anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.



MARCH 25, 1894.


Dear Fedya:
      This letter is somewhat delayed: for certain reasons I missed mail-day last month. Prison life, too, has its ups and downs, and just now I am on the down side. We are cautioned to refrain from referring to local affairs; therefore I can tell you only that I am in solitary, without work. I don't know how long I am to be kept "locked up." It may be a month, or a year, but I hope it will not be the latter.
      I was not permitted to receive the magazines and delicacies you sent.... We may subscribe for the daily papers, and you can easily imagine how religiously I read them from headline to the last ad: they keep me in touch, to some extent, with the living.... Blessed be the shades of Guttenberg! Hugo and Zola, even Gogol and Turgenev, are in the library. It is like meeting an old friend in a strange land to find our own Bazarov discoursing-in English.... Page after page unfolds the past-the solitary is forgotten, the walls melt away, and again I roam with Leather Stocking in the primitive forest, or sorrow with poor Oliver Twist. But the "Captain's Daughter" irritates me, and Pugatchev, the rebellious soul, has turned a caricature in the awkward hands of the translator. And now comes Tarass Bulbais it our own Tarass, the fearless warrior, the scourge of Turk and Tartar? How grotesque is the brave old hetman storming maledictions against the hated Moslemsin long-winded German periods! Exasperated and offended, I turn my back upon the desecration, and open a book of poems. But instead of the requested Robert Burns, I find a volume of Wordsworth. Posies bloom on his pages, and rosebuds scent his rhymes, but the pains of the world's labor wake no chord in his soul.... Science and romance, history and travel, religion and philosophy-all come trooping into the cell in irrelevant sequence, for the allowance of only one book at a time limits my choice. The variety of reading affords rich material for reflection, and helps to perfect my English. But some passage in the "Starry Heavens" suddenly brings me to earth, and the present is illumined with the direct perception of despair, and the anguished question surges through my mind, What is the use of all this study and learning? And then-but why harrow you with this tenor.
      I did not mean to say all this when I began. It cannot be undone: the sheet must be accounted for. Therefore it will be mailed to you. But I know, dear friend, you also are not bedded on roses. And the poor Sailor?
      My space is all.



The lengthening chain of days in the solitary drags its heavy links through every change of misery. The cell is suffocating with the summer heat; rarely does the fresh breeze from the river steal a caress upon my face. On the pretext of a "draught" the unfriendly guard has closed the hall windows opposite my cell. Not a breath of air is stirring. The leaden hours of the night are insufferable with the foul odor of the perspiration and excrement of a thousand bodies. Sleepless, I toss on the withered mattress. The ravages of time and the weight of many inmates have demoralized it out of all semblance of a bedtick. But the Block Captain persistently ignores my request for new straw, directing me to "shake it up a bit." I am fearful of repeating the experiment: the clouds of dust almost strangled me; for days the cell remained hazy with the powdered filth. Impatiently I await the morning: the yard door will open before the marching lines, and the fresh air be wafted past my cell. I shall stand ready to receive the precious tonic that is to give me life this day.
      And when the block has belched forth its striped prey, and silence mounts its vigil, I may improve a favorable moment to exchange a greeting with Johnny Davis. The young prisoner is in solitary on the tier above me. Thrice his request for a "high gear" machine has been refused, and the tall youth forced to work doubled over a low table. Unable to exert his best efforts in the cramped position, Johnny has repeatedly been punished with the dungeon. Last week he suffered a hemorrhage; all through the night resounds his hollow cough. Desperate with the dread of consumption, Johnny has refused to return to work. The Warden, relenting in a kindly mood, permitted him to resume his original high machine. But the boy has grown obdurate: he is determined not to go back to the shop whose officer caused him so much trouble. The prison discipline takes no cognizance of the situation. Regularly every Monday the torture is repeated: the youth is called before the Deputy, and assigned to the hosiery department; the unvarying refusal is followed by the dungeon, and then Johnny is placed in the solitary, to be cited again before the Warden the ensuing Monday. I chafe at my helplessness to aid the boy. His course is suicidal, but the least suggestion of yielding enrages him. "I'll die before I give in, " he told me.
      From whispered talks through the waste pipe I learn the sad story of his young life. He is nineteen, with a sentence of five years before him. His father, a brakeman, was killed in a railroad collision. The suit for damages was dragged through years of litigation, leaving the widow destitute. Since the age of fourteen young Johnny had to support the whole family. Lately he was employed as the driver of a delivery wagon, associating with a rough element that gradually drew him into gambling. One day a shortage of twelve dollars was discovered in the boy's accounts: the mills of justice began to grind, and Johnny was speedily clad in stripes.

