Excerpted with permission from:
Wild West Women: Travellers, Adventurers and Rebels
Written by Rosemary Neering
Published by Whitecap Books Ltd.
THE MOST DETERMINED PERSON I'D EVER MET: Women Not to Be Deterred
New York City in the 1920s hummed with the comings and goings of four million residents, three-quarters of them immigrants or the children of immigrants. Men, women and children crowded the streets of the east side, rode the newly built subways, lived in the tenements and worked in rapidly growing industries, many slaving in sweatshops.
More than a third of the 17 million people who arrived at the American immigration centre on Ellis Island between 1890 and 1930 came from central and eastern Europe to swell rapidly growing Russian, Polish and other immigrant communities. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war chased many Russians from their homes and native land; New York was the destination for a large number of these émigrés. Though they had little to do with the roar of the twenties – the speakeasies and jazz clubs that were part of the fast life of the cities – most were reasonably content with their new country.
Lillian Alling was not. Like much about Alling's life, the facts of her birth and childhood are unconfirmed. She was probably born shortly after 1900 in Russia, or possibly Poland. She came to the United States after the revolution, probably entering with thousands of her fellow Russians at Ellis Island. Some say she was one of the many upper-class and aristocratic Russians who fled Russia at that time; descriptions of her suggest she was well educated and well spoken. One report suggested that she had been sent by her family to find them all a new home, and that, while she was travelling, her family was thrown into exile in Siberia – but this report may have been romantic invention.
Whoever she was, however she arrived in America, she was soon convinced that she did not want to stay. Somehow, she would return to Russia. She never told anyone who recorded her response why she wanted to return, other than to say that she felt alone and unwelcome, despite the large numbers of people in her same circumstances. Perhaps it was the bustle and strangeness of the city. Perhaps it was some more compelling or frightening incident. Perhaps she yearned to rejoin a sweetheart or her family. Whatever impelled her, though, must have been strong motivation indeed, for it drove her to undertake an almost impossible trek, to brave hardship and jail and to continue on when saner heads urged caution.
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