I Fought the Law and the Law Won

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I Fought the Law and the Law Won

Writers Who Got Booked

Writers and creative thinkers may spend much of their time in scholarly pursuits, but many have also been historically prone to brushes with the law- whether for committing an actual crime, or being deemed undesirable for speaking out against the laws of the time. Here are a few arrested authors to read up on:


1. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

Who: Russian immigrants and anarchists famous for their writings and speeches
Arrested for:

  • Berkman: Attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick (1892), Conspiracy to Violate the Draft Act (1917)
  • Goldman: Incitement to riot (1893), Distributing Birth Control information (1915), Conspiracy to Violate the Draft Act (1917) (See her full rap sheet here)
Learn more with:

Sasha and Emma: the Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich

A joint biography of the activists, spanning 50 years of Berkman and Goldman's friendship, sometimes-love affair, and sporadic imprisonments.

2. Ezra Pound

Who: 
American-born poet and founder of the Imagism movement
Arrested for: Treason (1945)

Learn more with:
Ezra and Dorothy Pound : Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946, edited and annotated by Omar Pound and Robert Spoo

Ezra Pound was charged with treason in 1945 for pro-fascist broadcasts during World War II, after which he was incarcerated in a U.S. Army detention camp outside of Pisa, Italy. The letters he wrote to his wife Dorothy, the only person he was permitted to contact, are collected here, along with details of his transfer to Southeast DC's own St. Elizabeths after pleading insanity to avoid life imprisonment. He lived there for the next 12 years.

3. William S. Burroughs

Who: 
Novelist and major figure in the Beat Generation
Arrested for: Homicide of Joan Vollmer (1951)- convicted in absentia with a two-year suspended sentence

Learn more with:
The Stray Bullet : William S. Burroughs in Mexico, by Jorge García-Robles, translated by Daniel C. Schechter

As well-known for his substance abuse as the Beat-era classic Naked LunchBurroughs famously killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer during a drunken game of William Tell while living in Mexico. García-Robles focuses on Burroughs' time in Mexico from 1949 to 1952, including how Vollmer's death influenced his writing.

4. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who: Pastor and Civil Rights trailblazer
Arrested: During the Mongomery Bus Boycott (1956); driving without a Georgia license (1960); during the Birmingham Campaign (1963). King was arrested 29 times in all for his acts of civil disobedience.

Learn more with:

Letter from the Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr., foreword by Bernice King.
Gospel of Freedom : Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation, by Jonathan Rieder.

King wrote his now-famous Letter while jailed for his part in the Birmingham Campaign, a non-violent direct action which attracted widespread attention to the evils of segregation in the South, leading to the forced desegregation of Birmingham and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

5. Jane Fonda

Who: Actress, workout queen, and activist
Arrested for: Drug Smuggling (1970)- charges dropped, as the "drugs" were actually vitamins (but we were all gifted this now-infamous mugshot)

Learn more with:
My Life So Far, by Jane Fonda

Fonda chronicles her younger years in her bestselling memoir, from growing up with a famous father, to her mother's suicide when she was 12, to her controversial Vietnam involvement, and her diverse acting career.