Mugshot photos of Emma Goldman, circa 1901. (APIC/Getty Images)

The anarchist and the Army private: How a handshake led to jail — and an unlikely friendship

In May of 1908, a mere handshake landed a man in Alcatraz. William Buwalda’s trouble began when he attended a lecture on patriotism in San Francisco by the anarchist Emma Goldman.

After her remarks, Buwalda, an Army private in uniform, walked to the stage and shook Goldman’s hand. The gesture, according to witnesses, electrified the gathering.

It also caught the attention of two plainclothes police officers at the event. Buwalda was hauled before a military court, where the soldier of 15 years insisted he was no anarchist and found Goldman’s views to be “nonsense.”

He shouldn’t have gone to the speech, Buwalda acknowledged under questioning. He added, “I am, however, easy in my conscience.” Even so, the court sentenced him to prison at Alcatraz, where he served eight months.

If the military hoped to set Buwalda straight, it failed. A few months after his release, he stuffed a medal he’d earned in the Philippines into an envelope and sent it to the secretary of war.

After thinking it over, he wrote, he had no use for such “baubles.” He added: “It speaks of raids and burnings, of many prisoners taken and, like vile beasts, thrown in the foulest of prisons. And for what? For fighting for their homes and loved ones.”

Buwalda returned to a farmer’s life in rural Michigan, but his political radicalization deepened. He attended anarchist meetings and called for the abolition of the state in a letter to his local newspaper. “It is safe to say that governments have committed far more crimes than they have prevented,” he wrote in 1912.

A friendship blossomed between Buwalda and Goldman, who would pay him a visit whenever passing through Michigan. Goldman later described being deeply moved by Buwalda’s transformation.

In a letter to a friend, the woman who became known as among the most influential radicals of the early 20th century wrote, “I am prouder of having made Buwalda think, than of anything I have accomplished through all my public work.”

Buwalda died at the age of 76 at a veterans facility in Grand Rapids. His gravestone noted his military service.

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