The Most Dangerous Woman in the World

Emma Goldman

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few people enjoyed more notoriety in the US than Emma Goldman. She was a fiery orator who lectured and wrote on a variety of topics, notably anarchism, atheism, birth control, free love, and women’s rights. She published Mother Earth, an anarchist journal, and inspired the man who assassinated President McKinley in 1901. The press called her many things, including “the most dangerous woman in the world.”

Emma Goldman’s manager/lover in 1908 was notorious in his own right. Dr. Ben Reitman was variously known as “the clap doctor,” “the most vulgar man in America,” and “the king of the hoboes,” largely for his work with the downtrodden in Chicago, which included providing health services for prostitutes and starting a hobo college. Reitman’s pioneering work on hobo sociology informed the work of Vancouver’s own depression-era hobo expert, Rev. Andrew Roddan.

Dr. Ben Reitman, “King of the Hoboes”

In 1908, Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman went on a lecture tour of the west coast. On December 13th, they were arrested in Seattle and were only released after promising to leave town. In Everett, they were threatened with being thrown into the bay if Goldman insisted on speaking publicly. The pair were thrown in jail in Bellingham for “threatening to hold an unlawful assemblage.” If that charge didn’t hold up in court, the Police Chief promised Goldman she would be charged with insanity unless she left the country. She felt the latter the better option, and on December 15th, the couple boarded the one o’clock train for Vancouver.

Goldman and Reitman were detained at the Blaine border crossing because of what Reitman called “the arrogance and stupidity of an official who wanted to show his authority … the man evidently thought he would get some cheap notoriety by putting himself in the same class as the local authorities” in Washington state.

The Calgary Herald published an editorial praising the decision to not let Emma Goldman into Canada, especially in light of the uppity Asian population living in Vancouver:

If this firebrand had been allowed to spread her red flag doctrine in Vancouver it is hard to tell what the result might have been. The Oriental immigrants who are now making their home in Vancouver are not in a peaceable mood. According to the doctrine preached by the anarchist, if she found it possible to stir up trouble, it was her duty to the cause to do so … She should be kept off British soil. Freespeech is a fine thing, but agitators like Emma Goldman, whose only mission is to stir up trouble, perhaps ending in bloodshed, are not wanted at any place.

As it turned out, the Calgary Herald editorial was premature. The border guard received instructions from Ottawa to release Goldman and Reitman and allow them to cross the line, and he apologized to them for the inconvenience. Reitman, as the moderator of Goldman’s talk, promised that he would include a comedy sketch “on the way the boasted liberty of the States strikes me after the experiences we have just passed through.” He contrasted the “British fair play” to which they were treated in Canada with the American notion of a “square deal” that resulted in their constant harassment. “Although I am an American,” he said, “I must say that liberty does not exist in the States.”

Vancouver’s Orange Hall at Gore and East Hastings streets. After finding out who she was, the Orangemen cancelled Emma Goldman’s scheduled lecture here in 1908, saying that “on no account will any anarchist be permitted to speak” on their premises.”

Their trip to Vancouver was not all positive, however. Reitman initially booked the Orange Hall at the corner of Gore and Hastings for the lecture. When they found out who Emma Goldman was, the Orangemen announced that “on no account will any anarchist be permitted to speak on their premises.” Instead, Goldman gave two lectures at the Labor Hall on Dunsmuir Street on December 16th and 17th.

Labor Hall 1899

The Labor Hall, formerly the Homer Street Methodist Church, on the northeast corner of Dunsmuir and Homer, where Emma Goldman spoke. City of Vancouver Archives #Ch N63

An editorial in the Province newspaper said that “Miss Goldman’s theories have their origin in the wickedness and perversity of human nature bred in the vice and wretchedness of great cities or under the grinding foot of tyranny whether that tyranny is of the one or the many.” Her ideas may naturally resonate in Czarist Russia, her home country, but were “absurd to imagine in connection with Canada or any part of it.” Most people attended the lecture out of curiosity, according to the Province, since there was only a tiny handful of people in Vancouver who, “after wrecking their own fortunes by vice or indolence are desirous of pulling society down to their level.”

An opinion piece in the same issue railed against female orators generally, and Emma Goldman in particular:

The fact of such women getting hearers to pay twenty-five cents each to hear them talk anarchy makes us feel that brains and common sense are unequally distributed and that there is a considerable proportion of people who lack those desirable qualifications.

The Province reporter who actually attended the event, however, confessed that he was surprised by Goldman’s talk, as was the two-thirds of the audience who went there expecting “a series of wild ravings against every one and everything and threats to murder those in authority.” Instead, the audience “actually cheered, as with perfect enunciation and well turned sentences Emma delivered a speech which was well thought out and logical.”

Emma Goldman discussed a range of things — government, education, crime, industrial relations, etc. — all in relation to her anarchist philosophy, and stressed that “the anarchism of the newspapers was a vastly different thing to the principle for which she stood.” Here’s a small excerpt, as reported in the Province:

Now, how many of you people are not certain that you could live without government or authority? … All of you know that in your own minds you are certain that you could live without carrying these governments, but you say, ‘I can, but the other fellow cannot. I don’t need law, but he does.’ You keep on thinking you are your brother’s keeper and the trouble is you have kept him so long he has forgotten to keep himself. How do you otherwise account for that vast horde of lazy people the workingmen have always carried, the judiciary, the police, the soldiers and all those others who won’t work? Anarchism opposes government in every form because it believes in the power of the individual to take care of himself.

Despite the hubbub in anticipation of Emma Goldman’s visit, her appearance in Vancouver was uneventful. The issue that perhaps followed her the most however — free speech, or the lack thereof — would explode in Vancouver the following year (and even more forcefully in 1912) when police attempted to prohibit Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members from street corner soap-boxing and holding open-air public meetings.

As for Emma Goldman, she would return to Canada again, spending considerable time in Montreal and her final years exiled in Toronto.

6 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World

  1. Pingback: re:place Magazine

    • Thanks James.

      Someone told me about a book that covered her time in Canada, so I knew there must be material for a post there and looked up the dates she was here. She must have a lot of fans around, since yesterday was the most visits I’ve ever had.

      • Great Stuff, Lani! I have for some time tried to find recordings of Emma’s incendiary speeches, but all I’ve seen are the youtube clips made on her return from Russian exile…however, for more, have a look at pacificstreetfilms.com and their film “A Relentless Vision (aka The Suitcase) The Legacy of Emma Goldman, Federico Arcos and the Spanish Revolution”

  2. Pingback: The Most Dangerous Woman in the World « Past Tense « alchemystika

  3. Pingback: A Temple for Labour | Past Tense

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