The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti Mural by Ben Shahn, Syracuse University, 1967

I am back home in Upstate New York for two weeks and thought I’d talk about some interesting sites up north. This week is likely the work of art I’ve spent the most time in front of, as our paths crossed long before I ever stepped foot in an art museum. It was also almost exclusively linked with my first true love, Syracuse University Basketball. 

The other night my dad and I were watching one of those epic early eighties battles with Georgetown, and just before the tip-off, the announcer bellowed over the roaring crowd, “I’ll tell you what, these Syracuse fans are the greatest in the world. There is no parking, the weather sucks, yet this place is packed.” It always was. Syracuse is a town and gown city; The average home price in town is equivalent to four semesters at the school. The University is up on a hill, where they look down at us without much curiosity. With The Carrier Dome essentially enclosed by dorms and academic buildings, we from the city must find on-street parking back by Westcott Street and run through snow drifts so impenetrable that they’ll change your life forever. This run upstream defined us; going across the quad exhilarated us like we snuck under a fence into a place we were never supposed to be. On these dark, snowy nights, there was always this one big, bright, confusing work of art that could take my eyes off the prize of getting into the game, even if only for a few minutes; it was Ben Shahn’s mosaic, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1967.  

This work is burned into my mind as the first-time art meant something. It lured me in. It made me think of the school on the hill differently. Made me think of myself differently. In a quad full of people rushing by, this artwork gave me a place to be alone.

Shahn’s mural strongly condemns one of the most ethnically, politically biased murder cases in American jurisprudence history. On April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a robbery went wrong, leaving the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company paymaster and his guard dead and approximately US$15,700 stolen. The investigation that followed was tainted at best. A year earlier, a shoe factory in Bridgewater was robbed, and the culprits were identified by eyewitnesses who believed the criminals were “Italians” and thought to be radical anarchists. The Federal Immigration Service identified Ferruccio Coacci, Mario Buda, Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as suspects, and after Coacci and Buda fled for Italy, Sacco and Vanzetti were left to face the music. 

By the time World War I commenced, the US had experienced a vast influx of immigrants for several decades. This significant wave of immigration resulted in a substantial population of foreign descent within the country. In fact, the year 1910 marked the pinnacle of immigrant presence, accounting for 15 percent of the total population. The War stoked deep-seated anxieties that these new immigrant communities might include secretive factions intending to initiate acts of sabotage and disseminate propaganda within the homeland.

The two men, a fishmonger and a skilled shoemaker were both subscribers and followers of the anarchist paper Cronaca Sovversiva (Subversive Chronicle) and its editor Luigi Galleani. After a campaign blowing embassies to smithereens (36 mail bombs in 1919 and the Wall Street bombing killing 28 in 1920), the Galleanists were classified as the greatest enemy of the US government. America was now at War from the inside. Being associated with these Italian anarchist circles meant Sacco and Vanzetti were about to pay for the sins of many.

More about the pageantry of patriotism than about crimes, the trial for their lives began on May 21, 1921. This was about Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical beliefs and about their each dodging the WWI draft in 1917; in a courtroom rampant with the Red hysteria, they interrogated the defendants as Socialists, as Communists, as members of a Black Hand extortion racket. The prosecution contended that Sacco fired the gun while Vanzetti remained in the car as a lookout, making him a collaborator in a conspiracy to commit murder. At the crime scene, no fingerprints matched theirs. The defendants presented ninety-nine witnesses who testified they were elsewhere on that fateful night. As confirmed by the Boston Italian consulate, Sacco was inquiring about a passport to Italy to visit his father within the hour of the murder. Vanzetti’s alibi was airtight. Thirty-one eyewitnesses testified positively that of the men in the getaway car, none were Vanzetti. Six witnesses testified they directly purchased fish from Vanzetti’s cart in Plymouth on the afternoon of the murders. While the prosecution claimed the fatal bullet came from Sacco’s .32 Colt, forensic experts found the rounds did not match. This meant it could have been any of the 300,000 automatic .32 Colt pistols in circulation worldwide. None of the shots on the scene were from the .38 nickel-plated Harrington & Richardson revolver that Vanzetti owned.

Despite all evidence, it took the jury all of three hours to announce guilty verdicts and doom both Sacco and Vanzetti to the electric chair. The whole thing was barbaric and rigged. Openly biased against them, the case’s judge, Webster Thayer, pushed to be assigned the case. He wanted to ensure they “got what they deserved.” 

As an artist, Shahn had always wanted to live in a grand political time, his Italian Renaissance Crucifixion moment, to have something essential to paint in the wake of justice crumbling. Here was his Caravaggio Saint Peter. In drawings and prints, tempera and gouache, throughout the 1950s, Shahn returned to Sacco and Vanzetti as subjects repeatedly. 

In Syracuse, he composed three connected mosaic panels made from shards of glass and marble tiles. The panel on the far left contains five solemn men standing together, arm in arm. Their stares are glazed, their eyes are glassy, shoulders heavy beneath their dark suits. These men are workers, most likely immigrants, new Americans. This could have been the fate of nearly any of them. Many felt that all that followed the murders in South Braintree was orchestrated to stoke the anti-Italian sentiment that had already been bubbling. It’s an amazing thing to look back nearly a century later to see that the same worries, the same combination of economic anxieties, cultural clashes, and stereotyping that was happening then make the same pot of prejudice stew today. 

However, instead of deterring the Italian community, the case galvanized them in many ways. It directly led to stronger labor unions, with protests and riots erupting in 18 countries, leading to the three-day international worker’s walkout in August 1927. The New Republic called them “the two most famous prisoners in the world.” Shahn’s workers held up blank picket signs, each day bringing another miscarriage of justice cast on those new to this country.   

The central panel focuses on a gigantic Sacco and Vanzetti, symbolizing morality, honor, and strength. Dressed in black suits, overcoats, and top hats, we almost miss the thin chain gripping them together, handcuffing them close. Vanzetti’s head is titled up, at peace. Sacco proudly meets the gaze of any onlookers. Their shadows soar towards the courthouse in the distance. Behind them stands a miniature Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller reading the verdict that sealed the defendant’s fate. Later, in the final panel, as Sacco and Vanzetti lay peacefully in their caskets, the Governor’s Advisory Committee, which reviewed last-minute appeals for clemency with eyes shut tight and hands covering ears, loomed over their bodies. The three men (Samuel Stratton, the president of MIT; Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president; and Robert Grant, a retired judge) represented the highest echelons of Boston’s ruling class establishment, which had little appetite for the immigrant’s radical ideals. Standing over the coffins, Shahn depicts two committee members offering the dead white lilies, a Christian symbol of virtue. This suggests the committee knew the defendants were sacrificial lambs, executed for challenging the pre-eminence of American principles. This empty symbol of grief is rendered as a sham.

This work living on campus at a private institution taught me so much about possibility. Art was the welcoming, an invitation to a place otherwise off-limits. Shahn invited us through the door to investigate Sacco and Vanzetti, to celebrate and mourn their often-forgotten histories. We often hear history being doomed to repeat itself while simultaneously being shown that Nativism and stoking fears of migrant caravans are just as effective and destructive today. This mural acts as a challenge. Sure as the snow flies, this mosaic mural and sparkling broken tiles remain to light the path forward on those dark nights. 

Standing before this work, I always fixate on Shahn’s mosaic text of Vanzetti’s eloquent summary to a journalist months before the executions: “If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out of my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, justice, and man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words, our lives, our paint, Nothing! The taking of our lives, lives of a good show maker & a poor fish peddler, All! That last moment belongs to us. That agony is our triumph.”