Sunday, October 23, 2011
Emma Goldman's Life, Part III: In Which Life Is Not Easy For Anarchists (or Presidents)
So, where were we? I think Emma was running around Europe, getting all educated and stuff. Go ahead and catch up by reading the first two articles. They are here and here. We'll wait.
Eventually, Emma came back to New York, now with a couple of degrees under her belt. Around this time, she had two (count them! Two!) interactions with an unremarkable young man, who went by the name “Nieman” and who asked her to recommend some reading to him. Later, he came to her house, and, since she was on her way out the door, accompanied her to the train station, talking to her about the Socialist group he belonged to, and how he felt like the people in it lacked enthusiasm. Are you bored by this? You should be, because nothing happened. Seriously. It was a boring conversation on a train, and in no way involved murder. AT ALL.
She introduced him to a few friends who were waiting for her at the train station, and told them to introduce him to more anarchists. Then she left, and, let’s be clear (can you tell this will be important later?) never, never saw him again. Notably absent from their conversation was any statement from Emma Goldman along the lines of “you know what would be great? If you were to murder President William McKinley. Please do that; I actively encourage, no, instruct you to assassinate the President. You should shoot him in the torso, in front of lots and lots of people. Do that.”
Can you see where this is going?
Besides their two (TWO!) really uneventful meetings, the only interaction Emma had with him was to defend him in a letter after some other anarchists accused him of being a government spy in their newspaper. All she said was that there didn’t seem to be any evidence that this Nieman guy was anything of the sort. Her friend retracted the accusation. And that. Was. It. as far as her interactions with this guy went. Are we clear?
So, let’s leave Nieman alone and follow Emma. She attended the Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York. Those of you who have seen Sondheim’s (excellent) Assassins know what happened there, and are probably already humming it, but try not to give it away for everyone else and just keep reading, ok?
A couple days later, Emma was in St. Louis, when she heard a newsboy yelling “Extra! Extra! President McKinley shot!” Apparently the president had been shot in the chest while at the Pan-American Exposition, the same one Emma had just attended. A friend pointed out what a good thing it was that Emma had already left by the time the shooting took place; it was the sort of thing that the press would try to connect to her. Emma thought that was crazytalk. The next morning, she was in a shop, and caught sight of another newspaper headline. This one read “ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT McKINLEY AN ANARCHIST. CONFESSES TO HAVING BEEN INCITED BY EMMA GOLDMAN. WOMAN ANARCHIST WANTED.” She decided her friend’s fears might not have been crazytalk.
Yes, that non-threatening Nieman guy turned out to be one Leon Czolgosz, Polish-American factory worker from Michigan, and official crazy person, who shot President William McKinley on September 6, 1901.
Ok, everyone who's been humming Assassins for the last couple paragraphs, and those unfortunate people who don't know it, here's the full Czolgosz song. You're welcome. (It's a bit of an earworm.)
Because while I write about 19th century revolutionaries, I like to listen to showtunes. You don't?
Anyway, Emma didn’t make the connection between Czolgosz and the guy she'd talked to months ago until she saw “Nieman’s” picture in the paper. By this time, enough of her friends had been arrested for, basically, being her friends (America tends not to fuck around after a president has been assassinated), that Emma ballsily decided it was her duty to turn herself in. (I just realized that it’s kind of pointless adding the adverb “ballsily” to anything Emma Goldman did. You could just kind of add it to everything she ever did, ever. She really never did anything non-ballsily in her entire life.) She wanted to turn herself in in Chicago, not St. Louis, so she got on a train, where she spent the ride listening to the other passengers arguing over whether this Emma Goldman woman everyone was suddenly talking so much about ought to be locked up, or lynched.
This would freak most people out, but it more amused than frightened her. “I listened to the good Christians,” she says in her autobiography “while resting in my berth. I chuckled to myself at the thought of how they would look if I were to step out and announce: ‘Here, ladies and gentlemen, true followers of the gentle Jesus, here is Emma Goldman!’ But I did not have the heart to cause them such a shock and I remained behind my curtain.” That’s right; Emma Goldman didn’t reveal herself to people whom she had just heard actively calling for her death, because she didn’t want to freak them out. Emma Goldman was basically made of brass-plated badassery. And also balls. (The ovary kind. Those are balls, too, in case that wasn't clear before.)
After a quick meeting with some friends she announced her intention to go down to police headquarters and turn herself in. Her friend, with whom she was staying, wanted her to run for Canada instead, telling her that if she went into the police station, she was a dead woman. She agreed to let him make the arrangements for her to get to Canada, although she had no intention of actually going. She was basically planning to let him go along with that, and then turn herself in when he wasn’t looking, and when she could avoid being tied to him in any way, to keep him out of trouble (and jail). We call this “self-sacrificial ballsiness.” It’s a subset of regular ballsiness.
