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




THE SUMMER FADES into days of dull gray; the fog thickens on the Ohio; the prison house is dim and damp. The river sirens sound sharp and shrill, and the cells echo with coughing and wheezing. The sick line stretches longer, the men looking more forlorn and dejected. The prisoner in charge of tier "K" suffers a hemorrhage, and is carried to the hospital. From assistant, I am advanced to his position on the range.

      But one morning the levers are pulled, the cells unlocked, and the men fed, while I remain under key. I wonder at the peculiar oversight, and rap on the bars for the officers. The Block Captain orders me to desist. I request to see the Warden, but am gruffly told that he cannot be disturbed in the morning. In vain I rack my brain to fathom the cause of my punishment. I review the incidents of the past weeks, ponder over each detail, but the mystery remains unsolved. Perhaps I have unwittingly offended some trusty, or I may be the object of the secret enmity of a spy.

      The Chaplain, on his daily rounds, hands me a letter from the Girl, and glances in surprise at the closed door.

      "Not feeling well, m' boy?" he asks.

      "I'm locked up, Chaplain."

      "What have you done?"

      "Nothing that I know of."

      "Oh, well, you'll be out soon. Don't fret, m'boy."

      But the days pass, and I remain in the cell. The guards look worried, and vent their ill-humor in profuse vulgarity. The Deputy tries to appear mysterious, wobbles comically along the range, and splutters at me: "Nothin'. Shtay where you are." jasper, the colored trusty, flits up and down the hall, tremendously busy, his black face more lustrous than ever. Numerous stools nose about the galleries, stop here and there in confidential conversation with officers and prisoners, and whisper excitedly at the front desk. Assistant Deputy Hopkins goes in and out of the block, repeatedly calls jasper to the of - fice, and hovers in the neighborhood of my cell. The rangemen talk in suppressed tones. An air of mystery pervades the cell- house.

      Finally I am called to the Warden. With unconcealed annoyance, he demands:

      "What did you want?"

      "The officers locked me up-"

      "Who said you're locked up?" he interrupts, angrily. "You're merely locked in."

      "Where's the difference?" I ask.

      "One is locked up 'for cause.' You're just kept in for the present."

      "On what charge?"

      "No charge. None whatever. Take him back, Officers."

Close confinement becomes increasingly more dismal and dreary. By contrast with the spacious hall, the cell grows smaller and narrower, oppressing me with a sense of suffocation. My sudden isolation remains unexplained. Notwithstanding the Chaplain's promise to intercede in my behalf, I remain locked "in," and again return the days of solitary, with all their gloom and anguish of heart.


A ray of light is shed from New York. The Girl writes in a hopeful vein about the progress of the movement, and the intense interest in my case among radical circles. She refers to Comrade Merlino, now on a tour of agitation, and is enthusiastic about the favorable labor sentiment toward me, manifested in the cities he had visited. Finally she informs me of a plan on foot to secure a reduction of my sentence, and the promising outlook for the collection of the necessary funds. From Merlino I receive a sum of money already contributed for the purpose, together with a letter of appreciation and encouragement, concluding: "Good cheer, dear Comrade; the last word has not yet been spoken."

      My mind dwells among my friends. The breath from the world of the living fans the smoldering fires of longing; the tone of my comrades revibrates in my heart with trembling hope. But the revision of my sentence involves recourse to the courts! The sudden realization fills me with dismay. I cannot be guilty of a sacrifice of principle to gain freedom; the mere suggestion rouses the violent protest of my revolutionary traditions. In bitterness of soul, I resent my friends' ill-advised waking of the shades. I shall never leave the house of death....

      And yet mail from my friends, full of expectation and confidence, arrives more frequently. Prominent lawyers have been consulted; their unanimous opinion augurs well: the multiplication of my sentences was illegal; according to the statutes of Pennsylvania, the maximum penalty should not have exceeded seven years; the Supreme Court would undoubtedly reverse the judgment of the lower tribunal, specifically the conviction on charges not constituting a crime under the laws of the State. And so forth.

      I am assailed by doubts. is it consequent in me to decline liberty, apparently within reach? John Most appealed his case to the Supreme Court, and the Girl also took advantage of a legal defense. Considerable propaganda resulted from it. Should I refuse the opportunity which would offer such a splendid field for agitation? Would it not be folly to afford the enemy the triumph of my gradual annihilation? I would without hesitation reject freedom at the price of my convictions; but it involves no denial of my faith to rob the vampire of its prey. We must, if necessary, fight the beast of oppression with its own methods, scourge the law in its own tracks, as it were. Of course, the Supreme Court is but another weapon in the hands of authority, a pretense of impartial right. It decided against Most, sustaining the prejudiced verdict of the trial jury. They may do the same in my case. But that very circumstance will serve to confirm our arraignment of class justice. I shall therefore endorse the efforts orts of my friends.

      But before long I am informed that an application to the higher court is not permitted. The attorneys, upon examination of the records of the trial, discovered a fatal obstacle, they said. The defendant, not being legally represented, neglected to "take exceptions" to rulings of the court prejudicial to the accused. Because of the technical omission, there exists no basis for an appeal. They therefore advise an application to the Board of Pardons, on the ground that the punishment in my case is excessive. They are confident that the Board will act favorably, in view of the obvious unconstitutionality of the compounded sentences,-the five minor indictments being indispensable parts of the major charge and, as such, not constituting separate offenses.

      The unexpected development disquiets me: the sound of "pardon" is detestable. What bitter irony that the noblest intentions, the most unselfish motives, need seek pardon! Aye, of the very source that misinterprets and perverts them! For days the implied humiliation keeps agitating me; I recoil from the thought of personally affixing my name to the meek supplication of the printed form, and finally decide to refuse.

      An accidental conversation with the "Attorney General" disturbs my resolution. I learn that in Pennsylvania the applicant's signature is not required by the Pardon Board. A sense of guilty hope steals over me. Yet-I reflect-the pardon of the Chicago Anarchists had contributed much to the dissemination of our ideas. The impartial analysis of the trial-evidence by Governor Altgeld completely exonerated our comrades from responsibility for the Haymarket tragedy, and exposed the heinous conspiracy to destroy the most devoted and able representatives of the labor movement. May not a similar purpose be served by my application for a pardon?

      I write to my comrades, signifying my consent. We arrange for a personal interview, to discuss the details of the work. Unfortunately, the Girl, a persona non grata, cannot visit me. But a mutual friend, Miss Garrison, is to call on me within two months. At my request, the Chaplain forwards to her the necessary permission, and I impatiently await the first friendly face in two years.


As unaccountably as my punishment in the solitary, comes the relief at the expiration of three weeks. The "K" hall-boy is still in the hospital, and I resume the duties of rangeman. The guards eye me with suspicion and greater vigilance, but I soon unravel the tangled skein, and learn the details of the abortive escape that caused my temporary retirement.

      The lock of my neighbor, Johnny Smith, had been tampered with. The youth, in solitary at the time, necessarily had the aid of another, it being impossible to reach the keyhole from the inside of the cell. The suspicion of the Warden centered upon me, but investigation by the stools discovered the men actually concerned, and "Dutch" Adams, Spencer, Smith, and Jim Grant were chastised in the dungeon, and are now locked up "for cause," on my range.

      By degrees Johnny confides to me the true story of the frustrated plan. "Dutch," a repeater serving his fifth "bit," and favorite of Hopkins, procured a piece of old iron, and had it fashioned into a key in the machine shop, where he was employed. He entrusted the rude instrument to Grant, a young reformatory boy, for a preliminary trial. The guileless youth easily walked into the trap, and the makeshift key was broken in the lock-with disastrous results.

      The tricked boys now swear vengeance upon the provocateur, but "Dutch" is missing from the range. He has been removed to an upper gallery, and is assigned to a coveted position in the shops.

      The newspapers print vivid stories of the desperate attempt to escape from Riverside, and compliment Captain Wright and the officers for so successfully protecting the community. The Warden is deeply affected, and orders the additional punishment of the offenders with a bread-and-water diet. The Deputy walks with inflated chest; Hopkins issues orders curtailing the privileges of the inmates, and inflicting greater hardships. The tone of the guards sounds haughtier, more peremptory; jasper's face wears a blissful smile. The trusties look pleased and cheerful, but sullen gloom shrouds the prison.


I am standing at my cell, when the door of the rotunda slowly opens, and the Warden approaches me.

      "A lady just called; Miss Garrison, from New York. Do you know her? "

"She is one of my friends."

      "I dismissed her. You can't see her."

      "Why? The rules entitle me to a visit every three months. I have had none in two years. I want to see her."

      "You can't. She needs a permit."

      "The Chaplain sent her one at my request."

      "A member of the Board of Inspectors rescinded it by telegraph. "

      "What Inspector?"

      "You can't question me. Your visitor has been refused admittance."

      "Will you tell me the reason, Warden?"

      "No reason, no reason whatever."

      He turns on his heel, when I detain him: "Warden, it's two years since I've been in the dungeon. I am in the first grade now," I point to the recently earned dark suit. "I am entitled to all the privileges. Why am I deprived of visits?"

      "Not another word."

      He disappears through the yard door. From the galleries I hear the jeering of a trusty. A guard near by brings his thumb to his nose, and wriggles his fingers in my direction. Humiliated and angry, I return to the cell, to find the monthly lettersheet on my table. I pour out all the bitterness of my heart to the Girl, dwell on the Warden's discrimination against me, and repeat our conversation and his refusal to admit my visitor. In conclusion, I direct her to have a Pittsburgh lawyer apply to the courts, to force the prison authorities to restore to me the privileges allowed by the law to the ordinary prisoner. I drop the letter in the mail-box, hoping that my outburst and the threat of the law will induce the Warden to retreat from his position. The Girl will, of course, understand the significance of the epistle, aware that my reference to a court process is a diplomatic subterfuge for effect, and not meant to be acted upon.

      But the next day the Chaplain returns the letter to me. "Not so rash, my boy," he warns me, not unkindly. "Be patient; I'll see what I can do for you."

      "But the letter, Chaplain?"

      "You've wasted your paper, Aleck. I can't pass this letter. But just keep quiet, and I'll look into the matter."

      Weeks pass in evasive replies. Finally the Chaplain advises a personal interview with the Warden. The latter refers me to the Inspectors. To each member of the Board I address a request for a few minutes' conversation, but a month goes by without word from the high officials. The friendly runner, " Southside" Johnny, offers to give me an opportunity to speak to an Inspector, on the payment of ten plugs of tobacco. Unfortunately, I cannot spare my small allowance, but I tender him a dollar bill of the money the Girl had sent me artfully concealed in the buckle of a pair of suspenders. The runner is highly elated, and assures me of success, directing me to keep careful watch on the yard door.

      Several days later, passing along the range engaged in my duties, I notice "Southside" entering from the yard, in friendly conversation with a strange gentleman in citizen clothes. For a moment I do not realize the situation, but the next instant I am aware of Johnny's violent efforts to attract my attention. He pretends to show the man some fancy work made by the inmates, all the while drawing him closer to my door, with surreptitious nods at me. I approach my cell.

      "This is Berkman, Mr. Nevin, the man who shot Frick," Johnny remarks.

      The gentleman turns to me with a look of interest.

      "Good morning, Berkman," he says pleasantly. "How long are you doing?"

      "Twenty-two years."

      "I'm sorry to hear that. It's rather a long sentence. You know who I am?"

      "Inspector Nevin, I believe."

      "Yes. You have never seen me before?"

      "No. I sent a request to see you recently."

      "When was that?"

      "A month ago."

      "Strange. I was in the office three weeks ago. There was no note from you on my file. Are you sure you sent one?"

      "Quite sure. I sent a request to each Inspector."

      "What's the trouble?"

      I inform him briefly that I have been deprived of visiting privileges. Somewhat surprised, he glances at my dark clothes, and remarks:

      "You are in the first grade, and therefore entitled to visits. When did you have your last visitor?"

      "Two years ago."

      "Two years?" he asks, almost incredulously. "Did the lady from New York have a permit?"

      The Warden hurriedly enters from the yard.

      "Mr. Nevin," he calls out anxiously, "I've been looking for you."

      "Berkman was just telling me about his visitor being sent away, Captain," the Inspector remarks. "Yes, yes," the Warden smiles, forcedly, "'for cause."'

      "Oh!" the face of Mr. Nevin assumes a grave look. "Berkman," he turns to me, "you'll have to apply to the Secretary of the Board, Mr. Reed. I am not familiar with the internal affairs."

      The Warden links his arm with the Inspector, and they walk toward the yard door. At the entrance they are met by "Dutch" Adams, the shop messenger.

      "Good morning, Mr. Nevin," the trusty greets him. "Won't you issue me a special visit? My mother is sick; she wants to see me."

      The Warden grins at the ready fiction.

      "When did you have your last visit? " the Inspector inquires.

      "Two weeks ago."

      "You are entitled to one only every three months."

      "That is why I asked you for an extra, Mr. Inspector," "Dutch" retorts boldly. "I know you are a kind man."

      Mr. Nevin smiles good-naturedly and glances at the Warden.

      "Dutch is all right," the Captain nods.

      The Inspector draws his visiting card, pencils on it, and hands it to the prisoner.

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


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