Today, August 23, marks the 90th anniversary of the deaths by execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants and self-avowed anarchists who were convicted of robbery and first-degree murder in Massachusetts, and who, after numerous appeals and protests, died in the electric chair on August 23, 1927.
Because the case occurred during the near-hysterical height of anti-immigration fervor in the U.S. (particularly in New England), and because so many aspects of the arrests, forensics, trial, and prosecution were seen to be egregiously flawed if not outright “rigged,” the Sacco and Vanzetti case became a cause celebre not only in America but around the world. The day they were executed, riots broke out in Paris, France.
Nearly 270 years earlier, in June of 1660, also in Massachusetts, Mary Dyer and three men were hanged. This sobering event put Mary Dyer in the history books as the first woman ever to be executed in the American colonies. [Fun fact: the first woman to be executed by the federal government was also a “Mary”—Mary Surratt, hanged for her alleged part in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.]
The Sacco and Vanzetti case is still a sensitive issue among leftist radicals and civil libertarians, and rightly so. Witnesses recanted their testimony, physical evidence was contradictory, another person actually confessed to the crime, the anti-immigrant media had never been more lurid, and the judge and prosecutors were deemed almost criminally incompetent if not deliberately vindictive.
On the other side of the issue you had people noting that Sacco and Vanzetti were admitted anarchists, committed to the violent overthrow and ultimate destruction of the U.S. government. Both men were believed to be followers of Luigi Galleani, a notorious anarchist who was already on the FBI’s list of “known subversives,” and who publicly advocated the use of murder and bombings in achieving their goals. Still, it was more or less a classic example of “guilt by association.”
One is reminded of Angela Davis’ observation after being acquitted by an all-white jury for her part in the Soledad prison incident. Trying to explain why she had been arrested on trumped up charges, she said (I’m paraphrasing), “The way the authorities saw it, any woman who was black, an intellectual, a lesbian, and an admitted Communist, had to be guilty of something.”
The same reasoning likely applied to Sacco and Vanzetti. They were “swarthy” immigrants, they were self-avowed anarchists committed to the overthrow of the government, they were draft-dodgers, and they had both been caught in lies. Ergo, they had to be guilty of something.
As for Mary Dyer and her three companions, their only crime was being Quakers. In those days, being a Quaker in the rigidly puritanical Massachusetts Bay Colony was not only a crime, it was a capital offense. Although these four people had been previously banished from Massachusetts and warned never to return, they chose to come back. That act of defiance cost them their lives.
Mary Dyer’s death led to some notable changes. In 1661, a year after her hanging, King Charles II made it illegal for the Massachusetts colony to execute anyone for practicing or advocating Quakerism, and in 1684, the English throne went ahead and revoked the Massachusetts Bay charter, eventually (two years later) installing its own governor.
Arguably, one can almost understand the hysteria that led to the railroading of Sacco and Vanzetti. They were seen as a threat. They were foreigners who intentionally came to this country with the express purpose of destroying our way of life. Granted, that view was largely fueled by primitive fear and reflexive emotionalism, but it wasn’t totally nutty.
And one could argue the same for Mary Dyer. She and her fellow Quakers were also seen as a threat. Clearly, primitive fear and reflexive emotionalism were what drove the good people of Massachusetts to execute her. The impetus may not have been rational, but it wasn’t totally nutty.
But there was a crucial distinction between the two executions. Rightly or wrongly, Sacco and Vanzetti were seen to represent a threat to our government—a threat to our civil and secular way of life. Accordingly, it was the government itself who killed them.
Mary Dyer was different. Her only crime was belonging to the most tranquil, anti-violence, peace-loving religious order ever invented. While Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for crimes against the state, Mary Dyer was put to death in the name of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Son of God. The Prince of Peace. How nutty is that?
David Macaray’s latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows (everything you wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask)