Living My Life : Volume 2, Chapter 43
(1869 - 1940) ~ Russian-American Mother of Anarcho-Communism : She is an Anarchist, pure and simple. She represents the idea of Anarchism as framed by Josiah Warren, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy. Yet she also understands the psychologic causes which induce a Caserio, a Vaillant, a Bresci, a Berkman, or a Czolgosz to commit deeds of violence. (From : Hippolyte Havel Bio.)
• "The political superstition is still holding sway over the hearts and minds of the masses, but the true lovers of liberty will have no more to do with it." (From : "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For," by Emma Go....)
• "...it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think." (From : "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For," by Emma Go....)
• "Patriotism is inexorable and, like all insatiable monsters, demands all or nothing. It does not admit that a soldier is also a human being, who has a right to his own feelings and opinions, his own inclinations and ideas." (From : Patriotism, A Menace to Liberty," by Emma Goldman,....)
Volume 2, Chapter 43
ON MY ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK AFTER MY PROTRACTED WESTERN lecture tour I hoped to get a long-needed rest. But the fates and Sasha willed it otherwise. He had just returned from Los Angeles to work in the East in behalf of Matthew A. Schmidt and David Caplan, and he immediately drew me into his intensive campaign.
Sasha's presence on the Coast during my last San Diego experience was due to a rather unexpectedly happy turn of affairs. When he had started out on his Western lecture tour, in the fall of 1914, he had not intended to go farther than Colorado. That was owing to his arrest on the very eve of his leaving New York. Fitzi had preceded him to Pittsburgh to make the preliminary arrangements for the meetings. Sasha's New York friends had meanwhile arranged a farewell party in his honor. At midnight the company, returning home, sang revolutionary songs. A policeman ordered them to cease singing, and in the altercation that followed he lifted his night-stick to strike Bill Shatoff, our old friend and coworker. Sasha's presence of mind undoubtedly saved Bill from serious injury. He gripped the policeman's upraised arm so that the latter let the club fall out of his hand. More officers arrived and the whole company were arrested. In the morning they were condemned to short terms in the workhouse for "disturbing the peace," except Sasha, who was charged with assaulting an officer and inciting to riot. The magistrate insisted on his standing trial there and then, saying that his sentence would not exceed two years. The policeman had come to court with his entire arm painted with iodine and bandaged, and his statement to the judge was to the effect that Sasha had attacked him without the least provocation and that only the arrival of more police had saved his life. It was clearly the intention to "railroad" Sasha. The police, having failed to stop his unemployment activities and Ludlow strike protests, were evidently determined to wreak vengeance on him this time.
Sasha refused to have the case proceed before the police magistrate. The charges against him, classed as felonies, gave him the legal right of trial by jury. Moreover, he was scheduled to speak the same evening in Pittsburgh, and he decided to take his chances in criminal court.
Our friend Gilbert E. Roe bailed him out and promised to look after the case during his absence. Sasha departed for Pittsburgh, but when he reached Denver, he was warned by Roe to go no farther west, so as to be able to return to New York within forty-eight hours if he was called for trial. The situation looked serious, Sasha being in danger of a five-year prison term.
For weeks he remained lecturing in Colorado, anxious to go to California to aid in the defense of Matthew A. Schmidt and David Caplan, who were awaiting trial in Los Angeles in connection with the Times building explosion. Then one day he received a telegram from New York, reading: "Case against you dismissed. You are free to go where you please. Congratulations."
It was Gilbert E. Roe who had managed to have the indictments against Sasha quashed by convincing the new District Attorney of New York that the charges were the result of police enmity.
Now Sasha was in New York, working strenuously in behalf of the Caplan-Schmidt defense. On the Coast he had organized a wide publicity campaign in their behalf, and as a result of his efforts the International Workers' Defense League had requested him to tour the country and form defense branches along the route. It was just the kind of activity Sasha was particularly fitted for, and he devoted himself passionately to saving the two indicted men from the fate that had been his in Pennsylvania.
Equipped with credentials from various labor organizations, he had left Los Angeles, stopping at all the larger industrial cities on his way east, so that by the time he reached New York he had already rallied a goodly part of organized labor to the support of the prisoners in the Los Angeles jail.
