In June 1925 Emma Goldman married a coal miner from Carmarthenshire called James Colton in order to obtain British citizenship .
In December 1885 a small band of Lithuanian Jews emigrated to New York. At that time Lithuania formed part of the Russian Empire, and like so many emigrants from Eastern Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century these Jews were seeking refuge from oppression in America. Among the refugees were two young sisters, Helena and Emma Goldman, and scarcely could any of their fellow travellers have imagined how influential one of these girls would become in the political life of the United States.
Emma Goldman was born in the Lithuanian city of Kovno on 27 June 1869, the daughter of an innkeeper, Abraham Goldman, and his wife Taube. She received four years of primary education in a Jewish school in Königsberg, but in 1882 she moved with the family to the Jewish ghetto in St Petersburg. These were troubled times in Russia’s history, with Tsar Alexander II newly assassinated. Revolution was in the air, and like so many young people of her country, Emma started reading the radical literature of the period, – the works of Turgenev and Chernyshevsky, and women like Vera Zasulich and Sophia Pevovskaya became her heroines.
According to the testimony of those who knew him, Abraham Goldman was a hard and cruel man and, according to Emma herself, the bane of her childhood. When he tried to force her to marry in 1885, she and her sister decided to seek a new home in the United States. There she found work in a clothing factory in the Jewish ghetto in Rochester, where she worked ten hours a day for a wage of two and a half dollars a week, and it was not long before she realized that the condition of ordinary workers in America was not much different from that of their counterparts in Russia.
It was a time of industrial unrest in the United States, and the growth of trade unionism caused regular clashes between master and worker. In 1887 four workers were hanged for inciting a riot at Haymarket Square in Chicago. This event had a profound effect on Emma, and when she moved to New York in August 1889 she joined a group of anarchists led by Johann Most, editor of the anarchist newspaper Freiheit. She met Alexander Berkman, a young Russian who shared her ideals, the same month, and the two became lovers. A year later, she embarked on her first lecture tour to Rochester, Buffalo and Cleveland, thereby beginning her career as one of the most eloquent speakers of her day.
She came to realize that addressing meetings and distributing leaflets were not enough, and in 1892 an opportunity arose for her and Berkman to act directly against the establishment. On 6 July that year, nine striking steel workers from the Carnegie Steel Company were killed, and hundreds were injured in a riot in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Emma and Berkman, angered by the incident, immediately left for Homestead, where Berkman shot the chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, Henry Clay Frick. Although Frick recovered from his injuries and succeeded in breaking the workers’ union, Berkman was sentenced to twenty two years imprisonment. A year later, Emma herself was imprisoned on Blackwell Island for declaring, in a speech to a crowd in Union Square, New York, that the unemployed had a perfect right to steal bread if the state failed to support them.
During the year she spent in prison Emma had the opportunity to carry out some practical work as a nurse, and in 1895 she left New York to follow a nursing course in Vienna. She also visited London, where she spoke in Hyde Park and met Peter Kropotkin. She then completed a lecture tour of the north of England and Scotland. On returning to America in 1896 she resumed her mission with zeal. She was ever critical of the institution of marriage, no doubt because of the complete failure of her own marriage to the Russian, Jacob Kersner, which lasted barely a year. During this period Emma became well known for advocating the latest methods of birth control, but all this activity came to a sudden end in 1901, when Leon Czosolgosz, a young man who professed to be an anarchist, assassinated William McKinley, President of the United States, in Buffalo, New York. In his confession Czolgosz declared: ‘I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire. What started the craze to kill was a lecture I heard her deliver some time ago in Cleveland. I and other anarchists went to hear her’. As a result Goldman was also arrested and accused of being involved in the assassination plot, but she was later released for lack of evidence.
