Civil Liberties: The Wrong Person, Emma Goldman's Story





Mr. Olshaker is a longtime freelance writer whose work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times and TomPaine.com.

11"Extra! Extra! President McKinley shot!"

The shouts of the newsboy on a St. Louis street corner on September 6, 1901, one hundred years ago this week, grabbed the attention of anarchist leader Emma Goldman, who bought a paper to learn more about the shooting of our twenty-fifth president at the Exposition grounds in Buffalo. McKinley would die eight days later, the third president in 36 years to be murdered by a gunman.

"It is fortunate that you are here and not in Buffalo," Goldman's friend Carl Nold noted."As usual, the papers would connect you with this act."

"Nonsense!" Goldman replied."The American press is fantastic enough, but it would hardly concoct such a crazy story."

In a stationery store the following morning, she saw a newspaper on a clerk's desk and read the headline:

"ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT McKINLEY AN ANARCHIST. CONFESSES TO HAVING BEEN INCITED BY EMMA GOLDMAN. WOMAN ANARCHIST WANTED."

11While plenty of innocent individuals throughout our history have found themselves wrongly accused by law enforcement and the media, the level of vilification suffered by Goldman a century ago probably has never been matched. The 32-year-old immigrant was labeled"the most dangerous woman in the world," occupying the same place in the American consciousness as Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do today. People cursed her on the street. Parents invoked her name when disciplining their children-behave, or Emma Goldman will get you. Even after she was cleared, no one in New York City would rent her an apartment.

11 Before her McKinley-assassination ordeal, Goldman had already earned a reputation as anarchism's most prominent and controversial spokesperson, a symbol of rebellion whose influence would span the years to inspire the ideology, if not the tactics, of the young anti-World Trade Organization anarchists who seemed to materialize out of nowhere two years ago in Seattle. The stock market crash of 1893, and four subsequent years of economic depression, had brought large, enthusiastic audiences to hear her denunciations of capitalism. In the Goldman biography Rebel in Paradise, author Richard Drinnon notes that she evolved into"perhaps the most accomplished woman speaker in American history," eventually taking on new topics-women's rights, European literature, homosexuality, birth control-in speeches that often ended in arrest.

She had indeed met the assassin Leon Czolgosz on two occasions, the first at a Cleveland lecture at which she had denounced the use of violence. Czolgosz would insist to the end that"I done it all myself," yet 200 detectives were sent to hunt down Goldman, and several of her fellow anarchists in Chicago were rounded up to be held prisoner until she was in custody. She decided to turn herself in, against the protests of friends who warned that she would never come out alive. Listening to other passengers from behind the curtain of her sleeper on the train to Chicago, she overheard discussion of the day's number-one topic-Emma Goldman-"a beast, a bloodthirsty monster" who deserved to be lynched.

11The Chicago police grilled her mercilessly."At least fifty detectives passed me," she recalled in her autobiography, Living My Life,"each shaking his fist in my face and threatening me with the direst things," including the electric chair, if she did not confess involvement in the shooting. She thought back 15 years to the Haymarket tragedy-at a rally to protest police harassment of union activities, a bomb was thrown, killing seven policemen and four demonstrators, and injuring 100; though there was no evidence as to who threw the bomb, seven Chicago anarchists were tried and convicted, and four of them executed by hanging. Their martyrdom had inspired the teenage Emma to pledge her life to anarchism. Ironically, she now found herself threatened with a similar fate by the same authorities.

Police denied her contact with friends for several days, but did bring some letters with memorable messages:"You damn bitch of an anarchist, I wish I could get at you. I would tear your heart out and feed it to my dog.""Murderous Emma Goldman, you will burn in hell-fire for your treachery to our country." She recalled,"The descriptions by some of the anonymous writers of what they would do to me sexually offered studies in perversion that would have astounded authorities on the subject." During her transfer from the Harrison Street station to the Cook County jail with two other prisoners, an officer slugged her in the mouth, knocking out a tooth and bloodying her face, after she objected to his clubbing one of the prisoners on the head.

