Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philadelphia Farce” (1908)

After the lapse of nearly four months from “the riot” of last February, the case of the “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. Hyman Weinberg and Voltairine de Cleyre” was called for trial on the 17th of June, the trial Judge being Mayer Sulzberger, a gentleman having a reputation of being somewhat more inclined to weigh the rights of citizens as against the attacks of the police than some other judges.

On the morning of the 17th, Weinberg and myself, the witnesses for the defense, and our respective lawyers were all ready in the court room. The State, however, was not ready; one of the arresting officers was not present.

Some very animated wrangling then took place between the Judge and the lawyers, in which the Judge, so far from upholding the dignity of office, presented, to me at least, the curious appearance of a scolding old woman; the effect was no doubt heightened by the black and somewhat out-of-date dress he wears. Under the regular rules of criminal court procedures, the case would then have gone over to the next term of court, but the result of the wrangling was that the case was continued to the next day. Accordingly, we appeared on the morning of June 18. The officer was now present, but the chief witness, in fact the only witness, was absent. The Prosecuting Attorney asked for a continuance of the case to search for the witness. The Judge ordered that the witness be called. The crier of the court holloed “John Ká-ret, John Ka-rét.” No response. Another crier went down the hall and out into the corridor calling “John Ka-rét.” John Karet did not appear.

The Judge asked if the State had Karet’s sworn testimony at the hearing in the Magistrate’s court. Upon the affidavit being produced, the Judge elected to “read it himself because it was easier.” Having done so, he doubled the paper up with a rather disgusted face, remarking, “If that is all your evidence, we will “submit the bill” to the jury.”

A motion of our lawyers to dismiss the case (or some legal phraseology to that effect) was denied by the Judge; the prosecution said it had other witnesses.

At this point Attorney Nelson asked the Court to appoint a stenographer, which was refused by the Judge with the remark: “This Court is not here for the purpose of furnishing campaign literature to anybody.” We then engaged a stenographer on our own account; what follows is the verbatim report of the “trial.”

Commonwealth vs. Hyman Weinberg and Voltairine de Cleyre }

Court of Quarter Sessions. March Sessions, 1908 No. 18.

Before Honorable Mayer Sulzberger, P. J., and a Jury.

Philadelphia, June 18, 1908.

Present, of counsel:

Morris Wolf, Esq., Asst. District Attorney, for the Prosecution; and

Henry John Nelson, Esq., and Henry N. Wessel, Esq., for the Defendants.


Ralph Gold, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. You are a special officer of the 33rd District?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You arrested those defendants?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. When?

A. February 20th.

Q. 1908. Where?

A. I arrested Mr. Weinberg at Fifth and Lombard, in a restaurant, and also Mrs. de Cleyre at her home.

Q. Under what circumstances did you make the arrest?

By The Court:

Q. What do you know about them?

A. In fact, we know nothing; only the warrant sworn out by this Karat.

Q. What do you know about the case?

A. Nothing.

Q. Did they confess anything to you?

A. Nothing.

Q. Did they say anything to you?

A. Nothing at all.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. What did they say at the time you arrested them?

A. Nothing at all. I only placed them under arrest and said what it was for.

Q. They said nothing?

A. They said nothing; no, sir.

Q. Your first information was when this man Karat came to you?

A. He came to us and said these people were speaking.

Q. He said nothing in your presence?

A. Only at the hearing.

Q. You know nothing more about it?

A. No, sir.

(No cross-examination.)

Joseph Vignola, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. You are a special officer?

A. Yes, sir; of the 33rd District.

Q. Did you participate in the arrest of these defendants?

A. No, sir.

Q. What do you know about this case?

A. I don’t know anything about the case at all. I don’t know how my name comes on the bill.

(No cross-examination.)

John J. Fox, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. You are a special officer of the 2nd District?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What do you know about the case?

A. All I know is information received from John Karat, who swore out the warrant for Voltairine de Cleyre, and we arrested her.

Q. Were you present at the meeting at which the statements were said to have been made?

A. No, sir.

Q. Did you have a conversation with either of the defendants?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What did they say about it?

