Friday, August 21, 2015
Death masks of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryDeath masks of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

On August 23, 1927, following their murder conviction for robbery and murder in 1921, numerous appeals and protests, and six years in prison, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed via electric chair by the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Their conviction and death raised the interest and concerns of millions of people in the United States and worldwide. Papers of women and families held by the Schlesinger Library document various aspects of this high profile, emotionally charged case.

Margaret Nichols Shurcliff recounted her interactions with Sacco and Vanzetti and their case in her self-published autobiography Lively Days. A founding member of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union, Shurcliff attended a number of trial sessions, as well as had conversations with William G. Thompson, family friend and member of the leading firm of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s lawyers. She was called to his office where he told Shurcliff that “Captain Proctor, the police officer who had given damaging evidence at the trial had [said] . . . that he did not think that the fatal bullet had been fired by Sacco’s pistol . . .” Presenting this evidence to the judge in the case, Thompson asked that Captain Proctor be recalled to testify. The judge refused and shortly thereafter Captain Proctor died and the evidence remained unheard in trial. Shurcliff also visited Sacco several times while held in Dedham prison. She commented on the fact that Sacco was beginning to become “mentally confused.” The law in Massachusetts only provided regular work and exercise to prisoners who had been convicted: not having been convicted for several years, Sacco was unable to remain physically or mentally active. He had been taught by a friend in prison to make string bags, but he found this to be “child’s play.” Shurcliff family lore relates that one of these bags was gifted to Shurcliff by Sacco and remains with the family’s papers today.

Woven bag made by Nicola Sacco, ca. 1921. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryWoven bag made by Nicola Sacco, ca. 1921. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryNatalie Stark Crouter, a graduate of the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School (Boston, Massachusetts), used her secretarial skills in the Sacco and Vanzetti defense effort. As a secretary she gathered information and typed and circulated news releases, newsletters, and correspondence for the Sacco-Vanzetti New Trial League and the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Fund. The purpose of these mailings was to raise awareness of the inconsistencies in the first Sacco and Vanzetti trial and to raise money to continue in their defense so that “two innocent men would [not] be railroaded to the electric chair.”

Social justice activist Cynthia Anthonsen Foster began her involvement in the Sacco and Vanzetti defense effort as a member of the Community Church of Boston, "a free community united for the study and practice of universal religion, seeking to apply ethical ideals to individual life and the democratic and cooperative principle to all forms of social and economic life.” It was there that she met her husband, Carl Anthonsen, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, who recorded the general feelings of the people of Boston about the trial and treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti in his diary (which is included in Foster’s papers). Foster first began her efforts in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, later focusing on using their memory to rally workers in labor disputes, memorializing them as martyrs, and working to clear their names posthumously. She was active in raising funds for the creation of a Sacco and Vanzetti memorial plaque (now in the Boston Public Library) and in the issuance of a 1977 proclamation by Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declaring August 23, 1977, “Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day.”

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti, their case invoked an international outcry. To this day, Sacco and Vanzetti continue to be remembered in poetry, music, paintings, film, and literature.

To learn more about the collections mentioned here see:
Additional Papers of the Nichols-Shurtleff Family
Papers of the Stark Family 
Papers of Cynthia Anthonsen Foster

Circular letter of the Sacco-Vanzetti New Trial League, June, 1924. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCircular letter of the Sacco-Vanzetti New Trial League, June, 1924. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library