Sasha immediately enlisted me for the Caplan-Schmidt campaign, as he did everyone else he could get into the work. It was good to have him near again and to cooperate with him. The Caplan-Schmidt mass meeting he organized, at which we were both to speak, and the numerous other efforts for the defense he was making were too important to let me consider my need of rest. The reactionary forces on the Coast arrayed against labor were feverishly active. They were poisoning the public mind against the men about to be tried; to prejudice the case they were spreading the rumor that David Caplan had turned State's evidence. The preposterous story had just made its appearance in the New York newspapers. Aware of the effect of such statements even upon the radicals, it became necessary to take a stand against the outrageous slander. I had known David fifteen years and had been closely connected with him in the movement during that time; I was absolutely convinced of his integrity.
When the date of the Caplan-Schmidt trial became known, Sasha returned to the Coast to start a bulletin, as part of the publicity he was making for the case.
The conflagration in Europe was spreading; already six countries had been swept by it. America was also beginning to catch fire. The jingo and military cliques were growing restive. "Sixteen months of war," they cried, "and our country is still keeping aloof!" The clamor for "preparedness" began, people joining in who but yesterday waxed hot against the atrocities of organized slaughter. The situation called for more energetic anti-war agitation. It became doubly necessary when we learned of the attitude of Peter Kropotkin.
Rumors had been filtering through from England that Peter had declared himself in favor of the war. We ridiculed the idea, certain that it was a newspaper fabrication to charge our Grand Old Man with pro-war sentiments. Kropotkin, the anarchist, humanitarian, and gentlest of beings--it was preposterous to believe that he could favor the European holocaust. But presently we were informed that Kropotkin had taken sides with the Allies, defending them with the same vehemence that the Haeckels and the Hauptmanns were championing "their" fatherland. He was justifying all measures to crush the "Prussian menace," as those in the opposite camp were urging the destruction of the Allies. It was a staggering blow to our movement, and especially to those of us who knew and loved Peter. But our devotion to our teacher and our affection for him could not alter our convictions nor change our attitude to the war as a struggle of financial and economic interests foreign to the worker and as the most destructive factor of what is vital and worth while in the world.
We determined to repudiate Peter's stand, and fortunately we were not alone in this. Many others felt as we did, distressing as it was to turn against the man who had so long been our inspiration. Enrico Malatesta showed far greater understanding and consistency than Peter, and with him were Rudolph Rocker, Alexander Schapiro, Thomas H. Keell, and other native and Jewish-speaking anarchists in Great Britain. In France Sebastien Faure, A. Armand, and members of the anarchist and syndicalist movements, in Holland Domela Nieuwenhuis and his coworkers maintained a firm attitude against the wholesale murder. In Germany Gustav Landauer, Erich Muhsam, Fritz Oerter, Fritz Kater, and scores of other comrades retained their senses. To be sure, we were but a handful in comparison with the war-drunk millions, but we succeeded in circulating throughout the world the manifesto issued by our International Bureau, and we increased our energies at home to expose the true nature of militarism.
Our first step was the publication in Mother Earth of Peter Kropotkin's pamphlet on "Capitalism and War," embodying a logical and convincing refutation of his new position. In numerous meetings and protests we pointed out the character, significance, and effects of war, my lecture on "Preparedness" showing that "readiness," far far from assuring peace, has at all times and in all countries been instrumental in precipitating armed conflicts. The lecture was repeatedly delivered before large and representative audiences, and it was among the first warnings in America against the military conspiracy behind the protestations of peace.
Our people in the States were awakening to the growing danger, and demands for speakers and for literature began pouring into our office from every part of the country. We were not rich in good English agitators, but the situation was urgent, and I was continually busy filling the gap.
I went about the country, speaking almost every evening, my days occupied with numerous calls on my time and energy. At last even my unusual powers of endurance gave way. Returning to New York after a lecture in Cleveland, I was taken ill with the grippe. I was too ill to be transferred to a hospital. After I had spent two weeks in bed, the physician in charge ordered me taken to a decent hotel room, my own quarters lacking all comforts. On my arrival at the hotel I was too weak to register, and Stella, my niece, wrote my name in the guest book. The clerk looked at it and then retired to an inner office. He returned to say that a mistake had been made; there was no vacant room for me in the place. It was a cold and gray day, the rain coming down in torrents, but I was compelled to return to my old quarters.
