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Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.




THE DYING SUN grows pale with haze and fog. Slowly the dark-gray line undulates across the shop, and draws its sinuous length along the gloaming yard. The shadowy waves cleave the thickening mist, vibrate ghostlike, and are swallowed in the yawning blackness of the cell-house.
      "Aleck, Aleck!" I hear an excited whisper behind me, "quick, plant it. The screw's goin' t' frisk me."
      Something small and hard is thrust into my coat pocket. The guard in front stops short, suspiciously scanning the passing men.
      "Break ranks!"
      The overseer approaches me. "You are wanted in the office, Berk."
      The Warden, blear-eyed and sallow, frowns as I am led in.
      "What have you got on you?" he demands, abruptly.
      "I don't understand you."
      "Yes, you do. Have you money on you?"
      "I have not."
      "Who sends clandestine mail for you?"
      "What mail?"
      "The letter published in the Anarchist sheet in New York."
      I feel greatly relieved. The letter in question passed through official channels.
      "It went through the Chaplain's hands," I reply, boldly.
      "it isn't true. Such a letter could never pass Mr. Milligan. Mr. Cosson," he turns to the guard, "fetch the newspaper from my desk."
      The Warden's hands tremble as he points to the marked item. "Here it is! You talk of revolution, and comrades, and Anarchism. Mr. Milligan never saw that, I'm sure. It's a nice thing for the papers to say that you are editing-from the prison, mind you-editing an Anarchist sheet in New York."
      "You can't believe everything the papers say," I protest.
      "Hm, this time the papers, hm, hm, may be right," the Deputy interposes. "They surely didn't make the story, hm, hm, out of whole cloth."
      "They often do," I retort. "Didn't they write that I tried to jump over the wall-it's about thirty feet high-and that the guard shot me in the leg? "
      A smile flits across the Warden's face. Impulsively I blurt out:
      "Was the story inspired, perhaps?"
      "Silence!" the Warden thunders. "You are not to speak, unless addressed, remember. Mr. McPane, please search him."
      The long, bony fingers slowly creep over my neck and shoulders, down my arms and body, pressing in my armpits, gripping my legs, covering every spot, and immersing me in an atmosphere of clamminess. The loathsome touch sickens me, but I rejoice in the thought of my security: I have nothing incriminating about me.
      Suddenly the snakelike hand dips into my coat pocket.
      "Hm, what's this?" He unwraps a small, round object. "A knife, Captain."
      "Let me see!" I cry in amazement.
      "Stand back!" the Warden commands. "This knife has been stolen from the shoe shop. on whom did you mean to use it?"'
      "'Warden, I didn't even know I had it. A fellow dropped it into my pocket as we-"
      "That'll do. You're not so clever as you think."
      "It's a conspiracy!" I cry.
      He lounges calmly in the armchair, a peculiar smile dancing in his eyes.
      "Well, what have you got to say?"
      "It's a put-up job."
      "Explain yourself."
      "Some one threw this thing into my pocket as we were coming-"
      "Oh, we've already heard that. It's too fishy."
      "You searched me for money and secret letters-"
      "That will do now. Mr. McPane, what is the sentence for the possession of a dangerous weapon?"
      "Warden," I interrupt, "it's no weapon. The blade is only half an inch, and-"
      "Silence! I spoke to Mr. McPane."
      "Hm, three days, Captain."
      "Take him down."

In the storeroom I am stripped of my suit of dark gray, and again clad in the hateful stripes. Coatless and shoeless, I am led through hallways and corridors, down a steep flight of stairs, and thrown into the dungeon.