In vain I strive to absorb myself in the library book. The shoddy heroes of Laura jean wake no response in my heart; the superior beings of Corelli, communing with mysterious heavenly circles, stalk by, strange and unhuman. Here, in the cell above me, cries and moans the terrible tragedy of Reality. What a monstrous thing it is that the whole power of the commonwealth, all the machinery of government, is concentrated to crush this unfortunate atom! Innocently guilty, too, the poor boy is. Ensnared by the gaming spirit of the time, the feeble creature of vitiating environment, his fate is sealed by a moment of weakness. Yet his deviation from the path of established ethics is but a faint reflection of the lives of the men that decreed his doom. The hypocrisy of organized Society! The very foundation of its existence rests upon the negation and defiance of every professed principle of right and justice. Every feature of its face is a caricature, a travesty upon the semblance of truth; the whole life of humanity a mockery of the very name. Political mastery based on violence and jesuitry; industry gathering the harvest of human blood; commerce ascendant on the ruins of manhood-such is the morality of civilization. And over the edifice of this stupendous perversion the Law sits enthroned, and Religion weaves the spell of awe, and varnishes right and puzzles wrong, and bids the cowering helot intone, "Thy will be done!"
      Devoutly Johnny goes to Church, and prays forgiveness for his "sins." The prosecutor was "very hard" on him, he told me. The blind mole perceives only the immediate, and is embittered against the persons directly responsible for his long imprisonment. But greater minds have failed fully to grasp the iniquity of the established. My beloved Burns, even, seems inadequate, powerfully as he moves my spirit with his deep sympathy for the poor, the oppressed. But "man's inhumanity to man" is not the last word. The truth lies deeper. It is economic slavery, the savage struggle for a crumb, that has converted mankind into wolves and sheep. in liberty and communism, none would have the will or the power "to make countless thousands mourn." Verily, it is the system, rather than individuals, that is the source of pollution and degradation. My prison-house environment is but another manifestation of the Midas-hand, whose cursed touch turns everything to the brutal service of Mammon. Dullness fawns upon cruelty for advancement; with savage joy the shop foreman cracks his whip, for his meed of the gold-transmuted blood. The famished bodies in stripes, the agonized brains reeling in the dungeon night, the men buried in "basket" and solitary,-what human hand would turn the key upon a soul in utter darkness, but for the dread of a like fate, and the shadow it casts before? This nightmare is but an intensified replica of the world beyond, the larger prison locked with the levers of Greed, guarded by the spawn of Hunger.

My mind reverts insistently to the life outside. It is a Herculean task to rouse Apathy to the sordidness of its misery. Yet if the People would but realize the depths of their degradation and be informed of the means of deliverance, how joyously they would embrace Anarchy! Quick and decisive would be the victory of the workers against the handful of their despoilers. An hour of sanity, freed from prejudice and superstition, and the torch of liberty would flame 'round the world, and the banner of equality and brotherhood be planted upon the hills of a regenerated humanity. Ah, if the world would but pause for one short while, and understand, and become free!
      Involuntarily I am reminded of the old rabbinical lore: only one instant of righteousness, and Messiah would come upon earth. The beautiful promise had strongly appealed to me in the days of childhood. The merciful God requires so little of us, I had often pondered. Why will we not abstain from sin and evil, for just "the twinkling of an eye-lash"? For weeks I went about weighed down with the grief of impenitent Israel refusing to be saved, my eager brain pregnant with projects of hastening the deliverance. Like a divine inspiration came the solution: at the stroke of the noon hour, on a preconcerted day, all the men and women of the Jewry throughout the world should bow in prayer. For a single stroke of time, all at once behold the Messiah come! In agonizing perplexity I gazed at my Hebrew tutor shaking his head. How his kindly smile quivered dismay into my thrilling heart! The children of Israel could not be saved thus,-he spoke sadly. Nay, not even in the most circumspect manner, affording our people in the farthest corners of the earth time to prepare for the solemn moment. The Messiah will come, the good tutor kindly consoled me. It had been promised. "But the hour hath not arrived," he quoted; "no man hath the power to hasten the steps of the Deliverer."
      With a sense of sobering sadness, I think of the new hope, the revolutionary Messiah. Truly the old rabbi was wise beyond his ken: it hath been given to no man to hasten the march of delivery. Out of the People's need, from the womb of their suffering, must be born the hour of redemption. Necessity, Necessity alone, with its iron heel, will spur numb Misery to effort, and waken the living dead. The process is tortuously slow, but the gestation of a new humanity cannot be hurried by impatience. We must bide our time, meanwhile preparing the workers for the great upheaval. The errors of the past are to be guarded against: always has apparent victory been divested of its fruits, and paralyzed into defeat, because the People were fettered by their respect for property, by the superstitious awe of authority, and by reliance upon leaders. These ghosts must be cast out, and the torch of reason lighted in the darkness of men's minds, ere blind rebellion can rend the midway clouds of defeat, and sight the glory of the Social Revolution, and the beyond.


