The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti (Treasury of XXth Century Murder)
“Mr. Geary is the sort of historian we all wanted to have in school or college: a teacher who makes history interesting and compelling. Thankfully now, we have him in graphic novel form. He is the supreme practitioner of the craft and genre today, and The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti is as impressive as anything he has done. A fitting book for any educational institution wishing to get pupils interested in history and to prove that history is anything but boring and unexciting.”
The latest creation in cartoonist/historian Rick Geary’s Treasury of XXth Century Murder is The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti. This time, Geary tackles the still-disputed and controversial trial from the 1920s.
On that fateful day in April 15, 1920, two employees of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company, carrying $15,776.51 in payroll envelopes were robbed and murdered in the streets of the quiet industrial town of South Braintree, Massachusetts. Two Italian immigrants and anarchists, Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested for the crime, tried, and ultimately executed via the electric chair in an environment of xenophobia and political intolerance.
The case itself became a worldwide cause célèbre, with supporters calling it a horrible miscarriage of justice. Riots and massive protests ensued in many countries, bringing up questions about the dubious evidence—produced almost like magic by the prosecution—that played disgracefully to antiItalian sentiment.
Like all esteemed historians, Rick Geary refuses to judge whether Sacco and Vanzetti were actually guilty or innocence, leaving that argument for the reader to decide. What he does do, however, in a balanced and meticulously subtle manner is to show the bias that was endemic in the judicial system when it came to immigrants, the salient paradox being—some would argue—that America was built on the backs of immigrants.
The presiding judge, Judge Webster Thayer, was notorious for his hostility toward anyone with radical ideas; i.e., those different from his own narrow interpretation, and was often heard commenting about getting “those Bolsheviki bastards good and proper.”
The lawyer representing the two accused men, West Coast attorney Fred H. Moore, does not win too many points, either, coming across as being either inept in his mishandling of the defense, or worse, indifferent to the plight of those he represented.
And Massachusetts’ legal system at the time was anything but fair and unbiased. The outrageous fact remained that all legal appeals in a case were overseen by the same judge who initially tried the case, “thus asking Thayer to rule against himself.” Give yourself a cigar if you guess correctly what way Thayer went in appeals. The system didn’t simply railroad Sacco and Vanzetti, it used a bullet train. It would be a long time before Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes would note of the injustice of the case: “We practice law, not justice. . . .”
Mr. Geary does a perfect job of both writing and illustrating the story. As well as the numerous books he has produced, Mr. Geary has also created a number of postcards, using similar technique to maximum influence in the thin-line paneling with its stark clean black lines against an almost bleached-white background. And while it’s the norm for most graphic novel artists to draw numerous consecutive sequential panels of the same characters in the same setting, he rarely if ever devotes two consecutive panels to the same locale or character, giving a freshness to the book that is always appreciated by the discerning reader.
Mr. Geary is the sort of historian we all wanted to have in school or college: a teacher who makes history interesting and compelling. Thankfully now, we have him in graphic novel form. He is the supreme practitioner of the craft and genre today, and The Lives of Sacco & Vanzetti is as impressive as anything he has done. A fitting book for any educational institution wishing to get pupils interested in history and to prove that history is anything but boring and unexciting.