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Notes from the Capital: Emma Goldman | The Nation

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Notes from the Capital: Emma Goldman

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The former dressmaker now fashions herself a revolutionary.

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Recent events in Petrograd and Kronstadt must have brought rare comfort to the soul of Emma Goldman, prophetess of anarchy--the real article, warranted one hundred per cent, pure, name stamped on every package. Born in Russia and educated in Germany, she enjoyed during her girlhood exceptional opportunities for studying autocracy of various brands, and apparently conceived the stronger liking for the Russian sort, as offering the widest scope for fomenting rebellion. In the United States, whither she came with relatives as a young woman, she first emerged from obscurity in 1893, when she was arrested on a charge of inciting to riot by a speech made at a gathering of habitual malcontents in Union Square, New York. The judge who presided at her trial stretched consideration to the utmost limit in giving her the advantage of every favoring technicality, but the case was so clear that the jury was unanimous on the first ballot for conviction, and she was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary.

The trial served to bring out in a most illuminating way her vagaries on various subjects, including the facts that she was an atheist and a disbeliever in all government and law, divine or human; that her pet hobby was that the rich are the oppressors of the poor and the ultimate cause of all the suffering and crime in the world, against which the poor are justified in revolting; that she did not personally believe in violence or robbery except where necessary, and that she would leave the question of necessity to every one's individual judgment, not even using her influence to prevent pillage; that she was married, though to whom was nobody's business but her own; that she had been living with Alexander Berkman shortly before his attempt to assassinate Henry C. Frick, and, though she had not publicly approved of that act, she "sympathized with Mr. Berkman for his courage"--whatever that may have meant; and that her mission in life was to make the poor understand that the well-to-do are accountable for their poverty, and thus to promote the social revolution. The proceedings in court were handled, like those in the case of Guiteau in Washington a dozen years before, so as to let the accused give free vent to her craving for self-exploitation, and thus show every one exactly what she was.

Since quitting the penitentiary she has been arrested repeatedly, but--thanks to the benignity of the laws she denounces and the impartiality of the courts she derides--with no results more permanent than follow the spasmodic warfare of the householder upon flies and roaches: with every relaxation she has returned to her rantings, refreshed in body and spirit by her brief rest. Snubs such as she received when she attended, uninvited, a meeting of striking garment-makers and they refused to let her address them, seem to leave no scars on her egotism; but this is scarcely wonderful when a Congregational minister in one city turns over his church to her to lecture in and a Society of Mayflower Descendants in another makes her its chief guest at a reception. An incident which did disturb her composure for a while was a threatened prosecution, in 1901, for advising the assassination of President McKinley. Czolgosz had confessed that it was her teachings which had fired his brain with the idea of killing the President, and she admitted that he had attended one of her lectures and been so impressed by it that he had hunted her up afterward to make her acquaintance. She was released presently, however, because there was no direct proof that she had been a conscious party to any plot actually to murder the man whom she reviled, while he lay on his dying bed, as "the most insignificant ruler the country ever had," with "neither wit nor intelligence."

Most newspaper readers are so accustomed to thinking of Emma Goldman as simply a human firebrand that it is hard to make them realize that by calling she is a dressmaker and a trained nurse. She is a small, wiry woman, about fifty years old, who might be passed anywhere in a crowd without notice. Her sharp black eyes, intense expression, and rather coarse mouth have nothing distinctive about them at the first glance, though they become more significant with familiarity, and her eyeglasses, framed in part by sharply marked brows, give her an air of active mentality which is lacking in some others of her general type. Her face is too symmetrical to be classed as that of a natural "crank," but you have only to talk with her for five minutes in order to discover how strong an appeal the theatrical side of social chaos makes to her. Smiles she reserves mostly for sneering purposes; but once her sense of humor was touched so unexpectedly that she had to control her laughter, though the blood mounted to her forehead in tell-tale fashion. This was when, after delivering a diatribe on the way poverty drove men to crime, she became deeply interested in the case of a man arrested for petty larceny. He looked like a chronic down-and-outer, and the complaint against him was that he had robbed a poor woman of her purse containing twenty-five cents. His defense was that he needed the money to get a night's lodging. Questions drew from him the statement that a bed cost him ten or fifteen cents a night. Miss Goldman was bending forward, her eyes burning, her mouth fixed: here was an exhibit worth having of what poverty would drive a man to--an illustration perfectly fitted to the gospel she had just been promulgating. Then the prosecutor sprang a surprise. Producing the contents found in the prisoner's pocket, he spread before the jury a handful of change.

"What did you want of this poor woman's quarter when you had all this money already?" he demanded. The fellow looked contemptuous.

"It was only seventy-eight cents!" he blurted out.

That ended the case for the court. It ceased also to interest Miss Goldman as an illustration direct from life.

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