A. They didn’t have anything to say.

Q. Did you have any conversation with Karat in the presence of the defendants?

A. Only at the hearing—that is, the hearing room.

Q. Do you know where Karat is now?

A. No, sir.

(No cross-examination.)

Charles Palma, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. Do you know anything about the case?

A. I don’t know anything about this case.

Q. Nothing at all?

A. Nothing at all.

Q. Nor about the defendants?

A. I don’t know anything about them.

Q. Nor about Karat?

A. Not a thing.

(No cross-examination.)

Louis Green, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. You are a guard at City Hall?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Do you know anything about the facts of this case?

A. No, sir; nothing about the case.

Q. Or about the defendants?

A. No, sir.

Q. Or about Karat?

A. No, sir.

Q. Do you know how your name got on the bill?

A. At the time the arrest was made they brought me in to the hearing at Central Station. There was a couple of letters that was written in Yiddish that they give me, that I should read through a few lines—

Q. You translated them?

A. Yes.

Q. To whom were those letters addressed?

A. They were addressed to a little town in the State of New Jersey.

Q. I mean to what person?

A. It doesn’t state. It doesn’t state any person.

Q. Who gave you the letters?

A. The Assistant District Attorney, Mr. Rogers.

Q. Have you them now or did he take them back?

A. He took them with him.

(No cross-examination.)

Jean H. Beniakoff, called by Commonwealth, sworn.

By Mr. Wolf:

Q. You are an official interpreter in the Courts of Philadelphia.

A. I am; yes, sir.

Q. There were given to you certain letters.

A. Yes.

Q. Purporting to be addressed to whom?

A. To Mr. Weinberg.

Q. By whom were they given to you?

A. By Mr. Rogers, of the District Attorney’s office.

Q. Did you translate those letters?

A. I read the letters.

Q. In what language are they?

A. In Yiddish.

Q. Have you them with you now?

A. I gave them to you a while ago.

Q. You showed them to me. I didn’t know what they were. How many are there?

A. Ten letters. You have them.

Q. You say that you read them all?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Is there anything in these letters which could be considered as at all inciting to Anarchy?

A. No, sir.

Q. Will you state what the substance of these letters was?

(Objected to by defendants.)

Q. Did Voltairine de Cleyre write them?

Mr. Wessels: No. They were written to Weinberg and were found in his possession. I object to the letters.

(Commonwealth rests.)

The Court: Gentlemen of the Jury: Under the evidence produced by the Commonwealth, which is no evidence at all against the defendants, you are, of course, to find a verdict of not guilty.

Comment is unnecessary.

The court officers began hustling us out; but presently we were recalled. Mr. Wessel, attorney for Weinberg, was asking that the police return Mr. Weinberg’s watch and letters which had been kept ever since the arrest. The Judge was endeavoring to be witty. “What!” said he to the police officer, “is there any law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which says that because a man makes a fool of himself, the police should therefore take away his watch?” All the sycophants laughed. Personally, I think it was a gratuitous insult, since the Judge had no evidence whatever to suppose Weinberg had “made a fool of himself,” and had just been saying he had not. Mr. Wessel arose with a smile, “But, your Honor, what we want now is the watch!”

“Oh give the man his watch,” protested the Judge.

“And the letters.”

More talk about the letters, and then the Judge, forgetting his former two-edged cut at the police and at Weinberg, remarked with judicial dignity, “When a man is put under arrest, he is searched, and his property taken charge of for his own protection!” …

And so, “for his own protection,” the police have been holding Weinberg’s watch for four months, while he was out on bail! This is the limit.

I wish to thank all contributors to our defense and to say that we have still work to do. Four men are in prison, under most rigorous and unjust sentences. We wish to do what can be done towards freeing these men or supporting their families till they are free.

Those who wish to assist in the work may communicate with Joseph Cohen, 859 N. 7th St., Philadelphia.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philadelphia Farce,” Mother Earth 3, no. 5 (July 1908): 217-??.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.