BOOKS
12/05/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman (EXCERPT)

From Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman ($35, Harvard University Press)

Alexander "Sasha" Berkman and Emma Goldman, notorious in 20th century America and legendary in radical lore, met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1889, young immigrants who had fled repressive tsarist Russia. Idealistic yet militant, Sasha and Emma--at first lovers, then lifelong friends--joined an anarchist group in New York, agitating on behalf of the masses and cherishing the fantastical goal of creating a society free of government and human inequality.

The bold, aggressive Sasha hoped to commit a grand deed that would capture the attention of the country and spark a workers' revolution. He found his opportunity in 1892, when a labor dispute erupted near Pittsburgh at the Homestead Steel Mill, owned by magnate Andrew Carnegie and operated by Carnegie Steel chairman Henry Clay Frick, who set about crushing the strike. Choosing Frick as the symbol of capitalist evil in the United States, Sasha, Emma, and several of their comrades conspired to assassinate him, a crime Berkman called "the first terrorist act in America." Berkman shot and severely wounded Frick, who survived; the attack landed the twenty-one-year-old Sasha in prison for fourteen years and, to his great disappointment, made little impression on the workers at large.

Still, the Frick conspiracy was merely the beginning of Sasha and Emma's sweeping journey, one that would take them across the country and around the world, through love affairs and literary triumphs, bombing intrigues and a presidential assassination, anti-war activism and deportation to Soviet Russia. Exiled in Europe, Sasha and Emma toasted Paris in the 1920s and witnessed Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s. Throughout, their astonishing fifty-year bond and profound love remained intact, a friendship that Emma, near the end of her life, called the "treasure" of her existence.

Indeed, it was Sasha and Emma's humane impulses, eloquent commentary, and steadfast idealism--not their maddening choices or violent actions--that made a lasting impact on contemporary America. But in July 1892, Sasha was prowling Pittsburgh, resolved to commit murder to send his message.

The target would be Henry Clay Frick himself. Frick had broken off negotiations with the union, locked out the Homestead workers, and imported an army of Pinkertons to fight his battle. Therefore, [Sasha and Emma believed], he bore the responsibility for the bloodshed. "A blow aimed at Frick," said Goldman, "would re-echo in the poorest hovel, would call the attention of the whole world to the real cause behind the Homestead struggle. It would strike terror in the enemy's ranks and make them realize that the proletariat of America had its avengers." To the anarchists, Frick was no longer to be seen as a flesh-and-blood person, but as an object, a symbol of the capitalist class, or, said Goldman, "not as a man, but as the enemy of labor."

During the next few days [Sasha] mapped out his plan of attack. His original intention was to kill Frick at his home, a twenty-three-room mansion in the Homewood section on the outskirts of the city. To inspect the layout he went and had a look around, only to find that the premises were heavily guarded. From then on he focused on Frick's business offices, located in the Chronicle Telegraph Building on Fifth Avenue between Smithfield and Wood Streets in central Pittsburgh.

While Sasha was making his plans, Emma was busy raising money in New York [to finance the attack]. At first she had no success, but then she recalled the character of Sonya Marmeladova in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, who became a prostitute to support her family. After a night of agonizing, Emma felt she could do no less to help Sasha. She scrutinized herself, wondering if she could be "attractive enough to men who seek out girls on the street," and decided her complexion was good, her blond hair and blue eyes were appealing, and her body could be ably enhanced by a corset. With a bit of money borrowed from a neighbor, she bought high-heeled shoes (she had never worn a pair before), silk stockings, and fabric for sewing decorative underclothes.

That Saturday evening, July 16, she joined the women plying their trade on 14th Street. But her courage failed her when she observed the men, "saw their vulgar glances and their manner of approaching the women." Whenever a prospect advanced she hastily walked away. She was just about to give up when a tall, white- haired man, distinguished and well-dressed, came over to her. He invited her to a nearby saloon and bought her a beer. He said he could tell she was a novice streetwalker, and she admitted it was her first time, although she concealed her true identity. "It would be too dreadful," she thought, "if he should learn that Emma Goldman, the anarchist, had been found soliciting on Fourteenth Street. What a juicy story it would make for the press!"

Much to Emma's surprise, the man made no physical overtures but handed her ten dollars and advised her to give up streetwalking because she did not "have the knack" for it and would "hate it afterwards." He was amiable and courteous, unlike any man she had met before; her previous experience suggested that men fell into only two categories: "vulgarians and idealists." She and the stranger parted in a friendly manner.

With the funds from Emma, Sasha made several purchases. At Kaufmann Brothers he bought a conservative light gray suit with narrow stripes, a white shirt, and a white necktie. He ordered calling cards bearing the alias of "Simon Bachman," the purported head of a New York employment agency. This, thought Berkman, would attract the attention of Frick, who was still in need of strikebreakers. Last, he bought a cheap, 38-caliber, shortbarreled "bulldog" revolver. In one of his hip pockets he stashed the revolver, in the other a dagger with a twelve-inch blade. The dagger consisted of a file set in a wooden handle, ground to a point, and sharpened at the edges. Sasha had made it himself in New York.

On Saturday, July 23, the day of reckoning arrived. Berkman was up by dawn, had breakfast in his room, and walked to the Carnegie offices. Arriving about eleven, he went up to the second floor and found the place abuzz with activity. A bundle of nerves, he retreated downstairs and loitered about the building. Meanwhile Frick left for lunch at the Duquesne Club, where he dined with his friend and physician Dr. Lawrence Litchfield. Frick returned after 1:30, went briefly to a fifth-floor room, descended to the second floor, then seated himself in his office with John
Leishman, vice-chairman of Carnegie Steel.

Berkman, standing outside the building, watched as Frick came back from lunch. He hurried upstairs to the second floor and nearly collided with his target, emerging from the elevator. Berkman was unable to gather his wits and pull out his gun; Frick, unaware of the danger, continued on into his office. Berkman entered the reception room and handed his card to the attendant, who withdrew into Frick's office and told his boss that [a] New York employment agent wished a moment's audience. Berkman, increasingly agitated, stepped out of the reception room. Then he steeled himself, retraced his steps, pushed past the attendant, and burst into Frick's office.

There sat Frick, engaged in conversation with Leishman. Berkman reached into his pocket and drew out the revolver as Frick began to rise from his chair. At that moment it occurred to Sasha that Frick might be wearing an armored vest, so he aimed the weapon at Frick's head. Frick averted his face as Berkman pulled the trigger. The bullet grazed the lobe of Frick's left ear, entered his neck at a downward angle, and lodged under his right shoulder blade. Frick dropped to his knees and slumped against the chair. As Berkman moved closer, Leishman, a small man, jumped him from behind. Unwilling to fire upon Leishman--"I would not hurt him," Sasha thought, "I have no business with him"-- he shook himself loose and aimed again at Frick.

The second bullet caught Frick on the right side of the neck and embedded itself below the left shoulder. Berkman was pointing the weapon for a third shot when Leishman caught his wrist and pulled his hand upward, so that the bullet went into the ceiling. Leishman and Berkman grappled furiously. Frick, dazed and bleeding from his wounds, nevertheless struggled to his feet, seized Berkman around the waist, and brought all three tumbling to the floor. Berkman managed to work his left hand free and drew his dagger from his pocket. With this he stabbed Frick in quick succession in the side above the hipbone, again in the lower back, and a third time in the thigh above the knee.

The blade wounds were deep and serious, and Frick cried out in pain. Hearing the commotion, a carpenter who had been working in the building rushed in and hit Berkman on the back of the head with a hammer. The blow only stunned Sasha, and he continued to stab at Frick. The shots, "sharp and distinct," had sounded all over the building, across the avenue, and out in the street, where the struggle was witnessed by pedestrians staring up from the sidewalk. In a minute Frick's office was filled with people: clerks, workers in overalls, policemen, Frick's attendant, and an assortment of shouting individuals.

Berkman, slight but fiercely strong, continued to resist, and it took several more men to overpower him. His arms were pulled and twisted until he was pinioned to the floor, and his captors set about "punishing him severely." A deputy sheriff who happened to be in the building at the time of the attack drew his revolver and aimed it at Sasha. "Don't shoot," called Frick with singular poise. "Leave him to the law. But raise his head and let me see his face." An officer jerked Berkman's head back by the hair. "Mr. Frick," he asked, "do you identify the man as your assailant?" Frick nodded without a word.

Sasha stared at Frick, taking in his victim. "His face is ashen gray," he saw, "the black beard is streaked with red, and blood is oozing from his neck." Fleetingly, Frick was no longer merely a symbol, a means to an end, but a man, wounded and weak. "For an instant a strange feeling, as of shame, comes over me," Berkman later wrote, "but the next moment I am filled with anger at the sentiment, so unworthy of a revolutionist."

Berkman was placed under arrest. Police headquarters was notified, and detectives hurried to the scene, along with additional policemen. Disheveled and disoriented, his necktie ripped off and his suit stained with Frick's blood, Berkman was taken downstairs and out of the building, where an angry crowd had gathered. The news of the "attempted assassination spread like wildfire . . . from Market to Wood street," and cries of "Shoot him!" and "Hang him!" filled the air. "Let him have what he gave Frick," yelled an outraged citizen. A few in the throng offered words of approval ("Served Frick right!"), but "the sentiment of the crowd" was palpably hostile. "There was strong feeling manifested against" Berkman, wrote the New York Times, "but he did not shrink or betray fear." One bystander asked Sasha, "Are you hurt? You're bleeding." Sasha passed his hand over his face. "I've lost my glasses," he replied. An officer snapped, "You'll be dammed lucky if you don't lose your head!"