Music score

The tune collector and the anarchist



Nowadays Francis O'Neill is remembered for his monumental collection of Irish tunes. But his day job was the Chief of Police of Chicago. He managed to find many a traditional musician a job on the force. The following story describes his meeting with "Red Emma". It's very interesting to see how these two colourful but very different characters interacted.

Emma Goldman was one of the most colourful characters around in the early years of the 20th century , a Russian-born anarchist who had emigrated to the United States. She was a tireless crusader for labour unions, women's rights, sexual freedom, and social revolution, who consorted with many other revolutionaries of the time, the likes of Kropotkin and Bill Hayward.

The following excerpts come from her autobiography, Living My Life, Volume One, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, in 1931.

The subject of my lecture in Cleveland, early in May of that year, was Anarchism, delivered before the Franklin Liberal Club, a radical organization. During the intermission before the discussion I noticed a man looking over the titles of the pamphlets and books on sale near the platform. Presently he came over to me with the question: "Will you suggest something for me to read?" He was working in Akron, he explained, and he would have to leave before the close of the meeting.

Mary Isaak came in to tell me that a young man, who gave his name as Nieman, was urgently asking to see me. I knew nobody by that name and I was in a hurry, about to leave for the station. Rather impatiently I requested Mary to inform the caller that I had no time at the moment, but that he could talk to me on my way to the station. As I left the house, I saw the visitor, recognizing him as the handsome chap of the golden hair who had asked me to recommend him reading-matter at the Cleveland meeting.

Hanging on to the straps on the elevated train, Nieman told me that he had belonged to a Socialist local in Cleveland, that he had found its members dull, lacking in vision and enthusiasm.. He could not bear to be with them and he had left Cleveland and was now working in Chicago and eager to get in touch with anarchists.

At the station I found my friends awaiting me, among them Max. I wanted to spend a few minutes with him and I begged Hippolyte to take care of Nieman and introduce him to the comrades.

How long has it been since Cleveland had an elevated train?

My holiday in Rochester was somewhat marred by a notice in Free Society containing a warning against Nieman. It was written by A. Isaak, editor of the paper, and it stated that news had been received from Cleveland that the man had been asking questions that aroused suspicion, and that he was trying to get into the anarchist circles. The comrades in Cleveland had concluded that he must be a spy.

I was very angry. To make such a charge, on such flimsy ground! I wrote Isaak at once, demanding more convincing proofs. He replied that, while he had no other evidence, he still felt that Nieman was untrustworthy because he constantly talked about acts of violence. I wrote another protest. The next issue of Free Society contained a retraction

As I stood at a street-corner wearily waiting for a car, I heard a newsboy cry: "Extra! Extra! President McKinley shot!" I bought a paper, but the car was so jammed that it was impossible to read. Around me people were talking about the shooting of the President.

Carl had arrived at the house before me. He had already read the account. The President had been shot at the Exposition grounds in Buffalo by a young man by the name of Leon Czolgosz. "I never heard the name," Carl said; "have you?" "No, never," I replied. "It is fortunate that you are here and not in Buffalo," he continued. "As usual, the papers will connect you with this act." "Nonsense!" I said, "the American press is fantastic enough, but it would hardly concoct such a crazy story."

... While I was waiting for the man to fill out his order, I caught the headline of the newspaper lying on his desk: "ASSASSIN OF PRESIDENT McKINLEY AN ANARCHIST. CONFESSES TO HAVING BEEN INCITED BY EMMA GOLDMAN. WOMAN ANARCHIST WANTED."

By great effort I strove to preserve my composure, completed the business, and walked out of the store. At the next corner I bought several papers and went to a restaurant to read them. They were filled with the details of the tragedy, reporting also the police raid of the Isaak house in Chicago and the arrest of everyone found there. The authorities were going to hold the prisoners until Emma Goldman was found, the papers stated. Already two hundred detectives had been sent out throughout the country to track down Emma Goldman.

On the inside page of one of the papers was a picture of McKinley's slayer. "Why, that's Nieman!" I gasped.

When I was through with the papers, it became clear to me that I must immediately go to Chicago. The Isaak family, Hippolyte, our old comrade Jay Fox, a most active man in the labour movement, and a number of others were being held without bail until I should be found. It was plainly my duty to surrender myself. I knew there was neither reason nor the least proof to connect me with the shooting. I would go to Chicago.

