Ninety years ago this August, more than 700 law enforcement officers, from squads throughout the city and state, stood guard in the historic Charlestown neighborhood of Boston.
It was August 22, 1927, and Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were scheduled to die in the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison at midnight. A large crowd of sympathizers held a death vigil outside the police cordon. They might, some feared, resort to violence. (They didn’t.)
In 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti had been convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a crime committed a year earlier. Their ordeal of imprisonment and futile legal motions for a new trial had played out against a background of rising immigration restriction and domestic terrorism. As the years passed, and arguments for the men’s innocence became stronger, the case morphed from a local police-blotter affair into an international cause célèbre.
This post, adapted from In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti, describes the men’s final hours.
Monday, August 22, 1927
Defense attorneys reflexively went through legal motions. Barring a miracle, the last grain of sand in the Sacco-Vanzetti hourglass would fall at midnight.
Around the world people took to the streets. There was a bombing in Argentina and “feverish interest” in Germany. Twelve thousand demonstrators gathered in Hyde Park in London. There was a call for general strikes in Australia and in Paraguay. Protestors marched in Mexico and Switzerland. In Paris, police were reported to be mobilizing against “Sacco outbreaks,” as if support for the prisoners was spreading like the plague.
In the United States police were on red alert. Officers in Chicago received instructions “to rush every Sacco-Vanzetti assemblage and to be liberal in the use of tear bombs.” Special guards were assigned to protect monuments and government buildings in Washington, and bridges and subways in New York.
In Boston, at the center of the action, demonstrators maintained their State House protest. A bystander told Mary Donovan, secretary of the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, that he would “be damn glad when they fry those wops tonight and get this thing over.”
Vanzetti’s sister, Luigia, and Sacco’s wife, Rosina, tried to keep busy.
They called on William Cardinal O’Connell, archbishop of Boston. Luigia appealed to the cardinal for his help, but was said to understand that the prelate’s role was “strictly spiritual.”
Rosina and Luigia also went to the State House to plead with Massachusetts Governor Alvan Fuller. According to attorney Michael Musmanno, who interpreted for them at this interview and who later reconstructed the scene, Mrs. Sacco appealed to Fuller as a family man: “My husband was always good and faithful to me. He was devoted to his home. Is that the way bandits act? . . . Governor, help my children! Do not kill their father! Please, please, have mercy and have justice. . . . Won’t you see how innocent Nick is?”
For her part, Luigia Vanzetti appealed to the governor as a religious man: “[My brother’s] innocence is assured. Of that there can be no doubt. God has recorded that on the books; the only problem in this long case has been to have those in authority read God’s handwriting. . . . On my knees, oh, Governor! I implore you, do not let America become known as the land of cruelty instead of mercy. I beg of you, I pray you for mercy!”
The governor said he was impressed by the two women, but had no doubts about the prisoners’ guilt.
Although Governor Fuller was not about to change his mind, he stayed in his office until midnight on August 22, making himself available to just about anybody who wanted to see him.
The visitors streamed in.
Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay met with him, then sent a follow-up letter begging the governor to ask himself: What would Jesus do? Jesus would not, she believed, have walked “the way in which your feet are set! . . . There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.”
Congressman Fiorello La Guardia of New York met with Fuller. Ten years earlier the two men had served together in the United States House of Representatives. Now, La Guardia told reporters, “There is about one chance in a thousand” for a successful appeal.
Paul Kellogg, editor of the social policy journal Survey, met with the governor. Together with five other prominent citizens, he asked for a stay of execution until doubts could be resolved. Fuller accused the group of being manipulated by Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School and author of a blistering and influential analysis of the case.
Nearly a thousand letters and telegrams, most urging clemency, also swamped Fuller’s office that day.
Inside Charlestown State Prison
Rosina and Luigia arrived for the first of three visits they would make to the prison that day. The women entered the death house “with faltering steps,” the Boston Globe reported, and left an hour later showing “evidences of great sorrow.”
Robert Elliott arrived. The professional electrician worked as a free-lance executioner for several states, including Massachusetts. He did an equipment check on Charlestown’s heavy wooden electric chair with its straps, high back, broad arms, rubber-padded headrest, and legs bolted to the floor:
“I make certain [for each execution that the chair] is hooked up and that no wires are broken. I inspect the adjusting screws, test the strength of the straps, and determine whether the buckles work freely. A strap did break during an execution, and I try to prevent a repetition of this.
“Then I look to see if the mask is where it should be, and ascertain whether its strap and buckle are sound. The mask, usually a black leather band with an opening for the nostrils and mouth, serves a double purpose: that of shielding the face and holding the head in place. . . .
“A pail of brine—nothing more than a solution of common salt and water—is prepared. In this are soaked the sponges of the electrodes to insure a good contact. . . .
“My next step is to test the apparatus. This is accomplished in either of two ways. One is to attach a board of electric lights to the wires leading to the chair. . . . The other is to put the two electrodes in a bucket of water, with perhaps a pinch of salt, and close the circuit. . . .”
Inside the prison, the atmosphere was tense, Elliott observed. Nerves were almost at the breaking point.