The next day, while her friends were out, she heard a noise at the window sill. She was in the bath at the time (people on the run and suspected of helping to assassinate the president need to maintain their hygiene too, you know!) but she threw on a robe, and went to see what it was. She found a man dangling from the third floor window sill, with a gun in his hand. She let him in, which I think was awfully decent of her under the circumstances. He got in, and told her to open the front door.
Twelve policemen came in, and demanded to know who she was. Emma, not particularly wanting to be arrested in her friends’ home, and also apparently not wanting to have an epic conversation while in her bathrobe, pretended to be a maid, and to little speak English. The cops, proving to be the dumbest ones ever, not only bought that, they showed her a picture of herself, and said they were looking for Emma Goldman, and did she know where she was? For some reason, every time I think about this part of the story, I picture the cops being Stephen Fry's character from Gosford Park. These are some dumb, ineffective cops. Emma said she hadn’t seen this woman in the picture. Again, she wasn't trying to avoid arrest for some sort of cowardly reason, she just didn’t want to be arrested in her friends’ home, for fear of getting them in trouble.
The Incredible Cops of Gullibility City (police department motto: Courtesy, Professionalism, Stupidity) probably would have bought it too, if one of them hadn’t found a pen, inscribed with her name, and decided to stay in case she came back. At this point, Emma decided that things were getting ridiculous, and told them who she was. They were completely shocked. Because, as I may have mentioned, they were kind of dumb.
Emma was arrested, interrogated, threatened, and intimidated. The police falsely claimed to have witnesses placing her with Czolgosz in Buffalo. She stuck to her story, (because, you know, it was true), which was that she had spent a grand total of a half hour in Czolgosz’s presence, and had gone to the Exposition because it seemed like a fun thing to do, not because she was involved with a plan to kill anyone. She was deprived of sleep, and of any communication with the outside world, apart from hate mail from strangers who were angry at her for her supposed role in the shooting. I can only assume they let her read that as a form of intimidation, and had they been dealing with the subset of the human race that is not Emma Goldman, that might have worked. Sample text: “we will cut your tongue out, soak your carcass in oil, and burn you alive,” though there was much nastier stuff than that. Emma, far from being intimidated, calmly observed that “the description by some of the anonymous writers of what they would do to me sexually offered studies in perversion that would have astounded the authorities on the subject.” She was given daily stacks of this type of letter, but was allowed no messages from her friends.
Emma never did actually denounce the assassination. While the president was dying, she said that, as a nurse, she would care for him, but her sympathies were with the man who had shot him. This was not awesome for her PR. After a week or so, she was transferred to the Cook County Jail, and on the way was hit in the face, and had a tooth knocked out by a guard, who didn’t care for her backchat, or for the fact that she was an anarchist. When a journalist, the next day, asked her if she could identify the guard who did it, Emma casually responded that she wasn’t sure that she could, and anyway, firing the one officer who had hit her would neither get her her tooth back nor end police brutality; it was all the fault of the system she was trying to fight against. Not many people can look on a disfiguring injury to their own personal face in an objective way a day after it happened, but most people, it is abundantly clear, are not Emma fucking Goldman.
Soon, she was told that the president was dead. When she was asked to respond, she said (awesomely) “is it possible that in the entire United States only the President passed away on this day?” and asked why she should feel more sorry for him than for people who died in poverty, leaving behind families. This was actually a pretty good point, but probably not the most diplomatic thing to say. She was eventually set free, there being absolutely no evidence to tie her to the assassination, but her support of Czolgosz didn’t do her public image any favors; she lost a lot of support from fellow anarchists, especially when she wrote an article called “The Tragedy of Buffalo” in which she argued that Czolgosz’s crime was not the action of a lone madman, but the inevitable result of an unjust society. She compared Czolgosz to Brutus, which is the classical allusion people like to make when they think it’s great that someone assassinated someone, but not the allusion a nation in mourning wanted to hear.
The public turned against anarchists hard after that, and McKinley’s successor, who happened to be Teddy Roosevelt, promised to crack down on anarchists and their supporters. Stuff got nasty; anarchists became targets of hatred and violence. Emma’s good friend (spoken very well of in Sasha Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist) and fellow Jewish American anarchist Harry Gordon was very nearly killed. He had previously been arrested for being a friend of what the newspapers called "the Goldman woman." The account of his arrest published in the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette is kind of hilarious, if you're into ignorance; it says that the detectives were busily trying to get papers seized in Gordon's rooms translated: "there was a mass of writings in Russian and Hebrew, and considerable trouble is being experienced in having these letters translated." You have to wonder how much the police department sucked if they couldn't find translators, but maybe knowing the goddamn difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, which they clearly didn't, would've helped some.