I had often heard of the third degree used by the police in various American cities to extort confessions, but I myself had never been subjected to it… On the day of my arrest, which was September 10, I was kept at police headquarters in a stifling room and grilled to exhaustion from 10.30 a.m. till 7 p.m. At least fifty detectives passed me, each shaking his fist in my face and threatening me with the direst things …

I reiterated the story I had told them when first brought to police headquarters, explaining where I had been and with whom. But they would not believe me and kept on bullying and abusing me. My head throbbed, my throat and lips felt parched. A large pitcher of water stood on the table before me, but every time I stretched my hand for it, a detective would say: "You can drink all you want, but first answer me. Where were you with Czolgosz the day he shot the president?" The torture continued for hours. Finally I was taken to the Harrison Street Police Station and locked in a barred enclosure, exposed to view from every side …

I woke up with a burning sensation. A plain-clothes man held a reflector in front of me, close to my eyes. I leaped up and pushed him away with all my strength, crying: "You're burning my eyes!" "We'll burn more before we get through with you!" he retorted. With short intermissions this was repeated during three nights …

Since my arrest I had had no word from my friends, nor had anyone come to see me. I realized I was being kept incommunicado. I did get letters, however, most of them unsigned. "You damn bitch of an anarchist," one of them read, "I wish I could get at you. I would teat your heart out and feed it to my dog." "Murderous Emma Goldman," another wrote, "you will burn in hell-fire for your treachery to our country." A third cheerfully promised: "We will cut your tongue out, soak your carcass in oil, and burn you alive." The description by some of the anonymous writers of what they would do to me sexually offered studies in perversion that would have astounded authorities on the subject. The authors of the letters nevertheless seemed to me less contemptible than the police officials. Daily I was handed stacks of letters that had been opened and read by the guardians of American decency and morality. At the same time messages from my friends were withheld from me. It was evident that my spirit was to be broken by such methods.

The same evening Chief of Police O'Neill of Chicago came to my cell. He informed me that he would like to have a quiet talk with me. "I have no wish to bully or coerce you," he said; "perhaps I can help you." "It would indeed be a strange experience to have help from a chief of police," I replied; "but I am quite willing to answer your questions." He asked me to give him a detailed account of my movements from May 5, when I had first met Czolgosz, until the day of my arrest in Chicago. I gave him the requested information, but without mentioning my my visit to Sasha or the names of the comrades who had been my hosts. As there was no longer any need of shielding Dr. Kaplan, the Isaaks, or Hippolyte, I was in a position to give practically a complete account. When I concluded—what I said being taken down in shorthand—Chief O'Neill remarked: "Unless you're a very clever actress, you are certainly innocent. I think you are innocent, and I am going to do my part to help you out." I was too amazed to thank him; I had never before heard such a tone from a police officer. At the same time I was skeptical of the success of his efforts, even if he should try to do something for me.

Immediately following my conference with the Chief I became aware of a decided change in my treatment. My cell door was left unlocked day and night, and I was told by the matron that I could stay in the large room, use the rocking-chair and the table there, order my own food and papers, receive and send out mail. I began at once to lead the life of a society lady, receiving callers all day long, mostly newpaper people who came not so much for interviews as to talk, smoke, and relate funny stories. Others, again, came out of curiosity. Most attentive was Katherine Leckie, of the Hearst papers … A strong and ardent feminist, she was at the same time devoted to the cause of labour. Katherine Leckie was the first to take my story of the third degree. She became so outraged at hearing it that she undertook to canvass the various women's organizations in order to induce them to take the matter up.

Buffalo was pressing for my extradition,but Chicago asked for authentic data on the case. I had already been given several hearings in court, and on each occasion the District Attorney from Buffalo had presented much circumstantial evidence to induce the State of Illinois to surrender me. But Illinois demanded direct proofs. There was a hitch somewhere that helped to cause more delays. I thought it likely that Chief of Police O'Neill was behind the matter.

The Chief's attitude towards me had changed the behaviour of every officer in the Harrison Street Police Station. The matron and the two policemen assigned to watch my cell began to lavish attentions on me. The officer on night duty now oftern appeared with his arms full of parcels, containing fruit, candy, and drinks stronger than grape-juice. "From a friend who keeps a saloon round the corner," he would say, "an admirer of yours." The matron presented me with flowers from the same unknown. One day she brought me the message that he was going to send a grand supper for the coming Sunday. "Who is the man and why should he admire me?" I inquired. "Well, we're all Democrats, and McKinley is a Republican," she replied. "You don't mean you're glad McKinley was shot?" I exclaimed. "Not glad exactly, but not sorry, neither," she said; "we have to pretend, you know, but we're none of us excited about it."

