Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti

As Elliott states in his memoir, The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti was the first in which I was to put to death condemned men in what the public calls a big case. Convicted in 1921 of murdering a payroll master and his guard, the two Italian immigrants were sentenced to die on August 3, 1927, after six long years of appeals. During this period, Sacco and Vanzetti, avowed anarchists (actually, more fervent socialists than anarchists) were supported by intellectuals, people of prominence, and those who were certain that the two men were found guilty because of their political beliefs. It was, indeed, a case of worldwide importance.

Niccola Sacco
Niccola Sacco

As befitting the importance of these cases, Elliott found himself caught in the midst of highly charged situations. His accounting, for example, of the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti is as dramatic as anything written about electrocution.

His description of the two weeks leading up to the deaths of the two Italians begins with his arrival at the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown on August 10, 1927. The executions were scheduled for midnight. He described the atmosphere:

As darkness fell, the air seemed charged with electricity. Everybody in the prison, from the warden down, was uneasy, tense. Outside, there were great crowds and noisy demonstrations. Scores of policemen, many of them mounted, attempted to control the throng and the traffic jam of hundreds of automobiles. Never before had a penal institution been so armed and garrisoned.

An hour before the scheduled executions, Elliott received word that they had been postponed. The governor had granted a reprieve in order to allow the Supreme Court to consider an appeal.

On August 22, I reported at the prison in midafternoon, and went through the same procedure as before. Again excitement ran high. As the hands of the clock neared midnight, many nerves were almost at the breaking point. The death march began three minutes after twelve.

This was one of the 30 occasions when Elliott put to death three condemned men in a single night. The first to go to the chair was Celestine Madeiros, a young man who killed a bank cashier and had said that he --- not Sacco and Vanzetti --- was connected with the payroll robbery and killings for which the Italian anarchists were convicted. At 12:09, Madeiros was pronounced dead. He had gone silently to the chair in a semi-stupor.

Now, the tension heightened. Sacco was led in, unaccompanied by a clergyman, having earlier refused spiritual consolation from the prison chaplain. Without support, he made his way to the chair.

While he was being strapped into the chair, he made the first of his statements: Long live anarchy! he said in Italian. The last procedure, the placing of the mask over his face, was next. Unfortunately, it could not be found. While the guards frantically searched for it, Sacco kept talking. Farewell, my wife and child and all my friends, he said, and then, Good evening, gentlemen, and finally, Farewell, mother.

Finally, the mask was discovered. It had been caught in Madeiros clothing. The mask was placed on Sacco, and Elliott threw the switch.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti
Bartolomeo Vanzetti

The last of the trio to be dispatched that night by Elliott was Vanzetti. His exit from the world was, in many ways, the most dramatic. Throughout the long ordeal of six years of appeals and publicity, Bartolomeo Vanzetti emerged as the most dignified and eloquent of Death Row residents. Befitting his reputation, Vanzetti faced his fate with the calmest demeanor of all. While Madeiros was torpid and Sacco pale and tense, Vanzetti was composed and dignified. He shook hands with the guards who took him from his cell on Death Row to the execution chamber. He also shook Warden Hendrys hand, and said, I want to thank you for everything you have done for me, Warden. Elliott observed that the warden was deeply moved. He turned to the witnesses, and said, I wish to tell you I am innocent, and never committed any crime, but sometimes some sin. I thank you for everything you have done for me. I am innocent of all crime, not only of this, but all. I am an innocent man.

Finally, with the mask in place, he said, I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.

Prison protest, Sacco & Vanzetti
Prison protest, Sacco & Vanzetti

The Sacco-Vanzetti case was over. However, the writings of the two men, the belief in their innocence, and the inspiration they engendered in artists and thinkers of every persuasion persist to this day.

One can sense that Elliott recognized, even at that moment, that he was a part of history. He left the prison, recognized by a few among the thousands in the crowd. He took a taxi to his hotel, spent the night, and returned home the next day. Less than a year later, Elliotts house was bombed. Although he does not propose it, it seems likely that the bombing was an aftermath of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.