“Red Emma’s” stay at the Missouri State Penitentiary.
“I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”
Emma Goldman’s quote from her autobiography, “Living My Life,” perfectly describes her lifelong dedication to advocacy. A well-known activist and public speaker, Goldman spent her days campaigning for legalized birth control, freedom of expression, equality, independence for women, radical education, union organization, and workers’ rights. It was her opposition to the military draft, however, that led her to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP).
Born in Lithuania in 1869, Emma suffered under the political oppression and antisemitism of Imperial Russia. At age 16, she escaped with her sister to Rochester, New York. Working in a garment factory, she quickly became disillusioned with working conditions and gained interest in the growing labor movement.
Emma’s convictions were cemented by the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Over the course of a year, the Chicago labor protests became violent. Eight anarchists faced accusations of bomb throwing, four of which were publicly hanged with no hard evidence of their crimes. After their deaths, Emma proclaimed that America “had proved most disappointing” and embraced anarchism for its vision of liberty, harmony, and true social justice.
In 1889, Emma boarded a train to New York City. While there, she joined the German anarchist movement and met orator Johann Most, who shaped her into a provocative public speaker, and Alexander Berkman, who would become the most influential person in her life. She soon became part of an expressive subculture full of artists, writers, and revolutionaries described by historian Leon Litwack as sharing a rejection of bourgeois culture and embracing causes such as the labor movement, sexual freedom, feminism, socialism, and anarchism.
While her stint at MSP was Emma’s only long-term prison sentence, she was not unfamiliar with the justice system. After a lecture about female unemployment in 1893, she was arrested amid accusations of inciting a riot after stating, “If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.” Two years later, she was an accessory to an assassination attempt on steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick. Both Emma and her partner Alexander believed the political assassination, planned as revenge for worker treatment during the Homestead Steel Strike, would spur a revolution.
While Alexander served 14 years in prison for the attempt, Emma escaped punishment and used the time to build a career in public speaking. She was accused multiple times of incendiary speeches and was interrogated after President William McKinley’s 1901 assassination because police declared her speech as the shooter’s inspiration. Emma was considered one of the two most dangerous anarchists in the United States and became a prominent figure in the establishment of freedom of speech.
“When a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go; and the only way to get rid of the law is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purposes. That is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future,” Emma declared to the press following her arrest for violation of the Comstock Act.
This 1873 law banned the transportation of “obscene” matter through the mail or across state lines. According to state courts, this included the distribution of contraception information. Emma also published the anarchist magazine Mother Earth, a monthly publication written to reanimate a movement that was constantly on the defensive. During this same time, the United States was quickly entering into the Red Scare as hysteria grew around suspicions of a communist operative network. At the height of this frenzy, Emma and Alexander were imprisoned for their opposition to the military draft. Emma was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to two years at MSP.
While at MSP, Emma became fast friends with fellow activist Kate Richards O’Hare, and the two worked together to improve the dire conditions inside prisons. By the time of her release in 1919, the Red Scare had grown; “Red Emma” was declared a subversive alien and deported to Soviet Russia alongside Alexander.
Emma and Alexander returned to Russia just as the Russian Revolution devolved into corruption and tyranny. After just two years, the pair left Russia to alert the world to what they had witnessed in their home country. Following their departure, Emma and Alexander worked for nearly two decades to expose the Bolshevik regime as a dictatorship — a narrative widely denounced by American radicals. Emma finally settled in France, continuing her public speaking career until her death in 1940. Although she had been banned from the United States for the rest of her life, she was buried in a Chicago cemetery near a monument erected for the Haymarket anarchists.