I am an American by birth, a Jew by parentage, a Baptist by adoption, single by good fortune, a physician and teacher by profession, cosmopolitan by choice, a Socialist by inclination, a rascal by nature, a celebrity by accident, a tramp by twenty years' experience, and a tramp reformer by inspiration.
-- Ben Reitman
A Hobo and a Doctor
Ben Reitman was a hobo and a doctor. "From his earliest years Reitman was intoxicated by the railroad, with its frightening monster locomotives, its beguiling characters, its swirl of excitement and action," according to biographer Roger Bruns. As a boy, Reitman rode the rails, hopping slow-moving freights, sleeping in box cars, living in "jungles," speaking in hobo dialect, and panhandling. Over the years, his eyes were opened to comradeship, worldliness, suffering, injustice, evil, loneliness and heartache. He combined the implausible experience of hoboing with his study of medicine, working tirelessly as a doctor and friend to prostitutes, tramps and drifters.
Working for Workers
In 1907 he opened a Hobo College in Chicago, one of the many so-called "migratory worker's universities" founded by the reformer James Eads How (grandson of civil engineer James Buchanan Eads). How's Hobo Colleges were aimed at educating the road worker, improving his intellect, and "preparing him to confront the society that was crushing him underfoot." At the age of 28, Reitman began a lifelong crusade to rescue thousands of homeless people from exploitation and personal anguish. It was a year of new beginnings -- he would meet Emma Goldman in the spring of 1908.
The Great Grand Passion
"What evidently began for him as a casual seduction," according to historian Alice Wexler, "soon became the education that he felt justified his entire existence. For Goldman, it became 'the Great Grand Passion' of her life." Almost immediately, Reitman began making himself useful to Goldman in her speaking career, drifting into the role of "manager" on the road. He arranged meetings, hired halls, sold anarchist literature at her talks, and introduced her to audiences. Tall and ruggedly handsome, Reitman would warm up the crowd before Goldman appeared, exhorting people in a booming voice to buy a pamphlet, "take a chance," "invest a nickel" before the "big show" began. Sometimes mortified by his showmanship, Goldman appreciated his persuasiveness. Attendance at her lectures soared.
Rough around the Edges
Most of Goldman's friends found Reitman vulgar. Alexander Berkman declared him to be "politically and socially confused." Margaret Anderson, editor of The Little Review, maintained that "he wasn't so bad if you could drop all your ideas as to how human beings should look and act."
Intense but Unfaithful
Privately, Goldman and Reitman enjoyed a tumultuous love life, documented in "a flood of astonishing letters filled with erotic intensity," according to Wexler. But Reitman's infidelity -- "his disease for other women," complained Goldman -- and the deep cultural abyss between them caused them to eventually drift apart.
Conflict of Passion and Ideology
"[It] was a relationship between a European intellectual and an American who had fewer sacred cows than she did," said writer Andrei Codrescu. "He probably didn't say Kropotkin's name and then keep a sacred pause afterward. It was also hard to reconcile this particular passion with her stated ideology about free love and the right of everyone to move as they please, and I think she tried to feel no jealousy and she tried to think of Reitman as a creature apart. At the same time she fell prey to the most sentimental romantic claptrap. The same stuff that she denounced in her talks." Goldman, perhaps speaking for both of them, said, "how cruel of fate that one who can give such bliss shall also give such agony."
Birth Control Advocacy
The end came after Goldman and Reitman's last campaign on the road, this time for birth control. This tour was their most successful ever. It was also quite illegal. Talking about sex and contraceptives in public was a crime under the Comstock laws of the day. "To Reitman," wrote Roger Bruns, "the birth control movement was familiar intellectual terrain. Here he could explain a few things to the tearoom and parlor thinkers. Here, in the world of spermicidal jellies, he could provide a wealth of experience. Reitman marched into this reform effort like the gynecological trooper he was." He and Goldman were soon arrested for circulating birth control pamphlets. Reitman received a six-month sentence, the longest sentence served in the United States by a birth control advocate.
An Activist's Legacy
Reitman distinguished himself with his activism on behalf of the homeless, by the publication of two books (The Second Oldest Profession in 1932 and Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha in 1937), and by his campaign for the prevention of venereal disease.
Ben Reitman died of a heart attack at the age of 63. A friend said of him that he "represented the type of philosopher that gives the sweet, intoxicating drink of hope to the weary, thirsty, starving pedestrian plodding down the dusty road of life." A fellow hobo remarked on the dignity Reitman saw in all men: "When Ben was handing out grub, he wasn't arrogant. It was as if you were doing Doc a favor by sitting down beside him to eat."