Buffalo failed to produce evidence to justify my extradition. Chicago was getting weary of the game of hide-and-seek. The authorities would not turn me over to Buffalo, yet at the same time they did not feel like letting me go entirely free. By way of compromise I was put under twenty-thousand-dollar bail. The Isaak group had been put under fifteen-thousand-dollar bail. I knew that it would be almost impossible for our people to raise a total of thirty-five thousand dollars within a few days. I insisted on the others being bailed out first. Thereupon I was transferred to the Cook County Jail.

The night before my transfer was Sunday. My saloon-keeper admirer kept his word; he sent over a huge tray filled with numerous goodies: a big turkey, with all the trimmings, including wine and flowers. A note came with it informing that he was willing to put up five thousand dollars towards my bail. "A strange saloon-keeper!" I remarked to the matron. "Not at all," she replied; "he's the ward heeler and he hates the Republicans worse than the devil." I invited her, my two policmen, and several other officers present to join me in the celebration. They assured me that nothing like it had ever before happened to them—a prisoner playing host to her keepers.

The newspapers had published rumours about mobs ready to attack the Harrison Street Station and planning violence to Emma Goldman before she could be taken to the Cook County Jail. Monday morning, flanked by a heavily armed guard, I was led out of the station-house. There were not a dozen people in sight, mostly curiosity-seekers. As usual, the press had deliberately tried to incite a riot.

Ahead of me were two handcuffed prisoners roughly hustled about by the officers. When we reached the patrol wagon, surrounded by more police, their guns ready for action, I found myself close to the two men. Their features could not be distinguished: their heads were bound up in bandages, leaving only their eyes free. As they stepped up to the patrol wagon, a policeman hit one of them on the head with his club, at the same time pushing the other prisoner violently into the wagon. They fell over each other, one of them shrieking with pain. I got in next, then turned to the officer. "You brute," I said, "how dare you beat that helpless fellow?" The next thing I knew, I was sent reeling to the floor. He had landed his fist on my jaw, knocking out a tooth and covering my face with blood. Then he pulled me up, shoved me into the seat, and yelled: "Another word from you, you damned anarchist, and I'll break every bone in your body!"

I arrived at the office of the county jail with my waist and skirt covered with blood, my face aching fearfully. No one showed the slightest interest or bothered to ask how I came to be in such a battered condition. They did not even give me water to wash up. For two hours I was kept in a room in the middle of which stood a long table. Finally a woman arrived who informed me that I would have to be searched. "All right, go ahead," I said. "Strip and get on the table," she ordered. I had been repeatedly searched, but I had never before been offered such an insult. "You'll have to kill me first, or get your keepers to put me on the table by force," I declared; "you'll never get me to do it otherwise." She hurried out, and I remained alone. After another long wait another woman came in and led me upstairs, where the matron of the tier took charge of me. She was the first to inquire what was the matter with me. After assigned me to a cell she brought a hot-water bottle and suggested that I lie down and get some rest.

The following afternoon Katherine Leckie visited me. I was taken into a room provided with a double wire screen. It was semi-dark, but as soon as Katherine saw me, she cried: "What on God's earth has happened to you? Your face is all twisted!" No mirror, not even of the smallest size, being allowed in the jail, I was not aware how I looked, though my eyes and lips felt queer to the touch. I told Katherine of my encounter with the policeman's fist. She left swearing vengeance and promising to return after seeing Chief O'Neill. Towards evening she came back to let me know that the Chief had assured her the officer would be punished if I would identify him among the guards of the transport. I refused. I had hardly looked at the man's face and I was not sure I could recognize him. Moreover, I told Katherine, much to her disappointment, that the dismissal of the officer would not restore my tooth; neither would it do away with police brutality …

Poor Katherine was not aware that I knew she could do nothing. She was not even in a position to speak through her own paper: her story about the third degree had been suppressed. She promptly replied by resigning; she would no longer be connected with such a cowardly paper, she had told the editor.

Again I was taken to court for a hearing and again the Buffalo authorities failed to produce evidence to connect me with Czolgosz's act. The Buffalo representative and the Chicago judge sitting on the case kept up a verbal fight for two hours, at the end of which Buffalo was robbed of its prey. I was set free.

Ever since my arrest the press of the country had been continually denouncing me as the instigator of Czolgosz's act, but after my discharge the newpapers published only a few lines in an inconspicuous corner to the effect that "after a month's detention Emma Goldman was found not to have been in complicity with the assassin of President McKinley."

