The Most Dangerous Woman in the World was playing a quiet game of cards. It was a snowy Toronto evening in the winter of 1940, that first terrible winter of the Second World War. She was staying with friends at their home on Vaughan Road, waiting for a meeting to begin. That's when she slumped over in her chair. It was a stroke. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century couldn't speak a word.This wasn't the end most people would have expected for Emma Goldman. For decades now, she'd been the most notorious anarchist on earth. Her ideas made nations tremble: thoughts about freedom and free speech and free love; about feminism and marriage and birth control; about violence and pacifism and war. She'd been thrown out of the United States for those ideas, forced to flee Soviet Russia, driven out of Latvia, Sweden, Germany... Canada was one of the very few places where she was still relatively welcome. She spent decades in exile. And everywhere she went, she refused to be intimidated: giving fiery speeches, sparking riots, inspiring assassins, visiting war zones. Nothing could silence her. Not exile, not prison, not threats of violence. Nothing, that is, until that quiet game of cards.
The first stroke didn't kill her. She still had a few weeks left to live, weakened and afraid, half-paralyzed, robbed of the powerful voice that had made her famous. But even on her deathbed, she had one more fight to win. There was one last life to save.
|Young Attilio Bortolotti|
One day, during an air raid, his young nephew was in danger of being crushed by falling debris. Bortolotti watched in amazement as a German officer — the enemy — threw himself over the young boy and saved his life. It was a shock. This wasn't the image of the Germans the Italian newspapers were painting: of the inhuman, savage "Hun."
|Anarchist theatre bombing, 1893|
He got off the train at Union Station in the fall of 1929 — just a few weeks before the stock market crashed. At first, he didn't know anyone in the city. But when he took his leaflets to an Italian neighbourhood on the anniversary of the Sacco and Vanzetti executions, he met a few Italian socialists and Communists who introduced him to a fellow anarchist.
Before long they'd created their own Torontonian anarchist group: Il Gruppo Libertario. They published their own newspaper, organized meetings and events. They became familiar faces at the Labour Lyceum on Spadina Avenue: today, it's a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown (on the corner of St. Andrew Street), but back then it was the political hub for textile workers in the heart of Toronto's Jewish community. The Italians began to meet the city's other anarchists: mostly Jewish and Eastern European immigrants. The community grew. Bortolotti had finally found his home.
It was only a matter of time before he met another anarchist who had been staying in Toronto: the most infamous anarchist in the world.
|Emma Goldman, 1901 mugshot|
Still, even as a child she was strong-willed and defiant. She had no patience for injustice. Decades before Bortolotti was shaped by the horrors of the First World War, Goldman was shaped by the horrors of Tsarist Russia.
Today, many of her ideas seem pretty obvious — an eight-hour workday, legal birth control, gay rights — but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, even those ideas were deeply radical. She quickly attracted the attention not only of the press, but also the police. Once, she was arrested for giving a talk about methods of birth control. Another time, it was for inciting a riot. ("Ask for work," she told a crowd of the starving and unemployed, "If they don't give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.") She got so used to spending time in prison that she started to carry a book with her wherever she went, just in case she suddenly found herself in a jail cell without anything to read.
By the end of the 1800s, Goldman had become one of the biggest celebrities in the country. She was a front page staple. Red Emma, they called her. The Queen of Anarchism. The Most Dangerous Woman in the World.
And she could be dangerous. At least to some people. In those days, it felt like radical change could come at any moment. To many, the revolution didn't just seem possible, it seemed inevitable. The young Goldman was willing to do whatever she could to help. If violence was necessary, that was okay with her. Even murder.
|Emma Goldman's deportation|
But even then she wasn't willing to condemn those who did resort to violence. When President McKinley was shot, the assassin claimed that he was inspired to do it by Goldman's lectures. "Her words set me on fire," he said. Goldman was arrested and questioned, but she refused to denounce the killer. "I have never been an advocate of violence," she told the papers, but "I have always felt that when an individual resorts to violence it is the fault of the conditions above him that bring him to it."
