Manitoba History: Emma Goldman in Winnipeg

by Martin Zeilig

Number 25, Spring 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Emma Goldman
Source: University of Manitoba, Archives & Special Collections

She was “Queen of the Anarchists.”

She is acknowledged as “... a pioneer of free speech, reproductive freedom and war resistance.” J. Edgar Hoover, eventual head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, condemned her as “the most dangerous woman in America” until her deportation from the U.S. in 1919. According to the May-June, 1990 issue of Jewish Affairs, her life has inspired “six documentary or quasi-documentary films, four works by novelists, two poems;’ numerous musical dedications and many plays. In 1939, Ethel Manin, a contemporary, called her “... a martyr burnt up with the flame of her passion for human liberty...her life is an example of unfaltering courage and unswerving faith, in the face of persecution and bitter disappointment.”

Emma Goldman brought her fiery, radical message, in person, to Winnipeg five times over a thirty-two year span. Indeed, her final lecture, a mere five months before her death, was given in Winnipeg.

April, 1907:

It was, sociologist Roz Usiskin declares, a “period of feverish activity as streams of newly arrived immigrants scrambled for survival” mostly in Winnipeg’s crowded north end. Xenophobia was rampant amongst the city’s established elite. Into this chaos of humanity charged Emma Goldman. The bantam, bespectacled Lithuanian-born Jewish anarchist, now residing in the U.S., was sparking controversy once again. The April 11 Free Press accused her of abusing “Our Freedom of Speech.”

This eclectic “Workers’ Leader of Freedom” touched on a number of related topics at the crowded trades hall meeting chaired, at the request of the local Communist Anarchist society, by “Mr. English, (a leader) of the local socialists’ organization:’ He “disclaimed any actual association with any of the ideas which might be expressed.” According to the Free Press, Goldman said

...[there] were two classes of people who misunderstood anarchism, the one wilfully [sic], the other because of ignorance ...With this first class [anarchism] was their most bitter and uncompromising foe.

The second class were the vast mass of men and women who had been reared in the belief that if government did not exist society would be disrupted.... Naturally she was interested in that class.

She claimed that, ‘in spirit, Robert Owen, the originator of the co-operative movement in England, Thoreau, Emerson and Whittier were anarchists.’ It was not a foreign element as was generally supposed in Great Britain and the United States.

Every government, moreover, had invariably [sided] with those who possessed wealth for the purpose of crushing the people. [Cheers]...[while those same governments had always used] the under dog; giving him the rifle in one hand or the Bible in the other. [Cheers]

‘... You have to learn from the government’ Miss Goldman said. ‘Don’t steal a little. Steal a whole lot and get the law to back you up.’ [Cheers]

In response to the question

...what ought to be done with the Hebrew race, who lived chiefly out of the produce of others labor: ... [she] said that they were great producers, and said the reason they did not do more producing was because they had not access to the land. ‘You get off his back...and give him a chance.’

March/April, 1908:

READ ALL ABOUT IT! Tuesday, March 31 Winnipeg Telegram (Morning Edition) front page headline: “EMMA GOLDMAN TO ARRIVE TODAY/Anarchist Queen Left Minneapolis Yesterday Afternoon for Winnipeg/Was Delayed En Route/News From New York Upset Her Plans-Police Are Asked to Watch”/ (An item inside a black, bordered box immediately underneath, and just prior to, the actual story, revealed governments’ reaction to anarchists: “Will Aid Roosevelt/ROME, MARCH 30: The Italian government will aid President Roosevelt to stamp out anarchy in the United States by refusing passports in future to men under suspicion who seek to leave Italian coast cities for ports in America.” On April 6 Washington ‘officially’ began its “CRUSADE AGAINST ANARCHISTS.”) New York police had “sent word to Minneapolis to keep track of Emma Goldman, but were advised she had ducked to Winnipeg.” Goldman’s delay was due to the arrest in New York of Alexander Berkman, her lifelong comrade, friend and former lover, after a bomb exploded in Union Square on March 30. Two men were killed in the incident.