Goldman devoted herself during the next few years to writing, and in 1906 she founded a radical monthly magazine entitled Mother Earth. Berkman assisted her with the magazine when he was released from prison. Her Anarchism and Other Essays appeared in 1910, and in the years that followed she proceeded to publish the classic works of Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, Bakunin and Kropotkin. In her fortieth year she met the twenty nine year old Benjamin Lewis Reitman, a hobo-doctor, bisexual, with whom she fell so completely in love that she was consumed with a kind of erotomania. The language she used in her correspondence with him would be considered extreme even today, and her letters to Reitman have been described as ‘pages of pornographic ravings.’ 1
Despite Emma’s low profile during the first decade of the twentieth century, some government officials were busy trying to unearth incriminating evidence which they might be able to use at some future date to deprive her of her citizenship. That opportunity came in 1917 when she and Berkman were arrested for leading the opposition to the Great War and holding public meetings against military conscription. Both were jailed for two years, and during this period J. Edgar Hoover worked on preparing a case against them. On their release from prison in 1919, they were deported to the Soviet Union along with other people of dubious character.
It might be imagined that Emma would have felt quite at home in the Soviet Union after the Revolution in 1917, but this was not the case. Completely disillusioned, she was vehemently opposed to the new order, chronicling her experiences in 1923 in the volume My Disillusionment in Russia. Consequently Emma and Berkman left for Europe in 1921, and spent some periods in England, Sweden and Germany, writing and addressing political meetings. But she longed to return to America, and she could only realize this dream by becoming a British citizen.
In October 1926 she arrived in Canada, hoping to return to the United States. By then she claimed British citizenship through her marriage on June 27 1925 to James Colton, a collier from the Aman Valley in Carmarthenshire. News of this wedding caused a considerable stir among senior government officials in America, second only to the stir it caused in the Aman Valley. Journalists from the New York Times and reporters from the London newspapers were regular visitors to the Aman Valley in the following months, eager to scoop the story of the courtship. But James Colton was a taciturn man. According to a report published in The New York Times on 21 November 1926:
Glanamman, Carmarthenshire, South Wales: Cupid was armed with a coal pick when he dug his way into the heart of Emma Goldman. James Colton, a miner living here, is the man whom the Anarchist leader chose after spurning marriage for forty years. Colton won’t say much at present about the romance, which he considers ‘the personal affair of the two of us’, but told the Associated Press: ‘I have just completed writing the first true story of our association which extends over twenty years. It is a story that many have sought since the news of our romance was broadcast throughout the world, but as yet I have the manuscript in my desk, and perhaps it may remain there always. I am at liberty, however, to make public these interesting details when I see fit’
Recent Canadian despatches told of the arrival here of the former Miss Goldman under the name of Mrs E. G. Colton. Colton, who is of Scotch birth calls the little home which he has long lived as a bachelor – ‘Station Cottage’. There are several photographs of Mrs Colton on the walls, and a small likeness in a silver frame on his desk near the window, where he writes in his hours of freedom from the mines.
Neighbors say the couple met twenty odd years ago. Then came a long period during which they did not see each other. Miss Goldman spent most of her time in the U.S.A. until she was deported in 1919. When the Bolsheviki forced her out of Russia, Cupid got busy again and brought them together, and the romance of the Anarchist and the miner ripened. The neighbor’s won’t say much about the romance because they all like Colton and agree with him that if he has married it is ‘his affair and hers’, and that Jim will tell all about it when the time arrives.
In the summer of 1974, I had the opportunity of visiting, at her home in Pontardawe, Mrs Fay Colton, Jim Colton’s daughter-in-law, whose late husband (also named Jim) had worked with my grandfather at the Gelliceidrim colliery in Glanaman. Mrs Colton showed me a large scrap-book of press cuttings about Goldman, which her father-in-law had kept, together with a small collection of Goldman’s letters to Jim Colton. However, there was no sign of the ‘manuscript’ mentioned in the report which was published in The New York Times. Mrs Colton was familiar with the Colton-Goldman story, and confirmed that her father-in-law was born in Scotland in 1860, and had moved to Penarth, near Cardiff, when he was a boy. He then found employment in a bakery at Upper Boat, near Pontypridd. However, he later moved to Glanaman where he became a miner at the Gelliceidrim colliery.
