Anton Köberlein, A German-American Anarchist

by Robert P. Helms

One of the most tantalizing of Philadelphia’s dead anarchists is a German pattern maker named Anton Köberlein (“KEB-er-line”), who crosses our radar screen only a few times. He was a committed and respected anarchist for the second half of his life, but his approach to the idea reads very different at different points along the way. We hope to find more information on him, but meanwhile let’s examine what we have.

He was born around 1836, but we don’t know where, nor anything about his family. Our first sighting of Anton is when he was a leader of the Philadelphia Eight-Hour League during a strike for a shorter work day by several Philadelphia unions during June of 1872. He presided at many of the movement’s mass meetings and was continuously named and paraphrased in the newspapers.1 Eleven years later, in February 1883, he was the anarchist who gave hospitality to Johann Most, and introduced Most to audiences when the controversial anarchist-communist leader made his first lecture stop in Philadelphia.2

On Sunday, February 8, 1885, The Press of Philadelphia ran a long exposé on the city’s German anarchists, reporting the findings of an undercover journalist who posed as an anarchist. The reporter was called an “incendiary stranger” in the report itself. An entire issue of Philadelphia’s monthly anarchist newspaper Die Zukunft (The Future) was translated into English for Press readers to savor, and soon after this unfavorable publicity, Die Zukunft ceased publication after running for over a year. Köberlein was the paper’s former editor.

The Press had run investigative reports before their encounter with the anarchists --in fact, the paper was famous for doing so. One example unfolded in late 1882, when the Anatomy Department at Thomas Jefferson Medical College was discovered to be buying stolen cadavers from the Lebanon Cemetery For Negroes at 18th & Passyunk –but that’s a wild tale for another time.

We have too little information on this affair or on Köberlein to know how accurate or inaccurate the newspaper quotes are, but at the time of this scene, Most’s following was at its peak and its rhetoric was very violent, in part because it was reacting to the violent suppression of radicals in Germany.

The scene took place in Forster’s Saloon at 1131-33 Callowhill Street, which was one block from Köberlein’s home and served as the local headquarters of The International Workingmen’s Association. It was also the meeting place for Branch 4. Philadelphia had six German branches and one Bohemian branch listed in Die Zukunft. The reporter is looking for sensational quotes and Köberlein is describing the local anarchist “Lehr-und-Wehr Verein” (defense and educational association), a rifle club which had counterparts in several US cities. Historian Tom Goyens has written that the numbers mentioned in the Press report are exaggerated, probably giving 2-4 times the actual number of deployable, revolutionary anarchists.3

"How are things in Philadelphia?" inquired the visiting dynamiter, after some preliminary conversation.

"Good," chuckled Köberlein. "Why, there are 60,000 men out of employment here. Some of them are starving. Their joining the organization is only a question of time. It is a case of bread or blood. The rich oppress the poor. Well, it is their turn to be oppressed, isn’t it, eh? Only we must kill them, or it wouldn’t be long before they tried to get the upper hand again."

"What I complain about," exclaimed the stranger impatiently, "is the inaction. Why can’t we rise at once and avenge our wrongs?"

"Ah," responded Köberlein, smilingly. "I see you are of the right kind. But you’re too hot-blooded. Wait, my boy, wait. In this city, 500 of us are armed with Springfield rifles. We are ready, only things must ripen. The 500 are worth 5,000 of the enemy: every man is a soldier. We have all seen service in Germany. Do you think we take any stock in the soldiers in this state? I call them ‘paste-board soldiers,’” and he laughed heartily…"


Photo credit: Natasha de Chroustchoff
Special thanks to antique gun collector and expert Jan Oosting

"In this city, 500 of us are armed with Springfield rifles."
The author poses with an 1871 Springfield rifle -- still the current model in 1885

Köberlein rented the Odd Fellows Hall at 3rd & Brown Streets for the Haymarket martyrs’ commemoration meeting of November 11, 1889, which was suppressed by order of the Director of Public Safety. The main speaker was to be the former preacher Hugh O. Pentecost, who had recently turned from Christianity to anarchism and freethought. About 1,000 people were turned away, including Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Russians, and Irish, according to the next morning’s Philadelphia Record.

The Haymarket commemoration was a success the following year. On the evening of November 12, 1890, Köberlein, mentioned as “an old timer in Anarchy,” stood at the door of Maennerchor Hall, on the 700 block of Fairmount Avenue, and collected 15 cents from each person entering. The announced speakers were Johann Most and Lucy Parsons, the widow of one of the remembered martyrs. Most failed to appear – not so unusual for him – but a girl protégé of his took his place at the rostrum that evening, after walking through the crowd selling portraits of martyr Louis Lingg. The "short-haired young woman, wearing big eye-glasses and having a flaming red bow pinned at the neck of her dark dress" was Emma Goldman, giving her first of many powerful speeches in Philadelphia.4

The anarchists of Philadelphia had their share of stress after Leon Czolgosz, who described himself as an anarchist, fatally shot William McKinley in 1901. A reporter went to Köberlein’s home on Croskey Street two days after the shooting (September 7) and interviewed the "white-haired man of 65." McKinley was then still alive, but he was not expected to live and finally died on September 14th.

"Is the man who tried to kill President McKinley an anarchist?"

"Anyone who kills an exalted person nowadays is called an anarchist,” he replied with a smile that broke into a hoarse laugh. “It is ridiculous the way people assume every person who kills one in high office to be an anarchist. Was the man who killed Lincoln an anarchist? Or the man who killed Garfield?"

"Do the anarchists countenance the attempt to kill President McKinley?"

"I don’t know," he replied, somewhat evasively. "Ask me something easy."

"Can you tell me if the anarchist circle to which you belong upholds the action of the assassin of the president?"

"How can I tell you?" Köberlein replied. "I have not discussed the subject. I am an American citizen, and I regret the death of the president just as I would regret the death of any man. Anarchists are not organized to inflict death and misery. They are organized to prevent the infliction of death and misery on the many by the few."

"Do you know Czolgosz?"

"Never heard of him. He says he is an anarchist. He may be. There are many anarchists and we do not all know each other."5

After that day, at summer’s end in 1901, we have no further evidence of the anarchist Anton Köberlein.

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1See Public Ledger and Press (both Philadelphia), June 11-22, 1872.
2See Philadelphia papers Press, North American, Inquirer, and Record, Feb. 5-6, 1883.
3Tom Goyens, Gemeinschaft and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914. Doctoral Diss., Katholeike Universiteit. Leuven, Belgium, 2003.
4“Mrs. Parsons Talks” Philadelphia Inquirer and “Waving the Red Flag,” Times (Philadelphia), both Nov. 13, 1890.
5“Views of Local Anarchists,” Philadelphia Record, September 8, 1901.