An Interesting but Short-lived Experiment in Social Equality and Vegetable Gardening

I love learning about history. 

Not gonna lie, history was pretty much a snoozefest for me through middle school and high school. Just never got into it.  But then in college I read a biography of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter, who lived in Massachusetts in the early 1800s.  In correspondence to a friend, Hawthorne described where he was: In his living room in the dark in the middle of the night.  He described his toddler daughter’s shoe–just a single shoe–abandoned on the floor, now silhouetted in candlelight.

That single shoe sparked my interest in history.  Yes, I’m serious! It was the first time history felt real.  A child’s shoe, forgotten on the floor 200 years ago, preserved as history with only one sentence in one letter.

It felt real for me. I’ve been interested in history ever since. Any kind of history is interesting, but I have my favorites. My favorite type of history to learn about is fairly recent history.  Ancient history is interesting, but I can relate to modern history more.  Photos help.  

We are the children of Nathaniel Hawthorne. We sometimes leave our shoes on the living room floor even though it bugs the heck out of Dad.

Now, within modern history, I keep on playing favorites.  My favorite kind of modern history is the lesser-known, mostly overlooked stuff.  A great word that means lesser-known and mostly-overlooked is obscure.  I like obscure modern history. It feels fresh and exciting, like it doesn’t have everyone else’s fingerprints all over it already. I wonder if that is true for anyone else?

Obscure modern history with ties to places I know and love??? Now I’m really hooked!

Therefore, I will always be fascinated by the story of the anarchists at Home.

In 1895, three brave men set out in a homemade rowboat with the intention of creating a community of their own.  Like a couple hundred other communities which were springing up in the U.S. around the same time, the idea behind Home, Washington was to create a community with anarchist ideals.  No leader, no voting, but instead a collective in which each person’s voice was equally important.

“I’ve got $7 in my pocket. Let’s stop here and see if we can buy some land!”

The men purchased 26 acres of land for $7 an acre! 

(26 x $7 is $182. These days, $182 might be enough to buy three men a week of groceries! Of course, inflation means a dollar used to be worth more.  One dollar in 1895 was worth about $31 in 2020. We can solve $182 x 31 to find the price in today’s dollars. It is $5,642. Still an incredible deal!)

The men quickly paid off the land and purchased more acreage.  Within a few years the colony had grown nearly ten times in size to 217 acres.  Many people moved in from all over.  They were attracted to the idea of living in a place where community and equality are prioritized.  One of the most famous anarchists in the world, a woman named Emma Goldman, who had lived in Paris and Russia, even came to visit once.

Unfortunately–and this is one of those delicious morsels of obscure modern local history—Goldman did NOT like Home.  She thought it had too much emphasis on community and maintaining a prosperous vegetable garden, and not enough concern with national politics.  Goldman described Home as “The place anarchists go to die.” 

Emma Goldman said that Home, WA is “Where anarchists go to die.” This raises a question: Now that Goldman herself is dead, does her ghost haunt the town of Home? (BTW I hope so!)

Home was also the printing site of an important anarchist newspaper, The Agitator, which was sent out around the world, but I guess Goldman trotted out of town too quickly to see it.

In 1901, just six years after three men in a boat bumped up against the shore for the first time, Home showed signs of cracking.  For one thing, the president had just been assassinated. Now, that didn’t have a single thing to do with the folks at Home, who were probably all in their yards weeding their vegetable gardens when President McKinley was shot.

But that didn’t matter to the people in Tacoma, because the news immediately declared that an anarchist shot McKinley.  The assassin’s name was Leon Czolgosz, an immigrant from Poland who had worked in the steel mills on the East Coast until the economic recession in 1893 when he lost his job.  He liked Emma Goldman’s ideas about anarchy, and believed the U.S. was not being fair to poor working people.  He somehow decided that the solution to all of this was….well… shoot President McKinley.

President McKinley was assassinated on September 6th, 1901, while shaking hands with supporters at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York.  Czolgosz had covered his revolver in a handkerchief so it wouldn’t be seen in the crowd.  It was a hot day and lots of people were holding handkerchiefs to wipe away the sweat.

A photo showing President McKinley greeting supporters at the entrance to The Temple of Music, just minutes before he was shot.

In the moments after the shooting, the crowd descended on Czolgosz, throwing him to the ground and beating him, while the President’s aides meanwhile came to his side. When McKinley, bleeding hard, saw what was happening to his assailant, he demanded that the crowd stop beating Czolgosz.  

A drawing of the assassination. It is weird to think that cameras were so rare then that no one happened to be taking a picture when the shot was fired. Luckily a lot of people saw it happen.

There’s another wonderful bit of history: McKinley didn’t want the man who assassinated him to be beat up before his trial. What does that suggest about the kind of person President McKinley was, and what he believed?  

McKinley was shot in the abdomen, which means he did not die right away but suffered eight agonizing, painful days before passing away on September 14th, 1901. In the days and weeks following the assassination the newspaper in Buffalo reported that Czolgosz had not worked alone.  They suggested he was part of an extensive team of anarchists.

You can imagine how frightening it would be to read in the news that there is an extensive team of people in the country making secret plans against our government.  The idea that anarchists were violent and not to be trusted was terrifying.   Tacoma citizens looked for opportunities to demonize the folks at Home.

A teacher did not raise the flag like he was supposed to. But why is it being reported in the Tacoma newspaper? Just to make people angry?

Less than two weeks after McKinley was shot, three anarchists at Home were arrested for the crime of writing and sending out obscene materials.  (Their anarchist ideas were labeled as obscene.)

The case against the three men was thrown out by a judge who read over their newspaper and said they did nothing wrong, but it wasn’t really over.  The next Home resident to be arrested was a 75-year-old woman named Lois Waisbrooker who had shared her “radical” idea that women should be equal to men.

Lois Waisbrooker: I said women deserve equal rights. They called me ‘ugly as Abraham Lincoln’, and threw me in jail.

It still wasn’t over for the anarchists at Home.  Next to be arrested was Jay Fox, (Yep, a guy named Jay was one of the most well-known anarchists at home.  No coincidence that the main character in The Octopus Under the Bridge is also Jay!)

Jay Fox was in charge of The Agitator newspaper, so his arrest was a big deal.  During his trial, Fox said  “It is only by agitation that reforms have been brought about in the world. Show me the country where there is the most tyranny and I will show you the country where there is no free speech.” 

Jay Fox at work on The Agitator newspaper in Home before his arrest.

It is hard to be disliked and misunderstood. Differences of opinion among the citizens of Home also led to people moving away.

By 1918, Home Colony was no more.  From start to end, the whole thing lasted less than 23 years.  But two hundred years later, Home Colony still exists as a moment in history.  It still has impact, still stirs our imaginations, still helps us see a bit about how we came to be who we are today.

I guess that’s what I love about history.

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