Moderation in Nashville?

For a brief period in 1905, Ross took up residence in Nashville, in an area in what is now close to Fisk University in the northern part of the city. There, he briefly published a paper entitled To-Day: a Journal of Politics. This paper put forth a confusingly more moderate approach, and in fact, does not assert itself as an anarchist publication at all. Instead, Ross more vaguely proclaims To-Day “a journal of radical truth and advance thought”. This was a brief incarnation of Winn's Firebrand (he in fact indicates that the name itself has been changed), and it seems that he reverted back to publication of the initial paper after, possibly, only one issue of To-Day.

Ross found himself back in Mount Juliet soon enough, occupying an upstairs room of the Smith home with Gussie and their son. He continued to work on completing issues of Firebrand as regularly as possible, still using a small upright hand and pedal operated printing press. Curiously, the living descendents of the Smiths, those whose ancestors shared the home as Gussie's relatives, seem to believe that the family had little to no idea what Ross was up to. Either that, or they refuseed to acknowledge any memory of him in an attempt to eradicate his unwelcome presence from their collective memory. Whatever the truth may be, Ross was clearly a black sheep in the town and in the family. One particular story that was related to us (and unfortunately passed through the generations) concerned a time when Ross was particularly agitated and nervous about a “meeting” he was to attend somewhere outside Tennessee.

This was in 1901, in the months before Leon Czolgosz shot and killed President McKinley, later claiming to have been influenced by Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement (although, by most accounts, the young man had succeeded only in making his new acquaintances nervous with his discussions of plans for murder). The story was that Ross had attended a sort of straw-drawing, wherein the one who drew the shortest straw was charged with the task of assassination. Ross, of course, was notably relieved when he returned home from his “meeting”. It seems absurd to us now, but rumors of this sort only surround the misunderstood and make it clear that Gussie's family had little trust in her lover and husband.

Sometime in 1909, Ross Winn contracted tuberculosis. Known then as “consumption”, the disease has roots in bovine bacterial infections, and was probably originally spread to humans as a result of the domestication of cattle. Typically, only those with compromised immune systems brought upon by malnutrition from poverty are unable to fight the disease off, and it can take years for the infection to finally take its toll on the body.

However, Ross continued his tireless work on Firebrand, despite his failing health, and in 1910, moved briefly to Sweden, Texas with Gussie. He left Gussie in Sweden for a couple of months while he went to San Antonio to look for work, but was unfortunately unable to find anything, and, having gotten himself into debt in the process, sold his printing setup in order to fund his return to Sweden and later back to Mount Juliet.

By this time, Ross and Gussie had very little money, and Ross's condition kept him from both earning a living for his family and spending much time on his paper. Although he continued seeking contributions and setting type, the regularity of Firebrand was compromised by his failing health. In July of 1911, Gussie wrote a letter, in secret, to Emma Goldman asking for any possible financial assistance from their allies — knowing that her husband “would rather starve than beg”. The word was sent out around the country and, all told, some $60 was raised, quite a sum for a small family at that time. Those who respected the work Ross had dedicated his life to were not about to let him and his family starve.

Ross had other plans, though, and refused to spend the money that “the comrades” had sent him on himself or his wife and son. Instead, seeing it only as an opportunity to further the publishing of anarchist propaganda, he spent the majority of the money on a new printing setup and began what was to be his last paper, known as The Advance (but which still carried the Firebrand masthead on the lower half of its cover).

On August 8 of 1912, the degenerative infection of tuberculosis finally took Ross' life. He was still setting type on the August issue of The Advance on the day before he died. He was buried in the Smith cemetery, which is situated across the highway from where the old house still stands. His gravestone is unmarked, as are the others, but is curiously set apart from the rest of the stones in that it is a simple, rectangular concrete slab. In the room where he died, there is a scar in the original floorboards where a pan of sulfur was burned upon his death: a common practice at the time that was thought to disinfect the room in which consumption had overtaken someone.

According to a letter written by Ross Jr. to Goldman in 1934, Ross Sr. mysteriously burned most of his writings just before his death. If it is true tiiat Gussie's family knew little of Ross's work and ideas and held only fear and contempt for him, then perhaps he felt it best for his own family that they never know any more than they already could about the work he had done.

Gussie and Ross Jr. went to Chicago for a brief time immediately after his death, and Gussie went on to later marry a Mr. Cross and move to Oklahoma. Ross Jr. eventually ended up in St. Louis, Missouri and kept up some contact with Emma Goldman and a small handful of his father's friends. He married and had one daughter, Cleo Winn, who died about six years ago.

Emma Goldman's glowing obituary for Ross, published in Mother Earth, The Agitator, and several other papers soon after his death, is a testament to the influence that this farmer's son turned radical poet/publisher had on the revolutionary movement of the early part of this past century, at a time when the anarchist movement in America was arguably more influential in the mainstream than at any other time.

“Never has the power of the Ideal been demonstrated with greater force than in the life and work of this man”, she writes, “for nothing short of a great ideal, a burning, impelling, all-absorbing ideal, could make possible the task that our dead comrade so lovingly performed during a quarter of a century... His were dreams of the world, of humanity, of the struggle for liberty.”

Not much of Ross' work survives him. Most evidence of his writings exist in scattered microfilms, and some of his preserved papers are in the Labadie Collection of radical literature in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of his son's letters to Emma Goldman can also be found in the Goldman Papers Collection, which have shed some light on Ross Jr.'s later interest in his father's memory.

There is more out there, and we have continued to pursue clues as they arise in an attempt to put together the life of this rare Tennessee radical and secure the memory of the ideals he dedicated his life to. It's our hope that those who struggle for the same dreams today can draw inspiration from the courageous work of the past.