The incident resulted in strong protests in the press. One communication in particular attracted my attention; it was a long and caustic letter upbraiding the hotel people for their inhumanity to a patient. The statement, signed "Harry Weinberger, Attorney-at-Law, New York," was by a man I did not know personally, but whose name I had heard mentioned as that of an active single-taxer and member of the Brooklyn Philosophical Society.
In the mean time Matthew Schmidt had been sacrificed to the vengeance of the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Association, the Los Angeles Times, and the State of California. One of the main witnesses against him was Donald Vose. In open court, face to face with his victim, he admitted being in the employ of Detective William J. Burns. As his agent Vose had ferreted out the whereabouts of David Caplan. He enjoyed the hospitality of the latter for two weeks, gained his confidence, and learned that Schmidt was somewhere in New York. Then he was ordered east by Burns, instructed to frequent anarchist circles and be on the alert for the first chance to reach Matthew Schmidt. On the witness-stand Vose boasted that the prisoner at the bar had confessed his guilt to him. Schmidt was convicted, the jury recommending imprisonment for life.
There was no more reason for withholding the publication of what I considered Donald Vose's perfidy. The January 1916 issue of Mother Earth contained the too-long-delayed article about him.
Gertie Vose stood by her son. I understood her maternal feeling, but in my estimation it did not excuse a rebel of thirty years' standing. I never wanted to see her again.
Conviction did not break the strong spirit of Matthew A. Schmidt or influence his faith in the ideals for which he was to be buried for the rest of his life. His statement in court, setting forth the causes behind the social war, was illuminating in its clarity, simplicity, and courage. Though facing a life sentence, he did not lose his rich humor. In the midst of his recital of the real facts in the case he turned to the jury with the remark: "Let me ask you, gentlemen, do you believe a man like Donald Vose? You wouldn't whip your dog on the testimony of such a creature; no honest man would. Any man who would believe Vose would not deserve to have a dog."
Interest in our ideas was growing throughout the country. New anarchist publications began to appear: Revolt in New York, with Hippolyte Havel as its editor; the Alarm in Chicago, issued by a local group of comrades, and the Blast in San Francisco, with Sasha and Fitzi at its head. Directly or indirectly I was connected with all of them. It was, however, the Blast that was closest to my heart. Sasha had always wanted a forum from which to speak to the masses, an anarchist weekly labor paper to arouse the workers to conscious revolutionary activity. His fighting spirit and able pen were enough to assure the Blast vitality and courage. The cooperation of Robert Minor, the powerful cartoonist, added much to the value of the publication.
Robert Minor had wandered far since the days when I first met him in St. Louis. He had definitely broken with the milk-and-water brand of socialism and had given up a lucrative position on the New York World for a twenty-five-dollar-a-week job on the socialist daily Call. "This will free me," he once told me, "from making cartoons that show the blessings of the capitalistic régime and injure the cause of labor." In the course of time Bob had developed into a revolutionist and subsequently into an anarchist. He devoted his energy and abilities to our movement. Mother Earth, Revolt, and the Blast were considerably strengthened by his trenchant brush and pen.
From Philadelphia, Washington, and Pittsburgh came calls for a series of lectures to extend over several months. The initiative of our comrades was a satisfying and stimulating sign; such a venture had never before been tried with one speaker, but our friends were eager to attempt it. I realized the strain it would involve to travel continually from town to town, lecture every evening, then rush back to speak at my Friday and Sunday meetings in New York. But I welcomed the opportunity to awaken interest in the Los Angeles case, agitate against the war, and help circulate our various publications.
My English lectures in Philadelphia were hardly worth the weekly effort. They were poorly attended; the few who did come were sluggish and inert, like the social atmosphere in the City of Brotherly Love. There were only two persons whose friendship recompensed me for the otherwise dreary experience, Harry Boland and Horace Traubel.
