The Strange Story of New York's Anarchist School

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A fatal bomb blast in 1914 raised questions about education that still reverberate today.

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Berger (third from left) and Berkman (right) view the wreckage of the bombing. (Library of Congress)

On July 4, 1914, anarchists from the Modern School in New York set off a bomb in a Lexington Avenue apartment building. Stories varied. Official sources reported that the bomb had been meant for John D. Rockefeller. Instead, four students had killed themselves accidentally.

At 9:16 that morning, a fifth man had been in the apartment with them. At 9:17, he was not in the apartment with them; they were dead, and the blast had blown him and the bed he was lying in two floors down, from the top floor to the fifth floor of the new-model tenement. Dazed, he wandered out of the building and down the street. Policemen, who clashed frequently with members of the Industrial Workers of the World and suspected them already in the blast, didn't recognize him. He was from out of town.

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This man from out of town, whose name turned out to be Mike Murphy, went straight to the office of Alexander Berkman, an anarchist and I.W.W. leader (and dandy) who was based in the city. In 1892, during a labor dispute in Pittsburgh, Berkman had shot the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and then stabbed him with a steel file. But Frick lived, and Berkman spent 14 years in jail. This time, obviously, the attempted murder -- if it really was an attempted murder -- had failed even more profoundly. Rockefeller had not even been in his Tarrytown, NY, house. He was on holiday in Maine.

Berkman and other members of the anarchist community raced uptown to see what had happened. Meanwhile, Murphy disappeared.

The bomb peeled the top two floors off the building, exposing to a crowd of onlookers what remained of the apartment of Louise Berger. A member of the Anarchist Red Cross and an editor of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth Bulletin, Berger had lent the five anarchists her apartment while they built their bomb. Now she stood next to Berkman and her colleagues, gazing up at her demolished home.

She didn't get much sympathy from the press. "That only the I.W.W. agitators and their women sympathizers were killed as a result of the explosion seems little short of miraculous in view of the extent of the ruin wrought by the dynamite," wrote the Times reporter. The police, who had a history of clashes with the I.W.W., kicked off their investigation by interrogating Berkman and Berger, who claimed not to know anything about the plot.

As police sifted through the evidence, they noticed a link between the dead radicals. All four had attended courses at the Ferrer Center, an alternative school in Harlem, as part of its adult education program. What in the world was going on at that school?

Associates of the Ferrer Center swore over and over that the school had had nothing to do with the attack. The Ferrer Center had an adult education program, yes, but it also taught grade-school age children. The administrators of the day school claimed to know nothing about the bomb. Nonetheless, the evidence was there. The four plotters, other anarchists readily admitted, had recently attended lectures at the school.

So the cops staked out the Modern School, their best and most concrete lead. While the children of the day school took their lessons and played in a nearby park, they waited, hidden, to see if something would turn up.

***

Two years earlier, in a trench outside a fort in Catalonia, Spanish monarchists executed the founder of the first Modern School. Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, an anarchist, had opened a progressive grade school in Barcelona with the goal of cultivating free thinkers. Eight years later, he found himself accused of sedition.

They held a trial of sorts. A junior military officer, given less than a day to review Ferrer's brief, served as defense. The prosecution, said William Archer -- a pro-Ferrer British journalist who wrote about the teacher's death for McClure's -- failed to call any witnesses. It didn't matter. At one point, an official told Ferrer he had read some of his writing on the Modern School. The sedition charge, he hinted, might have come from nothing more than some teaching materials.

In the ideological wars of the first half of the century, the minds of students had become one more battleground. If you could teach them your way, Ferrer believed, you could change the future. And in his eyes, if the classroom was another terrain for political conflict, then the stasis of the Spanish education system in the 20th century probably favored conservative and right-wing forces.

Like the U.S., Spain had seen a wave of support for education reform in the 19th century. And as in the U.S., the major achievement of the reforms had been to open education up to the working class. But the curriculum that reached them was not exactly progressive. Since Catholicism was Spain's state religion, handing over the education system to the government did nothing to loosen the Catholic Church's grip on it. Public schools were required to teach theology. The religious orders that ran many of the private schools often maintained strict discipline. (If "discipline" is a dirty word in education, maybe it's because it's now associated with institutions like the old, repressive boarding school.)

