Ben Reitman, Goldman's manager and lover
  • Ben Reitman, Goldman's manager and lover
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On May 7, a shootout took place at 13th and K between police and the IWW. Each side told a different story. The facts: one officer wounded, another’s head cut by an axe; Joseph Mikolasek of the IWW shot twice. He died 19 days later.

Emma Goldman — “Red Emma,” the nationally-known anarchist — was in Los Angeles when Mikolasek died. She had organized a feeding station at IWW headquarters for the “destitute boys who had escaped their tormenters [in San Diego] and had reached us alive.”

No local funeral parlor would bury Mikolasek, so Goldman had his body shipped to Los Angeles. At a memorial attended by hundreds of mourners, she said that Mikolasek had been “obscure and unknown in life, but he grew to country-wide stature in his death.”

Moved by the scores of bruises, blood-drenched clothes, and broken bones that kept trailing into the feeding station, Goldman decided to give a lecture in San Diego: her topic, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, about a man like Mikolasek who stands his ground against an entire community.

Goldman announced her plan in cables to police chief Keno Wilson and mayor James Wadham. She’d given talks in San Diego before. But this time, both urged her to stay away. Of what followed, Goldman wrote: “No dramatist could have imagined a more inflammatory scenario.”

Goldman called her manager-lover, Dr. Ben Reitman, “Hobo.” An eccentric from Chicago, he wore long black hair and clothes that, said Goldman, “were successful fugitives from soap and water.” His shabby look was a deliberate comment, he said, on “bushwa” morality. While conceding that he helped Goldman in many ways, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn dubbed Reitman a “half-loaf liberal” and “an insufferable buffoon.”

On May 14, when their train pulled into the California Southern depot, a large crowd awaited the “Red Queen” and the “Hobo King.” (“It did not occur to me,” Goldman wrote, “that the reception was for us.”) Cars blocked the tracks. Under fancy hats, women dressed for a night on the town shouted, “Give us the anarchist!” “We’ll strip her naked!” “We’ll tear out her guts!”

E.E. Kirk, the original Wobbly lawyer, and his wife had promised to meet Goldman at the station. Peering through the window at raised fists and flickering flags, Goldman couldn’t spot the Kirks.

“Let’s go to the hotel,” said Reitman, pointing to the U.S. Grant’s bright-red, double-decked autobus parked off to the side. Since no one had considered that they might take a shuttle, Goldman and Reitman snuck on unobserved. The inside was stuffy, so they climbed to the upper deck, where the Kirks sat in the open air.

“There’s that Goldman woman! Up there!”

Hundreds mobbed the bus. They pounded doors and tried to scale the sides. They wanted to hurl “the most dangerous woman in America” to the ground.

Fearing for his life, the driver floored the gas pedal. He blitzed nine blocks up Broadway to the U.S. Grant.

At the hotel, bystanders watched a puzzling sight. The bus skidded to a stop before the handsome carriage entrance, where police had formed a protective gauntlet. But instead of elegant VIPs, a scruffy, working-class couple fled through the lines of bluecoats and into the swank structure that had been completed less than two years earlier at a cost of $1.9 million.

Soon after, honking horns and whistles streamed up Broadway. A parade of pedestrians, over two blocks long, followed. They waved flags, sang songs, and punctuated sentences with “Goldman,” “anarchist,” or “red.”

The original Free Speech protest began a block away, in January, at Fifth and E. By nightfall, four months later, at least a thousand San Diegans swarmed in front of the U.S. Grant and became the city’s largest anti–free speech mass meeting. They resented Goldman’s presence — and wanted blood.

The harried couple had just settled into their rooms on the third floor when James H. Holmes, hotel manager, ran in: vigilantes had checked the register; they knew where the anarchists were staying. Holmes wanted to transfer them to a top-floor suite. Once there, they couldn’t leave, he added, even for meals. “Vigilantes’re in an ugly mood.”

Goldman and Reitman watched the mob swell through the sixth floor’s celebrated windows. Horns tooted, voices sang patriotic songs or howled and jeered at the “anarchist murderess.”

