Rabble-rousing feminist and anarchist Emma Goldman died in Toronto in 1940.
Although she only lived in Toronto on three occasions over a 14-year period, and never for more than a year and a half at a time, Emma Goldman had an outsized cultural impact on the city. The well-known anarchist and feminist whom J. Edgar Hoover dubbed “the most dangerous woman in America” filled local lecture halls for talks on topics ranging from birth control and women’s rights to literature, communism, and anarchism. After her death in Toronto in 1940, she become a feature of the Toronto literary landscape, appearing as a character in John Miller’s A Sharp Intake of Breath (2006) and Steven Hayward’s The Secret Mitzah of Lucio Burke (2005). But she spent much her time in Toronto trying to leave it, desperate to return to the United States.
Born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas, Lithuania) in 1869, Goldman immigrated to upstate New York with her family in 1885. There she became interested in political activism, particularly in the aftermath of the Haymarket Bombing in Chicago in 1886. She moved to New York City and became a well-known orator and spokeswoman of the anarchist movement. By the age of 24, in the words of Sheldon Kirshner in the Canadian Jewish News (May 28, 2004), Goldman was “widely regarded by friends and enemies alike as a compelling professional agitator and public speaker.” A collection of her essays was published as Anarchism And Other Essays (1910).
(Right: Emma Goldman, 1917, from the Library of Congress (LC-B2- 4215-16).)
Goldman came to the attention of authorities for her tangential involvement in the assassination attempt on President William McKinley and an attempt to kill capitalist Henry Clay Frick; she earned several brief terms in prison as a result. Eventually, using her activism against wartime conscription as an excuse, the American government tired of her antics. Along with numerous other miscreants and ne’er-do-well political activists, she was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919.
No fan of the Bolshevik regime, she left the Soviet Union in 1921. Unable to return to the United States, Goldman bounced around Europe before relocating to Toronto in October 1926—which allowed her family easy proximity to visit from upstate New York.
She had first visited the city in 1906 on a speaking tour to raise money for anarchist magazine Mother Earth. Now she was warmly welcomed by the press, particularly the Toronto Star, which calmed readers upon her arrival that “there is no danger that while she is here she will throw any bombs other than intellectual ones.” Although glad for the coverage, she would later admit that some critics came to consider the Star to be an “Emma Goldman propaganda sheet.”
That paper respectfully covered her lectures to packed audiences at local venues like the Hygeia Hall, the Heliconian Club, and the Labor Lyceum. A brash speaker and forceful personality at the pulpit, Goldman was patient and calm in conversation.
Wherever Goldman lived, Theresa Moritz and Albert Moritz write in The World’s Most Dangerous Woman: A New Biography of Emma Goldman (Subway Books, 2001), she involved herself in local affairs while also raising money for causes abroad. She was welcomed by Torontonians, particularly in the local labour and immigrant communities, who offered accommodations, financial, and political support. “Kind hearts supplied my every wish,” Goldman wrote in her autobiography Living My Life: An Autobiography (G.M. Smith, 1982) “A physician, a dentist, and tailors at my call.”
But staid Toronto and conservative Canada soon wore on her. “She complained to friends that ‘there is absolutely no inspiration here, no intellectual companionship whatsoever,'” Alice Wexler writes in Emma Goldman in Exile (Beacon Press, 1989). She left in February 1928 to return to Europe.
Goldman’s return to Toronto in December 1933 had less to do with affection for the city she’d once called “deadly dull” than for its proximity to the U.S., where the government had decided to allow her back into the country for a 90-day speaking tour in 1934.
She abhorred the powerful presence of the church in Toronto. “Both Catholic and Anglican hold the city by the throat and mould the habits and opinions of the city of the people of Toronto,” she wrote to one friend. “No book or lecture can have any success that does not have the stamp of approval of the churches.” Moreover, in a conversation recounted in James T. Lemon’s Toronto Since 1918 (James Lorimer & Company, 1985), Goldman was shocked to hear a city librarian retort: “No, we do not censor books, we simply do not get them.” She thought Torontonians lacked interest in literary and intellectual ideas. While admitting she’d met “a few pleasant people,” Goldman complained to another friend that “they are not the kind one can feel intimate with, outside of the work I am doing.” She added: “I do not know a thing I have in common with them except propaganda.” She left the city again in early May 1935.