Winnipeg Free Press article on impending visit of Emma Goldman to Winnipeg, March 28, 1908.

Newspaper announcement of Emma Goldman’s arrival in Winnipeg, March 31, 1908.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune

According to press reports the deed was “the work of the Russian government and spies.” Actually the perpetrator was Selig Silverstein, a disturbed left-wing political radical, who according to newspaper accounts:

... attempted to throw a bomb into Capt. Reilly’s squad of policemen.

The bomb exploded in the hands of the assassin, who was mortally wounded. A companion anarchist was killed instantly, four policemen were wounded and scores of persons near by were struck by flying fragments of the bomb.

A March 28 Free Press story “FREEDOM OF SPEECH FOR EMMA GOLDMAN” reported that unlike in the U.S.:

[T]he high priestess of anarchy [would not be] interfered with either by immigration officials or the police on the occasion of her visit to Winnipeg.

The police expect to keep in close touch with her movements here and with the colony of anarchists located in the city, but absolutely no trouble is anticipated. Their leader will be permitted all freedom of speech so long as no appeal is made calculated to inspire the fanatical or ignorant to violence.

During her stay in Winnipeg, the seemingly tireless Goldman gave a series of lectures. Her Winnipeg lectures were sponsored by the Workman’s Circle, or Arbeiter ring (A.R.). In a paper entitled “The Winnipeg Jewish Radical Community: Its Early Formation, 1905-1918” Roseline Usiskin writes that the A.R. was

founded in 1900 by a group of East European Jews with revolutionary tendencies. [It] was organized as the first Jewish labor fraternal organization in the U.S In Winnipeg the three branches of the A.R. tended to reflect the cleavages within the Jewish radical movement: 1) the Internationalists; 2) Anarchists; 3) the Nationalists ...

Goldman’s first meeting, on March 31, at the Trades hall “was filled to capacity. An admission fee of ten cents was charged and [the audience] included...people of all nations and descriptions.” She boldly declared:

... that society could not be changed with kid gloves and pink teas, a revolution must come, and it would depend entirely on the mental attitudes of the world whether it should be peaceful or bloody.

The speaker asserted that anarchism stood for a world without governments or laws, without kings, or president, orgenerals, or any of the machinery for administering laws, without prisons or jails, and without property or wealth of any description vested in the individual or community. She maintained that all of the machinery of the country, and all productions of labor should be for the benefit of the community, each member of which should do his share of the labor.

Another anarchist annoyance was the “present system of education” During her third forum, Goldman contended it “prepared children to be either good masters or good slaves. If those who wanted liberty took their children away from school, the system would soon fall.” She also asserted that “no really intelligent man believed in the divinity of Christ,” placing herself alongside such enlightened thinkers on the subject as Darwin, Hume and Huxley.

Goldman’s autobiography quotes a substantial portion of “a long editorial” from one Winnipeg paper:

Emma Goldman has been accused of abusing freedom of speech in Winnipeg, and Anarchism has been denounced as a system that advocates murder. As a matter of fact, Emma Goldman indulged while in Winnipeg, in no dangerous rant and made no statement that deserved more than moderate criticism of its wisdom or logic. Also, as a matter of fact, the man who claims that Anarchism teaches bomb-throwing and violence doesn’t know what he is talking about. Anarchism is an ideal doctrine that is now, and always will be, utterly impracticable. Some of the gentlest and most gifted men of the world believe in it. The fact alone that Tolstoi is an Anarchist is conclusive proof that it teaches no violence.

We have a right to laugh at Anarchy as a wild dream. We all have a right to agree or disagree with the teachings of Emma Goldman. But we should not make ourselves ridiculous by criticizing a lecturer for the things that she did not say, nor by denouncing as violent and bloody a doctrine that preaches the opposite of violence.

As well, a Free Press letter to the Editor on April 14 stated, in part:

The recent visit of Emma Goldman seems to have inspired some people with the idea that free speech should be denied to those who have extreme opinions. Those who think this way are treading on dangerous ground.

