Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
A DENSE FOG rises from the broad bosom of the Ohio. It ensnares the river banks in its mysterious embrace, veils tree and rock with somber mist, and mocks the sun with angry frown. Within the House of Death is felt the chilling breath, and all is quiet and silent in the iron cages.
Only an occasional knocking, as on metal, disturbs the stillness. I listen intently. Nearer and more audible seem the sounds, hesitating and apparently intentional. I am involuntarily reminded of the methods of communication practiced by Russian politicals, and I strive to detect some meaning in the tapping. It grows clearer as I approach the back wall of the cell, and instantly I am aware of a faint murmur in the privy. Is it fancy, or did I bear my name?
"Halloa! " I call into the pipe.
The knocking ceases abruptly. I hear a suppressed, hollow voice: "That you, Aleck?" "Yes. Who is it?"
"Never min. You must be deaf not to hear me callin' you all this time. Take that cott'n out o' your ears."
"I didn't know you could talk this way."
"You didn't? Well, you know now. Them's empty pipes, no standin' water, see? Fine t' talk. Oh, dammit to-"
The words are lost in the gurgle of rushing water. Presently the flow subsides, and the knocking is resumed. I bend over the privy.
"Hello, hello! That you, Aleck?
"Git off that line, ye jabberin' idiot!" some one shouts into the pipe.
"Lay down, there!"
"Take that trap out o' the hole."
"Quit your foolin, Horsethief. "
"Hey, boys, stop that now. That's me, fellers. It's Bob, Horsethief Bob. I'm talkin' business. Keep quiet now, will you? Are you there, Aleck? Yes? Well, pay no 'tention to them dubs. 'Twas that crazy Southside Slim that turned th' water on-"
"Who you call crazy, damn you," a voice interrupts.
"Oh, lay down, Slim, will you? Who said you was crazy? Nay, nay, you're bugs. Hey, Aleck, you there?
"Oh, got me name, have you? Yes, I'm Bob, Horsethief Bob. Make no mistake when you see me; I'm Big Bob, the Horsethief. Can you hear me? It's you, Aleck?
"Sure it's you? Got t' tell you somethin'. What's your number? "
"Right you are. What cell?"
"An' this is me, Big Bob, in-"
"Windbag Bob," a heavy bass comments from above.
"Shut up, Curley, I'm on th' line. I'm in 6 F, Aleck, top tier. Call me up any time I'm in, ha, ha! You see, pipe's runnin' up an' down, an' you can talk to any range you want, but always to th' same cell as you're in, Cell 6, understand? Now if you wan' t' talk to Cell 14, to Shorty, you know-"
"I don't want to talk to Shorty. I don't know him, Bob."
"Yes, you do. You list'n what I tell you, Aleck, an' you'll be all right. That's me talkin', Big Bob, see? Now, I say if you'd like t' chew th' rag with Shorty, you jest tell me. Tell Brother Bob, an' he'll connect you all right. Are you on? Know who's Shorty? "
"Yo oughter. That's Carl, Carl Nold. Know him, don't you? "
"What!" I cry in astonishment. "Is it true, Bob? Is Nold up there on your gallery? "
"Sure thing. Cell 14."
"Why didn't you say so at once? You've been talking ten minutes now, Did you see him? "
"What's your hurry, Aleck? You can't see 'im; not jest now, anyway. P'raps bimeby, mebbe. There's no hurry, Aleck. You got plenty o' time. A few years, rather, ha, ha, ha! "
"Hey, there, Horsethief, quit that!" I recognize "Curley's" deep bass. "What do you want to make the kid feel bad for? "
"No harm meant, Curley," Bob returns, "I was jest joshin' him a bit."
"Well, quit it."
"You don' min' it, Aleck, do you? " I hear Bob again, his tones softened, "I didn' mean t' hurt your feelin's. I'm your friend, Aleck, you can bet your corn dodger on that. Say, I've got somethin' for you from Shorty, I mean Carl, you savvy?"