When Buffalo authorities failed to provide sufficient evidence to have her extradited, Goldman was released. But, as she later noted,"the newspapers published only a few lines in an inconspicuous corner" reporting her innocence. The earlier headlines branding her a president-killer stuck in the public's mind. She changed her name to E.G. Smith, a new identity that enabled her to rent an apartment and find occasional work as a nurse and as a dressmaker, as she temporarily retreated from political activity. Czolgosz would be beaten unconscious repeatedly, hidden from public view because of his horrible condition, and rushed to execution in the electric chair before the end of October for the September assassination, a scenario that seems unimaginable today.

Yet Goldman's experience of being tried and convicted in the press despite a lack of evidence is hardly a relic of a less civilized era; in fact, new forms of media, and the widening array of choices within each form, only seem to provide more opportunities for abuse in a nation that has never stopped craving drama and scandals. Tabloid newspapers and television shows point an accusing finger at the grieving Ramseys--sometimes John, sometimes Patsy--in the murder of their six-year-old daughter JonBenet, based on little more than speculation. Actor Robert Blake is depicted as a murderer by late-night comedians who have surprising power to influence public perceptions, while Congressman Gary Condit is similarly characterized by right-wing websites. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is still vaguely identified with what he went on trial for-stabbing two men to death outside an Atlanta nightclub; few people are aware that the trial found the Super Bowl MVP not guilty, named the two killers, and found that they committed the fatal stabbings in self-defense.

Even Goldman's experience of being framed for a violent crime because of her unpopular politics has a recent parallel in the ordeal suffered by environmental leader Judi Bari, a nonviolent left-wing activist who was horribly wounded by a motion-triggered bomb that exploded under her car seat as she drove down an Oakland street on May 24, 1990, shortly after receiving a flurry of death threats. After an FBI team persuaded the Oakland Police Department that Bari and companion Daryl Cherney were the type of people who would be transporting a bomb, they were charged with"illegal possession of explosives." In mid-July, the Oakland authorities concluded there was no basis for prosecuting the two (and, amazingly, expressed no interest in finding the actual terrorist bomber or bombers still on the loose). Judi Bari died of breast cancer on March 3, 1997, still widely portrayed as an eco-terrorist who had bombed herself, a lie perpetuated on a grand scale by Rush Limbaugh the next day when he opened his show with a giddy celebration of her untimely death. (Unlike other journalists and columnists who have been caught disseminating false stories in recent years, Limbaugh did not lose his job.) 11

In Goldman's case, as well, the stigma would persist through the years, coming back to haunt her after the end of World War I, when she and longtime companion Alexander Berkman were nearing the end of their two-year sentences for opposition to the draft. As anti-radical hysteria reached its peak, the time was ripe for deporting them both. U.S. Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer used a dossier that included documents altered to make Goldman appear responsible for the McKinley assassination. Goldman and Berkman finished their prison terms in September 1919 and in December were sent to Russia with hundreds of other deportees on the steamship Buford. Two years later, horrified and heartbroken by the brutal reality of the Bolshevik state, Goldman moved to England, where her anti-communist efforts were ignored or derided by other leftists. Similarly, her warning in the early 1930s that"Hitler and his bloodhounds are fast approaching," an urgent message of concern that stemmed from her stay in Berlin, did not find a very receptive audience.

Throughout her travels, Goldman remained homesick for the USA, yet for reasons ultimately rooted in her September 1901 nightmare, her chances of returning, even temporarily, did not look promising. Theodore Dreiser, H.L. Mencken, and others made efforts on her behalf with no success. But in early 1934, she was finally given permission to visit for 90 days, under the stipulation that she lecture only on literature and drama. Ever the rebel, Goldman warned audiences about the Nazi threat, calling Germany"a nation led by degenerates." The German ambassador protested to the State Department, prompting the US government to issue a warning to Goldman.

In May 1940, a month before her seventy-first birthday, Emma Goldman died of a stroke in Toronto while raising money for the Catalonian anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, a crusade during which she found herself in shouting matches with fascists and communists alike. The US government, which had poured awesome resources into banishing her, could finally allow her to"return." In keeping with her wishes, she was buried alongside the Haymarket anarchist martyrs in Chicago.


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