Their names have become synonymous with miscarriage of justice, a pair of men convicted of murder largely for their political beliefs. But did Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti commit the crimes of which they were accused? Like his other “Treasury of XXth Century Murder” volumes, cartoonist Rick Geary offers no clear-cut answers in his latest book, “The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti.” CBR News spoke with Geary about his new true-crime graphic novel, which debuts at July’s Comic-Con International in San Diego from NBM Publishing.
“Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and dedicated anarchists, living south of Boston, who, in 1920, were accused of robbing a shoe-factory payroll and murdering two guards,” Geary explained by way of background. “After a contentious trial, they were convicted and sentenced to death. A long appeals process ensued, and in 1927, when their execution date was finally set, protests and riots broke out in cities around the world.”
Geary’s “Treasury” books present the facts of each case, which often point to several different suspects. (Past installments have included “The Lindbergh Child” and the “The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans.”) But with Sacco and Vanzetti, the focus is slightly different — there are no other suspects, but their guilt remains in question. “Although I have done books in which the perpetrator is not in doubt (H. H. Holmes, John Wilkes Booth, Madeleine Smith), I’m mostly drawn to the unsolved cases, or those, like Sacco & Vanzetti and the Lindbergh kidnapping, for which there is considerable doubt about the guilt of those tried and convicted,” Geary said. “I’m always more intrigued by questions than answers. In previous books, I’ve spent little time on the actual trial, since trials are invariably un-visual and reveal little new information. The trial takes up such space in ‘Sacco & Vanzetti’ because I thought it would be the best vehicle for illustrating the opposing theories of the crime.”
As in previous volumes, “Sacco & Vanzetti” also serves as a snapshot of a particular place and time. “The story of Sacco & Vanzetti would certainly not have happened without the peculiar cultural and political factors in play in America at the time,” Geary said. “The revolution in Russia and post-WWI political unrest throughout Europe brought about a full-scale ‘Red Scare’ in the U.S.A. Socialism and anarchism were pernicious philosophies brought to our shores by foreigners. The Justice Department’s first round of mass deportations concentrated on east-coast communities of Italian immigrants, particularly in Boston and surrounding towns.” Despite all this, though, Geary’s studies indicated that particular circumstances of the Sacco and Vanzetti case remained unique. “Although the hatred was widespread, I don’t recall finding any similar cases in other parts of the country.”
Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the trial, made no secret of his contempt for the anarchists, and conducted the trial and appeals process in such a way that Sacco and Vanzetti’s conviction was almost a foregone conclusion. Still, the evidence as Geary presents it in his graphic novel allows for the possibility that the pair were in fact guilty. In his research, Geary found that “one’s position on their guilt or innocence depends greatly upon one’s position on the political spectrum. People can use the existing facts to argue either way, so I wasn’t able to find much of a consensus. That their trial was a monumental miscarriage of justice, though, is a view shared by those on both sides.”
He added that while the public remained unsympathetic to Sacco and Vanzetti’s politics throughout the condemned men’s ordeal, they could still recognize that an injustice had been committed against them. “In the time that passed between the pair’s conviction in 1921 and their execution in 1927, the original hysteria of the ‘Red Scare’ had largely dissipated, and the general public was able to review the trial a little more dispassionately,” Geary said. “Many ordinary Americans were now able to separate their distaste for the men’s politics from their outrage at the unfairness of the legal machinery.”
With “Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti” in stores next month, Geary is already at work on next year’s edition. “My next project in this series is the story of the Hall-Mills double murder in New Brunswick, N.J., in 1922,” Geary told CBR. “A well-known Episcopal minister and his choir-singer lover, both married to others, were found shot to death in the local Lovers’ Lane. The investigation went nowhere, although four years later, the minister’s widow and her two brothers were put on trial. They were acquitted and the case remains a fascinating enigma to this day.”