Vanzetti's final words were, "I am an innocent man."
The next morning, San Diego's daily newspapers ran banner headlines: "Sacco and Vanzetti Electrocuted: Radicals Die Game," one read. "Rioting Begins as Sacco, Vanzetti Die: Execution Dignified," read another. But in truth, most riots took place overseas and were squelched quickly, while in America protestors simply wept from exhaustion. Both the San Diego Union and the San Diego Sun had been covering the death watch on a daily basis — after all, it was the biggest story since Lucky Lindy's flight across the Atlantic, which had taken place just a few months earlier.
This week marks the 78th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti's execution. And yet, evidence of Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence — or, at least, doubts about their guilt — has continued to accumulate. Countless college courses, websites, and library projects have been dedicated to the case. Dozens of attorneys, scholars, and historians continue to apply themselves to its minutiae, and Felix Frankfurter's Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, which was published in early 1927, remains a most compelling argument for the never-granted retrial.
In brief, Frankfurter, a Harvard Law School professor — and from 1939 to 1962, an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court — argued that the first trial was tainted by prejudice and incompetence and that the following evidence had emerged during the six years Sacco and Vanzetti spent awaiting execution:
— Sources charged that the presiding judge, Webster Thayer, made statements — "Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day?"; "those sons of bitches"; "those dagos" — which compromised his objectivity.
— The jury foreman had referred to Italians as "guineas" and said they "ought to hang anyhow, guilty or not."
— Italians who could back up Sacco and Vanzetti's alibis — Sacco claimed to be in New York applying for a visa, while Vanzetti swore he was delivering eels to his customers — were considered to be too sympathetic to their fellow countrymen and barred from testifying.
— Eyewitnesses who were said to have placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime did not pick them out of a lineup, despite the fact that the police had forced them to pose with guns in their hands.
— Eyewitnesses admitted after the trial that they were coached by the prosecution to testify to certain facts and not others.
— A ballistics expert confirmed that the bullet that killed Berardelli was "consistent with having been fired from that gun," which had been taken to mean Sacco's 32-caliber Colt automatic. He later testified, under oath, that he'd meant a Colt .32, but not necessarily Sacco's. Neither the judge nor the defendants' counsel challenged or clarified this testimony.
— Every subsequent appeal was heard by Judge Thayer himself.
— Madeiros, who was executed just before Sacco and Vanzetti, confessed in 1925 that he rode with a certain Morelli, who had committed the South Braintree murders, and that Sacco and Vanzetti had not participated in the crime.
Several of the prosecution eyewitnesses had changed their stories prior to the execution, and in the weeks leading up to it, their accusations of coercion were taken up by anarchists, unions, and scholars like Frankfurter, who agitated for a new trial, a new venue, and a new judge.
In major cities, where "factories" were synonymous with child labor, 12-hour workdays, and unsafe working conditions, protests erupted. Upon Sacco and Vanzetti's sentencing, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in front of U.S. embassies in Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Thousands in Italy looked upon Sacco and Vanzetti as Italians first, and Americans second, and sympathizers urged Benito Mussolini to make some dramatic gesture that might save them. (Mussolini did not interfere.) President Calvin Coolidge was placed under heavy guard as bombs — referred to in the press as "infernal machines" — destroyed the mayoral residences in Baltimore and Cincinnati. In New York, two subway stations were blown up, and a week before the execution, some 150,000 New York barbers, pocketbook makers, clothing workers, and mill hands walked off the job for an afternoon. "There was no picketing," a reporter wrote. "The workers put down their tools and left without disorder."
In Los Angeles — a city otherwise engrossed in a feud between Aimee Semple McPherson and her mother — 11 men and women circulated mimeographs calling for a general strike and were arrested for "suspicion of criminal syndicalism."
And in San Diego?
San Diego saw little, if any, protest on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf. True, our distance from Boston and the nonanarchist character of San Diego's Italian community may well have contributed to the city's nonchalant reaction to the execution. And yet, in the early 1900s, San Diego had been a center for radical activity -- of the shipped-in variety. Years before the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the Wobblies -- members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW -- had descended on the city, spreading the gospel that workers should own the means of production, that men should go on strike and stage boycotts, and that, if necessity called, they should commit sabotage. The Wobblies spoke on "soapbox row" -- a free-speech spot on E Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues -- calling for "direct action" on the part of San Diego's workers. Despite denials that they worked to overthrow the U.S. government, they were branded enemies of law and order.
In 1912, San Diego's city council caved in to pressure from business leaders and passed an ordinance forbidding street-corner meetings (ostensibly for traffic concerns). The Wobblies and their partisans defied the order -- more than a hundred were arrested, and the showdown, which became known as San Diego's "free-speech fight," eventually attracted 5000 radicals to the city. Many were arrested and taken to the county line near Fallbrook, where they were run through a gauntlet of clubs and forced to kiss the American flag. Sometimes, they were tarred and feathered before being given the boot.