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One Powerful Handshake


Over the past 100 years, anarchist, writer, orator, and women’s rights activist Emma Goldman has influenced many people, inspiring them to stand up for their rights and beliefs. The influence that Goldman had on Private First Class William Buwalda was a bit stronger than most – it changed the course of his life entirely.

Emma Goldman in 1911. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

On April 26th of 1908, Buwalda attended Goldman’s lecture at Walton’s Pavilion in San Francisco wearing his full Army uniform. After the lecture, he shook Goldman’s hand. Detectives who had witnessed the handshake followed Buwalda  to his Army base and turned him into the Army authorities.

Buwalda was court martialed him for breaking the 62nd Article of War, which states that a service member can be court martialed or other punishments for participating in “contemptuous or disrespectful words against the President, Vice President, the Congress of the U. S., the Secretary of War or the Governor or Legislature of any states.” Not only was he court martialed, but he was found guilty by a military court, dishonorably discharged and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, sentenced to five years at hard labor on Alcatraz!

An anarchist May Day rally in Union Square, 1913. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Buwalda’s commanding officer, General Funston, called Buwalda’s interaction with Goldman “a great military offence, infinitely worse than desertion, a serious crime, equal to treason.”About a month later, Buwalda’s sentence was commuted to three years hard labor because of his 15 years of exemplary military service. The court decided that Buwalda was under the spell of an “anarchist orator” and therefore wasn’t really in control of his actions.

Goldman immediately started a campaign to free Buwalda, which was successful. Buwalda served only 10 months in prison before he was pardoned by President Theodore Roosevelt, who disliked the anarchist movement, and Goldman in particular. Buwalda was released on December 31st, 1908. In January of 1909, Emma Goldman announced that anarchists across the country had raised one thousand dollars for Buwalda to begin a new life after prison.

Emma Goldman in Union Square, May 21, 1916.

That new life started rapidly when Buwalda became an anarchist orator! He spoke with Goldman in San Francisco soon after his release. The very next night, Goldman and Buwalda were arrested for disturbing the peace. In April, Buwalda sent a letter to the Secretary of War returning his medal that he had received for bravery while fighting in the Phillippines, saying that he had no use for it and that the Secretary should give it to someone who might appreciate it more.

For the rest of Buwalda’s story, we can turn to this exerpt from Mother Earth, a monthly anarchist magazine founded and edited by Goldman:

Mother Earth, Vol. 6 No. 1, March 1911.

If one handshake from Emma Goldman could alter a Buwalda’s life so drastically, imagine what an entire Tenement Talk about her can do for you!

Next Wednesday, Historian Thai Jones, journalist Rebecca Traister, City Council Member Rosie Mendez, and author Vivian Gornick will discuss how Goldman has influenced them personally. Our Tenement Talk, “Emma Goldman’s Legacy” will begin at 6:30 PM at 103 Orchard Street on April 9th. More information here.

– Posted by Lib Tietjen