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

Chapter 26

Hiding the Evidence


IT IS NEW Year's eve. An air of pleasant anticipation the prison; to-morrow's feast is the exciting subject of conversation. Roast beef will be served for dinner, with a goodly loaf of currant bread, and two cigars for dessert. Extra men have been drafted for the kitchen; they flit from block to yard, looking busy and important, yet halting every passer-by to with secretive mien, "Don't say I told you. Sweet potatoes to-morrow!" The younger inmates seem skeptical, and strive to appear indifferent, the while they hover about the yard door, nostrils expanded, sniffing the appetizing wafts from the kitchen. Here and there an old-timer grumbles: we should have sweet "murphies" for Christmas. "'Too high priced,' Sandy said," they sneer in ill humor. The new arrivals grow uneasy; perhaps they are still too expensive? Some study the market quotations on the delicacy. But the chief cook drops in to visit "his" boy, and confides to the rangeman that the sweet potatoes are a "sure thing," just arrived and counted. The happy news is whispered about, with confident assurance, yet tinged with anxiety. There is great rejoicing among the men. Only Sol, the lifer, is querulous: he doesn't care a snap about the "extra feed" -- stomach still sour from the Christmas dinner -- and, anyhow, it only makes the week-a-day "grub" more disgusting.

The rules are somewhat relaxed. The hallmen converse freely; the yard gangs lounge about and cluster in little groups, that separate at the approach of a superior officer. Men from the bakery and kitchen run in and out of the block, their pockets bulging suspiciously. "What are you after?" the doorkeeper halts them. "Oh, just to my cell; forgot my handkerchief." The guard answers the sly wink with an indulgent smile. "All right; go ahead, but don't be long." If "Papa" Mitchell is about, he thunders at the chief cook, his bosom swelling with packages: "Wotch'er got there, eh? Big family of kids you have, Tim. First thing you know, you'll swipe the hinges off th' kitchen door." The envied bakery and kitchen employees supply their friends with extra holiday tidbits, and the solitaries dance in glee at the sight of the savory dainty, the fresh brown bread generously dotted with sweet currants. It is the prelude of the promised culinary symphony.

The evening is cheerful with mirth and jollity. The prisoners at first converse in whispers, then become bolder, and talk louder through the bars. As night approaches, the cell-house rings with unreserved hilarity and animation, - light-hearted chaff mingled with coarse jests and droll humor. A wag on the upper tier banters the passing guards, his quips and sallies setting the adjoining cells in a roar, and inspiring imitation.

Slowly the babel of tongues subsides, as the gong sounds the order to retire. Some one shouts to a distant friend, "Hey, Bill, are you there? Ye-es? Stay there!" It grows quiet, when suddenly my neighbor on the left sing-songs, "Fellers, who's goin' to sit up with me to greet New Year's?" A dozen voices yell their acceptance. "Little Frenchy," the spirited grayhead on the top tier, vociferates shrilly, "Me, too, boys. I'm viz you all right."

All is still in the cell-house, save for a wild Indian whoop now and then by the vigil-keeping boys. The block breathes in heavy sleep; loud snoring sounds from the gallery above. Only the irregular tread of the felt-soled guards falls muffled in the silence.


The clock in the upper rotunda strikes the midnight hour. A siren on the Ohio intones its deep-chested bass. Another joins it, then another. Shrill factory whistles pierce the boom of cannon; the sweet chimes of a near-by church ring in joyful melody between. Instantly the prison is astir. Tin cans rattle against iron bars, doors shake in fury, beds and chairs squeak and screech, pans slam on the floor, shoes crash against the with a dull thud, and rebound noisily on the stone. Un-earthly yelling, shouting, and whistling rend the air; an prisoner beats a wild tattoo with a tin pan on the table -- a veritable Bedlam of frenzy has broken loose in both wings. The prisoners are celebrating the advent of the New Year.


The voices grow hoarse and feeble. The tin clanks languidly against the iron, the grating of the doors sounds weaker. The men are exhausted with the unwonted effort. The guards stumbled up the galleries, their forms swaying unsteadily in the faint flicker of the gas-light. In maudlin tones they command silence, and bid the men retire to bed. The younger, more daring, challenge the order with husky howls and catcalls, -- a defiant shout, a groan, and all is quiet. Daybreak wakes the turmoil and uproar. For twenty-four hours the long-repressed animal spirits are rampant. No music or recreation honors the New Year; the day is passed in the cell. The prisoners, securely barred and locked, are permitted to vent their pain and sorrow, their yearnings and hopes, in a Saturnalia of tumult.


The month of January brings sedulous activity. Shops and block are overhauled, every nook and corner is scoured, and a special squad detailed to whitewash the cells. The yearly clean-up not being due till spring, I conclude from the unusual preparations that the expected visit of the Board of Charities is approaching.

The prisoners are agog with the coming investigation. The solitaries and prospective witnesses are on the qui vive, anxious lines on their faces. Some manifest fear of the ill will of the Warden, as the probable result of their testimony. I seek to encourage them by promising to assume full responsibility, but several men withdraw their previous consent. The safety of my data causes me grave concern, in view of the increasing frequency of searches. Deliberation finally resolves itself into the bold plan of secreting my most valuable material in the cell set aside for the use of the officers. It is the first cell on the range; it is never locked, and is ignored at searches because it is not occupied by prisoners. The little bundle, protected with a piece of oilskin procured from the dispensary, soon reposes in the depths of the waste pipe. A stout cord secures it from being washed away by the rush of water, when the privy is in use. I call Officer Mitchell's attention to the dusty condition of the cell, and offer to sweep it every morning and afternoon. He accedes in an offhand manner, and twice daily I surreptitiously examine the tension of the water-soaked cord, renewing the string repeatedly.