A rap on the door: Holmes and two others. The mayor and chief of police wanted Goldman downstairs.

“Ben sensed danger,” she wrote, “and insisted that I ask them to send the visitors up. It seemed timid to me. It was evening, and we were in the principal hotel of the city. What could happen to us?”

Holmes escorted the couple into a room off the lobby. Seven men stood in a semi-circle. Chief Wilson entered. With his blue officer’s cap he loomed even taller than his six-foot-three-inch frame.

“Please come with me,” he said to Goldman. “The mayor and other officials are next door.”

When Reitman rose, Wilson said, “You aren’t wanted, Doctor. Wait here.”

Goldman entered a room, facing Broadway, filled with official-looking men. Through partially drawn blinds, she saw demonstrators under electric streetlights. They chanted, “Emma, Emma, in a dilemma!”

“Hear that mob?” asked a grim-faced man. “They mean business.”

He could have been the mayor or police commissioner John Sehon. Goldman wasn’t sure. Don’t let the fancy clothes down there fool you, he said — many, if not most, were vigilantes. “They want to get you and Reitman out of the hotel. We cannot guarantee anything.”

Goldman stared, dumbfounded.

“If you consent to leave,” the man added, “we will get you safely out of town.”

“That’s very nice,” said Goldman, “but why don’t you disperse the crowd? Use the same measures you have against the free-speech fighters?”

Goldman raised her voice: “Your ordinance makes it a crime to gather in the business districts. Hundreds of IWWs, anarchists, socialists, and trade-union men have been clubbed, arrested, and some even killed for this offense. Yet you allow the vigilante mob to congregate in the busiest part of the town and obstruct traffic. All you have to do is disperse these law-breakers!”

“We can’t,” the man replied. “These people are in a dangerous mood — and your presence makes things worse.”

“Very well, then, let me speak to them.” Goldman started toward a window. “I’ve faced infuriated men before and could always pacify them!”

Two men blocked her path. The man in charge said no.

“I’ve never accepted protection from the police,” Goldman blurted, “and do not intend to now. I charge all of you men here of being in league with the vigilantes!”

Someone said that if anything happened, “I [Goldman] should have only myself to blame.”

With that, she went to Reitman’s room. But the door was locked. A gentle rap. No reply. She pounded hard. Nothing. “The noise I made brought a hotel clerk. He unlocked the door, but no one was there.”

She ran back to the lobby, just as Chief Wilson emerged from the other room.

“Where’s Reitman?” Goldman asked. “What have you done with him?”

“How should I know?”

“If any harm comes to him, you’ll pay if I have to do it with my own hands!”

No one claimed to know where Reitman had gone. Goldman returned to her room and paced. She couldn’t telephone anyone. That would “endanger their safety.”

“I felt helpless. Time dragged on, and at midnight I dozed off from sheer fatigue.” She dreamed of Reitman, “bound and gagged, his hands groping for me. I struggled to reach him and woke up with a scream, bathed in sweat.”

Raps on the door: the house detective and another man. Reitman was safe, the detective said. Vigilantes had put him on a train for Los Angeles, unhurt.

Goldman didn’t believe a word, but the second man looked honest, and he was nodding in agreement.

Holmes entered. He pleaded with Goldman to leave. She couldn’t give her lecture and Reitman was gone. She had no reason to stay.

“I was only endangering his position,” she said. “He hoped I would not take undue advantage because I was a woman. If I remained, the vigilantes would drive me out of town, anyhow.”

Two bellhops escorted her to a taxi on a side street. She rode down deserted Broadway to the depot. As she boarded the “Owl Train” at 2:45 a.m., horns, blaring like fire alarms, headed her way: “The fearful sound I had first heard at the station.” Someone must have tipped off the vigilantes.

“Hurry!” It was a man’s voice. “Get in quick!”

Two men helped her into a Pullman car. They lowered the blinds and locked the door. Outside, heavy shoes and boots pounded the platform, then came a riot of rumbles on the thick wooden planks. “There was mad yelling and cursing — hideous and terrifying moments till at last the train pulled out.”

