Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco (1891-1927) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1888-1927) were the central players in a murder trial that became a worldwide cause between 1921 and 1927. Born to peasant landowners in Italy, each man immigrated to the United States in 1908. Sacco became a shoe worker in Milford and Staughton, Massachusetts, while Vanzetti worked at casual jobs, suffering long bouts of unemployment; in 1919, he worked as a fish peddler in Plymouth, Massachusetts. After their experiences with the harsh realities of working-class life in America, both men became deeply committed to anarchism as disciples of Luigi Galleani, who supported the use of revolutionary violence in the form of bombing and political assassination. Between 1912 and 1917, they worked to raise money for the anarchist cause. After passage of the Selective Service Act in May 1917, they fled to Mexico rather than register for military conscription. Expecting a revolution to break out in Italy like the one that had occurred in March 1917 in Russia, they hoped to return to Italy to join it. Disappointed when that did not happen, they returned to the United States. Many of their fellow anarchists had gone underground after the deportation of Galleani and seven associates as the government's suppression of political radicalism increased.
On the evening of May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested after police questioning about their radical activities. They had guns, ammunition, and anarchist literature when arrested, and they lied and gave contradictory answers to police. Police Chief Michael Stewart of Bridgewater, Massachusetts, charged them with the robbery and murder of a paymaster and guard in Braintree, Massachusetts, that had occurred on April 15, 1920. The trial, held in Dedham, Massachusetts, lasted from May 31 to July 14, 1921. While ostensibly about the murders, the trial also focused on Sacco and Vanzetti's background as anarchists, atheists, immigrants, and draft dodgers. The judge was biased, evidence was manipulated, Italian immigrant eyewitness testimony was undermined, and ballistics tests may have been tampered with. Defense lawyer Fred Moore charged that the trial was politically motivated, with collusion between local and federal authorities intent on repressing Italian anarchists. Nevertheless, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted on July 14, 1921, and sentenced to death. Between 1921 and their execution on August 22, 1927, the Sacco-Vanzetti case served as the focus of protest by writers, radicals, trade unionists, intellectuals, liberals, and even some conservatives. After rejection of eight motions for a new trial, a ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that there had been no legal errors, and no help from a special commission, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted. Historians continue to debate the case, usually centering on the guilt or innocence of the two men. Some argue that, in fact, Sacco was guilty, while Vanzetti may have been innocent. Others argue that both men were innocent, the victims of a politically motivated frame-up. More significantly, the case reflected the heated atmosphere of repressive politics, fear of anarchism, and distrust of immigrants. One attorney who has studied the case concludes that it is "the case that will not die."