A heavy nightmare oppresses my sleep. Confused sounds ring in my cars, and beat upon my head. I wake in nameless dread. The cell-house is raging with uproar: crash after crash booms through the hall; it thunders against the walls of the cell, then rolls like some monstrous drum along the galleries, and abruptly ceases.
      In terror 1 cower on the bed. All is deathly still. Timidly 1 look around. The cell is in darkness, and only a faint gas light flickers unsteadily in the corridor. Suddenly a cry cuts the silence, shrill and unearthly, bursting into wild laughter. And again the fearful thunder, now bellowing from the cell above, now muttering menacingly in the distance, then dying with a growl. And all is hushed again, and only the unearthly laughter rings through the hall.
      "Johnny, Johnny"' I call in alarm. "Johnny"'
      "Th' kid's in th' hole," comes hoarsely through the privy. "This is Horsethief. Is that you, Aleck?
      "Yes. What is it, Bob?"
      "Some one breakin' up housekeepin'."
      "Can't tell. May be Smithy."
      "What Smithy, Bob?"
      "Crazy Smith, on crank row. Look out now, they're comin'."
      The heavy doors of the rotunda groan on their hinges. Shadowlike, giant figures glide past my cell. They walk inaudibly, felt-soled and portentous, the long riot clubs rigid at their sides. Behind them others, and then the Warden, a large revolver gleaming in his hand. With bated breath I listen, conscious of the presence of other men at the doors. Suddenly wailing and wild laughter pierce the night: there is the rattling of iron, violent scuffling, the sickening thud of a falling body, and all is quiet. Noiselessly the bread cart flits by, the huge shadows bending over the body stretched on the boards.

The gong booms the rising hour. The morning sun glints a ray upon the bloody trail in the hall, and hides behind the gathering mist. A squad of men in gray and black is marched from the yard. They kneel on the floor, and with sand and water scour the crimson flagstones.
      With great relief I learn that "Crazy Smithy" is not dead. He will recover, the rangeman assures me, The doctor bandaged the man's wounds, and then the prisoner, still unconscious, was dragged to the dungeon. Little by little I glean his story from my informant, Smith has been insane, at times violently, ever since his imprisonment, about four years ago. His "partner," Burns, has also become deranged through worry over his sentence of twenty-five years. His madness assumed such revolting expression that the authorities caused his commitment to the insane asylum. But Smith remains on "crank row," the Warden insisting that he is shamming to gain an opportunity to escape.


The rare snatches of conversation with the old rangeman are events in the monotony of the solitary. Owing to the illness of Bob, communication with my friends is almost entirely suspended. In the forced idleness the hours grow heavy and languid, the days drag in unvarying sameness, By violent efforts orts of will I strangle the recurring thought of my long sentence, and seek forgetfulness in reading. Volume after volume passes through my hands, till my brain is steeped with the printed word. Page by page I recite the history of the Holy Church, the lives of the Fathers and the Saints, or read aloud, to hear a human voice, the mythology of Greece and India, mingling with it, for the sake of variety, a few chapters from Mill and Spencer. But in the midst of an intricate passage in the "Unknowable," or in the heart of a difficult mathematical problem, I suddenly become aware of my pencil drawing familiar figures on the library slate: 22 x 12 = 264. What is this, I wonder. And immediately I proceed, in semi-conscious manner, to finish the calculation:

264 x 30 = 7,920 days.
7,920 x 24 = 190,080 hours.
190,080 x 60 = 11,404,800 minutes.
11,404,800 x 60 = 684,288,000 seconds.

      But the next moment I am aghast at the realization that my computation allows only 30 days per month, whereas the year consists of 365, sometimes even of 366 days. And again I repeat the process, multiplying 22 by 365, and am startled to find that I have almost 700,000,000 seconds to pass in the solitary. From the official calendar alongside of the rules the cheering promise faces me, Good conduct shortens time. But I have been repeatedly reported and punished-they will surely deprive me of the commutation. With great care I figure out my allowance: one month on the first year, one on the second; two on the third and fourth; three on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth; four months' "good time" on each succeeding year. I shall therefore have to serve fifteen years and three months in this place, and then eleven months in the workhouse. I have been here now two years. It still leaves me 14 years and 2 months, or more than 5,170 days. Appalled by the figures, I pace the cell in agitation. It is hopeless! It is folly to expect to survive such a sentence, especially in view of the Warden's persecution, and the petty tyranny of the keepers.
      Thoughts of suicide and escape, wild fancies of unforeseen developments in the world at large that will somehow result in my liberation, all struggle in confusion, leaving me faint and miserable. My absolute isolation holds no promise of deliverance; the days of illness and suffering fill me with anguish. With a sharp pang I observe the thinning of my hair. The evidence of physical decay rouses the fear of mental collapse, insanity.... I shudder at the terrible suggestion, and lash myself into a fever of irritation with myself, the rangeman, and every passing convict, my heart seething with hatred of the Warden, the guards, the judge, and that unembodied, shapeless, but inexorable and merciless, thing-the world. In the moments of reacting calm I apply myself to philosophy and science, determinedly, with the desperation born of horror. But the dread ghost is ever before me; it follows me up and down the cell, mocks me with the wild laughter of "Crazy Smith" in the stillness of the night, and with the moaning and wailing of my neighbor suddenly gone mad.

This page has been accessed times since October 3, 2002.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]