Harry was an old devotee and always generously helpful in every struggle I made. Horace Traubel I had first met at a Walt Whitman dinner in 1903. He had impressed me as the outstanding personality among the Whitmanites. I enjoyed the hours spent in his sanctum, filled with Whitman material and books, as well as with the files of his own unique paper, the Conservator. Most interesting were his reminiscences of the Good Gray Poet, whose latter years of life Horace had shared. I got more from him of Walt than from any biographer I had read, and I also got much of Horace Traubel, who revealed himself and his own humanity in his talks about his beloved poet.
Another man brought close to me by Horace was Eugene V. Debs. I had met him previously on several occasions and had clashed swords with him in a friendly way over our political differences, but I knew little of his real personality. Horace, an intimate friend of Debs's, made him vibrant to me in the heights and depths of his character. The comradeship I felt for Horace ripened into a beautiful friendship during my visits to Philadelphia. The city's empty boast of brotherly love was redeemed by none so much as by Horace Traubel, whose love embraced mankind.
Results in Washington, D. C., surprised everybody and, most of all, our active workers Lillian Kisliuk and her father. Lillian had for years lived in the capital, but had always been skeptical about the success of lectures in her city, and particularly about having two a week. It was her enthusiasm for our ideas, however, that had induced her to undertake the task.
The Pittsburgh arrangements were in charge of our very able friend Jacob Margolis, who was assisted by a group of young American comrades, among them Grace Loan, very vivid and intense, her husband, Tom, and his brother, Walter. The Loans were most refreshing by their genuineness and zeal, and they gave promise of great usefulness to our cause. They had all worked like beavers to make my meetings a success, but unfortunately the result was not commensurate with their efforts. On the whole, however, my series of meetings in the stronghold of the steel-trust were well worth while, especially because Jacob Margolis had succeeded in inducing a club of lawyers to invite me to address them.
I had heretofore faced the representatives of the law only as a prisoner. On this occasion it was my turn--not to pay back in kind, but to tell the judges and prosecutors among my hearers what I thought of their profession. I confess I did it with glee, without remorse or pity for the predicament of the gentlemen who had to listen without being able to punish me even for contempt of court.
My lectures in New York that winter included the subject of birth-control. I had definitely decided some time previously to make public the knowledge of contraceptives, particularly at my Yiddish meetings, because the women on the East Side needed that information most. Even if I were not vitally interested in the matter, the conviction of William Sanger and his condemnation to prison would have impelled me to take up the question. Sanger had not been actively engaged in the birth-control movement. He was an artist, and he had been tricked by a Comstock agent into giving him a pamphlet which his wife, Margaret Sanger, was circulating. He could have pleaded ignorance and thus avoided punishment. His bold defense in court earned him the deserved appreciation of all right-thinking people.
My lectures and attempts at lecturing on birth-control finally resulted in my arrest, whereupon a public protest was arranged in Carnegie Hall. It was an impressive gathering, with our friend and ardent coworker Leonard D. Abbott presiding. He presented the historical aspects of the subject, while Doctors William J. Robinson and J. S. Goldwater spoke from the medical point of view. Dr. Robinson was an old champion of the cause; together with the venerable Abraham Jacobi, he was the pioneer of birth-control in the New York Academy of Medicine. Theodore Schroeder and Bolton Hall illuminated the legal side of family limitation, and Anna Strunsky Walling, John Reed, and a number of other speakers dwelt on its social and human value as a liberating factor, particularly in the lives of proletarians.
My trial, after several preliminary hearings, was set for April 20. On the eve of that day a banquet took place at the Brevoort Hotel, arranged by Anna Sloan and other friends. Members of the professions and of various social tendencies were present. Our good old comrade H. M. Kelly spoke for anarchism, Rose Pastor Stokes for socialism, and Whidden Graham for the single-taxers. The world of art was represented by Robert Henri, George Bellows, Robert Minor, John Sloan, Randall Davey, and Boardman Robinson. Dr. Goldwater and other physicians participated. John Francis Tucker, of the Twilight Club, was toast-master and he lived up to his reputation as one of the wittiest men in New York. An entertaining discussion was provided by John Cowper Powys, the British writer, and Alexander Harvey, an editor of Current Literature. Powys expressed himself as appalled by his ignorance of birth-control methods, but he insisted that though he personally was not interested in the matter, yet he belonged to the occasion because of his constitutional objection to any suppression of free expression.
