Emma Goldman, Part II: The Trial

Emma Goldman, mid-1890s.
[For part I of this post, “Emma Goldman — Speaking out for Free Bread, going to Jail,” clich here.]

The police in Philadelphia held Emma Goldman for almost a week after her arrest in August 1893, before they could arrange extradition to New York City. “I was weighed, measured, and photographed,” she recalled.  On the train ride north, one detective tried to befriend Emma.  He offered to get the criminal charges against her dropped if she would spy on some of her radical friends.  She told him to go to hell.

Emma’s trial began on October 4, 1893, before Judge James Fitzgerald of NY’s Court of General Sessions.  It quickly became a great carnival, drawing packed crowds to the courtroom each day, a combination of radicals, friends, down-and-outs, newspaper writers, and curiosity seekers.  Gun-toting policy guarded every door.  Emma, wanting to make the best impression, wore a dress that one witness described as “neat and most un-anarchistic in its neatness,” her yellow hair “carefully combed.”

Emma had insisted at first on defending herself, but ultimately she accepted the court-appointed lawyer, resulting in one of the strangest combinations imaginable.  The lawyer was A. Oakey Hall, former mayor of New York City under the notoriously corrupt regime of Tammany Hall Boss William M. Tweed.  Tweed had been driven from power in 1872 after he and his Tweed Ring had stolen massive futures from the city treasury.  Oakey Hall, though acquitted of direct graft, had fingerprints on every major decision of Tweed and his Ring.

Emma Goldman – obviously ignorant of the scandal – found Oakey Hall charming, “tall distinguished-looking, vivacious.” She described him as “a great jurist. He had once been mayor of New York, but had proved to be too humane and democratic for the politicians [but] his affair with a young actress made him politically impossible.” [Tweed, dead by them, would have laughed out loud at the whitewash.]

Oakey Hall, Emma’s lawyer, 
as Mayor of NYC in 1870.

In fairness, Oakey Hall, then 67 years old, gave his young client a first-rate defense.  The New York grand jury had indicted Emma Goldman on three counts of incitement to riot, based on her August speech to the unemployed workers at Union Square, her telling them to steal bread from the rich people on Fifth Avenue.  Hall built his defense on three key points: that police detectives had made mistakes in translating Emma’s speech from German to English, that the Union Square meeting itself was perfectly legal, and that her words were protected under the US Constitution as Free Speech.

Emma on the Stand
But the trial’s highlight came on its third day when Emma Goldman herself took the stand to testify.  The chief prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney John F. McIntyre, decided to use his trump card.  He would show the 12-man jury that, no matter what she said in her speech,  this woman was a dangerous radical zealot.  Emma herself was exhausted by this point in the trial.  One reporter described her eyes as being “misty and restless, and there was a tremor in her hands” as she took the stand.  

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being, Miss Goldman,” he said, causing gasps in the packed courtroom.

“No, Sir, I do not,” she said.  What did God have to do with the criminal case?  No matter.  

The prosecutor went on. “Do you believe in the laws of the State?”

“I am an anarchist, and against all laws,” she answered.  “My theory is that the Legislature and the courts are of no use to the mass of the people. The laws passed help the rich and grind the poor.”

“Didn’t you tell your hearers [in Union Square] to take bread by force if they couldn’t get it peaceably?”

“No.  But I think the time will come, judging by what has happened, when they will be compelled to do so. That is what I told them on the night I spoke.”

Then he turned back to anarchy itself, that strange foreign-sounding word.  Anarchists in Europe back in the 1890s threw bombs and assassinated kings.  Even in the US, the Haymarket affair in Chicago — just six years earlier — still scared the socks off most Americans.  The prosecutor asked about one radical recently arrested with a bomb. “What do these anarchists want with dynamite bombs, anyhow!” he asked.

“Why, they want to use them in the great war if the social revolution ever comes,” said Emma Goldman.

“Would you use dynamite?”

“I do not know what I would do. The time may come when it may be necessary to use it.”

The testimony was devastating.  Emma had given the prosecutor all the ammunition he needed to paint her as a violent, godless, unpatriotic  malcontent who deserved prison whether she committed a crime or not.  Oakey Hall, in his final plea to the jury, did his best to put Emma’s words in a positive light.  The anarchist, he explained, “believes in co-operation and the common ownership of property. Anarchy dislikes the rich and the monopolistic, but surely this is no crime.”

The Verdict

Emma Goldman at time of her
depotation from America, in 1919.
The 12-man jury took two full hours — a long time back then – to find her guilty.  “You are a woman of above the ordinary intelligence, yet you have testified that you have no respect for our laws,” Judge Fitzgerald told her on passing sentence.  “There is no room for you in this community.”

Emma Goldman refused to appeal either the verdict and or her sentence of one year’s confinement at the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island in New York’s East River, a spot now called Roosevelt Island.  Wild rumors circulated that radical anarchists might bomb police stations or try to manage her escape, but nothing happened.  Once behind bars, Emma found relief from the prison gloom by working in the hospital, starting a life-long interest in hygiene and medicine. She read books and delighted when radical friends came to visit.