... We may not agree with her doctrines, but that is no reason why freedom of speech should be suppressed.

PLUMAS, MAN. April 10.

It appears that the letter writer was responding to a resolution passed by the Winnipeg women’s Christian Temperance Union condemning Goldman’s appearances. The WCTU “deeply deplored ... that a person of such a character and reputation has been allowed freedom of speech in our city ... It is hoped ... those who have jurisdiction ... will see ... that in future no such occurrences ... take place.”

There was also official political hostility towards Goldman. In “The Old CLO Movement: Anti-Semitism, Politics, and The Jews of Winnipeg, 1882-1921” historian Henry Trachtenberg notes that, shortly after her visit, James Ashdown, Mayor of Winnipeg, urged the federal government to enact “legislation to keep Goldman” and other “undesirables out of Canada.”

Goldman fled Winnipeg abruptly. She was held for one night at Noyes, Minnesota, a town near the Manitoba border. The Free Press reported on April 8: “EMMA GOLDMAN RETURNS TO STATES/ Authorities Evidently Anxious to Keep Anarchist in Canada-Hasty Departure.” The nearly page long article, datelined “Emerson, Man., April 7,” explained that

the only reason Miss Goldman did not proceed south last night lay in the fact that it required three officials to pass on the papers ...

It is stated that the officials were working under definite instructions from the east, but they absolutely refuse to make any statement in the matter.

Questioned as to why she left Winnipeg in such a hurry, Miss Goldman... received word that meetings in Salt Lake City would begin a day or two earlier than was expected and hence decided to go south. It is hinted here, however, that Miss Goldman left Winnipeg because she realized she had thrown herself open to prosecution under the Lord’s Day act by charging an admission fee for a lecture delivered last Sunday.

On Wednesday, April 15, 1908 “S. Prarsow, Louis Simlik and Alan Goldoo,” the organizers of Goldman’s visit, pleaded guilty in police court “on a remand charge of violation of the Lord’s Day by-law, and were fined $1 and costs each. This was in connection with the Sunday lecture by Emma Goldman.” (The Free Press article misspelled the names of at least two of the guilty. The names should read Prasov and Simkin, respectively.)

December/November, 1908:

Newspaper reports warned of “CRISIS IN BALKAN/TROUBLE AT HAND/German Diplomat Declares Solution of Situation is Imperative-Austrian Emperor Angry.” The expulsion of “between 15,000 and 20,000 Austrians” from Herzegovina and Germany’s intense interest in the situation aroused acute anxiety in European capitals. This was a sinister omen of bloodier things to come: The “war to end all wars.”

On Tuesday, December 1, 1908 on page 16 of the Manitoba Free Press a headline read “ENTER CHURCH BY HOOK OR CROOK/ Anarchists Say They Will Throw Pastor Out If He Interferes with The Selkirk Hall Meeting”:

‘We will enter the church to-morrow afternoon by hook or by crook, will take possession of it in our legal right, and if the pastor, or anyone else interferes we will throw them out...we made an agreement with Mr. Lee, who is the trustee and secretary of the church for the use of the building for our lecture tomorrow night. We have, therefore, a legal right to the occupation of the Logan avenue Baptist church on that night ...’

These were the words of Dr. Reitman, manager for Emma Goldman, in connection with the alleged repudiation of an agreement made by him for the use of for a debate to-night on the question of socialism or anarchism.

Emma Goldman, herself, was more compromising on that issue than Ben Reitman (her paramour and manager for many years). The Free Press item continued

Miss Goldman ... stated ... that in the event of not being able to procure Selkirk hall at the last minute to-night the debate between herself and two local socialists will take place in Trades hall. This is taken to mean that there will be no attempt to use force.

The debate took place at the Baptist church Trachtenberg writes:

She debated J. D. Houston, former candidate of the Socialist Party of Canada in the federal election of 1908 ... Arthur Puttee acted as chairman of the debate, which was based on the resolution: ‘Resolved, that Anarchism, not Socialism, is the solution of the social problem.’ Following a heated debate, with Goldman taking the affirmative, and Houston the negative, each speaker answered questions.

