Emma Goldman could have made a fortune from her ice cream parlor in Worcester, Mass.
It was 1892, and she was a Russian Jewish immigrant who’d discovered the anarchist movement. She believed all forms of government are wrong, harmful and unnecessary because they rest on violence.
Emma Goldman wanted to inspire the laboring masses to rise up and throw off the chains of capitalism. Ironically, she was quite good at her own little capitalist venture.
She served ice cream, fried pancakes and made tea for a steady stream of customers. But one day she suddenly stopped because a newspaper headline caught her eye.
Emma Goldman was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Kovno in Russia, now the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, on June 27, 1869. She immigrated to the United States in 1885 to escape poverty and anti-Semitism. At first she lived with her older half-sister in Rochester, N.Y. She worked in a factory, married and then divorced.
After three years she moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On her first day in the city, she met Alexander Berkman in a café frequented by radicals. Berkman had fallen under the influence of Johann Most, anarchist speaker and publisher of Die Freiheit newspaper – and grandfather of longtime Celtics radio announcer, Johnny Most.
Berkman took her to hear Most speak that night. At first he revolted her because of his twisted face, the result of a childhood disease. But then he captivated her.
Emma Goldman ended up following Most and falling in love with Berkman. Most encouraged her to speak publicly. The first time she took the speaker’s platform, she wrote, her mind went blank. Then, she wrote,
…something strange happened. In a flash I saw it—every incident of my three years in Rochester: the Garson factory, its drudgery and humiliation, the failure of my marriage, the Chicago crime…I began to speak. Words I had never heard myself utter before came pouring forth, faster and faster.
By 1891, Most was in prison. Emma Goldman supported herself sewing boys’ jumpers, but she worked 18 hour days. She and her lover’s cousin, Modest Stein, got jobs with a photographer in Springfield, Mass. They did so well they decided to go out on their own. So Goldman and Stein invited Berkman to join them, and they moved to Worcester, fixed up a studio and put out a sign. However, no customers came.
Their landlord advised them to open an ice cream parlor.
They had $50 in savings, and their landlord loaned them $150. The threesome fitted out a derelict shop and served sandwiches and coffee. Soon they paid back their landlord and bought a soda fountain.
Events 500 miles away would soon overtake them.
Andrew Carnegie owned the Homestead Steel Works in western Pennsylvania, and put Henry Clay Frick in charge of the company’s operations. The two men wanted to break the union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers.
Frick locked the union workers out of their jobs on June 28, 1892. The Knights of Labor, which represented mechanics and transportation workers, voted to strike in sympathy. So did workers at other plants. They set up pickets to prevent the company from bringing in strikebreakers.
Frick hired 300 armed Pinkerton detectives to get into the plant. A battle broke out in which nine workers – including a young boy – were killed. The conflict didn’t end until 8,000 state militiamen put it down. Seven Pinkertons also died in the violence.
For entire nights, Emma Goldman wrote, the three ice cream entrepreneurs would sit up discussing the Homestead strike.
One afternoon a customer came in for ice cream while Emma was alone in the store. She served him his ice cream while he read the newspaper, and saw the headline about Homestead.
The newspaper reported that Frick evicted the families of strikers from company houses while sheriffs’ deputies carried pregnant women out into the street. Frick told the workers he would rather see them dead than concede to their demands.
Emma Goldman described what happened next in her autobiography. The customer said, “Are you sick, young lady? Can I do anything for you?” She told him he could give her the newspaper in exchange for the ice cream and then closed the store.
She ran home, and she, Stein and Berkman decided they had to join the workers. Their landlord told them they were crazy because their ice cream parlor would bring them a fortune. They turned the store over to the landlord and took the morning train to New York.
Ultimately, Frick prevailed over the workers.
“Frick was the symbol of wealth and power, of the injustice and wrong of the capitalistic class, as well as personally responsible for the shedding of the workers’ blood,” Emma Goldman later wrote.
So the anarchists decided to kill Henry Frick. They thought his assassination would inspire the working masses to revolt against the capitalist system.
Berkman went to Pennsylvania and, wearing a black suit and a derby hat, entered Frick’s office. He shot at him twice and missed, but managed to stab him three times. Berkman ended up in prison for 14 years for the attempted assassination.
The working masses did not rise up and revolt as a result of Berkman’s assassination attempt.
When prison authorities released Berkman, Emma Goldman met him with a bouquet of roses. Their affair eventually foundered, but they remained friends.
Emma Goldman went to prison several times over the next few decades for inciting to riot, for conspiring to induce men to resist the draft, for planning President McKinley’s assassination (she didn’t) and for illegally distributing information about birth control. She also founded the journal Mother Earth.
The United States deported her to Russia in 1919 because of her anarchist beliefs. She witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, but eventually denounced the Communist regime. For the rest of her life she supported anarchist causes in Europe. She defined anarchism as the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion, the liberation of the body from the dominion of property and liberation of everybody from the restraints of government.
She died in 1940 in Toronto, Canada.
The ice cream parlor at 86 Winter St. is now a tapas bar next to the highway.
Images: Site of the anarchist ice cream shop, By Victor Grigas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67893771. This story was updated in 2023.