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Lillian Rubel, Becky Edelson, Louise Berger and Alex Berkman, 1914

Becky Edelson

America's first and second hunger strikes, according to the NY Times

In April of 1914, 22 year old Becky Edelson, a known anarchist and the much younger roommate of Emma Goldman, was arrested in New York City and charged with inciting a riot. It began with a speech delivered by Becky in Printing House Square (near City Hall and now known as One Pace Plaza) where she loudly proclaimed that no flag was worth fighting for. A crowd gathered and began throwing rocks at her. A police officer asked Edelson to stop speaking, but when she refused and carried on with her speech, he arrested her.

She rejected council and chose to defend herself in her hearing.

"I did not say anything about the American flag," she stated in court, "but what I did say was that no flag was worth fighting for...the poor people are simply misled by a false idea of patriotism, and I urged them to wake up to this fact."

Becky was offered a peace bond by the judge that would release her from prison if she agreed not to speak publicly for three months, but she rebuffed the offer. She was sentenced to three months in jail. As she was being taken away, Becky cried out to the court that she would begin a hunger strike immediately.

Printing House Square, New York City

That night, fellow anarchist and Becky's lover, Alexander Berkman waited by the front gate of the prison until nightfall. He had a plate of food sent to Becky but she refused the meal and instead, gave it to a young woman who had been charged with shoplifting.

The commission of corrections and first woman to head an agency in New York City,  Dr.Katherine Davis, was astonished to find that the "hunger strike" had appeared in the United States. At first, she thought the case had something to do with suffrage, as in England, but upon being corrected, she stated, "I do not anticipate any trouble from hunger strikes here in New York City."

 

She was certain that the legal system would take care of prisoners in a humane way.

Correction Commissioner Dr. Katherine Davis, 1915

In Becky's 56th hour without food or water, her friends became concerned for her health and posted a $300 bail (about $7,400 today).

At her trial in July of 1914, Becky was found guilty of inciting a riot and was again offered a plea deal for her silence. She rejected it and was taken to the penitentiary on Blackwell Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) in the East River.

Here, she began a second, much longer, hunger strike.

At one point during her incarceration, she wrote to Berkman.  She wrote, "I am sticking to my programme, having fasted over 27 days. I am very weak."

Berkman issued funeral invitations for he had "complete faith in Ms. Edelson and in her determination to starve herself as a protest against the abrogation by the courts of the right to free speech in America."

"No there won't be any starving to death on Blackwell's Island by Miss Edelson," said Commissioner Katherine Davis, "Hunger striking may be new in America as a political expedient, but it is quite an old practice in institutions with which I have been familiar. I know all about it and also about forcible feeding,which is quite a simple and expedient remedy.  I have seen many persons treated in that way. There is no danger in forcible feeding and is of no discomfort unless the patients fight against the process. A very delicate rubber tube is introduced into the nostrils and through this a mixture of beaten eggs and milk is poured. It is not disagreeable food and it is quite nourishing."

Becky's hunger strike captivated New Yorkers and news of her health was published daily in the New York Times. Eventually, Dr. Davis stopped giving updates to the press about Becky's health because she did not want her prisoner to think she was extraordinary. Becky had up until that point asked for the daily paper so that she could read what the press was saying about her and the progression of her hunger strike.

After a 31 day fast, Becky's friends again collected money and posted a bond for her release. Becky swore she had not touched food in her time in Blackwell Island, but propaganda spread by Dr. Davis suggested Becky had broken her fast when she was offered bonbons.

Force-feeding equipment. Image from the Galleries of Justice and the British Museum.

Becky Edelson being taken from jail, 1914

Becky vehemently denied the accusations, though it was be noted that some were surprised by her heartiness and good health upon leaving Blackwell Island.

After her release, Becky was interviewed and said, "Blackwell Island is a horrible place whose horrors have not even been brought halfway to the surface...I was determined to remain on hunger strike because I could not see the State had any right to take away my liberty."

Becky Edelson continued to protest and speak publicly against John D Rockefeller and the upper classes, but the public gradually lost interest and Becky disappeared from the headlines. Alexander Berkman, along with Emma Goldman, was arrested and deported to Russia. He committed suicide in 1936. Goldman died in 1940 after a stroke that left her speechless.

Becky had one son and died in California in 1973.

Becky Edelson, 1914