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Nellie Bly meets Emma Goldman
Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who won renown for exposing abuse in the New York system of mental health by feigning insanity.
Emma Goldman was a Russia-born immigrant who became a leader of the American anarchist movement.
In September 1893 Goldman was in jail in New York awaiting trial on charges of inciting a riot. Bly speaks in her own voice before engaging Goldman in conversation.
Do you need an introduction to Emma Goldman? You have seen supposed pictures of her. You have read of her as a property-destroying, capitalist-killing, riot-promoting agitator. You see her in your mind a great raw-boned creature, with short hair and bloomers, a red flag in one hand, a burning torch in the other; both feet constantly off of the ground and "murder!' continually upon her lips.
The was my idea of her, I confess, and when the matron stood before me saying, "This is Emma Goldman," I gasped in surprise and then laughed.
A little bit of a girl, just 5 feet high, including her bootheels, not showing her 120 pounds; with a saucy, turned-up nose and very expressive blue-gray eyes that gazed inquiringly at me through shell-rimmed glasses was Emma Goldman!
Her quiet little hands held rolled a recent copy of the Illustrated American. The modest blue serge Eton suit, with a blue muslin shirtwaist and scarf, had no suggestion of bloomers, and the light brown hair, not banged but falling loosely over the forehead and gathered in a little knot behind, was very pretty and girlish.
The little feet were decorously upon the floor, and the rather full lips parted, showing strong white teeth within, a mild, pleasant voice, with a very fetching accent, said not "murder," but–
"What is it you wish, madam?"
I told her. I sat down beside her, and we talked for two hours.
"I do not want anything published about me," she said, "because people misjudge and exaggerate, and, besides, I do not think it looks well for me to say anything while I am in jail."
"But I want to know something about your former life; how you became an Anarchist, what your theories are, and how you mean to establish them."
She smiled at me, rather amused, but the smile was a very becoming one, lighting up the gravity of her face and making her look more girlish than ever.
"How old are you?" I asked as a beginning.
"Twenty-five last June," she replied without the faintest hesitancy.
What greater proof do I need that she is an unusual and extraordinary woman?
"But the month of roses has not brought many into my life," she added, with a little smile.
"When did you become an Anarchist, and what made you one?"
"Oh, I have been one all my life, but I never really entered into the work until after the Chicago riot, seven years ago.”
At the Haymarket riot of 1886, a bomb killed seven police and several civilians. Four anarchists were convicted on dubious evidence and hanged.
"Why are you one?" I asked. "What is your object? What did you hope to gain?"
She smiled again, and slowly smoothed the book upon her knee.
"We are all egotists," she answered. "There are some that, if asked why they are Anarchists, will say, 'for the good of the people.' It is not true, and I do not say it. I am an Anarchist because I am a egotist. It pains me to see others suffer. I cannot bear it. I never hurt a man in my life, and I don't think I could. So, because what others suffer makes me suffer, I am an Anarchist and give my life for the cause, for only through it can be ended all suffering and want and unhappiness.
"Everything wrong, crime and sickness and all that, is the result of the system under which we live, she continued earnestly. "Were there no money, and as a result, no capitalists, people would not be overworked, starved and illy housed, all of which makes them old before their time, diseases them and makes them criminals. To save a dollar the capitalists build their railroads poorly, and along comes a train, and loads of people are killed. What are their lies to him if by their sacrifice he has saved money? But those deaths mean misery, want and crime in many, many families. According to Anarchistic principles, we build the best of railroads, so there shall be no accidents."
"If you do away with money and employers, who will work upon your railroads?" I asked.
"Those that care for that kind of work. Then every one shall do that which he likes best, not merely a thing he is compelled to do to earn his daily bread.”
"What will you do with the lazy ones, who would not work?"
“No one is lazy. They grow hopeless from the misery of their present existence, and give up. Under our order of things, every men would do the work he liked, and would have as much as his neighbor, so could not be unhappy and discouraged."
"What will you do with your criminals if every one is free and prisons unheard of?"
She smiles, sadly.
"The subject takes a lifetime of study," she answered, "but we believe that we would not have a criminal. Why are there criminals today? Because some have everything, others nothing. Under our system it would be every man equal. The Bible says, 'Thou shalt not steal.' Now, to steal, it is granted, there must be something to steal. We do not grant that there is anything to steal, for everything should be free.
"Do you believe in God, Miss Goldman?"
"Once I did. Until I was seventeen I was very devout, and all my people are so, even today. But when I began to read and study, I lost that belief. I believe in nature, nothing else."
