Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two names which resonate, almost a hundred years after their death, as the most significant judicial error of the 20th century. The case of the two Italian anarchists, executed on August 23, 1927 in the United States, after a scabrous legal procedure lasting seven years, against a backdrop of racism and concern about the rise of communism, still raises questions.

In Italy, today another fight is being played out. Giovanni Vanzetti, 86 years old, nephew of Bartolomeo, has been working for years to recover the remains of the ashes of his uncle who passed through the electric chair, we learn from an article in Corriere della Sera relayed in the latest issue of Courrier international. Last December, the heir sent a long letter to the American authorities requesting the delivery of the urn containing half of his uncle’s ashes.

When Sacco and Vanzetti died, the ashes were divided into two parts: half were entrusted to Luigina Vanzetti, Bartolomeo’s sister, who took them back to Italy, ensuring that the remains rested in the cemeteries of their towns in respective origins, Villafalletto for Vanzetti in Piedmont and Torremaggiore for Sacco in Puglia. The other half was intended for a mausoleum supposed to be built to honor the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti, recalls the transalpine daily, but will end up within the walls of the Boston municipal library.

In his missive, Vanzetti’s nephew introduced himself “in his capacity as a member of the family and direct heir of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and asks the American authorities “to organize the return of the urn to the place where it should be, that is to say the cemetery of Villafalletto, next to the other urn containing half of the ashes, present on the premises since October 1927”.

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The Sacco and Vanzetti affair began in December 1919, in Bridgewater, and continued in April 1920, in South Braintree. In these two Massachusetts towns, armed robberies took place, the second of which resulted in the death of two men. On May 5, 1920, two Italians were arrested by the police. They are armed. They are Nicola Sacco, 29 years old, shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 32 years old, itinerant fish seller. The police were quick to make the link between these so-called “suspicious characters” and the unsolved attacks. Immigrants, poor and anarchists, in 1920s America plagued by xenophobia and strong anti-revolutionary sentiment, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had everything to be the obvious culprits.

In July 1921, Judge Webster Thayer, who liked neither the Italians nor the anarchists, also saw it this way, even though support committees were then mobilizing all over the world. Six years later, on April 9, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. Demonstrations and strikes spread across the world. “Seven years of waiting, it is this biblical figure which, in the crime of South Braintree, first strikes the crowd and warns them in favor of the condemned. The justice of Massachusetts, by its slowness, has set world sentiment against it and the right to punish, especially to punish with death, is not such that it can dispense with the support of general consent,” wrote the jurist Henri Vonoven on August 7, 1927 in Le Figaro. On the night of August 22 to 23, 1927, the two Italians sat in the electric chair.

What role did the prejudices of the time play in the conviction of these two men? Fifty years later, on August 23, 1977, the Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, ruled and officially declared that Sacco and Vanzetti had not received a fair trial and that “all dishonor must be erased from their names”. Without pardoning the two anarchists, this would have meant recognizing their guilt, nor taking a position in favor of their innocence.

In 1971, the film by Giuliano Montaldo, entitled Sacco et Vanzetti, returns to the affair. Presented at Cannes, it won the male performance prize for Riccardo Cucciolla playing Nicola Sacco. An original song performed by Joan Baez to the melody of Ennio Morricone, Here’s to You, goes down in history. And crosses borders. The title, of which a single verse is repeated in a loop for the entire duration of the song, is inspired by Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s words addressed to Judge Thayer: “If this thing had not happened, I would have spent my whole life talking to the street corners to contemptuous men. I could have died unknown, ignored: a failure. This is our career and our triumph.”

Georges Moustaki translated and sang the words. Mireille Mathieu, the Compagnons de la chanson and Tino Rossi, to name a few, followed suit. “Now Nicolas and Bart/You sleep deep in our hearts/You were all alone in death/But through it you will conquer!”, they then intone.