Eighty-SEVEN years ago, Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the state prison in Charlestown. The two men, self-avowed anarchists, had been convicted in the April 1920 robbery murder of two men at the Slater & Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree — paymaster Frederick A. Parmenter and his guard, Alessandro Berardelli.
The case is one of the most notorious in Boston — and American — history. The trial, which included suppressed evidence and an openly biased judge, was deemed a mockery. A third man, Celestino Madeiros, had confessed to the crime and asserted the other two men’s innocence. Sacco and Vanzetti maintained their innocence to the end. They were executed in 1927. An estimated 200,000 spectators viewed their funeral procession, from the Langone funeral chapel in the North End to Forest Hills Cemetery.
Writing in the Globe, Richard Kreitner of the Nation recounted the Sacco and Vanzetti story in the context of the anti-anarchist, anti-communist, anti-immigrant hysteria of the times, during which a US attorney general’s home was bombed by anarchists. Kreitner also brings to light a bas relief portrait of the two men made by Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mount Rushmore presidential monument. The plaster mold was delivered to the city on the first anniversary of the execution.
The sculpture was never installed in the building it was intended for and, through the years, was rejected by one city or state official after another. Over time, the original bronze sculpture was lost, but a plaster mold was recovered. In 1997, on the 70th anniversary of the executions, Boston Mayor Tom Menino and then-acting governor Paul Cellucci formally accepted the sculpture. Plans were discussed to strike a new bronze cast. And yet, the plaster mold now sits in an obscure room of the Boston Public Library.
As Kreitner reports, at the time of the 50th anniversary, Governor Michael Dukakis said that “the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti should serve to remind all civilized people of the constant need to guard against our susceptibility to prejudice, our intolerance of unorthodox ideas, and our failure to defend the rights of persons who are looked upon as strangers in our midst.” But he stopped short of issuing a pardon. For his part, Menino said that acceptance of the sculpture was not intended to “reopen the debate about guilt or innocence” but “to remind us of the dangers of miscarried justice, and the right we all have to a fair trial.”
The sculpture depicts the two men in profile, with inscribed words from Vanzetti’s last prison letter. In photos, it appears graceful, dignified, and unassuming. The city and state should collaborate to commission a new bronze cast of the work, and it should be shown in a prominent public place (the Rose F. Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and the North End’s DeFelippo Park have been suggested). Like many painful aspects of our collective history, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti shouldn’t be forgotten. This particular memento should be brought out of hiding.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the sculpture was accepted on the 50th anniversary of the execution.