"Where were you born?
"I was born in Russia and afterwards my family removed to Germany. Although my people were of a good family, I was always in deep sympathy for the poor. I did not think of being an Anarchist then, but I was always trying to see some way to benefit the working classes. I was taught a trade. My father thought that no difference what one's position was, one should master a trade, so I learned dressmaking at a French school. I have worked at this for years, sometimes in my own rooms, and again in establishments."
"Do you care for dress at all?"
"Oh, of course," she answered, laughing. "I like to look well, but I don't like very fussy dresses. I like my dresses to be plain and quiet, and, above all things," here she laughed as if recalling the oft-declaration of Anarchists' hatred for soap, "I love my bath. I must be clean. Being a German, I was taught cleanliness with my youth, and I do not care how poor my room or my clothes are so long as they are clean."
"What did you do with the money you earned by sewing?"
"Spent it all on books," she said emphatically. "I kept myself in poverty buying books. I have a library of nearly three hundred volumes, and so long as I had something to read I did not mind hunger or shabby clothes."
Think of that you girls who put every dollar upon your backs! Can you not testify to this woman's earnestness of purpose when she sacrifices her looks for books?
Miss Goldman speaks Russian, German, French and English, and reads and writes Spanish and Italian.
"There is something else I must ask you. We look upon marriage as the foundation of everything that is good. We base everything upon it. You do not believe in marriage. What do you propose shall take its place?"
"I was married," she said, with a little sigh, "when I was scarcely seventeen. I suffered–let me say no more about that. I believe in the marriage of affection. That is the only true marriage. If two people care for each other they have a right to live together so long as that love exists. When it is dead what base immorality for them still to keep together! Oh, I tell you the marriage ceremony is a terrible thing!
"Tell me," she added very seriously, "how can a woman go before a minister and take an oath to love 'this man' all her life? How can she tell but tomorrow, next week, she may get to know this man and hate him. Love is founded on respect, and a woman cannot tell what a man is until she lives with him. Instead of being free to end the relation when her feelings change, she lives on in a state that is the most depraved of all.
"Take the woman who marries for a home and for fine clothes. She goes to the man with a lie on her lips. Still”–with a little uplifting of the hands–"she will not let her skirts touch the poor unfortunate upon the street who deceives no man, but is to him just what she appears! Do away with marriage. Let there be nothing but voluntary affection and there ceases to exist the prostitute wife and the prostitute street woman."
"But the children? What would you do with them? Men would desert; women and children would be left uncared for and destitute," I protested.
"On the contrary, then men would never desert, and if a couple decided to separate there would be public homes and schools for the children. Mothers who would rather do something else than care for their children could put them in the schools, where they would be cared for by women who preferred taking care of children to any other work. In this way we would never have diseased or disabled children from careless and incompetent mothers.
"Besides this," she went on, "in our free schools every child would have a chance to learn and pursue that for which it has ability. Can you imagine the number of children today, children of poor parents, who are born with ability for music or painting, or letters, whose abilities lie dormant for the lack of means and the necessity to work for their daily bread as soon as they are out of their cradles."
"Have you any brothers or sisters, Miss Goldman?"
"Yes; a married brother, who does not bother about anything, and only reads the papers when there is something in them about me. My sister is also married and, while not actively engaged in our cause, is bringing up her children to our principles. My father and mother are also living, near Rochester, and, while not Anarchists, sympathize with me and do not interfere with my work.”
"What is your future?"
"I cannot say. I shall live to agitate to promote our ideas. I am willing to give my liberty and my life, if necessary, to further my cause. It is my mission and I shall not falter."
"Do you think that murder is going to help your cause?"
She looked grave; she shook her head slowly.
"That is a long subject to discuss. I don't believe that through murder we shall gain, but by war, labor against capital, masses against classes, which will not come in twenty or twenty-five years. But some day, I firmly believe, we shall gain, and until then I am satisfied to agitate, to teach, and I only ask justice and freedom of speech."
And so I left the little Anarchist, the modern Joan of Arc, waiting patiently in the Tombs until her friends could secure bail for her.
"I shall certainly get a year or a year and a half,” she said to me in parting, "not because my offense deserves it, but because I am an Anarchist."
From the New York World, Sept. 17, 1893.
Emma Goldman was sentenced to a year in prison. She was released after ten months. She was ultimately deported to Russia amid the red scare of 1919. Nellie Bly continued her investigative reporting, covering World War I and being arrested for espionage by authorities who didn’t appreciate her scrutiny.