On July 23, 1892, a twenty-one-year-old man named Alexander Berkman burst into the office of Henry Clay Frick, manager of a steel factory in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Frick had recently hired Pinkerton detectives to break the picket lines of the workers' union. The detectives shot at the workers; the workers shot at the detectives. Killings occurred on both sides.
Berkman, who had no connection at all with the factory or the strike, shot Frick twice before nearby laborers restrained him. Frick survived the attack.
It would be many years before the full story emerged of what had happened that day. Berkman was a Russian American who had become convinced that the only way to free the working class from the oppression of the rich was through anarchy. By 1889, he had become lovers with another Russian-American anarchist, Emma Goldman, encouraging her in her work, for equality between men and women was an anarchist principle. The two of them became committed to the belief (not held by all anarchists) that violence was necessary to bring about the revolution.
They moved in with Berkman's cousin, Modest "Fedya" Aronstam. Goldman then took Aronstam as a second lover. Although he admitted to feelings of jealousy, Berkman assured Goldman that she had every right to love whomever she wished. The three of them continued to live together, along with others who took part in their small commune.
There were tensions, however. Berkman was single-minded in his belief that every deed should be undertaken for the Cause. He criticized Aronstam for spending money on frivolous matters such as flowers. Goldman enjoyed the contrast between the two men: the more relaxed Aronstam and the more committed Berkman.
Then came July 1892. Berkman later described what happened next.
It is the sixth of July, 1892. We are quietly sitting in the back of our little flat – Fedya and I – when suddenly the Girl enters. Her naturally quick, energetic step sounds more than usually resolute. As I turn to her, I am struck by the peculiar gleam in her eyes and the heightened color.
"Have you read it?" she cries, waving the half-open newspaper.
"What is it?"
"Homestead. Strikers shot. Pinkertons have killed women and children."
She speaks in a quick, jerky manner. Her words ring like the cry of a wounded animal, the melodious voice tinged with the harshness of bitterness – the bitterness of helpless agony.
I take the paper from her hands. In growing excitement I read the vivid account of the tremendous struggle, the Homestead strike, or, more correctly, the lockout. The report details the conspiracy on the part of the Carnegie Company to crush the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers; the selection, for the purpose, of Henry Clay Frick, whose attitude toward labor is implacably hostile; his secret military preparations while designedly prolonging the peace negotiations with the Amalgamated; the fortification of the Homestead steel-works; the erection of a high board fence, capped by barbed wire and provided with loopholes for sharpshooters; the hiring of an army of Pinkerton thugs; the attempt to smuggle them, in the dead of night, into Homestead; and, finally, the terrible carnage.
I pass the paper to Fedya. The Girl glances at me. We sit in silence, each busy with his own thoughts. Only now and then we exchange a word, a searching, significant look.
To the shock of all three conspirators, Berkman's assassination attempt did not result in America's workers rising in revolt against their oppressors. Indeed, a few of America's workers had helped to foil the assassination.
Nor was Berkman hanged for his deed, as he had expected. Instead, he was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Goldman and Aronstam were investigated by the police, but the police could uncover no evidence of their involvement in Berkman's crime, despite the fact that Aronstam – carrying out the prior plans of the trio – had made an aborted attempt to serve as backup to Berkman on the assassination.
During the years that followed, Berkman remained in prison, illicitly running a newspaper with two other anarchists who had been arrested, agitating on behalf of all his fellow prisoners, and generally upholding the Cause despite his own ill treatment at the hands of his keepers. Goldman wrote to him regularly, disguised herself in order to visit him in prison, and joined with other anarchists in battling to have Berkman released from prison early. The group finally succeeded in 1906.
For the next few decades, Berkman and Goldman fought for the Cause, frequently together. Although they did not remain lovers, they both advanced anarchist principles, they both fought against the drafting of American men in World War One, they both were imprisoned for their anti-draft activities, they both were deported from the United States due to the authorities' fear of the recent communist revolution in Russia, and they both continued to fight for workers while exiled in Europe, sometimes co-authoring books together.
In 1936, in failing health, Berkman shot himself. He did not die immediately. Berkman's lover alerted Emma Goldman, who rushed to his side and was with him when he died.
By contrast, Fedya Aronstam began to distance himself from the Cause during the time that Berkman was in prison. Aronstam eventually rejected anarchism in favor of communism. He married, changed his name in order to protect his family from the assassination scandal, and under the name of Modest Stein he established a good reputation as a commercial artist. His illustrations are remembered today.
Yet it was Stein who helped to support Berkman financially during the anarchist's final years, when so much of Berkman's time was spent on furthering the Cause. And when Emma Goldman died in 1940, it was her old lover Fedya who carved her tomb.
I learned about the lives of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman primarily from their memoirs: Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist and Goldman's Living My Life. Modest Stein left no memoir, but relatives' accounts of Stein's involvement with Berkman and Goldman appear in Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich's Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.
I've borrowed the emotional dynamics between the three lovers for this story, as well as their motivation for using violence to achieve their goals. However, the personalities and characters of Raupp, Leda, and MacDonald are my own invention.