It was a theme she often repeated. For her, the real blame for any assassination always lay with systemic oppression. "As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence. But if people want to do away with assassins, they must first do away with the conditions which produce murderers."
She was rounded up with a bunch of other anarchists and deported — all loaded onto a ship and sent to Russia. If they believed in revolution, the government told them, then the brand new Soviet state was the perfect place for them.
She would never again be allowed to live in her beloved United States, so she settled for the next best thing: she would stay in Toronto, just across the lake from Rochester, as close as she could get to her family and to the country she loved.
|The Heliconian Club, Yorkville|
"I am so terribly cut off from intellectual contact," Goldman once wrote while she was staying in Toronto. "I grow so depressed and unhappy at times it seems I could not stand it another day." When the old anarchist criticized the lack of modern books in the library, the librarian gave her a blunt reply: "We do not buy books we consider immoral." Toronto was, Goldman complained, "deadly dull."
Still, it wasn't all bad. The authorities in Toronto were more tolerant of her ideas than those in the United States had been — even if they did still screen all her mail. And there was a small, dedicated community of anarchists, artists and other progressive thinkers who were thrilled to have her in the city. They put her up in their homes, helped her to organize meetings and lectures, donated money to the causes she championed.
Plus, every time the Toronto Daily Star wrote about her — and they wrote about her a lot — it was in positively glowing terms. They called her "the world's greatest feminine apostle of free speech." "Brilliant." "[A] speaker of notable excellence." "You were impressed not only by her knowledge but also by her wisdom. She was a feminine Socrates conducting a brilliant dialogue on high and grave questions of human destiny and human conduct..."
"No woman of her generation," the Star would remember after she died, "was more widely known or lived more fully than Emma Goldman. None clung more staunchly, through adversity, to her ideals..."
Goldman became a familiar name in the local papers and in lecture halls across the city. She spoke at the Labour Lyceum on Spadina, the Heliconian Club in Yorkville, the Hygea Hall on Elm Street, the Oddfellows Temple on College — always after a stiff drink of whisky to calm her nerves. Crowds of hundreds came to see her talk about feminism, free love, politics, literature... She thundered on about Sacco and Vanzetti, denounced Toronto schools for forcing all their boys to have military training, and railed against the dangers of Stalin with such passion that local Communists would attend her lectures just so they could shout her down. She warned of a coming war before Hitler had even taken power and gave speeches condemning him when many in Toronto still thought fascism was a perfectly acceptable idea.
She became a role model in a city starved for radical thought, inspiring those who were determined to make Toronto a more progressive place, and pressuring them to do better when she thought they were falling short. It was Emma Goldman who dared to speak about birth control back when it was still illegal, giving a lecture to a packed house at the Hygea Hall, earning a roar of applause when she declared contraception to be a right. (She was careful not to mention any specific methods — that would have been blatantly illegal and landed her in the clutches of the Toronto Police Morality Squad — but she did hand out cards directing women to doctors who could help.) And it was Emma Goldman who launched the movement to ban Toronto teachers from using physical violence as a method of disciplining their students.
She would never fully settle in Toronto; she kept living out of her suitcase, like she always did. She had three long stays in the city, but would spend long periods away from it: writing her autobiography in France, visiting the anarchists fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, going on speaking tours across Canada — she was even allowed to make one last trip to the United States.
But in the end, she always came back to Toronto. And that meant she was bound to run into Attilio Bortolotti eventually.
|Toronto's Balmy Beach Swastika Club|
"We organized demonstrations and street meetings at which I... spoke, and were attacked by mounted police," Bortolotti remembered. "The authorities kept me under constant surveillance, and now they tried in earnest to deport me."
By the end of the first month of the war, the government had expanded the Act to give themselves the power to censor any literature they didn't like — and to arrest anyone found with this "dangerous" material. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines were shut down. Bookstores were raided, their owners arrested. Private homes were targeted too. Word began to spread among the Toronto anarchists: the police were raiding their homes one by one. Some rushed to burn their papers before it was too late.
