them an aura of faith. Pericles memorialized the warriors who fell in the war against Sparta, and Milton turned to the tragedy of Samson; for Americans, a body of literature has grown up about such men as Washington and John Brown. In the present instance, the Sacco-Vanzetti case has become a powerful attractive force. The quality of...

  9. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 517-518)
    G. L. J. and E. M. M.
  10. CHAPTER REFERENCES (pp. 519-556)
  11. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 557-580)
  12. INDEX (pp. 581-596)