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Bruce Watson

The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind

A-Sacco and VanzettiStill reeling from World War I and the country’s first Red Scare, America entered the Jazz Age with xenophobic paranoia. "And under Prohibition [the average citizen] could not even order a beer and laugh about the changes," writes journalist Bruce Watson. When a shoe factory paymaster and his guard were shot and killed during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, in April 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants affiliated with a violent anarchist group, were charged with the crime. They were convicted in 1921 on circumstantial evidence and executed in 1927, dividing an angry, outraged nation down the middle and triggering anti-American demonstrations worldwide. Were Sacco and Vanzetti cold-blooded killers or the innocent victims of ethnic prejudice?
Viking. 448 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0670063533

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruce Watson’s spirited history of the affair, does a great service in rescuing fact from the haze of legend and disentangling Sacco and Vanzetti from the symbols they all too quickly became. … Mr. Watson, although highly sympathetic to both men and, like most historians, almost certain that they did not commit the payroll murders, points out that no one can explain what Sacco and Vanzetti were up to the night of their arrest and that, ‘no matter how much one wants to shout their innocence, questions remain.’" William Grimes

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bruce Watson’s engrossing retelling doesn’t present new evidence to alter history’s verdict—which, unlike the jury’s, remains uncertain as to the duo’s guilt. … Watson’s balanced book makes it unclear whether they were guilty or innocent." Rich Barlow

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Watson’s integration of the case with its cultural context and his attention to Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s close connections to truly dangerous anarchist dynamiters are the main strengths of his account. … Watson’s agnosticism on the question of their guilt or innocence lets him present a cogent overview that avoids the tendentiousness some of his predecessors fall prey to." Art Winslow

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Because many Americans under the age of 50 probably know little if anything about this important case, with its broad and lasting implications, it is good to have Watson’s account. The literature of the case is vast, but surprisingly little of it provides as balanced and unemotional a survey as this volume does." Jonathan Yardley

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Watson does his best (without quite succeeding) to overcome his nagging doubts and persuade himself that both men were innocent in the April 1920 Braintree murders. … It’s apparent that, as a historian, Mr. Watson is no Sherlock Holmes." Robert K. Landers

Critical Summary

Even after 80 years, claims Bruce Watson, the prejudice and injustice that sentenced Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to death "haunt American history." Though he presents no new evidence, Watson uses extensive research to offer a judicious and compelling description of the trial and its far-reaching aftermath. Only the Wall Street Journal, which nevertheless described Watson’s narrative as "vivid" and "smoothly written," complained that he distorted or ignored facts to suit his "liberal conscience"; other critics considered Sacco and Vanzetti an honest account that neither romanticizes nor vilifies the duo. Watson clearly sympathizes with his subjects, and one gets the feeling that he believes in their innocence. Still, he doesn’t dismiss the questions raised by the evidence.

Supplementary Reading

Sacco and Vanzetti The Anarchist Background| Paul Avrich (1991): A distinguished political scholar draws on historical anarchist records to explore the lives of the men and the movement they engendered.