“When His Skin Is Not In Danger, And—”

May 22, 1886

Thomas Nast

“When His Skin Is Not In Danger, And—”

Anarchism and Nihilism; Crime and Punishment; Terrorism;

Most, Johann;

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This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast ridicules the allegedly false bravado of anarchist Johann Most, who trumpets his call for class warfare (top) when he is not personally in danger, but cravenly hides under his bed (bottom) when the police arrive to arrest him.

Born in Augsburg, Bavaria (Germany), in 1846, Most trained as a bookbinder and edited socialist newspapers.  In 1867, he joined the International Working-Men's Association and soon became a prominent speaker and writer for the cause of democratic socialism while living in Vienna, Austria.  He was jailed three times in 1869-1870 for delivering militant speeches against the Austrian government, organized religion, and traditional morality.  The government finally expelled Most from Austria in 1871 and he returned to Germany.  He won a seat in the German Reichstag (national legislature) in 1874 and reelection in 1878.  While in Germany, he was arrested several times for making incendiary speeches.  

Shortly after his reelection, Most resigned from the Reichstag following an assassination attempt on Kaiser Wilhelm by German radicals.  With other governments on the continent hostile to him, Most exiled himself to England.  In London, his politics became more radical as he embraced communism and violent anarchism.  He published an anarchist newspaper, Freiheit (Freedom), helped found the International Social Revolutionary Congress (1881), and was imprisoned for praising the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881) in an editorial (which British officials said endorsed the killing of all royal heads of state).

After serving about 16 months in an English jail, Most immigrated to New York City in 1882.  The metropolis was headquarters for the small anarchist movement in the United States, for which Most arrived as a notorious hero.  From the ship, fellow anarchists escorted him to Cooper Union, where he delivered a fiery oration against government, religion, and capitalism, and then traveled across the country to preach his violent utopian faith.  Once back in New York City, he resumed publication of Freiheit and continued speaking and organizing for the anarchist cause.

In 1883, Most promoted the "Pittsburgh Manifesto," an appeal for the unification of all revolutionary socialist organizations, and to that end established the International Working People's Association.  That same year, he first gave his "Beast of Property" speech in which he envisioned the hanging of Jay Gould and other capitalists "on the nearest lamp-post," and the founding of a cooperative commonwealth.  

In 1884, Most began working at a dynamite factory in New Jersey, and the next year published a pamphlet instructing anarchists on how to destroy the country's infrastructure and exterminate its bourgeoisie.  It was appropriately titled Revolutionary War Science:  A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc., etc.  At 10¢ a copy, the terrorist manual sold quickly in New York, was republished throughout the country, and inspired Emma Goldman to move to New York City (in 1889) and become Most's protégée.  The vast majority in the labor and socialist movements, however, rejected Most's violent methods and distanced themselves from him. Yet in the press, including the cartoons of Thomas Nast (as here) and Joseph Keppler of Puck, Most represented the typical radical.

In 1885 and 1886, there were numerous labor strikes and boycotts across the United States, often resulting in clashes between workers and the police.  The labor agitation culminated at a mass meeting of striking workers at Chicago's Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, when a bomb killed eight police officers.  Eight men were arrested, seven of whom were sentenced to death.  One of the convicts committed suicide, four were hanged, and the other three were eventually pardoned.  

The New York Times typified the press reaction in New York by identifying the violent doctrines of Most as the underlying cause of the Haymarket bombing.  In line with press reports, Nast's cartoon shows the famed anarchist cowering under his bed when the police arrive to arrest him.  Most was charged with incitement to riot for a speech delivered on April 22, 1886 at Germania Hall in New York City in which he endorsed arson and murder for political purposes.  On May 14, he was released on bail, but was rearrested for a speech condemning the hanging of the Haymarket defendants and warning that the "day of revolution is not far off; and when it comes, see that you are ready to resist and kill those hirelings of capitalists." Most insisted that he was merely making a prediction, not encouraging violence.  A jury, however, found him guilty and New York's highest court eventually upheld the decision after its appeal.

After serving his sentence, Most met Emma Goldman in 1889, shared a lecture tour with her in 1890, and published a book with her, Anarchy Defended by Anarchists, in 1896.  On September 7, 1901, the day after President William McKinley was fatally shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, Most ran a 50-year-old essay in his newspaper declaring murder to be the foundation of all existing government and approving the assassination of "a professional murderer."  Although not the author, his favorable introduction was enough to get Most arrested, convicted, and jailed.  Once again, the New York high court upheld the sentence.  After his release, Most continued his anarchist activities, publishing a book shortly before his death in Cincinnati in 1906.  

Johann Most served as the model for the anarchist Yundt in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907).  The famous novelist’s characterization of Yundt is similar to Nast’s view of Most as a man who hypocritically agitates for others to do the dirty work of violence, even though he never condescends to commit such acts himself.

Robert C. Kennedy

“When His Skin Is Not In Danger, And—”
July 14, 2024

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