Becky Edelsohn

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June 6, 1914, in Tarrytown, New York
Edelsohn being taken from jail, 1914

Rebecca Edelsohn, in contemporary sources often given as Becky Edelson, (1892–1973) was an anarchist and hunger striker who was jailed in 1914 for disorderly conduct during an Industrial Workers of the World speech.[1][2] According to The New York Times, she was the first woman to attempt a hunger strike in the United States.[3]


Edelsohn was born in 1892 in Odessa, Ukraine.[4] Her family came to the United States when she was one or two years old. Later, she spent some time living in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. She was discharged from the orphanage on May 14, 1902. As a teenager, she lived in Emma Goldman's home.[5]

In 1906, after Alexander Berkman's release from prison, Edelsohn became his close companion and, the following year, his lover.[5][6] She was arrested in 1906 at a meeting to discuss Leon Czolgosz. She was arrested again at an International Brotherhood Welfare Association meeting at Cooper Union on Labor Day, 1908.[5] She was arrested again on May 23, 1909, along with Leopold Bergman and charged with disorderly conduct.[5][7]

In 1911, Ben Reitman performed an illegal abortion for her.[8]

Following the Ludlow Massacre in 1914, Edelsohn helped to lead anti-Rockefeller demonstrations in Tarrytown, New York.[9] On the first day of demonstrations, Edelsohn, Arthur Caron, Charles Plunkett, and other anarchists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after giving speeches at the public square.[2][10] At her hearing, Edelsohn was specifically cited for calling John D. Rockefeller, Jr. a "multi-murderer".[2] The demonstrators rejected legal counsel and furiously pleaded their own defense, with Edelsohn at the forefront of the group. She denounced the charges as politically motivated, and scornfully dismissed the court as illegitimate: "This town is owned by John D. Rockefeller. We don't expect justice here."[2] She was jailed at Blackwell's Island where she refused to accept any nourishment other than water. In a letter smuggled to Alexander Berkman, she wrote, "I am still sticking to my programme, having fasted over twenty-seven days. I am very weak." This letter prompted Edelsohn's friends to raise the $300 necessary to post a bond for her release.[11]

Edelsohn married fellow anarchist Charles Plunkett after World War I. Their marriage lasted nine years. The couple had a son.[12]

Edelsohn died of emphysema in 1973.[13]


Maurice Hollod, an anarchist associated with Mother Earth and the New York Ferrer Center, remembered marching with Edelsohn in a 1972 interview with anarchist historian Paul Avrich:

A black flag was flying, and Becky Edelsohn was marching arm in arm with Charles Plunkett. She was a tremendously fiery person, always two steps ahead of Berkman or Goldman. She called for the immediate destruction of the capitalist system — a real propaganda-of-the-deedist! She was famous for her red stockings, which she was wearing that day. We marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square to 107th Street. At Fifty-Ninth Street a black limousine was crossing and stopped momentarily for the crowd. Becky opened the door and spat in the face of the plutocrats.[14]


  1. ^ "Fast Hasn't Hurt Becky Edelson Yet". The New York Times. July 23, 1914. Retrieved 2011-03-18. Becky Edelson, in the fifty-second hour of her hunger strike, underwent a slight change of disposition yesterday afternoon. Her rebellious mood softened. She greeted kindly Dr. Anna Hubert, whom she treated with scorn on her arrival on Blackwell's Island from the Tombs on Monday morning, and when Dr. Hubert renewed her proposal that Miss Edelson should submit to a physical examination, the hungry and thirsty prisoner submitted willingly.
  2. ^ a b c d "Tarrytown Police Rout I.W.W. Forces" (PDF). The New York Times. June 1, 1914.
  3. ^ "An I.W.W. Heroine, Although She Ate: Becky Edelson Is Freed from Jail and Has a Great Reception" (PDF). The New York Times. April 28, 1914. Retrieved 2011-03-18. Becky Edelson, the first woman to attempt a hunger strike in this country, was freed yesterday afternoon from the Queens County Jail in Long Island City, and last night was proclaimed the chief heroine of the I.W.W. and anarchistic agitators at a reception given in her honor at the offices of Mother Earth, an anarchistic publication controlled by Emma Goldman.
  4. ^ She listed herself as age 21 in the 1910 United States Federal Census; however, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum listed "Rebecca Edelsohn" as born about 1892 in their records.
  5. ^ a b c d Falk, Candace; Pateman, Barry; Moran, Jessica, eds. (2005). Volume 2: Making Speech Free, 1902–1909. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 519–520. ISBN 978-0-520-22569-5. Rebecca Edelsohn (nickname Becky) (b. ca. 1891–1973) New York anarchist militant. Edelsohn lived at EG's home when she was a teenager. She was in her early teens when AB was released from prison and was one of the few people he felt comfortable with. She helped AB rehabilitate himself and became his companion in late 1907. Arrested in 1906 along with a number of other young anarchists at a meeting to discuss whether Leon Czolgosz was an anarchist, their arrests helped bring AB back into political activity. She was arrested again at an International Brotherhood Welfare Association meeting at Cooper Union on Labor Day 1908, with AB, for defending Ben Reitman, after Reitman was attacked for reading a speech criticizing Labor Day that was actually written by EG. Edelsohn was arrested again on May 23, 1909, with Leopold Bergman and charged with disorderly conduct at EG's Lexington Hall meeting that was broken up by the police.
  6. ^ Wexler, Alice (1984). Emma Goldman in America. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-8070-7003-1.
  7. ^ "Two Arrests Outside Hall. Policeman Struck, While, as He Says, a Girl Held His Hands". The New York Times. May 24, 1909. Police interference yesterday with a meeting in Lexington Hall, which is composed of two converted brownstone dwellings, at 109 and 111 East 116th Street, stopped a lecture on the drama which Emma Goldman was delivering and resulted in two periods of disorder, in the second of which a policeman was assaulted and arrests were made.
  8. ^ Falk, Candace (1990). Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-8135-1513-7.
  9. ^ Hyman, Paula E. (1997). Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Routledge. p. 52. ISBN 0-415-91934-7.
  10. ^ Abbott, Leonard D. (June 1914). "The Fight for Free Speech in Tarrytown". Mother Earth. 9 (4).
  11. ^ "Free Becky Edelson; Funeral Plans Off" (PDF). The New York Times. August 21, 1914.
  12. ^ Avrich, Paul (1980). The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-691-04669-3.
  13. ^ Avrich, Paul (1995). Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 492. ISBN 978-0-691-03412-6. Becky Edelsohn, a New York anarchist and sometime lover of Alexander Berkman, actually died of emphysema in 1973.
  14. ^ Avrich. Anarchist Voices. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-691-03412-6.