Rosina and Luigia visited again, then attorney William Thompson arrived. Thompson had represented Sacco and Vanzetti in the final years of the case. He had received a message that Vanzetti wanted to see him before he died. Lawyer and client spoke of battles they had fought, and of the future. Vanzetti gave Thompson “his most solemn reassurance, . . . with a sincerity which I could not doubt, . . . that both he and Sacco were absolutely innocent of the South Braintree crime. . . .” Vanzetti said he understood more clearly than ever that he would not have been convicted “had he not been an anarchist, so that he was in a very real sense dying for his cause. He said it was a cause for which he was prepared to die. He said it was the cause of the upward progress of humanity. . . . He asked me to do what I could to clear his name. . . .”
They talked about Christianity. The condemned man “asked me whether I thought it possible that he could forgive” his persecutors. Thompson replied that he did not know, but suggested that Vanzetti try, “for his own peace of mind, and also because an example of such forgiveness would in the end be more powerful . . . than anything else. . . .” Vanzetti said he would think about it.
Before leaving the death house, Thompson said farewell to Sacco, in the adjacent cell. The two men had often disagreed about strategy. Now Sacco told Thompson that “he hoped that our differences . . . had not affected our personal relations, thanked me for what I had done for him, showed no sign of fear, shook hands with me firmly [through the bars], and bade me goodbye. His manner also was one of absolute sincerity.”
Suppertime at Charlestown. A light supper was brought to the prisoners in the death house. No one was hungry.
Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the autodidact who had kept up such an extensive correspondence with so many people during seven years behind bars, sat down to write his last known letter. It was a message for lecturer and liberal activist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, namesake of his famous literary grandfather. Vanzetti thanked him for “all that you have done for Nicola, I, and for our families.” He asked Dana for a final favor: “What I wish more than all in this last hour of agony is that our case and our fate may be understood . . . and serve as a tremendous lesson . . . so that our suffering and death will not have been in vain.”
Aldino Felicani arrived at the prison while Vanzetti was writing this letter. By law, someone was required to claim the bodies of electrocuted prisoners before they died. “It was up to me to do that,” said Felicani, the friend who had started the men’s defense committee and had supported them untiringly.
Journalist Gardner Jackson accompanied Felicani to the jail. “The whole city was an armed camp,” Felicani recalled. “My heart was beating fast. The trip . . . was made in silence. . . . We reached the jail. The atmosphere that prevailed was suspense and fear. . . . Inmates appeared to be watching in the shadows. . . . Everyone, at the entrance, in the lobby, in the office, was busy with the details of the execution. I entered the office. The warden, Mr. Hendry, was there. He was drunk. I asked him what the procedure was and he gave me the papers to sign. It was in such a manner that I claimed the bodies of my friends, who were then still alive.”
Rosina and Luigia returned for a few final moments of farewell. “Leave-Taking Pathetic,” one headline summed up; “Doomed Men Stretch Arms Through Cell Bars in Efforts to Embrace Wife and Sister.”
Starting at seven “and continuing throughout the evening,” radio station WBET aired live coverage of execution night.
Warden Hendry went to the death house. The latest petition for a writ of habeas corpus had been denied. Any faint glimmer of hope for an eleventh-hour reprieve was gone. Hendry stopped at each cell. “I am sorry,” he told each prisoner, “but it is my painful duty to inform you that you have to die tonight. Your lawyers have exhausted their efforts.”
Celestino Madeiros, a convicted murderer scheduled to be executed that night along with Sacco and Vanzetti, was asleep when Hendry went to his cell. Madeiros woke up, listened, and went back to sleep. (Two years earlier, Madeiros had confessed to being in on the South Braintree crime and had exonerated Sacco and Vanzetti, but the motion for a new trial based on the confession had been rejected.) Sacco was writing a letter to his father in Italy when Hendry went to his cell next. He told the warden he wanted to be sure that his father received the letter, and Hendry promised he would personally see that it was mailed. Sacco thanked the warden “for this and other kindnesses” during his imprisonment. Vanzetti, in the last cell, was pacing back and forth. He had been at Charlestown, and known Hendry, the longest. He appeared momentarily shocked when Hendry gave him the news. Then Vanzetti too thanked the warden for his kindnesses, and resumed pacing.
Prison chaplain Father Michael Murphy accompanied Hendry. All three condemned men rejected his entreaties to return to their religious faith before dying.
Father Murphy went back to the death house cells with Hendry, but his ministrations were again rejected. The prisoners, he told a reporter, said they preferred to die as they had lived.
In the presence of Robert Elliott, prison electricians tested the chair one last time.
The official witnesses headed to the white-walled, brightly lit death chamber: five government doctors, three corrections officials, and a “newsgatherer” selected by lot, William Playfair of the Associated Press. Scores of other reporters waited across the prison yard in a guards’ building.
“When more than one person is ticketed for death on the same night, the order of their going is determined in advance. The weakest—that is, the one least able to stand up under the ordeal of waiting his turn—is first. The others follow according to their physical and mental condition.” Thus Robert Elliott described the procedure for deciding the order of multiple executions, a procedure that in Charlestown dictated the prisoners’ cell assignments: Celestino Madeiros in Cell One, Nicola Sacco in Cell Two, Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Cell Three.
