In the afternoon of April 15, 1920, two men shot and killed a paymaster and a company guard in the course of a $16,000 payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. More than seven years later, two Italien aliens named Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted for this crime, following one of the longest and most sensational cases in the history of American criminal law. The Sacco-Vanzetti ease aroused violent popular feeling all over the world. For years the liberal and radical elements of America and Europe were engaged in a roaring battle of words with the judiciary and administration of this Commonwealth.
In "The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti" Edmund M. Morgan of the Harvard Law School, a top expert on the law of evidence, and G. Louis Joughin of the New School for Social Research have combined to write what is undoubtedly the most detailed and comprehensive study of the case and its affects. In separate and yet dovetailing sections of the book, the authors have examined the highly complicated legal aspects together with the resulting sociological reflections.
Professor Morgan calls his part of the book "The Legacy of the Law: Doubt." He recounts the sequence of events of the crime in so far as they are definitely known, and then discusses every conceivable legal angle of the case, ranging from the circumstances of the first arrests to the desperate and unsuccessful attempts to have the case brought before a Federal court as a last resort. He describes the trials, the controversial character of Judge Webster Thayer, the jury and the unorthodox way in which it was chosen, the witnesses and their testimony, and the involved question of the evidence. Although the purpose of this book is to present an objective view of the case, the authors could obviously not refrain from unconsciously injecting their own judgments. Professor Morgan writes: "Against a masterful and none too scrupulous prosecution was opposed a hopelessly mismanaged defense before a stupid trial judge." This comment is part of the chapter devoted to the so-called Dedham Trial, which is followed by a very detailed examination of the legal controversy which raged after the conviction of the defendants. The unofficial part of this battle centered around articles written by Justice (then Professor) Felix Frankfurter of the Harvard Law School in favor of the defendants' plea for new trial, and by Northeastern's Dean Wigmore for the sustainment of the verdict. The official part included a series of motions for new trial, all of which were denied, and a final petition for executive clemency which was also denied by Governor Fuller and his Advisory Committee.
Professor Morgan treats his highly technical subject in an eminently readable fashion. He makes the course of the trials, the many important personalities involved in the case, and the abstract legal problems entirely clear to the reader without ever losing his dignified and scientific tone.
In the second part of the book, Professor Joughin shows how society, both in the immediate locality and the rest of the world, reacted to this case. When the lines were drawn, the temper of both sides erupted in all the usual outlets of public opinion--newspaper columns, speeches, meetings, petitions, and floods of letters to the authorities. The pros and cons were divided into what Dos Passes called "Two Nations," and Professor Joughin uses this phrase as a title. It is interesting to note that the popular antipathy to Sacco and Vanzetti decreased roughly in proportion to the increase in distance from New England. In New York and Paris thousands of sympathizers rioted in the streets, but in Boston the fear of radicalism and the belief that Massachusetts justice was being hamstrung by "foreign" propaganda, caused a large majority of the people to favor the death penalty for the defendants.
In Part III of the book, Professor Joughin traces the influence of the case on the literature of the time, giving a brief but wholly adequate comments on the many poems, novels, and plays which were concerned with the case. From beginning to end the Arts were entirely on the side of the defense, in general taking the view that two innocent and friendless men were being railroaded to the electric chair because their radical views conflicted with the conservative temper of the community. A notable exception to this rule was Harvard's President Abbott Lawrence Lowell. As the dominant member of the three-man committee which Governor Fuller appointed to investigate the affair, his behavior at this time did not come up to his general reputation for fairness and lofty motives. There is reason to believe that he wrote his committee's report some time before it had completed its hearings.
Professor Joughin winds up his contribution with two moving chapters devoted to the personalities of Sacco and Vanzetti, and a final chapter entitled "The Legacy of Literature: Faith," which deals with the first historical judgments on the case.
In writing "The Legacy of Sacco and Vauzetti" the authors have not only brought the objective and non-partisan substance of this vitally important chapter of recent history between the covers of one volume; they have also pioneered in the presentation of the effect specific legal action has on culture and therefore on society. The sharp contrast between the sober opinions of lawyers and judges, and the emotional cries of poets, novelists, and playwrights gives the reader a powerful three-dimensional picture of the event. This book is a major contribution to history, sociology, and the law.