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Ben Reitman

Ben Lewis Reitman (1879-1942) was an American anarchist and physician to the poor ("the hobo doctor"). He is best remembered today as radical Emma Goldman's lover.

Reitman was a flamboyant, eccentric character. Goldman conveys a sense of this when she describes first meeting Reitman in her autobiography, Living My Life:

He arrived in the afternoon, an exotic, picturesque figure with a large black cowboy hat, flowing silk tie, and huge cane. "So this is the little lady, Emma Goldman," he greeted me; "I have always wanted to know you." His voice was deep, soft, and ingratiating. I replied that I also wanted to meet the curiosity who believed enough in free speech to help Emma Goldman. My visitor was a tall man with a finely shaped head, covered with a mass of black curly hair, which evidently had not been washed for some time. His eyes were brown, large, and dreamy. His lips, disclosing beautiful teeth when he smiled, were full and passionate. He looked a handsome brute. His hands, narrow and white, exerted a peculiar fascination. His finger-nails, like his hair, seemed to be on strike against soap and brush. I could not take my eyes off his hands. A strange charm seemed to emanate from them, caressing and stirring...[1]



Reitman was born in St. Paul, Minnesota to poor Russian Jewish immigrants in 1879, but grew up in Chicago. At the age of ten, he became a hobo, but returned to Chicago and worked in the Polyclinic Laboratory as a "laboratory boy".[2] In 1900, he entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago, completing his medical studies in 1904. During this time he was briefly married; he and his wife had a daughter together.[2]

He worked as a physician in Chicago, choosing to offer services to hobos, prostitutes, the poor, and other outcasts of capitalist society. Notably, he performed abortions, which were illegal at the time.[2]

Reitman met Emma Goldman in 1908, and the two began a passionate love affair, which Goldman described as the "Great Grand Passion" of her life.[1] The two traveled together for almost eight years, working for the cause of birth control, free speech, worker's rights, and anarchism.

During this time, the couple became involved in the San Diego Free Speech Fight in 1912-13. Reitman was kidnapped, severely beaten, tarred and feathered, and branded with "I.W.W.".[1] Several years later, the couple were arrested in 1916 under the Comstock laws for advocating birth control, and Reitman served six months in prison.[3]

Both believed in free love, but Reitman's practice incited feelings of jealousy in Goldman.[4] He remarried when one of his lovers became pregnant, and Reitman and his wife's son was born while he was in prison.[2] Goldman and Reitman ended their relationship in 1917, after Reitman was released from prison.[2]

Reitman returned to Chicago, ultimately working with the City of Chicago, establishing the Chicago Society for the Prevention of Venereal Disease in the 1930s.[2] His second wife died in 1930, and Reitman married a third time, to Rose Siegal.[2] Reitman later became seriously involved with Medina Oliver, and the couple had four daughters — Mecca, Medina, Victoria, and Olive.[2]

Reitman died in Chicago of a heart attack at the age of sixty-three. He was buried at the Waldheim Cemetery[5] (now Forest Home Cemetery), in Forest Park, Chicago.


See also


  • Frank O. Beck, Hobohemia: Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Ben Reitman & Other Agitators & Outsiders In 1920s/30s Chicago (Charles H. Kerr Press, 2000, ISBN 9780882862514 (description)
  • Roger Bruns, The Damndest Radical: The Life and World of Ben Reitman, Chicago's Celebrated Social Reformer, Hobo King, and Whorehouse Physician (University of Illinois, 2001)
  • Mecca Reitman Carpenter, No Regrets: Dr. Ben Reitman and the Women Who Loved Him (SouthSide Press, 1999) (description at SouthSide Press)
  • Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931)
  • University of Illinois at Chicago, University Library, "Ben Reitman Biographical Sketch", Reitman papers.
  • Alice Wexler, Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. ISBN 0-394-52975-8. Republished as Emma Goldman in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8070-7000-3.
  • Tim Cresswell, The Tramp in America. London: Reaktion Books, 2001. ISBN 1-861-89069-9.


  1. ^ a b c Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Volume 1.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Reitman profile, UIC.
  3. ^ Wexler, Intimate, pp. 211–215.
  4. ^ Wexler, Intimate, pp. 140–147.
  5. ^ "Browse by City: Forest Park". Retrieved 2008-05-05.  

External links

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