On her release, Emma Goldman would speak loudly as ever, start her magazine Mother Earth, write essays and books by the dozens on topics from politics to labor to feminine hygiene to marriage to war and peace.  She would be jailed many times, including after the assassination of President William McKinley when the shooter, a self-described anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, mentioned he had been inspired hearing her speak.  On American entry into World War I, Emma Goldman spoke out against military conscription and was jailed under the wartime Espionage Act. After the war, she, along with Alexander Berkman, was deported to Russia – one of many abuses from the 1919 Red Scare.  Still, she always considered America her home, and on her death insisted on being buried in Chicago, near the tomb of the Haymarket Anarchists.

Every American political activist today of any stripe — liberal, radical, conservative, tea party, whatever – owes a deep “thanks you” to Emma Goldman for practicing the most basic truth about our rights under the Constitution.  Simply put, it’s this-   Free Speech: Use it, or Lose it.  

If you’ve never heard of Emma Goldman because, like Victoria Woodhull, nobody bothered to mention her in your high school or college history classes, don’t let them get away with it!! Before Women’s History Month is over, check out one of these good books:


Victoria Woodhull — Speaking out for Free Love; going to jail.

Victoria Woodhull — in typical radical pose for the 1870s: no bonnet, no shawl, and short-cut hair. 

Free Love:

     “Yes, I am a free lover.  I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I 
      may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can; to exchange that love every day if I
      please…. and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere….”

The Boston crowd screamed wildly — half booing and hissing, half cheering — when Victoria Woodhull shouted these words in January 1872.  Not surprisingly, more Americans back then saw her as the “Mrs. Satan” in the cartoon below, leading poor women to sin and poverty, that as the respectable face in the handsome photo of her above.  Victoria Woodhull earned her spot as the most noticed, emphatic, assertive, talented, envied, and (as a result) vilified, mocked, and slandered women in the country during the early 1870s, that free-wheeling period after the Civil War called the Flash Age.  

As a girl, she performed in her parents’ traveling medicine and fortune-telling shows.  She came to New York City in 1868 a vivacious 30year-old, already twice divorced.  She set up housekeeping with two husbands — one current, one former — and set up shop with her younger sister Tennessee (later Tennie C.) as spiritualist clairvoyants.  Victoria claimed to channel Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator.  Her sister Tennessee’s healing massages soon won the physical affection of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in town.  

Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan”
in 1872
Harpers Weekly

Fearless and with a sharp eye for publicity, Victoria quickly recorded a remarkable string of firsts:

  • She and Tennessee started the first women-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street, with help and trading tips from Vanderbilt; 

  • She then used the money they made to start a newspaper, Woodhall and Claflin’s Weekly, favoring free love, women’s rights, and a ten-hour work day.  In December 1871, she published the full text of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, its first appearance in the US; 
  • She became the first women to run for President of the United  States, nominated in 1872 by the Equal Rights Party. Notably, she was under age, and her VP running mate, Frederick Douglass, supported one of her opponents, Republican Ulysses S Grant.
And then there was the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal, the one that landed her in jail.  

The Adultery Scandal:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn’s popular Plymouth Church, was a uniquely well-liked public figure in America at the time.  His Sunday sermons reached far beyond his packed church, carried in newspaper columns across the country.  Dynamic and handsome, he was also cheating on his wife Eunice, the mother of his ten children.  Beecher had seduced the wife of one of his church followers, Theodore Tilton, and reputedly many others as well.   Eunice Beecher, distraught over the affair, finally told her friend Susan B. Anthony about it.  Anthony told the story to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who made the mistake of repeating it to Victoria Woodhull.  

Woodhull appearing before Congress’s House Judiciary
Committee,  from Leslie’s Illustrated, February 1871

Woodhull was appalled.  This same Henry Ward Beecher had publicly mocked her for her own “free love” speeches, yet here he was doing the same thing — only in secret and at his wife’s expense.  Victoria Woodhull,  decided there was only one thing to do with such a hypocrite coward.  Call him out !!!

And so, in the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly of November 2, 1872, Victoria led with a splashy front-page column exposing all the dirty laundry of the Beecher family, calling Reverend Beecher himself a hypocrite, and daring him to sue.

Slanderous?  Tawdry?  Intrusive?  None of her business?  Yes to all these things.  Today we call it “sleazy tabloid journalism” — but that alone was not enough to put Victoria Woodhuill in jail, even in 1872.  

Instead, there was something worse.  Around this time in New York City, there lived a stout, pugnacious young man named Anthony Comstock obsessed with pornography and vice.  Backed by wealthy patrons like banker J.P. Morgan, Comstock had launched a crusade. He had convinced the local YMCA to create a New York Society for the Suppression of Vice with himself at its head, and had convinced the United States Congress to pass a law making it a crime to send obscene material through the US mail.  (Full disclosure: I once considered writing a book about Comstock, but in doing the research I found him so odious that I decided I did not want to have my own name attached to his in Google searches till the end of time.)  

