Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 189

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 189


This is the grave of Ben Reitman.

Born in 1879 (I am aware the stone says 1880, but that’s wrong) to Russian Jewish immigrants in St. Paul, Reitman grew up in Chicago. He was basically a raconteur. He became a hobo at the age of 10 and was first arrested for vagrancy in 1890 for stealing coal. But then he went back to Chicago and went to medical school. Completed it too, in 1904. But he was more into hoboing. In fact, he took his medical certificate and became a doctor to hobos and prostitutes, of which there were no shortage in 1904 Chicago. He started a sort of hobo college in Chicago in 1907 to provide educational courses to hobos while they were in town. He had this vision of University of Chicago professors coming to his hobo college to give talks on the duties of the hobo to society and the like. It taught hobos about various vagrancy laws in cities and states, as well as labor history and economics, and held some debates. In 1908, he met the radical Emma Goldman when he offered the hall he used for his college for her speech. Now, Goldman is probably the most overrated figure in the history of the American left because she never actually did any organizing. Even as other anarchists tried to work with the IWW, to various degrees of success, she traveled around giving talks. Which is pretty fun and I get while she did that, but it’s not organizing. Anyway, they met and they fell in love. He became her manager and followed her on the road, where she, unlike most anarchists, charged admission for her talks so she could live off her speaking fees.

There was a problem though–they both believed in free love. So they had a non-monogamous relationship. Now, I suppose this will get me in trouble with some commenters, but I would that about 90% of the people I know who have been in open relationships of various forms saw that relationship collapse in a heap of jealousy and mutual recriminations. Or even if you are true to it as a political statement, one partner gets more action than the other and that leads to sadness and depression. That’s basically what happened with Reitman and Goldman. Emma would give her speeches. And while she was doing that, Reitman would cruise the town for women. She knew this. And it made her absolutely miserable. But she was committed to her political ideals so she let him. She wasn’t really doing this. But he sure was. One of the women eventually got pregnant and he married her.

It’s not that Reitman wasn’t committed to his radical politics too. They both ended up in San Diego during the free speech fight there in 1912-13. Reitman was kidnapped by a mob and tarred and feathered, for god’s sake. He also served 6 months in prison in 1916 for violating the Comstock Laws by talking about birth control. It was while he was in prison that his hookup had the child and Goldman finally broke up with him. He did stay with this woman though until she died in 1930. He moved to Chicago and got a job with the city fighting STDs. He married for a third time and then had four additional children with another woman. He wrote a famed hobo book, Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, in 1937. This later became the source material for the early Scorsese film Boxcar Bertha. He died of a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 63.

Ben Reitman is buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Park, Illinois.

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