"I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” 

Emma Goldman’s quote from her autobiography, “Living My Life,” perfectly describes her lifelong dedication to advocacy. A well-known activist and public speaker, Goldman spent her days campaigning for legalized birth control, freedom of expression, equality, independence for women, radical education, union organization, and workers’ rights. It was her opposition to the military draft, however, that led her to two years in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP). 

Born in Lithuania in 1869, Emma suffered under the political oppression and antisemitism of Imperial Russia. At age 16, she escaped with her sister to Rochester, New York. Working in a garment factory, she quickly became disillusioned with working conditions and gained interest in the growing labor movement. 

Emma’s convictions were cemented by the 1886 Haymarket Affair. Over the course of a year, the Chicago labor protests became violent. Eight anarchists faced accusations of bomb throwing, four of which were publicly hanged with no hard evidence of their crimes. After their deaths, Emma proclaimed that America “had proved most disappointing” and embraced anarchism for its vision of liberty, harmony, and true social justice. 

In 1889, Emma boarded a train to New York City. While there, she joined the German anarchist movement and met orator Johann Most, who shaped her into a provocative public speaker, and Alexander Berkman, who would become the most influential person in her life. She soon became part of an expressive subculture full of artists, writers, and revolutionaries described by historian Leon Litwack as sharing a rejection of bourgeois culture and embracing causes such as the labor movement, sexual freedom, feminism, socialism, and anarchism. 

While her stint at MSP was Emma’s only long-term prison sentence, she was not unfamiliar with the justice system. After a lecture about female unemployment in 1893, she was arrested amid accusations of inciting a riot after stating, “If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.” Two years later, she was an accessory to an assassination attempt on steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick. Both Emma and her partner Alexander believed the political assassination, planned as revenge for worker treatment during the Homestead Steel Strike, would spur a revolution. 

Want to hear more of Emma's story? Head over to Jefferson City Magazine to read more!

Missouri State Penitentiary

Decommissioned in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. The prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates…