Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
"MAKE YOURSELF AT home, now. You'll stay here a while, huh, huh!
As in a dream I hear the harsh tones. Is the man speaking to me, I wonder. Why is he laughing? I feel so weary, I long to be alone.
Now the voice has ceased; the steps are receding. All is silent, and I am alone. A nameless weight oppresses me. I feel exhausted, my mind a void. Heavily I fall on the bed. Head buried in the straw pillow, my heart breaking, I sink into deep sleep.
My eyes burn as with hot irons. The heat sears my sight, and consumes my eyelids. Now it pierces my head; my brain is aflame, it is swept by a raging fire. Oh!
I wake in horror. A stream of dazzling light is pouring into my face. Terrified, I press my hands to my eyes, but the mysterious flow pierces my lids, and blinds me with maddening torture.
"Get up and undress. What's the matter with you, anyhow?"
The voice frightens me. The cell is filled with a continuous glare. Beyond, all is dark, the guard invisible.
"Now lay down and go to sleep."
Silently I obey, when suddenly all grows black before my eyes. A terrible fear grips my heart. Have I gone blind? I grope for the bed, the wall ... I can't see! With a desperate cry I spring to the door. A faint click reaches my tense ear, the streaming lightning burns into my face. Oh, I can see! I can see!
"What t' hell's the matter with you, eh? Go to sleep. You hear? "
Quiet and immovable I lie on the bed. Strange horrors haunt me.... What a terrible place this must be! This agonyI cannot support it. Twenty-two years! Oh, it is hopeless, hopeless. I must die. I'll die to-night.... With bated breath I creep from the bed. The iron bedstead creaks. In affright I draw back, feigning sleep. All remains silent. The guard did not hear me. I should feel the terrible bull's-eye even with closed lids. Slowly I open my eyes. It is dark all around. I grope about the cell. The wall is damp, musty. The odors are nauseating.... I cannot live here. I must die. This very night.... Something white glimmers in the corner. Cautiously I bend over. It is a spoon. For a moment I hold it indifferently; then a great joy overwhelms me. Now I can die! I creep back into bed, nervously clutching the tin. My hand feels for my heart. It is beating violently. I will put the narrow end of the spoon over here-like this-I will force it in-a little lower-a steady pressure-just between the ribs.... The metal feels cold. How hot my body is! Caressingly I pat the spoon against my side. My fingers seek the edge. It is dull. I must press it hard. Yes, it is very dull. If I only had my revolver. But the cartridge might fail to explode. That's why Frick is now well, and I must die. How he looked at me in court! There was hate in his eyes, and fear, too. He turned his head away, he could not face me. I saw that he felt guilty. Yet he lives. I didn't crush him. Oh, I failed, I failed....
"Keep quiet there, or I'll put you in the hole."
The gruff voice startles me. I must have been moaning. I'll draw the blanket over my head, so. What was I thinking about? Oh, I remember. He is well, and I am here. I failed to crush him. He lives. Of course, it does not really matter. The opportunity for propaganda is there, as the result of my act. That was the main purpose. But I meant to kill him, and he lives. My speech, too, failed. They tricked me. They kept the date secret. They were afraid my friends would be present. It was maddening the way the prosecuting attorney and the judge kept interrupting me. I did not read even a third of my statement. And the whole effect was lost. How that man interpreted! The poor old man' He was deeply offended when I corrected his translation. I did not know he was blind. I called him back, and suffered renewed torture at his screeching. I was almost glad when the judge forced me to discontinue. That judge! He acted as indifferently as if the matter did not concern him. He must have known that the sentence meant death. Twenty-two years! As if it is possible to survive such a sentence in this terrible place! Yes, he knew it; he spoke of making an example of me. The old villain! He has been doing it all his life: making an example of social victims, the victims of his own class, of capitalism. The brutal mockery of it-had I anything to say why sentence should not be passed? Yet he wouldn't permit me to continue my statement. "The court has been very patient!" I am glad I told him that I didn't expect justice, and did not get it. Perhaps I should have thrown in his face the epithet that sprang to my lips. No, it was best that I controlled my anger. Else they would have rejoiced to proclaim the Anarchists vulgar criminals. Such things help to prejudice the People against us. We, criminals? We, who are ever ready to give our lives for liberty, criminals? And they, our accusers? They break their own laws: they knew it was not legal to multiply the charges against me. They made six indictments out of one act, as if the minor "offenses" were not included in the major, made necessary by the deed itself. They thirsted for blood. Legally, they could not give me more than seven years. But I am an Anarchist. I had attempted the life of a great magnate; in him capitalism felt itself attacked. Of course, I knew they would take advantage of my refusal to be legally represented. Twenty-two years! The judge imposed the maximum penalty on each charge. Well, I expected no less, and it makes no difference now. I am going to die, anyway.
I clutch the spoon in my feverish hand. Its narrow end against my heart, I test the resistance of the flesh. A violent blow will drive it between the ribs....
One, two, three-the deep metallic bass floats upon the silence, resonant, compelling. Instantly all is motion: overhead, on the sides, everything is vibrant with life. Men yawn and cough, chairs and beds are noisily moved about, heavy feet pace stone floors. In the distance sounds a low rolling, as of thunder. It grows nearer and louder. I hear the officers' sharp command, the familiar click of locks, doors opening and shutting. Now the rumbling grows clearer, more distinct. With a moan the heavy bread-wagon stops at my cell. A guard unlocks the door. His eyes rest on me curiously, suspiciously, while the trusty hands me a small loaf of bread. I have barely time to withdraw my arm before the door is closed and locked.
"Want coffee? Hold your cup."
Between the narrow bars, the beverage is poured into my bent, rusty tin can. In the semi-darkness of the cell the steaming liquid overflows, scalding my bare feet. With a cry of pain I drop the can. In the dimly-lit hall the floor looks stained with blood.
"What do you mean by that?" the guard shouts at me.
"I couldn't help it."
"Want to be smart, don't you? Well, we'll take it out of you. Hey, there, Sam," the officer motions to the trusty, "no dinner for A 7, you hear! "
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir!"
"No more coffee, either."
The guard measures me with a look of scornful hatred. Malice mirrors in his face. Involuntarily I step back into the cell. His gaze falls on my naked feet.
"Ain't you got no shoes?"
" Ye-e-s! Can't you say 'sir'? Got shoes?"
"Put 'emn on, damn you."
His tongue sweeps the large quid of tobacco from one cheek to the other. With a hiss, a thick stream of brown splashes on my feet. "Damn you, put 'em on."
The clatter and noises have ceased; the steps have died away. All is still in the dark hall. Only occasional shadows flit by, silent, ghostlike.
The long line of prisoners, in stripes and lockstep, resembles an undulating snake, wriggling from side to side, its blackand-gray body moving forward, yet apparently remaining in the same spot. A thousand feet strike the stone floor in regular tempo, with alternate rising and falling accent, as each division, flanked by officers, approaches and passes my cell. Brutal faces, repulsive in their stolid indifference or malicious leer. Here and there a well-shaped head, intelligent eye, or sympathetic expression, but accentuates the features of the striped line: coarse and sinister, with the guilty- treacherous look of the ruthlessly hunted. Head bent, right arm extended, with hand touching the shoulder of the man in front, all uniformly clad in horizontal black and gray, the men seem will-less cogs in a machine, oscillating to the shouted command of the tall guards on the flanks, stern and alert.
The measured beat grows fainter and dies with the hollow thud of the last footfall, behind the closed double door leading into the prison yard. The pall of silence descends upon the cellhouse. I feel utterly alone, deserted and forsaken amid the towering pile of stone and iron. The stillness overwhelms me with almost tangible weight. I am buried within the narrow walls; the massive rock is pressing down upon my head, my sides. I cannot breathe. The foul air is stifling. Oh, I can't, I can't live here! I can't suffer this agony. Twenty-two years! It is a lifetime. No, it's impossible. I must die. I will! Now!
Clutching the spoon, I throw myself on the bed. My eyes wander over the cell, faintly lit by the light in the hall: the whitewashed walls, yellow with damp-the splashes of dark-red blood at the head of the bed-the clumps of vermin around the holes in the wall-the small table and the rickety chair-the filthy floor, black and gray in spots.... Why, it's stone! I can sharpen the spoon. Cautiously I crouch in the corner. The tin glides over the greasy surface, noiselessly, smoothly, till the thick layer of filth is worn off. Then it scratches and scrapes. With the pillow I deaden the rasping sound. The metal is growing hot in my hand. I pass the sharp edge across my finger. Drops of blood trickle down to the floor. The wound is ragged but the blade is keen. Stealthily I crawl back into bed. My hand gropes for my heart. I touch the spot with the blade. Between the ribs-here-I'll be dead when they find me.... If Frick had only died. So much propaganda could be made-that damned Most, if he hadn't turned against me! He will ruin the whole effect of the act. It's nothing but cowardice. But what is he afraid of? They can't implicate him. We've been estranged for over a year. He could easily prove it. The traitor! Preached propaganda by deed all his life-now he repudiates the first Attentat in this country. What tremendous agitation he could have made of it! Now he denies me, he doesn't know me. The wretch! He knew me well enough and trusted me, too, when together we set up the secret circular in the Freiheit office. It was in William Street. We waited for the other compositors to leave; then we worked all night. It was to recommend me: I planned to go to Russia then. Yes, to Russia. Perhaps I might have done something important there. Why didn't I go? What was it? Well, I can't think of it now. It's peculiar, though. But America was more important. Plenty of revolutionists in Russia. And now.... Oh, I'll never do anything more. I'll be dead soon. They'll find me cold-a pool of blood under me-the mattress will be red-no, it will be dark-red, and the blood will soak through the straw ... I wonder how much blood I have. It will gush from my heart-I must strike right here- strong and quick-it will not pain much. But the edge is ragged-it may catch-or tear the flesh. They say the skin is tough. I must strike hard. Perhaps better to fall against the blade? No, the tin may bend. I'll grasp it close-like thisthen a quick drive-right into the heart-it's the surest way. I must not wound myself-I would bleed slowly-they might discover me still alive. No, no! I must die at once. They'll find me dead-my heart-they'll feel it-not beatingthe blade still in it-they'll call the doctor-"He's dead." And the Girl and Fedya and the others will hear of it-she"ll be sad-but she will understand. Yes, she will be glad-they couldn't torture me here-she'll know I cheated them-yes, she.... Where is she now? What does she think of it all? Does she, too, think I've failed? And Fedya, also? If I'd only hear from her-just once. It would be easier to die. But she'll understand, she-
"Git off that bed! Don't you know the rules, eh? Get out o' there! "
Horrified, speechless, I spring to my feet. The spoon falls from my relaxed grip. It strikes the floor, clinking on the stone loudly, damningly. My heart stands still as I face the guard. There is something repulsively familiar about the tall man, his mouth drawn into a derisive smile. Oh, it's the officer of the morning!
"Foxy, ain't you? Gimme that spoon."
The coffee incident flashes through my mind. Loathing and hatred of the tall guard fill my being. For a second I hesitate. I must hide the spoon. I cannot afford to lose it-not to this brute
I am dragged from the cell. The tall keeper carefully examines the spoon, a malicious grin stealing over his face.
"Look, Cap'n. Sharp as a razor. Pretty desp'rate, eh?
"Take him to the Deputy, Mr. Fellings.
In the rotunda, connecting the north and south cell-houses, the Deputy stands at a high desk. Angular and bony, with slightly stooped shoulders, his face is a mass of minute wrinkles seamed on yellow parchment. The curved nose overhangs thin, compressed lips. The steely eyes measure me coldly, unfriendly.
"Who is this?"
The low, almost feminine, voice sharply accentuates the cadaver-like face and figure. The contrast is startling.
"What is the charge, Officer?"
"Two charges, Mr. McPane. Layin'in bed and tryin'soocide."
A smile of satanic satisfaction slowly spreads over the Deputy's wizened face, The long, heavy fingers of his right hand work convulsively, as if drumming stiffly on an imaginary board.
"Yes, hm, hm, yes. A 7, two charges. Hm, hm. How did he try to, hm, hm, to commit suicide?"
"With this spoon, Mr. McPane. Sharp as a razor."
"Yes ' hm, yes. Wants to die. We have no such charge as, hm, hm, as trying suicide in this institution. Sharpened spoon, hm, hm; a grave offense. I'll see about that later. For breaking the rules, hm, hm, by lying in bed out of hours, hm, hm, three days. Take him down, Officer. He will, hm, hm, cool off."
I am faint and weary. A sense of utter indifference possesses me. Vaguely I am conscious of the guards leading me through dark corridors, dragging me down steep flights, half undressing me, and finally thrusting me into a black void. I am dizzy; my head is awhirl. I stagger and fall on the flagstones of the dungeon.
The cell is filled with light. it hurts my eyes. Some one is bending over me.
"A bit feverish. Better take him to the cell."
"Hm, hm, Doctor, he is in punishment."
"Not safe, Mr. McPane."
"We'll postpone it, then. Hm, hm, take him to the cell, Officers."
My legs seem paralyzed. They refuse to Move- I am lifted and carried up the stairs, through corridors and halls, and then thrown heavily on a bed.
I feel so weak. Perhaps I shall die now. It would be best. But I have no weapon! They have taken away the spoon. There is nothing in the cell that I could use. These iron bars-I could beat my head against them. But oh! it is such a horrible death. My skull would break, and the brains ooze out.... But the bars are smooth. Would my skull break with one blow? I'm afraid it might only crack, and I should be too weak to strike again If I only had a revolver; that is the easiest and quickest. I've always thought I'd prefer such a death-to be shot. The barrel close to the temple-one couldn't miss Some people have done it in front of a mirror. But I have no mirror. I have no revolver, either.... Through the mouth it is also fatal.... That Moscow student-Russov was his name; yes, Ivan Russov-he shot himself through the mouth. Of course, he was foolish to kill himself for a woman; but I admired his courage. How coolly he had made all preparations; he even left a note directing that his gold watch be given to the landlady, because-he wrote-after passing through his brain, the bullet might damage the wall. Wonderful! It actually happened that way. I saw the bullet imbedded in the wall near the sofa, and Ivan lay so still and peaceful, I thought he was asleep. I had often seen him like that in my brother's study, after our lessons. What a splendid tutor he was! I liked him from the first, when mother introduced him: "Sasha, Ivan Nikolaievitch will be your instructor in Latin during vacation time." My hand hurt all day; he had gripped it so powerfully, like a vise. But I was glad I didn't cry out. I admired him for it; I felt he must be very strong and manly to have such a handshake. Mother smiled when I told her about it. Her hand pained her too, she said. Sister blushed a little. "Rather energetic," she observed. And Maxim felt so happy over the favorable impression made by his college chum. "What did I tell you?" he cried, in glee; "Ivan Nikolaievitch molodetz! Think of it, he's only twenty. Graduates next year. The youngest alumnus since the foundation of the university. Molodetz!" But how red were Maxim's eyes when he brought the bullet home. He would keep it, he said, as long as he lived: he had dug it out, with his own hands, from the wall of Ivan Nikolaievitch's room. At dinner he opened the little box, unwrapped the cotton, and showed me the bullet. Sister went into hysterics, and mamma called Max a brute. "For a woman, an unworthy woman!" sister moaned. I thought he was foolish to take his life on account of a woman. I felt a little disappointed: Ivan Nikolaievitch should have been more manly. They all said she was very beautiful, the acknowledged belle of Kovno. She was tall and stately, but I thought she walked too stiffly; she seemed self-conscious and artificial. Mother said I was too young to talk of such things. How shocked she would have been had she known that I was in love with Nadya, my sister's chum. And I had kissed our chambermaid, too. Dear little Rosa,-I remember she threatened to tell mother. I was so frightened, I wouldn't come to dinner. Mamma sent the maid to call me, but I refused to go till Rosa promised not to tell.... The sweet girl, with those red-apple cheeks. How kind she was! But the little imp couldn't keep the secret. She told Tatanya, the cook of our neighbor, the Latin instructor at the gymnasium. Next day he teased me about the servant girl. Before the whole class, too. I wished the floor would open and swallow me. I was so mortified.
... How far off it all seems. Centuries away. I wonder what has become of her. Where is Rosa now? Why, she must be here, in America. I had almost forgotten,-I met her in New York. It was such a surprise. I was standing on the stoop of the tenement house where I boarded. I had then been only a few months in the country. A young lady passed by. She looked up at me, then turned and ascended the steps. "Don't you know me, Mr. Berkman? Don't you really recognize me?" Some mistake, I thought. I had never before seen this beautiful, stylish young woman. She invited me into the hallway. "Don't tell these people here. I am Rosa. Don't you remember? Why, you know, I was. your mother's-your mother's maid." She blushed violently. Those red cheeks-why, certainly, it's Rosa! I thought of the stolen kiss. "Would I dare it now?" I wondered, suddenly conscious of my shabby clothes. She seemed so prosperous. How our positions were changed! She looked the very barishnya, like my sister. "is your mother here?" she asked. "Mother? She died, just before I left." I glanced apprehensively at her. Did she remember that terrible scene when mother struck her? "I didn't know about your mother." Her voice was husky; a tear glistened in her eye. The dear girl, always generous-hearted. I ought to make amends to her for mother's insult. We looked at each other in embarrassment. Then she held out a gloved hand. Very large, I thought; red, too, probably. "Good-bye, Gospodin Berkman," she said. ,I'll see you again soon. Please don't tell these people who I am." I experienced a feeling of guilt and shame. Gospodin Berkmansomehow it echoed the servile barinya with which the domestics used to address my mother. For all her finery, Rosa had not gotten over it. Too much bred in, poor girl. She has not become emancipated. I never saw her at our meetings; she is conservative, no doubt. She was so ignorant, she could not even read. Perhaps she has learned in this country. Now she will read about me, and she'll know how I died.... Oh, I haven't the spoon! What shall I do, what shall I do? I can't live. I couldn't stand this torture. Perhaps if I had seven years, I would try to serve the sentence. But I couldn't, anyhow. I might live here a year, or two. But twenty-two, twenty-two years! What is the use? No man could survive it. It's terrible, twenty-two years! Their cursed justice-they always talk of law. Yet legally I shouldn't have gotten more than seven years. Legally! As if they care about "legality." They wanted to make an example of me. Of course, I knew it beforehand; but if I had seven years- perhaps I might live through it; I would try. But twenty-two-it's a lifetime, a whole lifetime. Seventeen is no better. That man Jamestown got seventeen years. He celled next to me in the jail. He didn't look like a highway robber, he was so small and puny. He must be here now. A fool, to think he could live here seventeen years. In this hell-what an imbecile he is! He should have committed suicide long ago. They sent him away before my trial; it's about three weeks ago. Enough time; why hasn't he done something? He will soon die here, anyway; it would be better to suicide. A strong man might live five years; I doubt it, though; perhaps a very strong man might. I couldn't; no, I know I couldn't; perhaps two or three years, at most. We had often spoken about this, the Girl, Fedya, and 1. 1 had then such a peculiar idea of prison: I thought I would be sitting on the floor in a gruesome, black hole, with my hands and feet chained to the wall; and the worms would crawl over me, and slowly devour my face and my eyes, and I so helpless, chained to the wall. The Girl and Fedya had a similar idea. She said she might bear prison life a few weeks. I could for a year, I thought; but was doubtful. I pictured myself fighting the worms off with my feet; it would take the vermin that long to eat all my flesh, till they got to my heart; that would be fatal.... And the vermin here, those big, brown bedbugs, they must be like those worms, so vicious and hungry. Perhaps there are worms here, too. There must be in the dungeon: there is a wound on my foot. I don't know how it happened. I was unconscious in that dark hole-it was just like my old idea of prison. I couldn't live even a week there: it's awful. Here it is a little better; but it's never light in this cell,always in semi-darkness. And so small and narrow; no windows; it's damp, and smells so foully all the time. The walls are wet and clammy; smeared with blood, too. Bedbugsaugh! it's nauseating. Not much better than that black hole, with my hands and arms chained to the wall. just a trifle better,-my hands are not chained. Perhaps I could live here a few years: no more than three, or may be five. But these brutal officers! No, no, I couldn't stand it. I want to die! I'd die here soon, anyway; they will kill me. But I won't give the enemy the satisfaction; they shall not be able to say that they are torturing me in prison, or that they killed me. No! I'd rather kill myself. Yes, kill myself. I shall have to do it-with my head against the bars-no, not now! At night, when it's all dark,-they couldn't save me then. It will be a terrible death, but it must be done.... If I only knew about "them" in New York-the Girl and Fedya-it would be easier to die then.... What are they doing in the case? Are they making propaganda out of it? They must be waiting to hear of my suicide. They know I can't live here long. Perhaps they wonder why I didn't suicide right after the trial. But I could not. I thought I should be taken from the court to my cell in jail; sentenced prisoners usually are. I had prepared to hang myself that night, but they must have suspected something. They brought me directly here from the courtroom. Perhaps I should have been dead now
"Supper! Want coffee? Hold your tin!" the trusty shouts into the door. Suddenly he whispers, "Grab it, quick!" A long, dark object is shot between the bars into the cell, dropping at the foot of the bed. The man is gone. I pick up the parcel, tightly wrapped in brown paper. What can it be? The outside cover protects two layers of old newspaper; then a white object comes to view. A towel! There is something round and hard inside-it's a cake of soap. A sense of thankfulness steals into my heart, as I wonder who the donor may be. It is good to know that there is at least one being here with a friendly spirit. Perhaps it's some one I knew in the jail. But how did he procure these things? Are they permitted? The towel feels nice and soft; it is a relief from the hard straw bed. Everything is so hard and coarse here-the language, the guards.... I pass the towel over my face; it soothes me somewhat. I ought to wash up-my head feels so heavy-I haven't washed since 1 got here. When did I come? Let me see; what is to-day? I don't know, I can't think. But my trial-it was on Monday, the nineteenth of September. They brought me here in the afternoon; no, in the evening. And that guard-he frightened me so with the bull'seye lantern. Was it last night? No, it must have been longer than that. Have I been here only since yesterday? Why, it seems such a long time! Can this be Tuesday, only Tuesday? I'll ask the trusty the next time he passes. I'll find out who sent this towel, too. Perhaps I could get some cold water from him; or may be there is some here-
My eyes are growing accustomed to the semi-darkness of the cell. I discern objects quite clearly. There is a small wooden table and an old chair; in the furthest corner, almost hidden by the bed, is the privy; near it, in the center of the wall opposite the door, is a water spigot over a narrow, circular basin. The water is lukewarm and muddy, but it feels refreshing. The rub-down with the towel is invigorating. The stimulated blood courses through my veins with a pleasing tingle. Suddenly a sharp sting, as of a needle, pricks my face. There's a pin in the towel. As I draw it out, something white flutters to the floor. A note! With ear alert for a passing step, I hastily read the penciled writing:
Be shure to tare this up as soon as you reade it, it's from a friend. We is going to make a break and you can come along, we know you are on the level. Lay low and keep your lamps lit at night, watch the screws and the stools they is worse than bulls. Dump is full of them and don't have nothing to say. So long, will see you tomorrow. A true friend.
I read the note carefully, repeatedly. The peculiar language baffles me. Vaguely I surmise its meaning: evidently an escape is being planned. My heart beats violently, as I contemplate the possibilities. If I could escape.... Oh, I should not have to die! Why haven't I thought of it before? What a glorious thing it would be! Of course, they would ransack the country for me. I should have to hide. But what does it matter? I'd be at liberty. And what tremendous effect! It would make great propaganda: people would become much interested, and I-why, I should have new opportunities-
The shadow of suspicion falls over my joyous thought, overwhelming me with despair. Perhaps a trap! I don't know who wrote the note. A fine conspirator I'd prove, to be duped so easily. But why should they want to trap me? And who? Some guard? What purpose could it serve? But they are so mean, so brutal. That tall officer-the Deputy called him Fellings-he seems to have taken a bitter dislike to me. This may be his work, to get me in trouble. Would he really stoop to such an outrage? These things happen-they have been done in Russia. And he looks like a provocateur, the scoundrel. No, he won't get me that way. I must read the note again. It contains so many expressions I don't understand. I should "keep my lamps lit." What lamps? There are none in the cell; where am I to get them? And what "screws" must I watch? And the "stools,"-l have only a chair here. Why should I watch it? Perhaps it's to be used as a weapon. No, it must mean something else. The note says he will call to-morrow. I'll be able to tell by his looks whether he can be trusted. Yes, yes, that will be best. I'll wait till to-morrow. Oh, I wish it were here!