A Free Press editorial under the title “EMMA GOLDMAN” appeared on Thursday, November 26:

Prepossessing in appearance ... sympathetic and sincere of voice, clear and eloquent of speech, much travelled, widely read and speaking many tongues, but withal a completely impossible woman—such is Emma Goldman ... more the Tolstoian dreamer than the darkly-walking bomb-thrower ... she shows us a better and a finer world, a world for which every true man, at some time or another, has felt a secret longing ... Untoward conditions in early life and twelve years as a nurse have given her a sympathy at once as wide as the earth and as narrow as the bomb gate.

This woman of talents, of culture and of experience, has, by some grim joke of fate, been denied the sense of proportion and the power of calm reasoning. Her words are full of inconsistencies and contradictions. At the beginning of her lecture the other night the workingmen of Canada are crying for bread; at the close they were too prosperous, as yet, to receive the teachings of anarchy ... Miss Goldman, like the rest of us, is part of that vague, intangible thing, the state, upon which she poured the vials of her wrath.

The Free Press report of the evening meeting, referred to in the editorial, mentioned that Emma Goldman, spoke on a number of topics, including:

The great crime to-day was to be poor ...

It had been proved to the satisfaction of all intelligent men that marriage was arbitrary ...

All nations contributed to the world their quota of creative work ...

[T]ax church property doubly (because) the churches supported a decaying system ...

An unassuming front page piece in the November 16, 1917 issue of The Israelite Press, a Winnipeg Yiddish-language paper, mentioned a benefit evening” sponsored by “Branch 564, Arbeiter Ring” at the Queens Theatre, on Selkirk Avenue, in support of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. The featured presentation was a performance of “God’s Punishment” by the Jewish playwright Leiben. As well, a political meeting was going to be held on Sunday, November 18.

In 1917, both anarchists were being vilified by the U.S. government for their part in anti-conscription campaigns. According to Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman by Richard Drinnon:

Emma Goldman ...[looked] upon American entry in the war as a great calamity. Early in 1917 she gave up her work for birth control to devote most of her time to antiwar agitation.

Along with Berkman, Fitzgerald and Leonard Abbott, she organized a No-Conscription League in early May. As a woman not subject to the draft and further as an anarchist who believed that everyone should follow the dictates of his own conscience, she did not feel that she could advise individuals to refuse service. Yet she was determined to stand by those who did so refuse. The No-Conscription League was formed primarily to protect such objectors.

On June 15 U.S. federal Marshall Thomas McCarthy

bounded up the stairway leading to the Mother Earth and Blast [anarchist magazines published by Goldman and Berkman] ... and breathlessly informed Emma that she and Berkman were under arrest. Thus did the war between Emma and the government get entangled in the larger war to save the world for democracy ... On June 26 she wrote ... that she and Berkman were ‘as good as convicted now.’ In this frame of mind she went into curt the following day, which happened to be her forty-eighth birthday.

By 1927 the “Great War” had been over for nearly a decade, and the Depression was still two years away. It was the Jazz Age; a time of flappers, rumble seats and Babe Ruth. In August, in Massachusetts, two anarchists, Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartholomew Vanzetti, one-time baker and kiln worker and fish peddler, were executed for a murder they did not commit.

North America’s booming economy was reflected in the Manitoba Free Press business page headlines: “Bulls Recover Stock Control In Big Steel, G.M. ... Mark Good Years In Buying (on) Wall Street” and “Building Total ... is Best Since 1913.”

Emma Goldman returned to Winnipeg in the late 1920s. A Monday, January 31, 1927 Free Press headline accurately summarized her preceding evening’s address: “DRAMATIC INCIDENT MARKS GOLD-MAN MEET/Famous Agitator Gives Questioner Tongue Lashing at Regent Theatre/ Resents Imputation That She Has Been Paid to Criticize Soviet Russia.” Stung by a man’s pointed question “How much are you paid by capital for attacking Soviet Russia?” the

... internationally known anarchist ... turned upon him furiously and lashed him unmercifully with her tongue.

