There was a time when Rochester, N.Y., was the hometown of two of America’s most famous women. One was Susan B. Anthony. The other was once described by the U.S. attorney general as the “most dangerous woman in America.” President Theodore Roosevelt called her a “madwoman and a moral pervert.” In 1901, her hometown paper said that Rochester had “the melancholy distinction of being the home city of the high priestess of the cult of destruction.”
She was an avowed anarchist, bitter opponent of marriage, nearly indicted after the assassination of President William McKinley, jailed for advocating against the draft in World War I, an accomplished orator and author, hounded by the government for decades, the target of state and federal laws and eventually exiled to the Soviet Union during the Red Scare, later returning to condemn Soviet-style communism. She spoke and wrote Hebrew, Russian, French, German and English.
She had another, softer side, epitomized in her most famous quote: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”She was the most famous — some would say notorious — woman in the first half of the 20th century in the United States, eclipsing the nearly sainted suffrage crusader Anthony.
She is also the most famous woman to be divorced in Rochester: Emma Goldman. As a judge in the matrimonial part of the Supreme Court, I and my two co-authors set out to find the public records of Goldman’s marriage and divorce. The unfolding investigation led to an introduction to orthodox Jewish marriage ceremonies, changing state and federal laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, delays in recording of vital statistics in the late 19th century and, perhaps, an inkling that Goldman, for all her anarchistic tendencies, was actually as compliant as any daughter might be when the law required it.
Goldman arrived in Rochester in 1886 from Russia. In her autobiography, she described Rochester, the Flower City, as “bleak and cold” and said she “hated” her new home. “It was too provincial to permit an interesting life,” she later wrote. Her orthodox Jewish family settled on Kelly Street, amid the large Jewish immigrant population that arrived in Rochester after the Civil War.
When her sisters took her to a dance, she meet and fell in love with Jacob Kerschner, a fellow tailor. They were married in February 1887 in an orthodox religious ceremony. Congressional investigators later asserted that the Rev. Kalmon Bardin, a shochet or a religious official who oversaw the preparation of Kosher foods, presided. The actual ceremony was probably performed in her parents’ home on Kelly Street, near the current site of Fight Square. As part of the ceremony, Goldman would have been given a ketubah, an officially witnessed wedding contract.
In 1887, no ceremony was necessary for marriage in New York. Common law marriage — the parties married “merely by words of the present” — flourished and was not permanently abolished in New York until 1933.
New York recognized religious marriages. In Fenton v. Reed, 4 Johns 52 (Sup. Ct. NY 1809), the state Supreme Court suggested that a religious marriage — in facie ecclesiae — was enforceable in the state courts. The New York Court of Appeals had held that New York’s role in marriage and divorce was essentially founded on the equitable powers set forth by the ecclesiastical courts of England, Griffin v. Griffin, 47 NY 134 (1872); O’Gara v. Eiseniohr, 38 NY 296 (1868).
While recognizing religious marriages, New York did not, until 1880, require recording of marriages or divorces. A statute requiring recording passed that year but compliance by counties and cities was sketchy well into the early 20th century. While records at the Monroe County Clerk’s office reveal some marriages were recorded in 1887, Goldman’s is not among them. There is no record of her marriage in the City of Rochester, either.
The recording of marriages and divorces by local and state governments gained greater importance in the 1880s, in large measure, driven by the federal government. Federal Civil War pension benefits for spouses and orphans depended on verification of marital status and paternity.
In 1855, Congress allowed women who married United States citizens to obtain citizenship. The necessity of marriage records for immigration purposes and government benefits pushed states to require recording of marriages.
Kerschner, Goldman’s husband, received a citizenship certificate from the Monroe County Court in 1884. There is no evidence of Kerschner’s citizenship certificate in the county clerk’s office. But, nonetheless, he was a citizen, or so he — and Goldman — thought. Under the law in 1887, Goldman became an American citizen upon her marriage to Kerschner.
Goldman’s marriage dissolved quickly. Her husband was described as cavorting in card games and, as she described it in her autobiography, impotent.
Simultaneously she was radicalized by the hanging of protesters after the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1887. Unhappy at home, impassioned by the Haymarket massacre and having relinquished her job because married women were not permitted to work, she sought a divorce.
In the 1880s, Rochester’s orthodox Jewish communities permitted divorce, according to Rabbi Laurence A. Kotok, Temple B’rith Kodesh’s current rabbi. The process known as bet din, a Rabbinic Court, was, according to records, presided over by Rabbi Abraham Levinson, the chief rabbi at the Beth Israel Russian Synagogue.
The synagogue had built a new facility in 1886, later known as the Leopold Street Congregation. Rabbi Levinson later became the chief rabbi at the B’nai Russian Synagogue in Baltimore and his obituary in 1912 described, among his achievements, that he had presided over the Goldman’s divorce. The Leopold Street Congregation, a shining monument to the Jewish community in downtown Rochester, is still standing on Harrison Street in downtown Rochester.
Orthodox Jewish law required a three-member panel to grant the divorce. This writer could find no evidence of the divorce findings. The grounds for a divorce in 1888 were few in New York. In 1787, the New York legislature made adultery the first ground for a divorce. Later, separation was added in 1813 and annulment for “physically incapable of consenting” was added (among other grounds) in 1829. When Goldman sought a divorce, that was all the civil law provided. There is no record of her divorce in the County Clerk’s office.