Upon my release I was met by Max, Hippolyte, and other friends, with whom I went to the Isaak home. The charges against the comrades arrested in the Chicago raids had also been dismissed. Everyone was in high spirits over my escape from what they had all believed to be a fatal situation. "We can be grateful to whatever gods watch over you, Emma," said Isaak, "that you were arrested here and not in New York." "The gods in this case must have been Chief of Police O'Neill," I said laughingly. "Chief O'Neill!" my friends exclaimed; "what did he have to do with it?" I told them about my interview with him and his promise of help. Jonathan Crane, a journalist friend of ours present, broke out into uproarious laughter. "You are more naïve than I should have expected, Emma Goldman," he said; "it wasn't you O'Neill cared a damn about! it was his own schemes. Being on the Tribune, I happen to know the inside story of the feud in the police department." Crane then related the efforts of Chief O'Neill to put several captains in the penitentiary for perjury and bribery. "Nothing could have come more opportunely for those blackguards than the cry of anarchy," he explained; "they seized upon it as the police did in 1887; it was their chance to pose as saviours of the country and incidentally to whitewash themselves. But it wasn't to O'Neill's interest to let those birds pose as heroes and get back into the department. That's why he worked for you. He's a shrewd Irishman. Just the same, we may be glad that the quarrel brought us back our Emma."

I asked my friends their opinion as to how the idea of connecting my name with Czolgosz had originated. "I refuse to believe that the boy made any kind of confession or involved me in any way," I stated; "I cannot think that he was capable of inventing something which he must have known might mean my death. I'm convinved that no one with such a frank face could be so craven. It must have come from some other source."

"It did!" Hippolyte declared emphatically. "The whole dastardly story was started by a Daily News reporter who used to hang round here pretending to sympathize with our ideas. Late in the afternoon of September 6 he came to the house. He wanted to know all about a certain Czolgosz or Nieman. Had we associated with him? Was he an anarchist? And so forth. Well, you know what I think of reporters—I wouldn't give him any information. But unfortunately Isaak did."

"What was there to hide?" Isaak interrupted. "Everybody about here knew that we had met the man through Emma, and that he used to visit us. Besides, how was I to know that the reporter was going to fabricate such a lying story?"

There's a pencilled note in the copy of the book I have noting that it's the Chicago Daily News that's under discussion, not the New York Daily News.

A trusted person was dispatched to Buffalo, but he soon returned without having been able to visit Czolgosz. He reported that no one was permitted to see him. A sympathetic guard had disclosed to our messenger that Leon had repeatedly been beaten into unconsciousness. His physical appearance was such that no outsider was admitted, and for the same reason he could not be taken to court. My friend further reported that, notwithstanding all the torture, Czolgosz had made no confession whatever and had involved no one in his act.

The tragedy in Buffalo was nearing its end. Leon Czolgosz, still ill from the maltreatment he had endured, his face disfigured and head bandaged, was supported in court by two policemen. In its all-embracing justice and mercy the Buffalo court had assigned two lawyers to his defence. What if they did declare publicly that they were sorry to have to plead the case of such a depraved criminal as the assassin of "our beloved" President!

Czolgosz was sentenced to death in the electric chair.


While it has nothing to do with the preceding story, I noticed while reading the book that Goldman had enjoyed visiting the fair city of San José during the Spanish-American war.

Thenceforth my most important lecture, and the best-attended, was on Patriotism and War.

In San Francisco it went over without interference, but in the smaller California towns we had to fight our way inch by inch. The police, never loath to break up anarchist meetings, stood complacently by and thus encouraged the patriotic disturbers who sometimes made speaking impossible. The determination of our San Francisco group and my own presence of mind saved more than one critical situation. In San Jose the audience looked so threatening that I thought it best to dispense with a chairman and carry the meeting myself. As soon as I began to speak, bedlam broke loose. I turned to the trouble-makers with the request that they choose someone of their own crowd to conduct the meeting. "Go on!" they shouted; "you're only bluffing. You know you wouldn't let us run your show!" "Why not?" I called back. "what we want is to hear both sides, isn't that so?" "Betcher life!" someone yelled. "We must secure order for that, mustn't we?" I continued; "I seem unable to do so. Supposing one of you boys comes up here and shows me how to keep the rest quiet until I have stated my side of the story. After that you can state yours. Now be good American sports."

Boisterous cries, shouts of "Hurrah," calls of "Smart kid, let's give her a chance!" kept the house in confusion for a few minutes. Finally an elderly man stepped up on the platform, banged his cane on the table, and in a voice that would have crumbled the walls of Jericho, bellowed: "Silence! Let's hear what the lady has to say!" There was no further disturbance during my speech of an hour, and when I finished, there was almost an ovation.


The Emma Goldman Papers can be found at UC Berkeley. Why am I not surprised?
Emma Goldman bibliography
Emma Goldman Photos


Francis O'Neill Francis O'Neill 1848-1936
The Police Chief who saved Irish music
A Harvest Saved: A Biography of Francis O'Neill
Captain Francis O'Neill Memorial


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