Thursday, July 26, 2012

Emma Goldman in Schenectady

Portrait of Emma Goldman, ca. 1911. Source: Library of Congress.

Emma Goldman was an anarchist, activist, writer, and orator known for her fiery speeches. A frequent orator about topics as widely varied as militarism, birth control, and modern drama, she was branded "the most hated woman in America" after being accused of complicity in the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. Goldman spoke around the country and the world, and she is known to have spoken in Schenectady on at least four occasions.

The first occasion that Goldman spoke in Schenectady was on January 16, 1908. The topic of her speech as "Syndicalism - A New Phase in the Labor Movement." In writing about her speaking tour that year, Goldman wrote: "Schenectady gave the largest American audience and a very enthusiastic one at that." Julius Seltzer, an anarchist who lived in Schenectady from 1907 until 1911, helped to organize the talk. In an oral history interview conducted in 1972, Seltzer remembered organizing the lecture for Goldman: "it was an enormous success, with an overflow crowd." Of Goldman herself, Seltzer remembered that she was "affectionate, always hugging and squeezing me . . . she was a homely woman, but once she mounted the rostrum she became a different woman, beaming with fire, beautiful in her Spanish shawl."

"Schenectady Ripe for the Revolution." This headline appeared in the daily Socialist newspaper New York Call in 1911, as George Lunn's election as the first Socialist mayor for the city of Schenectady seemed to be a real possibility. A few years later, in 1914, the Albany Evening Journal referred to Schenectady as being "a hotbed of Socialism." Image obtained via

Goldman had planned another trip to Schenectady to speak in 1911, but the talk was cancelled. She did not speak in Schenectady again until 1915, when she spoke three times within a period of a few weeks. Her first talk in 1915 was on February 24, 1915 at the Red Men's Hall at Ferry Street and Liberty Street. About 300 people gathered to hear her lecture, entitled "Why the Socialists of Germany Betrayed Their Cause to the Kaiser." An article in the Schenectady Gazette the following day called the talk "an interesting discussion of the present war in Europe," and shared quotations from Goldman's talk. The article commented on Goldman's refusal to have a chairman introduce her: "The speaker was not introduced and occupied the stage alone, saying she had found a chairman as much of a hindrance as a help. By way of personal introduction she said she was not sent by the Republican or Democratic party nor by the Catholic Church."

Headline of story highlighting Goldman's lecture on February 24, 1915, that appeared in the Schenectady Gazette the following day. Image obtained via

Soon after, Goldman spoke again at the Red Men's Hall on March 10, 1915, on the topic of "Some Misconceptions of Free Love." Following her talk, the Schenectady Gazette reported on her lecture under the headline "Emma Goldman Scores Marriage." The reporter did not quote Goldman, but simply paraphrased her talk and delivered it in a matter-of-fact manner: "The speaker took the stand marriage is an economic and social institution and not a religious one. She branded it as legalized immorality. That the marriage ceremony is a  mere farce was another statement. As proof of this she claimed that no intelligent woman would take the marriage vow with the intention of keeping it, as that would be swearing away all her self-respect and independence and giving herself over into chattel slavery."

This letter to the editor and reply appeared in the Schenectady Gazette on March 16, 1915. Goldman was a divisive figure among leftists during this time period. Some groups and individuals aligned themselves with her voice to increase their profile, while others sought to distance themselves from her.  Image obtained via

The last time Goldman spoke in Schenectady was on March 31, 1915. She spoke at the Machinists' Hall at 258 State Street on "The Birth Strike," delineating the disadvantages of a large family for working men and championing the cause of Margaret Sanger, who was facing prosecution under the Comstock Law for distributing a family planning pamphlet. This talk was organized under the auspices of the Schenectady Social Science League; thus far, I have not come across any mentions of the organization other than in connection with this lecture.

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