When ‘the Socialist’ came to town


During the past few months, pundits and politicians have been amazed by the huge turnouts at Bernie Sanders’ rallies. Sanders, an avowed socialist, evidently poses no threat to public safety or the government, as the police presence at his events has been unexceptional – just the usual numbers sufficient to handle large crowds. No accounts of his speeches accused him of fomenting revolution.

This acceptance of a socialist candidate for president, albeit under the banner of the Democratic Party, brings to mind another gathering and the speech of an avowed socialist many years ago. It was described in an article titled “The Day the Anarchist Came to Town,” written by Dr. Carol Ingall for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes.

The year was 1905. “Fear of anarchism and revolution were rampant…,” she wrote. The assassination of five heads of state and the wave of strikes sweeping Russia in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday fueled a sense of alarm. Newspapers, including the Rhode Island dailies, carried stories that conflated - openly or by implication – revolution, anarchism and Jewish socialists.

In January of 1905, the Providence police received a tip about a meeting that was about to take place at What Cheer Hall. A famous anarchist, they were told, was in town to address a group of his supporters. The police quickly surrounded the building, turned off the gas (no lights, no heat), and claimed no license had been procured by the sponsors of the event.

The sponsoring organization was the Providence branch of the Arbeiter Ring, the Workmen’s Circle. The Workmen’s Circle was and is an organization espousing social, economic, and political justice and equality, as well as Yiddish culture. It is also a mutual aid society with branches and schools in the United States and Canada. At one time both Providence and Pawtucket had branches; Providence supported a school where Yiddish language, literature and history were taught. The school closed in 1942, but the branch continued operating for several more years.

Undaunted by the actions of the police on that January night in 1905, the Workmen’s Circle secured the necessary permits, rented a hall at 128 North Main St., and rescheduled the lecture by Benjamin Feigenbaum.

Feigenbaum, editor of the Yiddish-language socialist literary magazine Zukunft (The Future) and a former general secretary of the Workmen’s Circle, was a popular speaker. His brush with anarchism had come during visits to anarchist hangouts in London. Once known as an agitator for socialism and a devout atheist given to anti-religious polemics, he had mellowed by 1905. World events and the pervasive anti-Semitism of the time had tempered his radicalism.

Still wary of the possible provocations of the “anarchist,” the police chief devised a new strategy.

The Providence police had one Jewish policeman, Hyman Goldsmith. Because he could understand Yiddish, he was posted at the door of the meeting hall to listen in on the proceedings. One word of “Emma Goldmanism” or “bomb throwing” and he was to tip off the plainclothesmen who had infiltrated the audience and the police stationed outside. The hall would be cleared immediately.

Nothing approaching anything revolutionary occurred. Feigenbaum took as his text the words by Roger Williams engraved on the Rhode Island Statehouse: “To hold forth a lively experiment that the most flourishing State may stand and be best maintained, with full liberty in religious concernments.” 

For two hours and 15 minutes, Feigenbaum stressed the compatibility of religion and socialism. He also raised the question of why it was acceptable for a religious person to join the Democratic or Republican parties, but that same person was considered a crank or misfit for becoming a member of the Socialist Party.

The plainclothesmen, immediately recognized by members of the audience, also had to endure mini-lectures from people sitting nearby on the oppression of workers and police brutality.

Even for a mellowed Feigenbaum, his speech was pallid, Dr. Ingall wrote. Perhaps he had “cleaned up his act” because he knew of the police presence. Perhaps Patrolman Goldsmith, described in newspaper accounts as listening in rapt attention to the lengthy speech, translated a “gussied up” and toned-down version for the benefit of reporters and police.

The newspapers had a field day at the expense of the police when the feared anarchist turned out to be anything but a provocateur. Still, other stories involving Jews during that month were hardly sympathetic. Only on that one day in January 1905 did prejudice against Jews, immigrants and “anarchists” take second place to poking fun at  Providence’s police force.            

GERALDINE FOSTER is a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association article, email info@rijha.org