“The death march began three minutes after twelve,” Elliott recalled. “With a guard on each side, Madeiros entered the death chamber in a semi-stupor. . . . He spoke not a word.” He was strapped down. Elliott “threw on a current of 1400 to 1900 volts. Three times the current was thrown on and off, and at 12:09:35 [a.m.], four examining physicians declared officially that Celestino Madeiros was dead.”
Behind a screen stood “three green slabs awaiting three corpses.” The body of Madeiros was removed from the chair and placed on one of the waiting slabs. He was 25 years old when he died.
One telegraph operator was sitting near the death chamber; another, in the guards’ building where the press was hunkered down. “Within a minute of the time that Madeiros had died, the ticker . . . flashed out the news. Instantly other tickers . . . went into action, and within a matter of minutes the news went racing across the world.”
Nicola was next. To Bartolo, he called out “Goodbye.” Then he walked “slowly but steadily” into the death chamber. Elliott noticed that Sacco was “deathly pale.”
Nick “sat down without protest.” Many years had passed since the day he had sat down in another chair, posing for a portrait in a photographer’s studio, exuding youthful ambition and confidence. Many years, too, since he had mastered his shoemaking craft, since he had fallen in love, since he had carried his son in his arms. “As the guards swung about to adjust the straps [and apply the electrodes], Sacco sat bolt upright in the chair of death. Casting about wildly with his eyes, he cried [out] in Italian, ‘Long live anarchy!’”
“Everything was now ready,” Elliott said, “except the placing of the mask over his face. But the mask could not be found. The guards and I searched frantically for it. I could feel beads of perspiration starting out on my forehead. Meanwhile, Sacco continued to speak. ‘Farewell, my wife and child and all my friends,’ he cried in broken English.”
“Then, seeming to become cognizant of the witnesses as individuals . . . , he went on politely, ‘Good evening, gentlemen.’”
“As Sacco was saying these things,” Elliott recalled, “a guard strode back into the room with the mask. It had been caught in Madeiros’s clothing, and carried from the chamber when his body was taken out for autopsy. Had it not been for Sacco’s talking, the incident might have been noticed. As it was, the only reporter present failed to observe what had happened, and no mention was made of it in the newspapers. I have often since been thankful that the little Italian was so talkative as he sat in the chair awaiting the end.”
Guards slipped the recovered mask over Nick’s face. He called out to his dead mother, “Farewell, mia madre.” An “extra heavy current” was administered, 1800 to 2000 volts. At 12:19:02 a.m., Nicola Sacco was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 36 years old when he died.
The guards went to the cells for the last time. They unlocked the third cell, and “escorted Vanzetti over the twenty short steps to the door of the death chamber.” Elliott noted that the last prisoner was the “most composed. . . . When guards came for him, he shook their hands. . . .” He thanked Warden Hendry “for everything you have done for me.”
Vanzetti took his place in the heavy chair. The survival skills he had developed as a lonely teenager far from home had served him well throughout his life, and now, staring death in the face, he stayed calm. As the guards adjusted straps and electrodes, Vanzetti spoke to the witnesses: “I wish to tell you I am innocent, and never committed any crime, but sometimes some sin. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only of this, but all. I am an innocent man.”
Bartolo must have spent his final hours on earth thinking about his conversation with William Thompson, for he pronounced his last words with great precision: “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.”
Guards slipped the mask over Vanzetti’s face, and “current was applied,” 1400 to 1800 volts. At 12:26:55 a.m., Bartolomeo Vanzetti was pronounced dead, and his body removed from the chair. He was 39 years old when he died.
Robert Elliott, another job professionally done, took a taxi back to his hotel.
The special police forces stationed around the prison went off duty.
In Detroit, Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers in Cadillac Square clashed with police. Anarchist Attilio Bortolotti was clubbed on the head. He went to the offices of the Detroit News later and learned that the executions had taken place as scheduled. “I don’t know how I got home that night,” Bortolotti said.
In New York, protestors in Union Square sobbed uncontrollably when the executions were announced. Valerio Isca and his comrades eventually “went home to Brooklyn on the subway. When we emerged at the Montrose [Avenue] station, we were still crying.”
There were tears, too, in the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill in Providence. The executions were a “moment of great defeat,” Thomas Longo recalled.
It rained all night in Boston. At home with her family, waiting by the phone for news, defense supporter Cerise Carman Jack felt “emotional [and] sad.” Powers Hapgood, who had traveled to Boston to join the last-minute protests, was devastated. “[N]othing has ever ravaged my soul and feelings” like the executions, he wrote his parents.
Aldino Felicani and Gardner Jackson walked the dark streets of Boston in silence that night. So did Felix Frankfurter and his wife. When a radio loudspeaker blared out the announcement of the deaths, Marion Frankfurter collapsed.
Luigia Vanzetti, at the apartment where she had taken refuge, cried in silence. With her, Rosina Sacco wept without restraint. Her “piercing cries” were said to echo through the neighborhood.