The Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti: Two Good Arms

On August 23, 1927, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in the electric chair. The execution of the Italian-born anarchists drew worldwide protests from people who believed the two men were innocent of the murder charges against them. Many today still debate whether or not the two were guilty of the crime, but most agree that anti-immigrant sentiment and other factors affected the fairness of their trial.

The saga of Sacco and Vanzetti has inspired various forms of art, including songs. Chimesfreedom previously addressed the songs that Woody Guthrie wrote about the case. Additionally, folksinger Charlie King wrote an excellent song about the case called “Two Good Arms,” and I have seen him perform it on several occasions. King, who grew up in Massachusetts and has been performing for fifty years, is not as well known as he should be. But artists like Pete Seeger have recognized his talent.

While there does not seem to be a video of King singing “Two Good Arms,” here is Holly Near covering his song at the 1987 Philadelphia Folk Festival. And you may hear King’s original version on his webpage.

King took much of the lyrics of “Two Good Arms” directly from the speech that Vanzetti made at his sentencing. It is interesting how he recognized the poetry in Vanzetti’s own words, even as the native Italian speaker presented his plea in English: “That I am not only innocent of these two crimes, but in all my life I have never stolen and I have never killed and I have never spilled blood. . . . Not only am I innocent of these two crimes, not only in all my life I have never stolen, never killed, never spilled blood, but I have struggled all my life, since I began to reason, to eliminate crime from the earth. Everybody that knows these two arms knows very well that I did not need to go into the streets and kill a man or try to take money. I can live by my two hands and live well.”

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti remains relevant today, as many debate whether states have executed innocent people in recent years. A new book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, recounts how Texas may have executed an innocent man when it executed Carlos DeLuna. Others claim that other executed men like Cameron Todd Willingham were innocent.

It is difficult to prove innocence to everyone’s satisfaction after someone has been executed, but these and other cases certainly raise questions about the justice system, as any system run by humans is bound to make mistakes at some point. Thus, one may wonder whether society should execute people rather than holding them in prison. These ongoing risks make it important that we answer the opening question of Charlie King’s song with an affirmation that we all will remember past injustices and work to prevent them in the future.

Photo of Vanzetti (left) and Sacco (right) via public domain.

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  • The Killing of “Two Good Men”
  • “Nebraska” and the Death Penalty
  • Dylan’s “Julius & Ethel”
  • The Journey of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” From the Scaffold to the Screen
  • The End of Maryland’s Death Penalty and “Green, Green Grass of Home”
  • Bono and Glen Hansard: The Auld Triangle
  • (Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)