Vivid recreation of the furor surrounding America’s own Dreyfus Affair.
By any reasonable measure, the 1920 robbery that left two dead in South Braintree, Mass., ought not to have drawn headlines any farther than Boston. But from the time of their arrest, the alleged crime of shoemaker Nicola Sacco and fish peddler Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian and both committed anarchists, morphed into something much larger: a test of the American justice system that reverberated worldwide. Highly credentialed in the politics and social history of the early 20th century, Watson (Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, 2005, etc.) colorfully charts the trial, riddled with conflicting testimony, hopelessly compromised ballistics evidence, shady witnesses, sharp-elbowed lawyers and prejudicial rulings. He provides especially memorable portraits of the accused and of flinty prosecutor Frederick Katzmann, narrow-minded Judge Webster Thayer and flamboyantly ineffective defense attorney Fred Moore. He contextualizes the case in the frivolous, deeply corrupt ’20s, when memories of the sacrifices of World War I were still vivid and the fears that prompted the 1919 Red Scare (memorably recounted in Kenneth Ackerman’s Young J. Edgar, 2007) remained strong. The question pursued through appeals, new investigations and stays of execution was whether two immigrants with deeply unpopular politics received a fair trial in the conservative Bay State. “No,” cried a glittering list of authors (John Dos Passos, Anatole France, Dorothy Parker, Upton Sinclair, Walter Lippmann), legal experts (Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo), intellectuals (Albert Einstein), politicians (Fiorello LaGuardia), labor unions, socialists, communists and a gaggle of Boston socialites, who took up what became an international cause. Widespread demonstrations, strikes and bombings didn’t help Sacco and Vanzetti, who were finally electrocuted on August 23, 1927.
Likely to become for a new generation of readers the definitive account of a case that still arouses controversy.