There were in the Aman Valley at this time, a number of young men who held radical ideas in social doctrine. In 1913 the eccentric millionaire George Davison, managing director of the Kodak Company, had purchased the old vicarage in Ammanford for £1,500, and had presented it to a group of local radicals as a centre for the study and promotion of political ideas 3 . Soon, the ‘White House’, as it was called, became known as a meeting place for the young socialists of the district, and Noah Ablett, T. Rhondda Williams, T. E. Nicholas and the brothers Stet and Ben Wilson of Berkley, California, addressed meetings there from time to time4 . Jim Colton probably attended these meetings at the White House and came to know other early socialists in the Aman Valley, such as Jack Griffiths, Edgar Bassett, D. R. Owen, Harry Arthur and James Griffiths 5 . It is believed that he first met Emma Goldman when she was on a lecture tour in Edinburgh in the 1890s, and that their friendship was renewed when she returned to lecture in the south Wales valleys in the 1920s. Jim Colton was aware of her desire to return to the United States, and as he had buried his first wife, he suggested that they marry in order to secure British citizenship for her. The marriage took place in London on 27 June 1925.
There are only two references to James Colton in Emma’s autobiography, Living My Life, but the letters to her husband, show that she was not a woman to forget a kindness. On 22 June 1926, a few days before the first anniversary of their marriage, with the great miners’ strike at its height, Emma wrote to him:
Another five days and it will be a year that you have taken the anxiety from me as to where I might have some safety. I shall always remember that, dear friend. I want you to have a little holiday on the 27th … for that I enclose a £1. I wish I could make it a hundred times as much. I’d love to be able to help the miners.
However, Emma’s wish to return to America was not realised until 1940 when she was buried in the Waldheim cemetery in Chicago in May of that year.
The story of her stormy career became the theme of the Hollywood film Reds, starring Warren Beatty, – a film which won a number of Oscar awards in 1981 for best film and best cinematography. Maureen Stapleton was also awarded an Oscar for her portrayal of the American feminist and anarchist. In 1999 the Teliesyn Co-operative under the directorship of Colin Thomas produced a Welsh language documentary on the anarchist’s relationship with Jim Colton 6 . Goldman’s life and work has also become a rich field of study for historians and feminists alike, but her relationship with James Colton, a miner from the Aman Valley stilll remains shrouded in mystery.
First published in The Carmarthenshire Antiquary, Volume XXXIX, 2003, pages 114 – 121
- 1Bernard Levin in a review of Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life, (Alice Wexler), The Observer, 10 March 1985.
- 2‘Goldman Romance Covered Twenty Years. Anarchist Leader Married to Colton, a Miner in Wales After a Long Separation’, The New York Times, 21 November 1926. Cf the report by ‘The Watchman’ [Fred Thomas] editor of The Amman Valley Chronicle in the edition of 16 May 1940: ‘I remember being sent to interview the late Mr Colton on the subject of his supposed marriage. Mr Colton preferred to keep a silent tongue. He would neither deny nor confirm the authenticity of the claim’.
- 3See T. Brennan, ‘The White House’, The Cambridge Journal, 7 (1953-1954), 243-8; T. Brennan, E. W. Cooney and H. Pollins, Social Change in South-West Wales, (London, 1954), 27-8, 149-50. On George Davison (1856-1930), see Brian Coe, ‘George Davison: Impressionist and Anarchist’, in Mike Weaver, ed., British Photography in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge, 1989), 215-41; Idem, The Birth of Photography: The Story of the Formative Years 1800-1900, (London, 1989), 107.
- 4 However, a number of local people were uneasy with the activities of some of the members of the White House. David Rees Griffith (‘Amanwy’), the brother of James Griffiths who was later to become the Labour Member of Parliament for the Llanelli constituency, wrote in his gossip column in The Herald of Wales in November 1913, following a meeting which he had attended at the White House, that ‘it will indeed be a sad day for the people of Wales if the ideals which were promulgated there that evening should ever come to pass’.
- 5James Griffiths, Pages From Memory, (London, 1969), 20-21; J. Beverley Smith, ‘An Appreciation’, in James Griffiths and His Times, (Llanelli, 1977), 72-4.
- 6‘Dilyn Ddoe: F’annwyl, Annwyl Emma’, was broadcast on S4C on 8 May 1999. See Colin Thomas, ‘Red Emma and Sweet Solidarity’, Planet, 133 (February/March 1999), 58-63.