Edna St. Vincent Millay was outraged by the convictions in 1927 of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian immigrants from Boston’s North End.
They were accused of murdering two guards during a robbery in Braintree, Mass. Many eyewitnesses placed them in different cities on the day of the robbery, and ballistic evidence was highly questionable. But their real crime was that they were immigrants and anarchists. The case dragged on for years, and in 1927 they were sentenced to death.
In 1927, Millay was a 35-year-old poet who had been a famous literary figure for half her life. Born in Rockland, Maine, she then lived in upstate New York with her husband.
Millay, like many others, believed the Sacco and Vanzetti death sentence was a failure of justice. A campaign to exonerate them then spread throughout the world. Protests against their convictions happened in every major city in North America and Europe as well as Tokyo, Sydney, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Johannesburg.
On Aug. 22, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were about to be executed. Edna St. Vincent Millay interviewed Massachusetts Gov. Alvan Fuller about the case for a magazine article. Later that day, she wrote a letter to him.
Tonight, with the world in doubt, with this Commonwealth drawing into its lungs with every breath the difficult air of doubt, with the eyes of Europe turned westward upon Massachusetts and upon the whole United States in distress and harrowing doubt — are you still so sure? Does not faintest shadow of question gnaw at your mind? For, indeed, your spirit, however strong, is but the frail spirit of a man. Have you no need, in this hour, of a spirit greater than your own?
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!
You promise me, and I believe you truly, that you would think of what I said. I exact of you this promise now. Be for a moment alone with yourself. Look inward upon yourself. Let fall from your harassed mind all, all save this: which way would He have turned, this Jesus of your faith?
I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubt. Exert the clemency which your high office affords.
There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
She didn’t persuade him.
This story updated in 2022.