‘Don’t you think that is a childish question? ... Don’t you think that if I were paid by the capitalist class for lecturing, I would not have to speak in small halls and under all conditions and circumstances? If I were, wouldn’t the premier receive me with open arms? It shows the evil side in you when you make that charge, because it shows that you can be bought by money.

... Can not you imagine ... (her voice rising in anger) that a person who has gone to prison for participation in strikes, and has been driven from country to country, is not the kind of person who would sell her soul for money?’

With withering scorn she told the questioner that he had been brought up with the idea that the great thing was money, whereas there were men and women who believed in the truth so much, as they saw it, whether they were conservatives or radicals, that would die on the scaffold rather than deny the truth.

‘You may think that money can buy everybody.... If you do you are welcome to the ignoble and unkind thought. If you get the facts you must deal with them. Why should you not criticize Russia? The time is coming when Canada and other countries must understand conditions in Russia in order to avoid the mistakes made in that country’.

Goldman also spoke

of conditions in Germany, France and England, and maintained that so far as the masses were concerned, they were no better than before the war, and as for Russia, she claimed they were quite as bad, and in some respects worse than in the countries ... mentioned ...

In her 1931 autobiography Living My Life, Goldman reflects on the

expense of travelling Canada and the great many distances between the larger cities (resulted in her going) no further than Edmonton, Alberta. Winnipeg nearly became my Waterloo. The city was extremely cold and in the throes of a grippe epidemic, to which I succumbed in the first twenty-four hours ... Hugging my bed by day, in a half stupor from drugs to break my cold, I managed to pull through the Sunday evening mass meeting in spite of the rough-house created by the Moscow bigots.

Later I added a course of drama lectures to my schedule. The six weeks in Winnipeg, though strenuous to exhaustion, were not entirely without compensation. The alert and active young people in the Arbeiter Ring organization, and the girl students of the University who invited me to speak, were the saving grace of my ordeal. I also succeeded in welding together the radical women into a relief society for the imprisoned revolutionists in Russia and added some money to the fund.

The July, 1927 issue of The Canadian Forum contained an extensive and sympathetic article, ‘AN UNUSUAL VISITOR” by Edith Alexander, about Goldman’s Canadian visit: Alexander’s “first impression” of Goldman “was formed at a meeting of the English Association.” She spoke favorably of Goldman’s

effect on the audience ... However much one might admire Emma Goldman for the audacity of her views and her courage in ex-pressing them, one would not expect to be attracted to her. But her sincerity was so unmistakable, and there was such an impulsive warmth and kindliness about her manner, that it would have been difficult to resist her appeal. She expressed herself not only forcibly, but with great facility.

Alexander also mentions Goldman’s views on birth control:

She dealt with the subject with the insight of one who has had years of experience in nursing among all classes of people in the city of New York ... (the lecture) drew on this experience and made one realize that the compelling instinct in Emma Goldman is the instinct of a mother whose children are all those whose lot in life is hard.

The article emphasizes that Goldman is an anarchist

who condemns violence ... Her views take form from a passionate belief in individual liberty-the right of everyone to expand in harmony with his own nature ...

However little one may sympathize with Emma Goldman’s views, one cannot fail to be attracted and stimulated by her personality.

In 1939 the Winnipeg Free Press headline for December 2nd boomed out “FINNS STRIKE HARD AT INVADERS.” Photographs graphically revealed the tragic early aftermath of the Soviet attack on Finland. A page three article, entitled “Stalin Will Invade Scandinavia, Holland,” carried a report of the 70 year old Goldman’s “Yiddish lecture at the Hebrew Sick Benefit hall” the previous evening on Selkirk Avenue in Winnipeg’s ethnically eclectic northend. “Stalin’s lust for power will carry the Red army on from Finland into the Scandinavian countries and into Holland, and, in fact, as far as he can go until he is ultimately checked,” reported the Free Press, which gave Goldman generally good coverage throughout the years. “‘The Russian dictator has done everything to forego the holy cause of the Russian revolution to embark on his course of imperialism,’ declared Goldman. ‘He believes it his duty to establish a great Russian empire:” Goldman continued her anti-Stalinist scolding. According to the article:

