They were humble men, laborers who came to the United States in search of its streets of gold. Instead Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti found living hard, while dreaming of a land of no bosses, no police, no judges. In August 1927, they were executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the murders of a paymaster and guard committed in the course of a robbery seven years earlier.

Shortly before this crime, the nation had reeled under the onslaught of homegrown terrorism as self-proclaimed anarchists sent bombs through the mail or lobbed them into the homes of high public officials. Were the two men victims of public outrage against those horrors? Of prejudice toward immigrants and anarchists? Did they die because of incompetent defense in their original trial, and resilient but exhausted counsel on appeal? Did a prejudiced judge, a nimble prosecutor and a hidebound judicial system send them to the electric chair? Who can believe that these men, who wrote such moving prison memoirs, could be murderers? And what about the discrepancies in the trial testimony, the recantations of some witnesses and a much more plausible set of thieves it was a robbery for money the Morelli gang? On the other hand, Sacco and Vanzetti shared the convictions of bombers who blew up people. Both men were armed when arrested. They lied at their first interrogation. And an honest jury convicted them of the murders. Numerous appeals upheld those convictions.

In his latest book, Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind, Bruce Watson follows the case as it traverses the decade when American culture descended into frivolity. While the world danced the Charleston, Sacco and Vanzetti became totems for the Communists, the aged Progressives, the university intellectuals whose clamor only prolonged the years they waited to die.

Watson, a journalist, plumbed the primary sources, including the trial transcripts, during his research for Sacco and Vanzetti. He has gone back to the old polemical arguments that have raged for 80 years and evaluated them in an eloquent epilogue.

His verdict on this complex case Not proved ought to settle it, but that seems unlikely.

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