When Ferrer opened his school in 1904, he specifically targeted the sense of discipline found in Spanish schools. A lack of freedom in education, he believed, was helping to perpetuate the monarchy. Only a new way of teaching could change society.

Ferrer came to his anarchism -- and his vocation as a teacher -- after years of searching for a political philosophy that fit his ideals. As it was run day-to-day, his "Modern School," as it was known, resembled today's democratic school (which you can read more on here). Students could leave class at any time they wished, and Ferrer encouraged them to learn from moving through the world rather than sitting behind a desk. Many of his ideas survive in modern-day progressive education, although their ideological content has been lost.

Ferrer's first contact with law enforcement came when the Modern School's librarian threw a bomb at a royal procession in 1906. The king and queen escaped unharmed, but 15 people died. The Spanish government shut Ferrer's school down immediately, and he was arrested as a co-conspirator. Held nearly a year without trial, he was eventually acquitted. Yet as Archer writes, "it was undoubtedly the beginning of his end."

Ferrer seemed to know this. His school had been dissolved. The employees of the Modern School had been exiled from Barcelona, forced to live in a provincial town where federal police watched them day and night.

Perhaps out of a sense of hopelessness, Ferrer may have helped to plan the riots he was eventually executed for. Based on his book on the Modern School's pedagogy, written before his second arrest, he seemed to feel he had accomplished all he was be able to do. "I have reached the culmination of my life and my work," he wrote.

***

Two years later, the New York school that bore the weight of this legacy was under attack. Police infiltrated the adult education classes to pick up information about seditious activities, and press began hanging around the school, bothering students for leads on further radical outrages.

School officials, distraught, contemplated their options. Cora Bennett Stephenson, the principal of the day school, resigned. Several board members left too, some withdrawing sustaining financial support, and others -- like Upton Sinclair -- taking their prestige with them.

Was the Modern School totally innocent of the plot? Paul Avrich, who wrote the definitive history of the Modern School movement in the United States, states that the anarchists did concoct the plot in meetings at the Center in the two weeks prior to the blast. Did the school's management know what they had planned? Avrich suggests not. The school was one center of anarchist activity in the city; but it also attracted artists and philosophers with other political leanings or none at all -- like Man Ray, the artist, who attended the Center's adult education classes.

The Ferrer Center, a single vertex in the city's anarchist network, may have done no more than provided a welcoming space for conspirators. "I wasn't much interested in libertarian education," Charles Plunkett, a Ferrer Center associate who helped concoct the bomb plot, told Avrich in 1975. "It was a hangout, a place where people met and talked."

In the end, New York's Modern School left the city. The loss of financial support from key donors made it difficult to pay rent, and police raids on the building had convinced the organizers that their childhood education program wasn't safe in the city. The new heads of the day school sought a campus where their students would be left alone. They found a plot of land in Piscataway, New Jersey, where it became one nucleus of an anarchist colony. The utopian settlement, which is barely remembered today, actually survived into the 1950s.

In one version of the Lexington Avenue story -- the version that Avrich's research supports -- the anarchists had completed the bomb well before it had exploded. In fact, they had taken it to Tarrytown, where Rockefeller had a home. They hoped to get close enough to kill either Rockefeller or his wife Laura with it, ideally both.

But guards, who were on alert after a previous anarchist threat to Rockefeller, turned them away, and so they returned the bomb to the apartment where they had made it. When telling Avrich about the Lexington Avenue blast, Charles Plunkett burst out, "I'll never know why they brought the damn thing back!"

Even if they had succeeded in getting it close to the house, the project would have been a failure, since Rockefeller wasn't in the state.

In another version of the story -- the one that the Times reporter at the scene used -- the anarchists had been tinkering with the as-yet-unfinished bomb when it blew. In a third version, the blast was deliberate, a successful attempt at suicide.

As of this writing there are no more Modern Schools -- or at least no day schools that could be tracked down easily. But a number of Ferrer's ideas about the day-to-day running of a school have influenced the way many Americans educate kids today. He's a progenitor, for instance, of the idea that we need to get kids out from behind their desks if we really want them to learn.

Today, we worry about test scores. But it's worth remembering that the very way we educate kids can have a political impact, one that goes far beyond the material we teach.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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