Other material and copies of my "exhibits" are deposited with several trustworthy friends on the range. Everything is ready for the investigation, and we confidently await the coming of the Board of Charities.


The cell-house rejoices at the absence of Scot Woods. The Block Captain of the morning has been "reduced to the ranks." The disgrace is signalized by his appearance on the wall, pacing the narrow path in the chilly winter blasts. The guards look upon the assignment as "punishment duty" for incurring the displeasure of the Warden. The keepers smile at the indescreet Scot interfering with the self-granted privileges of "South-side" Johnny, one of the Warden's favorites. The runner who afforded me an opportunity to see Inspector Nevin, came out victorious in the struggle with Woods. The latter was up-braided by Captain Wright in the presence of Johnny, who is now officially authorized in his perquisites. Sufficient time was allowed to elapse, to avoid comment, whereupon the officers were withdrawn from the block.

I regret his absence. A severe disciplinarian, Woods was yet very exceptional among the guards, in that he sought to discourage the spying of prisoners on each other. He frowned upon the trusties, and strove to treat the men impartially.

Mitchell has been changed to the morning shift, to fill the vacancy made by the transfer of Woods. The charge of the block in the afternoon devolves upon Officer McIlvaine, a very corpulent man, with sharp, steely eyes. He is considerably above the average warder in intelligence, but extremely fond of Jasper, who now acts as his assistant, the obese turnkey rarely leaving his seat at the front desk.

Changes of keepers, transfers from the shops to the two cell-houses are frequent; the new guards are alert and active. Almost daily the Warden visits the ranges, leaving in his wake more stringent discipline. Rarely do I find a chance to pause at the cells; I keep in touch with the men through the medium of notes. But one day, several fights breaking out in the shops, the block officers are requisitioned to assist in placing the combatants in the punishment cells. The front is deserted, and I improve the opportunity to talk to the solitaries. Jasper, "Southside," and Bob Runyon, the "politicians," also converse at the doors, Bob standing suspiciously close to the bars. Suddenly Officer McIlvaine appears in the yard door. His face is flushed, his eyes filling with wrath as they fasten on the men at the cells.

"Hey, you fellows, get away from there!" he shouts. "Confound you all, the 'Old Man' just gave me the deuce; too much talking in the block. I won't stand for it, that's all," he adds, petulantly.

Within half an hour I am haled before the Warden. He looks worried, deep lines of anxiety about his mouth.

"You are reported for standing at the doors," he snarls at me. "What are you always telling the men?"

"It's the first time the officer -- "

"Nothing of the kind," he interrupts; "you're always talking to the prisoners. They are in punishment, and you have business with them."

"Why was I picked out? Others talk, too!"

"Ye-e-s?" he drawls sarcastically; then, turning to the keeper, he says: "How is that, Officer? The man is charging you with neglect of duty."

"I am not charging-"

"Silence! What have you say, Mr. Mcllvaine?"

The guard reddens with suppressed rage. "It isn't true, Captain," he replies; "there was no one except Berkman"

"You hear what the officer says? You are always breaking the rules. You're plotting; I know you, -- pulling a dozen wires. You are inimical to the management of the institution. But I will break your connections. Officer, take him directly to the South Wing, you understand? He is not to return to his cell. Have it searched at once, thoroughly. Lock him up."

"Warden, what for?" I demand. "I have not done to lose my position. Talking is not such a serious charge."

"Very serious, very serious. You're too dangerous on the range. I'll spoil your infernal schemes by removing you from the North Block. You've been there too long."

"I want to remain there."

"The more reason to take you away. That will do now."

"No, it won't," I burst out. "I'll stay where I am."

"Remove him, Mr. Mcllvaine."

I am taken to the South Wing and locked up in a vacant cell, neglected and ill-smelling. It is Number 2, Range M -- the first gallery, facing the yard; a "double" cell, somewhat larger than those of the North Block, and containing a small window. The walls are damp and bare, save for the cardboard of printed rules and the prison calendar. It is the 27th of February, 1896, but the calendar is of last year, indicating that the cell has not been occupied since the previous November. It contains usual furnishings: bedstead and soiled straw mattress, a small table and a chair. It feels cold and dreary.

In thought I picture the guards ransacking my former cell. They will not discover anything: my material is well hidden. The Warden evidently suspects my plans: he fears my testimony before the investigation committee. My removal is to sever my connections, and now it is impossible for me to reach my data. I must return to the North Block; otherwise all our plans are doomed to fail. I can't leave my friends on the range in the lurch: some of them have already signified to the Chaplain their desire to testify; their statements will remain unsupported in the absence of my proofs. I must rejoin them. I have told the Warden that I shall remain where I was, but he probably ignored it as an empty boast.

I consider the situation, and resolve to "break up housekeeping." It is the sole means of being transferred to the other cell-house. It will involve the loss of the grade, and a trip to the dungeon; perhaps even a fight with the keepers: the guards, fearing the broken furniture will be used for defense, generally rush the prisoner with blackjacks. But my return to the North Wing will be assured -- no man in stripes can remain in the South Wing.

Alert for an approaching step, I untie my shoes, producing a scrap of paper, a pencil, and a knife. I write a hurried note to "K," briefly informing him of the new developments, and intimating that our data are safe. Guardedly I attract the attention of the runner on the floor beneath; it is Bill Say, through whom Carl occasionally communicates with "G." The note rolled into a little ball, I shoot between the bars to the waiting prisoner. Now everything is prepared.

It is near supper time; the men are coming back from work. It would be advisable to wait till everybody is locked in, and the shop officers depart home. There will then be only three guards on duty in the block. But I am in a fever of indignation and anger. Furiously snatching up the chair, I start "breaking up."

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