After Gordon was released from jail, during the public backlash against anarchists, he was nearly lynched in a particularly dramatic fashion: he and his girlfriend were cornered by a lynch mob, which was bad enough, but his girlfriend also happened to be in labor at at the time (most writers will tell you that adding a woman in labor to a violent situation is a really cheap, cliched way of upping the tension, but sometimes reality just doesn't listen). They hid, but the mob figured out where they were and threatened to burn down the house, so Gordon surrendered himself to the mob, calmly telling them "here I am; do what you will with me," in order to save his girlfriend and her child. According to some accounts, he actually had a rope around his neck before someone in the mob noticed that he was wearing a badge that showed he was a member of a machinists union to which that particular mob-member also belonged, and called for him to be let go. Emma had a lot of very brave, occasionally very lucky friends. Not all of them will get their own entry on this blog, but damn, Harry Gordon. Damn.
Emma's old friend Johann Most (the term “friend” here used slightly more sarcastically, if you recall how badly they were getting along. Friends don't hit friends in the face with horsewhips.) was arrested as well, but I won't spend as much time talking about him because his arrest wasn't nearly as fucked up as what happened to Harry Gordon, and besides, last I checked Most was kind of a prick. Basically, it was not an awesome time to be an anarchist, and it was an even less awesome time to be Emma Goldman.
Frustrated with her fellow anarchists and their lack of support for someone who had actually done the sort of thing they were always talking about, and finding herself a little too notorious, Emma assumed a false name (it was Smith, because why mess with tradition, even if you are one of history’s greatest iconoclasts? Smith is the name you use when you don't want people to know who you are. There is no messing with that.) and began practicing as a nurse again, and working as a seamstress, taking in piece-work. Her other main occupation was worrying about Sasha, who was still in prison, and having a really shitty time of it. Meanwhile, the campaign against anarchism in the US picked up speed. This was a definite low point for Emma. But then Russia hit the fan; struggles against the czar were picking up, which galvanized political activists in America, and Emma ended up throwing herself back into politics, speaking and raising money for striking coal miners and for those fighting in Russia. Emma was immediately pulled out of the funk she had been in; nothing like a speaking tour surrounded by hostile police to really improve your mood, if you’re Emma Goldman.
But hey, remember how America was cracking down on anarchists? In 1903 a law was passed banning anarchists from immigrating to America. If that sounds awful and probably unconstitutional, it’s because holy shit, yes, it’s awful and probably unconstitutional. The law actually helped Emma; it improved public opinion about her, since a lot of people seemed to realize that law was holy shit, yes, awful, and probably unconstitutional, so her fight against it earned her some sympathy.
Still, it wasn’t a great time for her. Her lover, Ed Brady died, leaving behind a child that he had never allowed Emma to meet, whom she saw for the first time at his funeral, which must’ve been rough. As she generally did when life made her sad, Emma responded by throwing herself even harder into her political life. She began the anarchist magazine Mother Earth in 1906. Shortly thereafter, Sasha was finally released from prison. Fourteen years in prison had not been kind to him, and their relationship was a bit tense. Sasha didn’t want to do lectures and speeches any more, so Emma put him in charge of editing Mother Earth, basically to give him something to do and some way to contribute while she ran around continuing to be awesome.
In 1908 Emma met someone else who may get (and certainly deserves) his own article on this blog someday; a Dr. Ben Reitman, aka the Hobo Doctor. He was called that because, you see, (stay with me, this is going to get complicated) he was a hobo and a doctor. And because he acted as a doctor for hoboes. And for prostitutes. And for poor people; basically, if capitalist society was crapping on someone, Ben Reitman was there to give them some much-needed medical care. He even provided abortions, which was a pretty huge deal in 1908, and he was also, by the way, a dedicated political activist. Easy to see why Emma might take a liking to him. He was born in Minnesota, to poor immigrants, and apparently became a hobo at the age ten or eleven, but somehow managed to get a job sweeping up in a lab that eventually led to him getting a thorough education when the people there realized how damn smart he was. Yes, Ben Reitman was Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, only Jewish, an anarchist, and from Minnesota. History is silent as to whether he also had a gruff but caring therapist to tell him that his shitty childhood was Not His Fault, but it doesn’t seem likely, and a good thing too.
Emma was immediately smitten with Ben. She began working (and sleeping) with him in Chicago. I want to reiterate here just how openly Emma Goldman enjoyed her own sexuality. Remember, this was the early 20th century, and women were not supposed to be into sex, or if they were, were certainly not supposed to talk about all the crazyawesome mindblowing sex they were having with hobo anarchist abortion doctors. Emma describes their first night thusly:
“That night at Yampolsky’s I was caught in the torrent of an elemental passion I had never dreamed any man could rouse in me. I responded shamelessly to its primitive call, its naked beauty, its ecstatic joy.”
That sounds like a pretty good night to me. Anyway, the two of them began traveling, lecturing, working for all of Emma’s usual causes, but especially for the distribution of information on birth control. We'll leave them there for this week, because it all starts to get crazy once they hit California. That's a story, as they say, for another day.
Specific Lessons for Modern Activists: Sometimes you will be singled out and persecuted for your beliefs. Sometimes you will have great sex. Life is kind of a mixed bag that way.
Emma Goldman's story is continued in Chapter IV, here...