... the Russo-German pact was no accident, for the precedent had been set in 1918 by Lenin, who had made a compromise with the kaiser by signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty. This had been followed by continued friendly relations between the two countries up until the time Hitler gained power in Germany. Despite the antipathy towards the Soviet which followed, Stalin encouraged Hitler’s friendship.

... She stated further that Socialism and communism could never exist in Russia during suppression and terrorism.

Two days later a massive front page headline ominously foreshadowed future World War II tragedies: “Hitler Exiling 2,000,000 Jews to Polish Reserve: No Plan Yet Derived To Keep Refugees Alive ... being carried out under Heinrich Himmler ...”

On page 20 the Free Press reported on the redoubtable rebel’s speech the previous evening at the Starland theatre on Main Street. Goldman had denounced

Stalin as more perfidious than Judas Iscariot ... [and] accused the Russian dictator of betraying a whole generation of workers ... [She said that] two events have torn away the mask of his pretence and revealed him as a ruthless imperialist-the Chinese revolution and the Spanish civil war ...

Labelled by the Free Press as both a “pacifist and anarchist;” Goldman claimed that:

Stalin ordered Chinese Communists to support Chiang Kai Shek, well knowing that the Chinese leader and his Nationalist party cared nothing for worker’s rights and felware [sic] ... Stalin’s recent understanding with the Japanese clearly shows he has sold out Chinese Communists for his own ends ...

Goldman’s concluding lecture in Winnipeg, and as noted earlier the final one before her death, occurred, appropriately enough, during Chanukah, the Jewish “Feast of Lights” (commemorating the Maccabean victory over the Syrians in 156 B.C.). Once again speaking at the Hebrew Sick Benefit Hall, she accused

German Communists and Stalin, as well as reactionary forces, of aiding the rise of Hitler to power.

She declared that as far back as 1931, the Prussian diet, containing a definitelyreactionary majority, was receiving the support of the German Communists. They did everything possible to get Hitler into power... it was Stalin’s hope that the German people, eventually tiring of Naziism, would overthrow the government and sovietize the country.

That same article mentioned that although “no untoward incidents” occurred during Goldman’s “anti-Communist lectures ... an anonymous person warned the management of the Hebrew Sick hall by phone that if she was allowed to deliver her first lecture there (Dec. 1), a riot would occur.”

Emma Goldman’s disillusionment with communism came about during her 1919-1921 exile in the Soviet Union. Along with Alexander “Sasha” Berkman and some 250 others, she was forcibly deported from the United States on trumped up charges during the “Red Scare” According to Drinnon: “... she found another paradise gone wrong, after the Revolution, and her denunciations of communism were just as vehement as her railings against capitalism.” So strong were those criticisms of communism that American author, and Goldman biographer, Alice Wexler “comes close to blaming Goldman for helping to fashion Cold-war ideology.”

In May of 1940 Great Britain was, according to Winston Churchill, experiencing its “finest hour”; while France was “prostrate” before the German offensive. A Canadian Press obituary, datelined Toronto, May 14, appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune: “EMMA GOLDMAN, ANARCHIST DIES” She had suffered a stroke. The Winnipeg Free Press editorialized sarcastically: “Had it not become a strange world before she died? International anarchy is practically here produced by ... governments that are the last word in despotism.” The paper did not mention that Goldman devoted the last year of her life to securing political asylum and financial support for women and children refugees from the Spanish Civil war.

Announcement of Emma Goldman’s death, Winnipeg Tribune, May 14, 1940.

Emma Goldman is buried in the Waldheim Cemetary in Chicago. The Emma Goldman Papers are located at the University of California, Berkeley.

Page revised: 11 April 2010