"What have you, Bob? "
"Nixie through th' hole, ain't safe. I'm coffee-boy on this 'ere range. I'll sneak around to you in the mornin', when I go t' fetch me can of bootleg. Now, jiggaroo, I screw's comin'."
The presence of my comrades is investing existence with interest and meaning. It has brought to me a breeze from the atmosphere of my former environment; it is stirring the graves, where lie my soul's dead, into renewed life and hope.
The secret exchange of notes lends color to the routine. it is like a fresh mountain streamlet joyfully rippling through a stagnant swamp. At work in the shop, my thoughts are engrossed with our correspondence. Again and again I review the arguments elucidating to my comrades the significance of my Attentat: they, too, are inclined to exaggerate the importance of the purely physical result. The exchange of views gradually ripens our previously brief and superficial acquaintance into closer intimacy. There is something in Carl Nold that especially attracts me: I sense in him a congenial spirit. His spontaneous frankness appeals to me; my heart echoes his grief at the realization of Most's unpardonable behavior. But the ill-concealed antagonism of Bauer is irritating. It reflects his desperate clinging to the shattered idol. Presently, however, a better understanding begins to manifest itself. The big, jovial German has earned my respect; he braved the anger of the judge by consistently refusing to betray the man who aided him in the distribution of the Anarchist leaflet among the Homestead workers. On the other hand, both Carl and Henry appreciate my efforts on the witness stand, to exonerate them from complicity in my act. Their condemnation, as acknowledged Anarchists, was, of course, a foregone conclusion, and I am gratified to learn that neither of my comrades had entertained any illusions concerning the fate that awaited them. Indeed, both have expressed surprise that the maximum revenge of the law was not visited upon them. Their philosophical attitude exerts a soothing effect upon me. Carl even voices satisfaction that the sentence of five years will afford him a long-needed vacation from many years of ceaseless factory toil. He is facetiously anxious lest capitalist industry be handicapped by the loss of such a splendid carpenter as Henry, whom he good-naturedly chaffs on the separation from his newly affianced.
The evening hours have ceased to drag: there is pleasure and diversion in the correspondence. The notes have grown into bulky letters, daily cementing our friendship. We compare views, exchange impressions, and discuss prison gossip. I learn the history of the movement in the twin cities, the personnel of Anarchist circles, and collect a fund of anecdotes about Albrecht, the philosophic old shoemaker whose diminutive shop in Allegheny is the center of the radical inteligenzia. With deep contrition Bauer confesses how narrowly he escaped the role of my executioner. My unexpected appearance in their midst, at the height of the Homestead struggle, had waked suspicion among the Allegheny comrades. They sent an inquiry to Most, whose reply proved a warning against me. Unknown to me, Bauer shared the room I occupied in Nold's house. Through the long hours of the night he lay awake, with revolver cocked. At the first sign of a suspicious move on my part, he had determined to kill me.
The personal tenor of our correspondence is gradually broadening into the larger scope of socio-political theories, methods of agitation, and applied tactics. The discussions, prolonged and often heated, absorb our interest. The bulky notes necessitate greater circumspection; the difficulty of procuring writing materials assumes a serious aspect. Every available scrap of paper is exhausted; margins of stray newspapers and magazines have been penciled on, the contents repeatedly erased, and the frayed tatters microscopically covered with ink. Even an occasional fly-leaf from library books has been sacrilegiously forced to leave its covers, and every evidence of its previous association dexterously removed. The problem threatens to terminate our correspondence, and fills us with dismay. But the genius of our faithful postman, of proud horsethieving proclivities, proves equal to the occasion: Bob constitutes himself our commissary, designating the broom shop, in which he is employed, as the base of our future supplies.
The unexpected affluence fills us with joy. The big rolls requisitioned by "Horsethief" exclude the fear of famine; the smooth yellow wrapping paper affords the luxury of larger and more legible chirography. The pride of sudden wealth germinates ambitious projects. We speculate on the possibility of converting our correspondence into a magazinelet, and wax warm over the proposed list of readers. Before long the first issue of the Zuchthausbluthen is greeted with the encouraging approval of our sole subscriber, whose contribution surprises us in the form of a rather creditable poem on the blank last page of the publication. Elated at the happy acquisition, we unanimously crown him Meistersinger, with dominion over the department of poetry.