When at the close I was given the floor to reply to the various points raised, I called the attention of the guests to the fact that the presence of Mr. Powys at a banquet given to an anarchist was by no means his first libertarian gesture. He had given striking proof of his intellectual integrity some years previously in Chicago when he had refused to speak at the Hebrew Institute because that institution had denied its premises to Alexander Berkman. The latter had been announced to speak on the Caplan-Schmidt case. At the last moment the directors of the Institute closed its doors. Thereupon the Chicago workers had boycotted the reactionary organization and founded their own Workmen's Institute. Shortly afterwards Mr. Powys had arrived to deliver a series of lectures at the Hebrew Institute. When informed of the attitude of its directors to Berkman, Mr. Powys had canceled his engagements. His action was especially commendable because all he knew of Berkman was the misrepresentations he had read in the press.
Rose Pastor Stokes demonstrated direct action at the banquet. She announced that she had with her typewritten sheets containing information on contraceptives and that she was ready to hand them out to anyone who wanted them. The majority did.
In court the next day, April 20, I pleaded my own case. The District Attorney interrupted me continually by taking exceptions, in which he was sustained by two of my three judges. Presiding Judge O'Keefe proved to be unexpectedly fair. After some tilts with the young prosecutor I took the stand in my own behalf. It gave me the opportunity to expose the ignorance of the detectives who testified against me and to deliver in open court a defense of birth-control.
I spoke for an hour, closing with the declaration that if it was a crime to work for healthy motherhood and happy child-life, I was proud to be considered a criminal. Judge O'Keefe, reluctantly I thought, pronounced me guilty and sentenced me to pay a fine of one hundred dollars or serve fifteen days in the workhouse. On principle I refused to pay the fine, stating that I preferred to go to jail. It called forth an approving demonstration, and the court attendants cleared the room. I was hurried off to the Tombs, whence I was taken to the Queens County Jail.
Our following Sunday meeting, which I could not attend, since my forum was now a cell, was turned into a protest against my conviction. Among the speakers was Ben, who announced that pamphlets containing information about contraceptives were on the literature table and could be taken free of charge. Before he had got off the platform, the last of the pamphlets had been snatched up. Ben was arrested on the spot and held for trial.
In Queens County Jail, as on Blackwell's Island years previously, I saw it demonstrated that the average social offender is made, not born. One must have the consolation of an ideal to survive the forces designed to crush the prisoner. Having such an ideal, the fifteen days were a lark to me. I read more than I had for months outside, prepared material for six lectures on American literature, and still had time for my fellow prisoners.
Little did the New York authorities foresee the results of the arrests of Ben and me. The Carnegie Hall meeting had awakened interest throughout the country in the idea of birth-control. Protests and public demands for the right to contraceptive information were reported from numerous cities. In San Francisco forty leading women signed a declaration to the effect that they would get out pamphlets and be ready to go to prison. Some proceeded to carry out the plan and they were arrested, but their cases were discharged by the judge, who stated that there was no ordinance in the city to prohibit the propagation of birth-control information.
The next Carnegie Hall meeting was held as a greeting upon my release. The occasion was under the auspices of prominent persons in New York, but the actual organization work was done by Ben and his "staff," as he called our active boys and girls. Birth-control had ceased to be a mere theoretic issue; it became an important phase of the social struggle, which could be advanced more by deeds than by words. Every speaker stressed this point. It was again Rose Pastor Stokes who carried wishes into action. She distributed leaflets on contraceptives from the platform of the famous hall.
The sole disturbing element was Max Eastman, who declared a few minutes before the opening of the meeting that he would not preside if Ben Reitman should be allowed to speak. In view of Eastman's socialistic ideas and his past insistence on the right of free speech this ultimatum shocked everyone on the committee. The fact that Ben was under indictment for the very thing for which the meeting had been called made Mr. Eastman's attitude all the more incomprehensible. I suggested to him to withdraw, but his friends persuaded him to preside. The incident once more proved how poorly some alleged radicals in America have grasped the true meaning of freedom and how little they care about its actual application in life. The "cultural" leader of socialism in the United States and editor of the Liberator permitted personal dislikes to stand in the way of what he claimed to be his "high ideal."