Total darkness. The blackness is massive, palpable,-I feel its hand upon my head, my face. I dare not move, lest a misstep thrust me into the abyss. I hold my hand close to my eyes-I feel the touch of my lashes upon it, but I cannot see its outline. Motionless I stand on one spot, devoid of all sense of direction. The silence is sinister; it seems to me I can hear it. Only now and then the hasty scrambling of nimble feet suddenly rends the stillness, and the gnawing of invisible river rats haunts the fearful solitude.
      Slowly the blackness pales. It ebbs and melts; out of the somber gray, a wall looms above; the silhouette of a door rises dimly before me, sloping upward and growing compact and impenetrable.
      The hours drag in unbroken sameness. Not a sound reaches me from the cell-house. In the maddening quiet and darkness I am bereft of all consciousness of time, save once a day when the heavy rattle of keys apprises me of the morning: the dungeon is unlocked, and the silent guards hand me a slice of bread and a cup of water. The double doors fall heavily to, the steps grow fainter and die in the distance, and all is dark again in the dungeon.
      The numbness of death steals upon my soul. The floor is cold and clammy, the gnawing grows louder and nearer, and I am filled with dread lest the starving rats attack my bare feet. I snatch a few unconscious moments leaning against the door; and then again I pace the cell, striving to keep awake, wondering whether it be night or day, yearning for the sound of a human voice.
      Utterly forsaken! Cast into the stony bowels of the underground, the world of man receding, leaving no trace behind.... Eagerly I strain my ear-only the ceaseless, fearful gnawing. I clutch the bars in desperation-a hollow echo mocks the clanking iron. My hands tear violently at the door-"Ho, there! Any one here?" All is silent. Nameless terrors quiver in my mind, weaving nightmares of mortal dread and despair. Fear shapes convulsive thoughts: they rage in wild tempest, then calm, and again rush through time and space in a rapid succession of strangely familiar scenes, wakened in my slumbering consciousness.
      Exhausted and weary I droop against the wall. A slimy creeping on my face startles me in horror, and again I pace the cell. I feel cold and hungry. Am I forgotten? Three days must have passed, and more. Have they forgotten me? ...
      The clank of keys sends a thrill of joy to my heart. My tomb will open-oh, to see the light, and breathe the air again....
      "Officer, isn't my time up yet?"
      "What's your hurry? You've only been here one day,"
      The doors fall to. Ravenously I devour the bread, so small and thin, just a bite. Only one day! Despair enfolds me like a pall. Faint with anguish, I sink to the floor.


The change from the dungeon to the ordinary cell is a veritable transformation. The sight of the human form fills me with delight, the sound of voices is sweet music. I feel as if I had been torn from the grip of death when all hope had fled me,caught on the very brink, as it were, and restored to the world of the living. How bright the sun, how balmy the air! In keen sensuousness I stretch out on the bed. The tick is soiled, the straw protrudes in places, but it is luxury to rest, secure from the vicious river rats and the fierce vermin. It is almost liberty, freedom!
      But in the morning I awake in great agony. My eyes throb with pain; every joint of my body is on the rack. The blankets had been removed from the dungeon; three days and nights I lay on the bare stone. It was unnecessarily cruel to deprive me of my spectacles, in pretended anxiety lest I commit suicide with them. It is very touching, this solicitude for my safety, in view of the flimsy pretext to punish me. Some hidden motive must be actuating the Warden. But what can it be? Probably they will not keep me long in the cell. When I am returned to work, I shall learn the truth.
      The days pass in vain expectation. The continuous confinement is becoming distressing. I miss the little comforts I have lost by the removal to the "single" cell, considerably smaller than my previous quarters. My library, also, has disappeared, and the pictures I had so patiently collected for the decoration of the walls. The cell is bare and cheerless, the large card of ugly-printed rules affording no relief from the irritating whitewash. The narrow space makes exercise difficult: the necessity of turning at every second and third step transforms walking into a series of contortions. But some means must be devised to while away the time. I pace the floor, counting the seconds required to make ten turns. I recollect having heard that five miles constitutes a healthy day's walk. At that rate I should make 3,771 turns, the cell measuring seven feet in length. I divide the exercise into three parts, adding a few extra laps to make sure of five miles. Carefully I count, and am overcome by a sense of calamity when the peal of the gong confuses my numbers. I must begin over again.
      The change of location has interrupted communication with my comrades. I am apprehensive of the fate of the Prison Blossoms: strict surveillance makes the prospect of restoring connections doubtful. I am assigned to the ground floor, my cell being but a few feet distant from the officers' desk at the yard door. Watchful eyes are constantly upon me; it is impossible for any prisoner to converse with me. The rangeman alone could aid me in reaching my friends, but I have been warned against him: he is a "stool" who has earned his position as trusty by spying upon the inmates. I can expect no help from him; but perhaps the coffee-boy may prove of service.
      I am planning to approach the man, when I am informed that prisoners from the hosiery department are locked up on the upper gallery. By means of the waste pipe, I learn of the developments during my stay in the dungeon. The discontent of the shop employees with the insufficient rations was intensified by the arrival of a wagon-load of bad meat. The stench permeated the yard, and several men were punished for passing uncomplimentary remarks about the food. The situation was aggravated by an additional increase of the task. The knitters and loopers were on the verge of rebellion. Twice within the month had the task been enlarged. They sent to the Warden a request for a reduction; in reply came the appalling order for a further increase. Then a score of men struck. They remained in the cells, refusing to return to the shop unless the demand for better food and less work was complied with. With the aid of informers, the Warden conducted a quiet investigation. One by one the refractory prisoners were forced to submit. By a process of elimination the authorities sifted the situation, and now it is whispered about that a decision has been reached, placing responsibility for the unique episode of a strike in the prison.
      An air of mystery hangs about the guards. Repeatedly I attempt to engage them in conversation, but the least reference to the strike seals their lips. I wonder at the peculiar looks they regard me with, when unexpectedly the cause is revealed.