After the divorce, Goldman was ostracized: Her own father, with whom she had a seemingly perpetual stormy relationship, virtually disowned her. As a consequence, she fled to Connecticut.
Within six months, Goldman returned to Rochester. In a seemingly inexplicable step, she remarried Kerschner in a second orthodox ceremony, in large measure, she said in her autobiography, because he threatened to kill himself if she refused to remarry him. But, as before, the marriage was not recorded and there is no evidence of it in the records of the state, county or city. There is no account of who performed the wedding or where it occurred. Under Jewish law, there would be no record of a religious divorce, according to Rabbi Kotok.
The remarriage was doomed. It lasted only a few months. Depressed, alienated and rejected, Goldman, then not yet 20, left Rochester. But, she was still married and there is no evidence of a divorce or even a suggestion of a divorce in her autobiography.
One thing is undisputed: There was no “equitable distribution” in 1888. When Goldman left Rochester, she took her one possession in the world — in 21st century terms, “her separate property” — her sewing machine.
After she left, she embarked on a career of writing and advocacy in the anarchist vein, founding Mother Earth magazine, writing extensively about how marriage was oppressive to women even though still married. She had affairs with other anarchists yet she never sought a divorce from Kerschner. As her fame grew, so did her new country’s desire to be rid of her. As part of its campaign against her, the United States repeatedly sought to strip her of the citizenship, which she argued she had attained through her remarriage to Kerschner.
Interestingly, Goldman could not apply for citizenship as a married woman: The law provided that her citizenship could only be derived from her marriage and her husband. An unmarried woman could apply but a married woman was denied citizenship if her husband was not a citizen, In re Rionda, 164 F. 368 (SDNY 1908).
After decades, the government finally prevailed. In 1909, the government brought an action in federal court in Buffalo to strip Kerschner of his citizenship, arguing he obtained his citizenship fraudulently. In what could only be described now as “due process oversight,” the government never served Kerschner with the petition and, in default, annulled his citizenship and with it, Goldman’s claim to citizenship through him.
The government claimed Kerschner was only 19 at the time of his application and had only lived two years in the United States. The presiding judge was District Court Judge John R. Hazel, the judge who, earlier in the decade in Buffalo after McKinley’s death, had sworn in Theodore Roosevelt as president and who obviously knew the connection between Kerschner and his wife.
A decade later, after Congress enacted statutes to permit deportation of anarchists, the government commenced an action in New York to strike Goldman’s citizenship. The then-newly minted director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, determined that Goldman’s husband, Kerschner, had lived in Chicago under an assumed name and had died in 1919. Unable to contest the government’s proof and bound by the earlier stripping of Kerschner’s citizenship, Goldman lost her hearing and was deported. In 1919, she was exiled to her country of birth, once czarist, now Soviet Russia.
But Goldman, despite her “free love” declarations, was not done with marriage. The Soviet Union expelled her in 1922. Despite her condemnation of the Bolsheviks, America denied her access to her adopted country. She went to England and married a Welsh miner and anarchist in 1925, even though she admitted she only saw him twice and never lived with him. She attained English citizenship and moved to Toronto.
Ironically, Goldman, despite condemning marriage in her writings as “a poor little State-and Church-begotten weed,” needed to be married throughout her career in order to secure citizenship. Simply put, marriage — despite her criticism of it — was her legal lifeline to a home.
In 1934, she returned to Rochester after having secured a visa under her new married name: Mrs. James Colton. She addressed a gathering of Rochester’s leaders at the City Club. Local newspapers remarked on the 65-year-old traveler:
The Rochester radical not only embraced the terrifying cult of anarchism but took provoking delight in the title of Red Emma. … shocking conservatives was her specialty. … some of the radical views of the Red Emma of a generation ago, which aroused the natives, now appear as shocking as the daring bathing suits of that time.
Her extended family remained in Rochester and she visited periodically. Her nephew was the famed violin virtuoso David Hochstein, who was killed in France in World War I — which his aunt Emma vehemently opposed. In his honor, his family endowed the Hochstein Music School. Meanwhile, Goldman continued her writing, campaigned in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and eventually died in Toronto in 1940.
Our long search of Goldman’s marriage and divorce records in Rochester appeared futile. It appeared the canny anarchist left no records of her Rochester activities. But, I was wrong. She had a strong allegiance to her family, despite her writings against marriage. In 1909, her father died. His will was admitted to probate. The then Surrogate of Monroe County Seldon S. Brown issued a citation to Emma Goldman, one of Abraham Goldman’s heirs.
The famous anarchist did what compliant children do. Current Surrogate Edmund A. Calvaruso found a waiver of citation in the Estate of Abraham Goldman and, there, notarized in California on Jan. 25, 1909, is the signature of Rochester’s most famous woman in the first half of the 20th century: Emma Goldman.
She left her mark on America, its laws, free speech, politics, feminists, the labor movement and society but the signature of the “most dangerous woman in America” is dutifully filed in the Monroe County Surrogate’s Court.