Meanwhile, Bortolotti was falling ill, suffering in the cold, damp conditions of the Don Jail. He came down with bronchitis, lost twelve pounds, ran a fever of 103ºF, and finally had to be transferred into the prison's hospital ward.
Goldman refused to give up, but the campaign was taking a toll. It was, she admitted, "the hardest thing I have done in many years... [I am] frightfully weary of the struggle, and tired, tired beyond words."
That's when she suffered her first stroke.
|295 Vaughan Road|
Bortolotti was out on bail when he got the phone call. "I don’t know how I drove without causing accidents," he remembered, "because I was out of my mind. And I arrived on Vaughan Road there, and saw Emma, moaning—she couldn’t talk any more. Just to think that here was Emma, the greatest orator in America, unable to utter one word." She was half-paralyzed. There was fear in her eyes. Embarrassed that her bare knee was showing, she pulled her skirt down with one hand. Moments later, the ambulance arrived.
She spent the next six weeks at Toronto General Hospital, where they did what they could for her. She was in tears for much of that time. When she was finally well enough to go home, her speech still hadn't recovered; she struggled to say even a few words. Still, she kept working. She could understand conversations and read her letters, getting friends to write her replies.
Slowly but surely, her persistence had begun to pay off. People had started contributing to Bortolotti's defence. First, it was an Italian-American anarchist newspaper. Then, a Yiddish-language paper in New York. There was a spaghetti dinner to raise money in Chicago. A play performed in Brooklyn. Another benefit in Massachusetts. Goldman had her letters to the editor published in The Nation, The New Republic and The Canadian Forum. Eventually, some leading progressive Canadians — like the leader of the federal CCF party (the forerunner of the NDP) — were convinced to join the fight. More letters were written. There were meetings with MPs. The Star published an editorial asking the government to halt the deportation. The tide was finally turning.
Goldman lived long enough to hear the good news: Bortolotti was free to stay. They'd won. He would eventually get his Canadian citizenship, start his own successful business, and play a leading role in Toronto's anarchist community for decades to come. Thirty years later, the Globe and Mail would write about him fondly, calling him "the grand old man of Toronto anarchism."
A few months after Goldman's first stroke, she suffered a second. This time, she wouldn't recover at all. She died in the middle of May at that same house on Vaughan Road.
A service was held at the Labour Lyceum, the same hall where Goldman's resounding voice had once filled the air. For three hours people shared their stories and remembered her. The crowd was so big there wasn't enough room inside the hall; the mourners spilled out onto Spadina. A full funeral in Chicago followed, where she was laid to rest next to the martyrs of the Haymarket affair who had inspired her to become an anarchist all those years ago.
She had gone down fighting, working hard for a cause she believed in right to the very end. It's all she ever wanted.
Once, years earlier, the Star asked her if she had any regrets. "Whatever will happen will happen," she said. "I hope to die on deck, true to my ideals with my eyes towards the east — the rising star."
That's exactly what she did.
Emma Goldman's mugshot at the top of this post comes via the Women Who Kicks Ass Tumblr here. Her second mugshot, further down, was taken in Chicago in 1901. It's from Wikipedia here. The photo of Attilio Bortolotti come via estelnegre.org — which is, as far as I can guess, the website of a nationalist Catalonian libertarian group — here. The Petit Journal cover featured the anarchist bombing of the Liceo theatre in Spain (in Catalonia, actually) covers via the Spanish-language version of Wikipedia here. Her deportation photo comes via the Jewish Women's Archive here. The Nazi images of the Balmy Beach Swastika Club are from the Toronto Telegram via Chris Bateman's article about them for blogTO here.
The photos of the Heliconian Club and 295 Vaughan Road are by me, Adam Bunch.
A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now
|This post is related to dream|
41 The Most Dangerous Woman in the World
Emma Goldman, 1940