For years I've heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, often as a punch line in a bit of dark humor about injustices of one kind or another. I had heard that they were political prisoners who were executed solely for their points of view. I had never heard anything terribly specific, though, and had no idea how close to home -- literally -- their story would eventually become.
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927 for a crime that took place on December 24, 1919 in Bridgewater, a half-mile north of what would eventually become our home. On Valentine's Day this year, in fact, we took a walk -- in an icy wind -- to the scene of the crime. Thanks to the research of local historian Christopher Daley, we know that the armored-car robbery of which they were convicted took place at the corner of Hale Street and Broad Street, where today one can find a barber and a Friendly's restaurant. Hale Street runs parallel to the tracks in what was the industrial heart of this once heavily industrial town. Remnants of the old factories can still be found along both sides of what is now primarily a commuter rail line. The L.Q. White shoe factory at which the truck was delivering payroll is long gone, however, its remnants buried beneath a parking lot for Bridgewater State College commuters.
For me, what is most fascinating about the case is what it reveals about a Bridgewater that is fading quickly from memory. Today it is known for its college -- on almost half a square mile in the center of town, with over 10,000 students and over 1,000 employees (including both authors of this blog) -- and as a bedroom community for thousands who commute to white-collar jobs in Boston on the revived train line or the straight, dangerous shot up Route 24. A third major factor is the state prison complex on the south edge of town (old "State Farm"), but I lived here for a decade before I met anybody who works there, and it only comes up in conversation if there is a prison break or someone is remembering the 1967 Titicut Follies movie.
For many who have lived in the town for decades -- or generations -- the town has a different identity: a working-class, industrial town. At least three of the town's major park sites, for example, were once home to industries ranging from bricks to iron to ship-building. Where newcomers such as myself see second-growth forest, older neighbors remember their fathers working at furnaces. Where we see empty lots today, some neighbors remember active freight yards.
My brief research into the case has raised more questions than it has answered. Even the locations of many of the factories extant at the time are difficult to determine despite the availability of very detailed Sanborn maps. (Sanborn insurance maps are a great resource for historic and environmental research; they show industrial and commercial buildings at 1:1200 scale for almost every town in the United States between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Bridgewater State College has a subscription to the Massachusetts maps; most public libraries have copies of maps for their own towns.)
For example, the 1921 Sanborn map shows the White shoe factory between Spring Street and the rail lines, but almost everything on that part of the map has now changed, as a current satellite image of the same area shows. The robbery itself was just off the edge of this map, where Hale Street meets Broad Street, which is a main road toward Boston.
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Police were first led to Sacco and Vanzetti as suspects in the murder because a witness indicated that the perpetrators appeared to be Italian. The entire area to the northwest of the crime scene was a tight-knit Italian community, focused around the mills. In fact, the neighborhood surrounding Wall and High Streets, about 2000 feet away, remains something of an enclave to this day, surrounding the old Stanley Iron Works site, at which iron was forged for centuries. The satellite image below is centered on the old mill pond, and immediately to east and west are private clubs that continue to operate -- each sporting its own bocci court!
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To this day, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti stirs debate. From the hundreds of thousands of people who protested their sentence at the time, to the governor who pardoned them decades later, to books and articles that are still being published, their guilt or innocence remains uncertain. A Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society meets twice each month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An article by Robert D'Attilio at the University of Pennsylvania summarizes some of the legal debate, as does an article on the web site of Torremaggiore, Sacco's hometown in Italy.
It is unclear whether Sacco or Vanzetti ever even visited Bridgewater -- a gang who were holed up in a shack in nearby West Bridgewater eventually confessed to the crime -- but their association with the town reminds us of several important aspects of its identity and history.