Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons

10 Famous People Who Protested Sacco and Vanzetti's Conviction

Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons

On the afternoon of April 15, 1920—exactly 95 years ago today—the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts became the site of one of the most infamous crimes in modern American history when an attempted robbery turned into a double homicide. While performing the routine task of transporting the company’s payroll from the shoe factory to its headquarters, Alessandro Berardelli and Frederick Parmenter—a security guard and company paymaster, respectively—were ambushed by two men in an attempt to take the money and run. In a matter of minutes, both Berardelli and Parmenter were dead and several bystanders were trapped in a hail of gunfire as the robbers made off with the loot with the help of a waiting (and stolen) getaway car.

On May 5, 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for the crime. On July 14, 1921, they were convicted of first-degree murder. On August 23, 1927—after years of appeals and protests—they were executed. But the case against them was hardly clear-cut; much of the evidence was circumstantial at best. As the story of these two possibly wrongfully convicted men spread, many of the world’s most powerful and respected thinkers joined in the cause célèbres to protest their conviction.

1. ALBERT EINSTEIN

In 1947, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their execution, Albert Einstein wrote that, “Everything should be done to keep alive the tragic affair of Sacco and Vanzetti in the conscience of mankind. They remind us of the fact that even the most perfectly planned democratic institutions are no better than the people whose instruments they are.”

2. JOHN DOS PASSOS

Though he initially traveled to Boston as a journalist covering the case, author John Dos Passos quickly saw through the faulty evidence against the duo and helped to organize The Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee, even authoring the 127-page review of the case, Facing the Chair: Story of Americanization of Two Foreign-Born Workmen. Following the pair’s execution, Dos Passos wrote the poem “They Are Dead Now” as a eulogy to the men.

3. DOROTHY PARKER

In 1927, Dorothy Parker’s attendance at a protest for Sacco and Vanzetti ended with her arrest for “loitering and sauntering.” She was slapped with a $5 fine.

4. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

According to Moshik Temkin’s book, The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial, noted playwright George Bernard Shaw “confessed privately that in spite of their best intentions, foreigners who tried to pressure the Massachusetts authorities to show leniencies toward Sacco and Vanzetti had ultimately underestimated Americans’ resistance to ‘outside opinion.’”

5. H.G. WELLS

Following the case in England, legendary sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells wrote a piece about it in 1927 entitled, “Outrages in Defense of Order: The Proposed Murder of Two American Radicals,” which was refused publication. He eventually included it in his 1929 collection of essays, The Way the World is Going.

6. BENITO MUSSOLINI

In 1996, Philip V. Cannistraro published an article [PDF], “Mussolini, Sacco-Vanzetti, and the Anarchists,” in The Journal of Modern History about the empathy that the Italian dictator felt toward the convicted men, noting that “As late as 1934, [Mussolini] continued to speak of Sacco and Vanzetti in a way that suggests personal sympathies for them and for anarchism, attitudes unrecognized by historians who emphasize his unremitting crusade against the left.”

7. EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Noted poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay didn’t let a little thing like being arrested while picketing the State House stop her from fighting for what she believed was the justice owed to Sacco and Vanzetti. After meeting with then-Governor Alvan T. Fuller and making an in-person plea to recognize the flaws in their case against the men, she sent him a written appeal, asking: “Think back. Think back a long time. Which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?—Oh, not the way in which your feet are set!”

8. UPTON SINCLAIR

In 1928, The Jungle author Upton Sinclair published Boston, which he described as “a documentary novel” about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. But the story didn't end there, at least not in Sinclair’s case: In 2005, a letter from Sinclair to his lawyer was discovered at an auction house in Irvine, California in which the author shares how he met with the men’s lawyer—who told him they were guilty!

9. ELEANOR ROOSEVELT

In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt was among the many dignitaries who signed a public declaration that the city of Boston should display a sculpture created to honor the legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti. But then-Governor Robert Bradford’s opinion was that there was “no useful purpose in stirring up the bitter passions and prejudices of 20 years ago.”

10. MICHAEL DUKAKIS

He may not have pardoned them, but former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977 (the 50th anniversary of their execution) Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Day, stating that, “Any stigma and disgrace shall be forever removed from their names.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols's life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

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