Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 86

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 86


This is the grave of Emma Goldman.

Born in 1869 in what is today Lithuania, Goldman was rebellious from a small child, both in terms of her family and standing up for injustice. While a schoolgirl, after the family moved to Prussia, she got a teacher fired after she fought back when he tried to molest her. She rejected her father’s arranged marriage for her while she was teaching herself radical thought at the age of 15. She was probably raped by one of her suitors, which affected her relationships with men for the rest of her life. She immigrated with one of her sisters to the United States in 1885. The rest of the family came a year later to avoid the growing anti-Semitism in Russia, including in St. Petersburg, where the family currently resided. They moved to Rochester and Goldman got work as a seamstress. She married a carpenter named Jacob Kershner, but it collapsed quickly, particularly because she discovered on her wedding night that he was impotent.

Goldman moved to New York City in 1887 and immediately dove into the anarchist scene. I mean that literally–the first day she was there she met both the anarchist theorist Johann Most, whose propaganda of the deed theory (that violent action and the state repression that followed was worth the dead innocents because it would spark revolutionary tendencies in the greater population) was behind the Haymarket bombing of the year before, and Alexander Berkman, soon to become her lover and political partner. She very quickly became a major anarchist speaker, soon breaking with Most because she wouldn’t follow his line and determined to be an independent thinker and activist. She and Berkman moved to Illinois and then to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they opened an ice cream shop.

That only stayed open briefly because she and Berkman decided to murder Henry Clay Frick, the vile capitalist and mass murderer behind the Homestead strike. Frick, a man who had once personally evicted a strikebreaker from company housing by picking him up and throwing him in a creek, had called in the Pinkertons to break the strike at Carnegie Steel, while his preening fraud boss whose careful self-image promotion has convinced people even today that he wasn’t such a bad guy vacationed in Scotland so he wouldn’t have to take personal responsibility. Berkman walked into Frick’s office with a knife and a gun. Being an anarchist, of course he completely failed in everything except receiving a 22-year prison sentence (he served 14) for his lame attempt; Frick was back at work the next week. Goldman actually attempted to fund all of this by turning herself out as a prostitute. But the first trick who picked her up bought her a beer, gave her $10, and told her she was completely unsuited for this kind of work. The police tried to bust Goldman after Berkman’s attack, but they found no evidence.

The next year she was arrested after giving an inflammatory speech protesting during the Panic of 1893 and was thrown in prison for a year. There she became a well-known political prison, committed herself to a heavy course of reading, and started learning medicine. She was particularly interested in midwifery and massage and spent much of the rest of the 1890s traveling in Europe to learn these practices, meet with various radicals, and study. By 1901, she was back in the U.S. permanently. An unhinged anarchist named Leon Czolgosz who Goldman and others thought was a police infiltrator into their groups, so odd was he, assassinated William McKinley, claiming her inspiration. She had nothing to do with it. She also refused to denounce the act. This both divided her from many anarchists and also made her nationally famous as the media tried to pin it on her. See below.

She was so alienated from other anarchists after the McKinley assassination that she largely disappeared from public activism for the next five years. In 1906, she started Mother Earth, her radical newspaper. She gave the editorship to the recently released Alexander Berkman while she toured the country to raise funds for it. She had a good time with this. By 1908, she was in a relationship with Ben Reitman, who was cheating on her at pretty much every stop on their tour, but as a believer in free love she had to live with it. Meanwhile, she wrote letters about how much she enjoyed the cheap, potent California wine she could have on the West Coast. She spent about a decade pretty constantly touring and speaking. She wrote her book Anarchism and Other Essays and became close with the young birth control activist Margaret Sanger. Although Sanger was no anarchist, their shared feminism and demands for women’s autonomy over their own bodies made them close allies. Both were arrested for violating the Comstock Laws.

During World War I, she came out against the draft and, as is well known, was caught up in the Red Scare. Like other radicals, she was imprisoned and like other immigrant radicals, deported in 1920. She and Berkman were sent to the newly established Soviet Union. She initially approved of the experimental revolutionary state, but soon turned on it as Lenin’s authoritarianism became clear; there would be no room for anarchism under Bolshevik power. After the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921, Goldman and Berkman left the Soviet Union for Latvia and then to Stockholm. Finally, they both settled in Berlin for much of the 1920s, where Goldman wrote books opposing the Soviet Union. But they struggled in the new world of European radicalism. The rise of the Soviet Union really put the knife in anarchism worldwide, not so much because of state repression except internally, but because the first successful radical state made Bolshevism the only acceptable revolutionary politics for most of the left. They were largely shunned in Berlin for their opposition to the USSR. She had to get out; moreover, she feared German deportation. So she entered a sham marriage to a British radical that gave her a British passport and thus the ability to travel to not only Britain but also Canada. She moved to Canada in 1927 and lived there the rest of her life. She was allowed to give speeches in New York in 1934 so long as she avoided talking about current politics. She spent a little time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, where she wrote perceptively about the battles between the anarchists and communists for control of the resistance to Franco, knowing very well what Stalin would do to ideological opponents.

Goldman died in 1940 of the effects of a stroke in Toronto.

Emma Goldman is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Home, Illinois. Probably because anarchists can’t do anything right, her death date is wrong on her own grave.

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