As the train headed north, it stopped at several stations. No Reitman. And he wasn’t at the Los Angeles depot. When she reached her apartment, Goldman realized that “the U.S. Grant Hotel men had lied to get me out of town!”

Reitman’s Account
Within minutes after Goldman left for the other room, the seven men with Reitman drew revolvers from their overcoats and pointed toward the door. “Utter a sound,” one said, “we’ll kill you.”

Two grabbed his arms, a third the front of his coat, another the back. They led him down the corridor to the kitchen, took the kitchen elevator to the basement and the freight elevator up to the Third Street sidewalk. There, a car awaited.

The car slowly drove east down Broadway. When the crowd recognized Reitman in the back seat, “they set up a howl.”

A second car followed behind, “containing several persons who looked like businessmen.”

As soon as they left the central district, said Reitman, “these Christian gentlemen…kicked, pounded, bit me and subjected me to every cruel, diabolical, malicious torture that a God-fearing respectable businessman is capable of conceiving.”

“We could tear your guts out,” one boasted through alcohol-tinted breath, “but we promised the chief of police to not kill you.”

About 20 miles from town — possibly near Rancho Peñasquitos — the cars stopped but kept their headlights on. Fourteen men formed a ring around their prey. “Undress,” one said. When Reitman refused, they tore off his clothes and “kicked and beat me until I was almost insensible.”

As the others whooped and hooted, someone — Reitman said it was a “doctor” — lit a cigar and burned “IWW across my buttocks.”

They poured a can of tar over his head and “feathered” him with sagebrush.

“One attempted to push a cane into my rectum,” said Reitman. Someone urinated on him, and “another twisted my testicles.”

Though he could barely move, they ordered him to kiss the American flag and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” — “with feeling.”

“When they tired of the fun, they gave me my underwear, for fear we should meet any women.” They also returned his vest — “in order that I might carry my money, railroad ticket, and watch” — but “the rest of my clothes they stole from me in highway fashion.”

Then the vigilantes formed two lines and ordered Reitman to run a gauntlet. As he hobbled along, “each one gave me a blow or a kick. Then they let me go.”

At 10:00 a.m. the next morning, Goldman received a long-distance call. An unfamiliar voice told her that Reitman was on a train for Los Angeles. His “friends should bring a stretcher to the station.”

“Is he alive?” Goldman shouted. “Are you telling the truth? Is he alive?”

No response.

Goldman and several others waited at the station for hours. When the train arrived, “Ben lay in a rear car, all huddled up. He was in blue overalls, his face deathly pale, a terrified look in his eyes…and his hair was sticky with tar.”

He couldn’t speak. “Only his eyes tried to convey what he had passed through.”

The New York Times said Reitman exaggerated his story (“he got a mild coating of cold pine tar with a few leaves in it, but no beating”) and San Diego’s civic leaders denied that the “patriotic ceremony” ever happened. But Reitman was never the same. The assault, wrote Goldman, “consumed him with terror” and “became almost a hallucination.” ■


  1. Emma Goldman: “San Diego had always enjoyed considerable freedom of speech” until “the city fathers passed an ordinance doing away with the custom.”
  2. Goldman: “Ben’s case was but one of many since the struggle in San Diego had begun, but it helped to focus greater attention on the scene of savagery.”
  3. Jim Miller: “The vigilantes were not aberrations in San Diego’s otherwise tolerant hegemony, but rather an expression of the city’s essential character.”


  • Davis, Mike, et al, Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, New York, 2003.

  • Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.

  • Drinnon, Richard, Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman, Chicago, 1961.

  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, 1969.

  • Foner, Philip S., The Industrial Workers of the World: 1905–1917, New York, 1965.

  • Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, The Rebel Girl, New York, 1955.
  • Goldman, Emma, Living My Life, New York, 1931.
  • McWilliams, Carey, Southern California: An Island on the Land, Salt Lake City, 1946.

  • Miller, Jim, Flash, Oakland, 2010.

  • Articles in various newspapers.

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