Comstock had already run a few small-time smut dealers out of business, and drove one of them to suicide.  He now read Victoria Woodhull’s article about Henry Ward Beecher’s adultery and decided to make a bigger score.  Anthony Comstock decided that, to his eye, the article was obscene.  Among other things, it contained the words “token” and “virginity.”  And it traveled through the US mail — a crime.  He quickly obtained a federal arrest warrrant and instructed two burly marshals to waylay Victoria and sister Tennessee one day at their office after returning from a carriage ride.  

Behind Bars:
Victoria and Tennessee quickly found themselves in big trouble, placed under arrest and held for questioning at New York’s federal courthouse.  Passions ran high at this point against “Mrs. Satan,” an uppity woman talking Free Love, mocking politicians, and now staining the good name of a church leader.  “An example is needed, and we propose to make one of these women,” said U.S. Commissioner Osborn setting their initial bail at an eye-popping, unaffordable $8,000 apiece (about $200,000 apiece in modern money).    

The authorities immediately took Victoria and Tennessee and locked them up inside New York’s Ludlow Street Jail.  To make things worse, the police also arrested Victoria’s husband (the current one) and two men who worked at the Weekly, and  destroyed thousands of copies of the newspaper.  Typical of 1870s newspapers, the New-York Times, in covering the initial court hearing, failed to even notice the gross violation of free speech underway, focusing instead on Victoria’s clothes (a black dress with purple bows) and facial expression (she looked “grave and severe” while Tennessee looked “indignant.”). 

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher denied everything — causing major grumbling among people who knew better — and the public backed him.  A federal grand jury indicted Victoria and Tennessee under Comstock’s anti-obscenity law, and one of Beecher’s church friends filed a libel suit as well.  It would take a full month of legal wrangling, until December 3, for Victoria and her sister finally to be freed on bail that, for the multiple cases, ending up totalling $16,000 apiece.  During this entire time, the judge never allowed Victoria to answer the obscenity charge in a public hearing.  Instead, her only chance to speak came through a single letter she snuck out to the New York Herald in which she declared herself “sick in mind, sick in body, sick in heart…. because I am a women, I am to have no justice, no fair play, no chance through the press to reach public opinion.”

The legal costs almost bankrupted Victoria Woodhull and her newspaper.  Most auditoriums now black-listed her speeches.  Still, she left Ludlow Street Jail full of fight.  She immediately issued a new edition of Wooodhull and Claflin’s Weekly detailing all the legal conniving and used the publicity to pack out-of-the-way venues for her new featured speech performance: “Moral Cowardice and Moral Hypocrisy, or Four Weeks in the Ludlow Street Jail.”  Comstock had her arrested two more times, resulting in another week in the Ludlow Street Jail, a night at The Tombs — New York’s maximum security prison — and thousands more spent in bail money.  But when Victoria finally had the chance for a trial on the original obscenity change in June 1873, the judge found the case so weak that he threw it out before it even reached the jury.  

And more:  Theodore Tilton, husband of the women seduced by Henry Ward Beecher, finally had enough of the Reverend’s evasions and went public.  His lawsuit against Beecher over the affair would produce the first great media circus celebrity sex-scandal trial in America.  (The trial ended in a hung jury, a technical win for Beecher.)

All all this was not enough to save Victoria Woodhull.  After the Beecher-Comstock episode, she found her reputation destroyed, constantly harrassed by lawsuits and slanders.  In 1877, she finally called it quits and sailed to England where she married a rich British blue-blood banker named John Biddulph Martin. Here, she gave lectures, started a new magazine (The Humanist), and moved to remote Bredon’s Norton where she made her home a refuge for wayward eccentric Americans, then to Brighton near the sea.  A spritely old lady until 1927, she became the first women to drive a motorcar, to predict trans-Altantic flight, and to predict wireless radio.  

If you’ve never heard of Victoria Woodhull because nobody bothered to mention her in your high school or college history classes, don’t let them get away with it!!   Before Women’s History Month is over, check out one of these good books: 
Mrs. Satan: The incredible saga of Victoria C. Woodhull by Johanna Johnston (1976); or
The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher dy Debby Applegate (2006).

Next up, Emma Goldman…..


Special: Women’s History Month

Ms. Apolinaria Gutierrez Garrett, wife of famous frontier sheriff Pat Garrett, holding the gun he used in 1881 to kill Billy the Kid.  Photo circa 1920.   More on Pat Garrett later ….

March is Women’s History Month.   For we zealots here at Viral History, this is cause for yet another party.   

To celebrate, this month we will give you three iconic moments from three favorite American women:

Stay tuned all March for plenty of good stuff.  

[As for Ms. Pat Garrett, top of page, one of the generation of no-nonsense women who helped settle the Old West, don’t be surprised to see a set of posts on Old West lawmen coming up in the not-too-distant future.] 

Meanwhile, here are a few links on Women’s History Month.  Enjoy — 

  — International Women’s Day
  — Library of Congress
  — National Women’s History Project