On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in the small industrial town of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a paymaster named Frederick Parmenter and a guard named Alessandro Berardelli set out to carry cash boxes — which contained the payroll of the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company — from the factory's upper office to a lower one at the end of Pearl Street.
Due to a spate of recent payroll robberies, many of which were committed by gangs of Italian immigrants, Berardelli was armed. South Braintree lay ten miles outside of Boston, and as Parmenter and Berardelli passed by its stables, poolrooms, meeting halls, and factories, they chatted with some of the city's 15,000 residents. Parmenter was in his early forties — a burly, loquacious man. Berardelli was a quiet and withdrawn 28-year-old. Each held a steel box fastened with a Yale lock. Taken together, the boxes contained $15,776.51
Midway up Pearl Street, Parmenter and Berardelli were attacked by two men who had been idling beside a fence. One wore a cap; the other, a felt hat. The man in the cap grabbed Berardelli's shoulder, swung him around, and fired three shots into his chest. Parmenter had been walking slightly ahead of his partner, and as he turned the man in the cap shot him in the chest. Parmenter staggered, turned once more, and received a shot in the back. According to an eyewitness, as the men lay "twitching" in the street, the robber in the felt hat snatched up the cash boxes, the man in the cap fired a shot in the air, and a green touring Buick sputtered down the street, arriving slowly enough that a host of people remembered its noisy shifting of gears, as well as the two men inside.
Just as the robbers jumped in, a wounded Berardelli raised himself up on hands and knees, and a fifth man ran out from behind a pile of bricks, leapt onto the Buick's running board, and shot him once more. The bullet severed Berardelli's great artery, and he fell back into the gutter, blood bubbling from his mouth. Berardelli died a few hours later; Parmenter, the next day.
The men arrested for the crime were named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Seven years later, Sacco (a 36-year-old shoemaker) and Vanzetti (a 39-year-old fish peddler) sat in their cells in Massachusetts's Charlestown prison — near the obelisk monument to revolutionary resistance at Bunker Hill — and waited for the executioner to arrive.
Demonized as Italians, anarchists, and antiwar activists, they'd been found guilty in 1921. The prosecution's case had been based on conflicting eyewitness testimony and unconvincing ballistics evidence, but despite nine appeals — including two to the Supreme Courts of Massachusetts and the United States — and the confession of a man who claimed to have participated in the shooting itself, they were denied a new trial and sentenced to death. By 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti's case had become the most famous in American history, with a majority of working people, and a great many of the world's intellectuals, convinced of their innocence.
And so, on the evening of August 22, 1927, more than 500 policemen in blue uniforms enforced a mile-long barricade that encircled the prison. Most carried tear gas and gas masks. Mounted horses clip-clopped on the cobblestones, firemen stood ready with hoses, machine guns peeked over the top of the prison's red granite wall, and searchlights probed the surrounding darkness. The thousands of protesters who milled against the barricade included Dorothy Parker and John Dos Passos, as well as a host of anarchists, immigrants, day laborers, and a claque of garment workers, who kept up a constant round of "Solidarity Forever." The crowd swelled, with placards reading "JUSTICE IS CRUCIFIED" swaying overhead. Militants from the Hog Carriers' Union ran at the prison gate, and mounted troopers charged the masses. Several were hurt, many more were arrested. A cheer had gone up at the appearance of Sacco's wife, who'd brought their two children, and Vanzetti's sister, who'd arrived recently from Italy. But the women — who had bid Sacco and Vanzetti farewell a few hours earlier, then hurried to the governor's office, got down on their knees, and begged for a stay of execution — were defeated.
The condemned men's white-tiled chambers contained a cot, a chair, a table, and a toilet. Electric lamps burned within the cells and in the corridor that led to the electric chair. Sacco and Vanzetti were close enough to talk but didn't. Perhaps they were weak — they hadn't eaten for most of the previous month, saying they wouldn't be fattened for their execution. At 11:15, the warden appeared. "It is my painful duty to inform you that you have to die tonight," he told each man. From below, they could hear the crowd chanting: "No God! No Master!"
Vanzetti paced; Sacco finished a letter. A church clock tolled 12 times, and Celestine Madeiros — who'd been convicted of a separate murder and had then confessed to being in the Buick that carried Berardelli and Parmeter's killers — was walked to the death chamber. There, Madeiros's arms and legs were strapped to the electric chair. A metal helmet was placed on his head, his calves were wired with electrodes, and his eyes were masked. The warden nodded and the executioner, who stood behind a screen, connected a switch that ran electrical current through the electrodes and into Madeiros's body. Madeiros stiffened, convulsed, and turned red. Observers smelt burning hair. The executioner then disconnected the current and connected it again — three times in all. Sacco followed, and Vanzetti entered last.
A friend of Sacco's — an Italian immigrant asked, by the condemned man, to witness his death — would later say: "His time came. He walked to the chair. He told the guards, 'Don't touch me.' He went by himself. He made a little speech. He had the courage to say he was forgiving some of the people who was doing what was going to be done to him. He say goodbye to his wife, he say goodbye to his friends, he say goodbye to his children. He say, 'Long Live Anarchy!' He shook hands with the warden and he say, 'Thank you.' "