Born in Kaluga, Russia, Edelstadt was deeply affected by the life of his father, a cantonist who had been forcibly conscripted into the Tsar’s army for a term of 25 years – a type of conscription that was typical of the Imperial regime, and often used against Jews. David was educated in Russian language and literature; he published his first poem in Russian at the age of 12.
In 1882 at the age of 15, David emigrated to the United States after escaping the Kiev pogrom of May 8, 1881. He settled in New York City, where he became involved in the developing anarchist movement. He participated in the first Jewish anarchist group in New York, The Pioneers of Liberty (Pionire der Frayhayt). The group was created after the arrest of the (later to be) Chicago Haymarket martyrs, then a group of anarchist labor organizers working for the 8-hour day. The first dozen workers who initially set the group were later joined by Edelstadt and other gifted writers and speakers – Saul Yanovsky, Roman Lewis, Hillel Solotaroff, Moshe Katz, and JA Maryson.
Edelstadt and the others held meetings, sponsored rallies and raised funds to help the Chicago anarchists. The Pioneers organised a ball on the Lower East Side which raised $100, which was then sent to the families of the defendants. They began to spread anarchist propaganda among the Jewish immigrants, who were arriving in the States in increasing numbers. They set up a club and brought out literature in Yiddish, including a pamphlet on the Haymarket case.
The intense propaganda led to the establishment of anarchist circles in other towns – Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Providence. Edelstadt and others travelled to Philadelphia to deliver talks. The group kept in touch with the Jewish anarchists in London, and Edelstadt contributed to the London Yiddish anarchist paper Arbeiter Fraynd (Workers’ Friend).
David was the third chief editor of the Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Voice of Labor). He set up various columns and features, which contributed to its popular success. He produced a series of tribute poems to the executed Chicago anarchists.
A buttonhole-maker by trade, the bad conditions in the sweatshops and the tenements led to his contracting tuberculosis and he was forced to quit his post in October 1891. He moved to Denver for a cure. Although he continued to send poems to the paper, the end was near. He died there on 17 October 1892 at the age of 26. David Edelstadt is buried in Golden Hill Cemetery near W. Colfax Avenue in Golden, Colorado.
In the next few years, Edelstadt cultural groups sprang up in Chicago, Boston and other cities. In Argentina many years later, Jewish anarchists named their cultural circle in Buenos Aires after him. The Freie Arbeiter Stimme said of him: "David Edelstadt, a fine idealistic nature, a spiritual petrel whose songs of revolt were beloved by every Yiddish-speaking radical."