Goldman returned to Toronto for a final time on April 19, 1939. She took residence with two Dutch colleagues at 295 Vaughan Road, near St. Clair, rather than along Spadina near the university where she’d lived on previous stays.
She was welcomed as warmly as ever by the press and her comrades but her later years were characterized by growing self-doubt. “Fact is dearest, we are fools,” she’d written in January 1935. “We cling to an ideal nobody wants or cares about. And I am the greater fool of the two of us. I go eating my heart out and poisoning every moment of my life in the attempt to rouse people’s sensibilities. At least if I could do it with closed eyes. The irony is I see the futility of my efforts and yet I can’t let go.”
Her public influence had waned since the success of the Russian Revolution, and continued to wane. Once close colleagues defected to competing ideologies, and audiences at her talks dwindled. Compounding the stress was the fact that she was growing older and losing the obstinate idealism she’d enjoyed in her youth.
Goldman was rejuvenated in Toronto by taking an active role in the campaign against the impending deportation of a group of local anarchists from Canada. It was while waiting for an evening strategy meeting to begin on February 17, 1940, that she suffered a stroke.
With friends and flatmates, she was playing while waiting for more comrades to arrive. Responding to one of the players’ actions, she said: “Goddamnit, why did you lead with that?” The next moment, she slumped in her chair, speechless and paralyzed on her right side. (Left: article from Toronto Star; May 14, 1940)
“I don’t know how I drove without causing accidents,” said her friend Arturo Bortolotti, who rushed to her side upon hearing the news, “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.”
Within the hour she was taken by ambulance to Toronto General Hospital. After suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, Goldman was in hospital for six weeks—during which time she was also diagnosed with diabetes. Although able to understand conversations with friends—who raised money for her care and kept her apprised of political news—she could say but a few words and only with great difficulty. Her friends commented that Goldman, unhappy and suffering insomnia, spent much of the time in hospital crying.
A physiotherapist visited twice per week, working on her paralyzed limbs. Eventually the paralysis diminished and Goldman’s health improved enough that her doctors allowed her to return home in late March. Although still unable to speak, she was now able to read correspondence that arrived from across the continent and Europe—when it wasn’t delayed by Canadian authorities who continued to inspect any mail addressed to her or her flatmates. Her friends helped her convey responses.
One friend lamented: “It was a tragic condition for such a one as Emma Goldman to find herself in and we who love her suffer with her while trying to keep up a pretense of cheerfulness for her sake.” In early May, she suffered another minor stroke and began a decline that ended in 30 hours of unconsciousness. She passed away on May 14 in her home.
The Star deployed reporters to cover her death. A small, non-religious service in Goldman’s honour was held on May 15 at the Labor Lyceum at 346 Spadina (which was later renovated to its present incarnation as the Bright Pearl restaurant). According to Rosemary Donegan’s Spadina Avenue (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985), the crowd for the three-hour service overflowed into the street. One of her admirers, radical clergyman and social gospel proponent Salem Bland, delivered a eulogy.
Throughout her exile, Goldman had never perceived herself as anything but an American, and had long wanted to be buried next to the Haymarket martyrs that had inspired her to become involved in politics as a young woman. Now, in death, the American government finally allowed her repatriation. After a large funeral in Chicago, she was buried in that city’s Waldheim Cemetery, next to a monument to the Haymarket affair.
Other sources consulted: Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches, Volume 6 (Dundurn, 2000); Vivian Gornick, Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, 2011); Amy Lavender Harris, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010); Randall White, Too Good To Be True: Toronto in the 1920s (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993); and articles from Labour/Le Travail (Fall 2002), the National Post (March 24, 2001), and the Toronto Star (February 19, 1983; November 25, 1995; February 4, 2001).