The latest entry in cartoonist/historian Rick Geary’s “Treasury of XXth Century Murder,” The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti (NBM) tackles a still-disputed trial from the 1920’s. On April 15, 1920, two employees of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company, carrying $15,776.51 in payroll envelopes were robbed and murdered in the streets of the quiet industrial town of South Braintree, Massachusetts. Two Italian immigrants, Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested for the crime, tried and ultimately executed. The case itself became a world-wide cause celebre, which spurred riots and protests across the globe.
Though writer/artist Geary refuses to come down on either side re: Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt or innocence, he does establish several salient points, chief among these being the idea that the duo’s immigrant status and political beliefs (anarchist) were prime factors in their conviction. Judge Webster Thayer was well-known for his antipathy toward “parlor radicals” and made more than one unguarded statement away from the courthouse about getting “those bolsheviki bastards good and proper.” Anti-Italian sentiment also played a strong part in the case, and the prosecution was shameless in taking advantage of it.
When the only witnesses capable of establishing that the defendants weren’t near the scene of the crime proved to be fellow immigrants, for instance, D.A. Frederick Katzman either used their halting command of English to confuse and rattle them — or simply asserted that their veracity was questionable because they were either “Italian or anarchist or both.” To be sure, many of Sacco and Vanzetti’s political compatriots didn’t exactly help their cause. This was the era that gave birth to the stereotypical image of the bomb throwing anarchist, after all, and Geary duly depicts two bombing incidents that occurred in the aftermath of the twosome’s sentence, one at the house of a Dedham juror.
Guilty or innocent, the system was clearly stacked against Sacco and Vanzetti. One of the more dubious features of the Massachusetts legal system at the time, as Geary notes, was the fact that all legal appeals in a case were overseen by the same judge who initially tried it, “thus asking Thayer to rule against himself.” As a result, none of the defense team’s attempts at appeal went anywhere: Judge Thayer remained recalcitrant.
If the book has any failings, it’s in insufficiently establishing the reasons West Coast attorney Fred H. Moore would later be accused of mishandling the defense. Still, Geary, with his coolly detailed and wry visual style, does his usual superb job laying out both the facts of the case and the distinct world in which it all occurs. It’s a world not much different our own, of course — only the nationality and beliefs of the Dangerous Other have changed. “We practice law, not justice,” Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted of this controversial case. In The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti Geary clearly illuminates his sad distinction.