The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Book Review

Reviewed: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, by Rick Geary, New York: NBM Publishing, 2011, 80 pp., $15.99 (hardcover).

In 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants, were executed for a pair of murders connected with a payroll heist a few years earlier.  Whether these men were vicious thugs and cold-blooded killers or the innocent victims of a corrupt and biased judiciary is a judgment that typically turns on one’s opinion of their politics.

Sacco and Vanzetti were, in the words of the presiding judge, Webster Thayer, “anarchist bastards.”  Both had been active in the socialist movement.  Sacco helped raise money to support striking workers, and Vanzetti sometimes wrote for an anarchist newspaper.  They had met at an anarchist assembly in 1917, had joined a conspiracy to foment revolution in their native Italy, and had fled to Mexico together to avoid conscription in the first World War.  They were arrested in 1920, in the midst of the Red Scare, that period of reaction and paranoia following World War I, in which anarchists, socialists, and union organizers around the country were persecuted, suffering mass arrests, arbitrary imprisonment, vigilante violence, and deportation.  Meanwhile, as their case progressed and execution neared, tens of thousands of people, not only in the United States, but around the world, participated in a campaign demanding freedom for the two imprisoned anarchists.

The case against Sacco and Vanzetti was political from the outset: they were portrayed in court and in the press as suspicious foreigners, dangerous subversives, and unpatriotic draft-dodgers.  And the campaign to defend them was equally political:  they were working men, trapped by a class-biased legal system; immigrants imprisoned by national prejudice and rabid nativism; radicals framed by the forces of reaction.  On the one side was the power of the police, the prisons, and the courts.  On the other were some of the leading intellectuals and literary figures of the time, along with thousands of people associated with anarchism, socialism, or the labor movement.  The conflict played itself out, simultaneously, in court, in the press, in street demonstrations, in letter-writing campaigns, and in the occasional bombing.

The Sacco and Vanzetti case, therefore, was at least as much about politics as it was about law.  But the crime itself was not political: it was a straight-forward robbery.  Two men were shot and the Slater and Morrill Shoe Factory payroll was stolen.  The company does not seem to have been targeted for any political reason, and the money (which was never recovered) does not seem to have been intended for any political purpose.  But the police had arrested two anarchists, and that colored everything that followed.

The most remarkable thing about Rick Geary’s new comic, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, is that Geary only seems concerned with the legal element — the crime — and is largely indifferent to the politics surrounding the case.  Geary, who has made a career out of book-length “true crime” comics, reports matter-of-factly about the terrorist bombings of the time and about the Palmer raids, about the defense campaigns and about allegations that the prosecution tampered with the evidence.  He cares about these things only in so far as they effect the story he is telling; he does not care at all about the political motives behind them.  His only description of anarchism, for example, appears in a single frame in the second chapter.  It shows a group of people holding hands walking toward the sunrise, and reads, in part:  “the anarchist philosophy holds that humanity can live in freedom and harmony once it is divested of its oppressive institutions.”  That is fair enough, so far as it goes, but the very brevity of the description suggests that political philosophy is not a main concern of the book.

The result is an honest and non-ideological recounting of the facts of the case, told in a straight-forward manner with a minimum of sensationalism (and no invective).  Geary sums up the lives of the two suspects, outlines what is known about the crimes, walks us through the legal proceedings and the activist appeals for clemency, describes Sacco and Vanzetti’s time in prison, and ends with their execution, funeral, and decades later, a pardon.

In the course of the unfolding story, Geary’s attention to detail is consistent and impressive.  Not only does he present us with the evidence, but he also cites the source for that evidence, and raises the questions about its validity, and explains any misgivings about those questions.  The illustrations, likewise, are strikingly literal, with just the right mix of minute detail on the one hand, and clarity and simplicity on the other.  His depictions of the key figures — the judge, the lawyers, the condemned anarchists — closely resemble photographs of them published at the time.

Yet it is also in the images that the artist’s sympathies subtly reveal themselves.  Geary’s people are always individuated and humanized, though most look vaguely suspicious and potentially menacing.  Sacco and Vanzetti themselves, however, are quite warmly represented.  They look thoughtful and sad, whereas Judge Thayer appears smug, self-satisfied, vindictive, and cheerfully cruel.  Yet it is a testament to Geary’s craft, and to his restraint, that even the images of the judge do not devolve into caricature; he remains, disconcertingly, a full person, realistically — if coolly — portrayed.

Rick Geary’s concern for the facts, and its concomitant fair-mindedness, may constitute a kind of politics in itself.  For his narrative does not mount a polemic on the innocence or the guilt of the accused.  What comes across instead is the sense of confusion and uncertainty, the contradictory witnesses and unreliable evidence on both sides.  Such uncertainly ought, of course, to benefit the defense.  That’s the whole idea behind “the presumption of innocence” and “reasonable doubt.”  Had the courts been as cautious in their judgment as this one cartoonist is in his, the history of this case would undoubtedly have been very different, and anarchism might have had two fewer martyrs.

Kristian Williams is a member of Rose City Copwatch in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (available from South End Press).