Ben's trial took place on May 8 in Special Sessions, before Judges Russell, Moss, and McInerney. The last-named was the man who had sent William Sanger to prison for a month. Ben pleaded his own case, making a splendid defense for birth-control. He was found guilty, of course, and sentenced to the workhouse for sixty days, because, as Judge Moss put it, he had "acted with deliberation, premeditation, and forethought, in defiance of the law." Ben cheerfully admitted the imputation.
His conviction was followed by a large protest meeting in Union Square. A touring-car was our platform, and we spoke to the working masses that were streaming out from the factories and shops. Bolton Hall presided; Ida Rauh and Jessie Ashley handed out the forbidden pamphlets. At the close of the meeting they were all arrested, including the chairman.
In the excitement of the birth-control campaign I did not forget other important issues. The European slaughter was continuing, and the American militarists were growing bloodthirsty at the smell of the red stream. Our numbers were few, our means limited, but we concentrated our best energies to stem the tide of war.
The Easter uprising in Ireland was culminating tragically. I had entertained no illusions about the rebellion, heroic as it was; it lacked the conscious aim of complete emancipation from economic and political rule. My sympathies were naturally on the side of the revolting masses and against British imperialism, which had oppressed Ireland for so many centuries.
Extensive reading of Irish literature had endeared the Gaelic people to me. I loved them as painted by Yeats and Lady Gregory, Murray and Robinson, and above all by Synge. They had shown me the remarkable similarity between the Irish peasant and the Russian moujik I knew so well. In their naïve simplicity and lack of sophistication, in the motif of their folk-melodies, and in their primitive attitude towards law-breaking, which sees in the offender an unfortunate rather than a criminal, they were brothers. The Irish poets seemed to me more expressive even than the Russian writers, their language being their people's own tongue. The debt I owed to Celtic literature and to my Irish friends in America, and my feeling for the oppressed everywhere, combined in my attitude to the uprising. In Mother Earth and on the platform I voiced my solidarity with the people risen in rebellion.
The quality of some of the victims of British imperialism was made vivid to me by Padraic Colum. He had been in close touch with the martyred leaders and spoke with knowledge and understanding of the events of Easter week. Lovingly he remembered Padraic H. Pearse, the poet and teacher, James Connolly, the proletarian rebel, and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a most gentle and genuine soul. Colum's description made the men live again and moved me profoundly. At my request he wrote an account of the events for Mother Earth, which was published in our magazine together with Padraic H. Pearse's stirring poem "The Pean of Freedom."
No less than Great Britain our own country writhed in the throes of reaction. After Matthew A. Schmidt had been condemned to life imprisonment there came the conviction of David Caplan, who was sentenced to ten years in the California State prison at San Quentin. The quarters of the Magón brothers, champions of Mexican liberty, were raided in Los Angeles, and Ricardo and Enrico Magón arrested. In northern Minnesota thirty thousand iron-ore miners were waging a desperate struggle for more bearable conditions of existence. The mine-owners, aided by the Government, sought to break the strike by arresting its leaders, including Carlo Tresca, Frank H. Little, George Andreychin, and others active in behalf of the toilers. Arrests followed arrests throughout the country, accompanied by the utmost police brutality and encouraged by the subservience of the courts to the demands of capital.
Ben was meanwhile serving his sentence in the Queens County Jail. His letters breathed a serenity I had never known him to feel before. I was due to leave on my tour. There were many friends to look after Ben in my absence, and we planned to have him join me in California upon his release. There was no reason for anxiety about him, and he himself urged me to go, yet I was loathe to leave him in prison. For eight years he had shared the pain and joy of my struggle. How would it be, I wondered, to tour again without Ben, without his elemental activity, which had helped so much to make my meetings a success? And how should I bear the strain of the struggle without Ben's affection and the comfort of his presence? The thought chilled me, yet the larger purpose, which was my life, was too vital to be affected by personal needs. I left alone.
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