It is Sunday noon. The rangeman pushes the dinner wagon along the tier. I stand at the door, ready to receive the meal. The overseer glances at me, then motions to the prisoner. The cart rolls past my cell.
      "Officer, " I call out, " you missed me.
      "Smell the pot-pie, do you?"
      "Where's my dinner?"
      "You get none."
      The odor of the steaming delicacy, so keenly looked forward to every second Sunday, reaches my nostrils and sharpens my hunger. I have eaten sparingly all week in expectation of the treat, and now- I am humiliated and enraged by being so unceremoniously deprived of the rare dinner. Angrily I rap the cup across the door; again and again I strike the tin against it, the successive falls from bar to bar producing a sharp, piercing clatter.
      A guard hastens along. "Stop that damn racket," he commands. "What's the matter with you?"
      "I didn't get dinner."
      "Yes, you did."
      "I did not."
      "Well, I s'pose you don't deserve it."
      As he turns to leave, my can crashes against the door-one, two, three-
      "What t'hell do you want, eh?"
      "I want to see the Warden."
      "You can't see 'im. You better keep quiet now."
      "I demand to see the Warden. He is supposed to visit us every day. He hasn't been around for weeks. I must see him now."
      "If you don't shut up, I'll-"
      The Captain of the Block approaches.
      "What do you want, Berkman?"
      "I want to see the Warden."
      "Can't see him. It's Sunday."
      "Captain," I retort, pointing to the rules on the wall of the cell, "there is an excerpt here from the statutes of Pennsylvania, directing the Warden to visit each prisoner every day-"
      "Never mind now," he interrupts. "What do you want to see the Warden about?"
      "I want to know why I got no dinner."
      "Your name is off the list for the next four Sundays."
      "What for?"
      "That you'll have to ask the boss. I'll tell him you want to see him."
      Presently the overseer returns, informing me in a confidential manner that he has induced "his Nibs" to grant me an audience. Admitted to the inner office, I find the Warden at the desk, his face flushed with anger.
      "You are reported for disturbing the peace," he shouts at me.
      "There is also, hm, hm, another charge against him," the Deputy interposes.
      "Two charges," the Warden continues. "Disturbing the peace and making demands. How dare you demand?" he roars. "Do you know where you are?"
      "I wanted to see you."
      "It is not a question of what you want or don't want. Understand that clearly. You are to obey the rules implicitly."
      "The rules direct you to visit-"
      "Silence! What is your request?"
      "I want to know why I am deprived of dinner."
      "It is not, hm, for you to know. It is enough, hm, hm, that we know," the Deputy retorts.
      "Mr. McPane," the Warden interposes, "I am going to speak plainly to him. From this day on," he turns to me, "you are on 'Pennsylvania diet' for four weeks. During that time no papers or books are permitted you. It will give you leisure to think over your behavior. I have investigated your conduct in the shop, and I am satisfied it was you who instigated the trouble there. You shall not have another chance to incite the men, even if you live as long as your sentence. But," he pauses an instant, then adds, threateningly, "but you may as well understand it now as later-your life is not worth the trouble you give us. Mark you well, whatever the cost, it will be at your expense. For the present you'll remain in solitary, where you cannot exert your pernicious influence. Officers, remove him to the 'basket.'"

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