Soon we plan more pretentious issues: the outward size of the publication is to remain the same, three by five inches, but the number of pages is to be enlarged; each issue to have a different editor, to ensure equality of opportunity; the readers to serve as contributing editors. The appearance of the Bluthen is to be regulated by the time required to complete the circle of readers, whose identity is to be masked with certain initials, to protect them against discovery. Henceforth Bauer, physically a giant, is to be known as "G"; because of my medium stature, I shall be designated with the letter "M"; and Nold, as the smallest, by "K." The poet, his history somewhat shrouded in mystery, is christened "D" for D are to act, in turn, as editor-in- chief, whose province it is to start the Buthen on its way, each reader contributing to the issue till it is returned to the original editor, to enable him to read and comment upon his fellow- contributors. The publication, its contents growing in transit, is finally to reach the second con- tributor, upon whom will devolve the editorial management of the following issue.
The unique arrangement proves a source of much pleasure and recreation. The little magazine is rich in contents and varied in style. The diversity of handwriting heightens the interest, and stimulates speculation on the personality of our increasing readers- contributors. In the arena of the diminutive publication, there rages the conflict of contending social philosophies; here a political essay rubs elbows with a witty anecdote, and a dissertation on "The Nature of Things" is interspersed with prison small-talk and personal reminiscence. Flashes of unstudied humor and unconscious rivalry of orthography lend peculiar charm to the unconventional editorials, and waft a breath of josh Billings into the manuscript pages.
But the success of the Zuchthausbluthen soon discovers itself a veritable Frankenstein, which threatens the original foundation and aims of the magazinelet. The popularity of joint editorship is growing at the cost of unity and tendency; the Bard's astonishing facility at versification, coupled with his Jules Vernian imagination, causes us grave anxiety lest his untamable Pegasus traverse the limits of our paper supply. The appalling warning of the commissary that the improvident drain upon his resources is about to force him on a strike, imperatively calls a halt. We are deliberating policies of retrenchment and economy, when unexpectedly the arrival of two Homestead men suggests an auspicious solution.
The presence of Hugh F. Dempsey and Robert J. Beatty, prominent in the Knights of Labor organization, offers opportunity for propaganda among workers representing the more radical element of American labor. Accused of poisoning the food served to the strike-breakers in the mills, Dempsey and Beatty appear to me men of unusual type. Be they innocent or guilty, the philosophy of their methods is in harmony with revolutionary tactics. Labor can never be unjust in its demands: is it not the creator of all the wealth in the world? Every weapon may be employed to return the despoiled People into its rightful ownership. Is not the terrorizing of scabbery, and ultimately of the capitalist exploiters, an effective means of aiding the struggle herefore Dempsey and Beatty deserve acclaim. Morally certain of their guilt, I respect them the more for it, though I am saddened by their denial of complicity in the scheme of wholesale extermination of the scabs. The blackleg is also human, it is true, and desires to live. But one should starve rather than turn traitor to the cause of his class. Moreover, the individual-or any number of them-cannot be weighed against the interests of humanity.
Infinite patience weaves the threads that bring us in contact with the imprisoned labor leaders. in the ceaseless duel of vital need against stupidity and malice, caution and wit are sharpened by danger. The least indiscretion, the most trifling negligence, means discovery, disaster. But perseverance and intelligent Purpose conquer: by the aid of the faithful "Horsethief,,, communication with Dempsey and Beatty is established. With the aggressiveness of strong conviction I present to them my views, dwelling on the historic role of the Attentater and the social significance of conscious individual Protest. The discussion ramifies, the interest aroused soon transcending the limits of my paper supply. Presently I am involved in a correspondence with several men, whose questions and misinterpretations regarding my act I attempt to answer and correct with individual notes. But the method Proves an impossible tax on our opportunities, and "KGM 'I finally decide to publish an English edition of the Zuch tha usbu then. The German magazinelet is suspended, and in its place appears the first issue of the Prison Blossoms.