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

Chapter 27

Love's Dungeon Flower

THE DUNGEON SMELLS foul and musty; the darkness is almost visible, the silence oppressive; but the terror of my former experience has abated. I shall probably be kept in the underground cell for a longer time than on the previous occasion, -- my offense is considered very grave. Three charges have been entered against me: destroying State property, having possession of a knife, and uttering a threat against the Warden. When I saw the officers gathering at my back, while I was facing the Captain, I realized its significance. They were preparing to assault me. Quickly advancing to the Warden, I shook my fist in his face, crying:

"If they touch me, I'll hold you personally responsible."

He turned pale. Trying to steady his voice, he demanded:

"What do you mean? How dare you?"

"I mean just what I say. I won't be clubbed. My friends will avenge me, too."

He glanced at the guards standing rigid, in ominous silence. One by one they retired, only two remaining, and I was taken quietly to the dungeon.


The stillness is broken by a low, muffled sound. I listen intently. It is some one pacing the cell at the further end of the passage.

"Halloo! Who's there?" I shout.

No reply. The pacing continues. It must be "Silent Nick"; he never talks.

I prepare to pass the night on the floor. It is bare; there is no bed or blanket, and I have been deprived of my coat and shoes. It is freezing in the cell; my feet grow numb, hands cold, as I huddle in the corner, my head leaning against the reeking wall, my body on the stone floor. I try to think, but my thoughts are wandering, my brain frigid.


The rattling of keys wakes me from my stupor. Guards are descending into the dungeon. I wonder whether it is morning, but they pass my cell: it is not yet breakfast time. Now they pause and whisper. I recognize the speech of Deputy Greaves, as he calls out to the silent prisoner:

"Want a drink?"

The double doors open noisily.


"Give me the cup," the hoarse bass resembles that of "Crazy Smithy." His stentorian voice sounds cracked since he was shot in the neck by Officer Dean.

"You can't have th' cup," the Deputy fumes.

"I won't drink out of your hand, God damn you. Think I'm a cur, do you?" Smithy swears and curses savagely.

The doors are slammed and locked. The steps grow faint, and all is silent, save the quickened footfall of Smith, who will not talk to any prisoner.

I pass the long night in drowsy stupor, rousing at times to strain my ear for every sound from the rotunda above, wondering whether day is breaking. The minutes drag in dismal darkness...

The loud clanking of the keys tingles in my ears like sweet music. It is morning! The guards hand me the day's two ounces of white bread and a quart of water. The wheat tastes sweet; it seems to me I've never eaten anything so delectable. But the liquid is insipid, and nauseates me. At almost one bite I swallow the slice, so small and thin. It whets my appetite, and I feel ravenously hungry.

At Smith's door the scene of the previous evening is repeated. The Deputy insists that the man drink out of the cup held by a guard. The prisoner refuses, with a profuse flow of profanity. Suddenly there is a splash, followed by a startled cry, and the thud of the cell bucket on the floor. Smith has emptied the contents of his privy upon the officers. In confusion they rush out of the dungeon.

Presently I hear the clatter of many feet in the cellar. There is a hubbub of suppressed voices. I recognize the rasping whisper of Hopkins, the tones of Woods, McIlvaine, and others. I catch the words, "Both sides at once." Several cells in the dungeon are provided with double entrances, front and back, to facilitate attacks upon obstreperous prisoners. Smith is always assigned to one of these cells. I shudder as I realize that the officers are preparing to club the demented man. He has been weakened by years of unbroken solitary confinement, and his throat still bleeds occasionally from the bullet wound. Almost half his time he has been kept in the dungeon, and now he has been missing from the range twelve days. It is...Involuntarily I shut my eyes at the fearful thud of the riot clubs.


The hours drag on. The monotony is broken by the keepers bringing another prisoner to the dungeon. I hear his violent sobbing fro the depths of the cavern.

"Who is there?" I hail him. I call repeatedly, without receiving an answer. Perhaps the new arrival is afraid of listening guards.

"Ho, man!" I sing out, "the screws have gone. Who are you? This is Aleck, Aleck Berkman."

"Is that you Aleck? This is Johnny." There is a familiar ring about the young voice, broken by piteous moans. But I fail to identify it.

"What Johnny?"

"Johnny Davis -- you know -- stocking shop. I've just killed a man."

In bewilderment I listen to the story, told with bursts of weeping. Johnny had returned to the shop; he thought he would try again: he wanted to earn his "good" time. Things went well for a while, till "Dutch" Adams became shop runner. He is the stool who got Grant and Johnny Smith in trouble with the fake key, and Davis would have nothing to do with him. But "Dutch" persisted, pestering him all the time; and then --

"Well, you know, Aleck," the boy seems different, "he lied about me like hell: he told the fellows he used me. Christ, my mother might hear about it! I couldn't stand it, Aleck; honest to God, I couldn't. I -- I killed the lying cur, an' now -- now I'll -- swing for it," he sobs as if his heart would break.

A touch of tenderness for the poor boy is in my voice, as I strive to condole with him and utter the hope that it may not be so bad, after al. Perhaps Adams will not die. He is a powerful man, big and strong; he may survive.

Johnny eagerly clutches at the straw. He grows more cheerful and we talk of the coming investigation and local affairs. Perhaps the Board will even clear him, he suggests. But suddenly seized with fear, he weeps and moans again.

More men are cast into the dungeon. They bring news from the world above. An epidemic of fighting seems to have broken out in the wake of recent orders. The total inhibition of talking is resulting in more serious offenses. "Kid Tommy" is enlarging upon his trouble. "You see, fellers," he cries in a treble, "dat skunk of a Pete he pushes me in de line, and I turns round t' give 'im hell, but de screw pipes me. Got no chance t' choo, so I turns an' biffs him on de jaw, see?" But he is sure, he says, to be let out at night, or in the morning, at most. "Them fellers that was scrappin' yesterday in de yard didn't go to de hole. Dey jest put 'em in de cell. Sandy knows de committee 's coming all right."

Johnny interrupts the loquacious boy to inquire anxiously about "Dutch" Adams, and I share his joy at hearing that man's wound is not serious. He was cut about the shoulders, but was able to walk unassisted to the hospital. Johnny overflows with quiet happiness; the others dance and sing. I recite a poem from Nekrassov; the boys don't understand a word, but the sorrow-laden tones appeal to them, and they request more Russian "pieces." But Tommy is more interested in politics, and is bristling with the latest news from the Magee camp. He is a great admirer of Quay, -- "dere's a smart guy fer you, fellers; owns de whole Keystone shebang all right, all right. He's Boss Quay, you bet you." He dives into national issues, rails at Bryan, "16 to 1 Bill, you jest list'n to 'm, he'll give sixteen dollars to every one; he will, nit!" and the boys are soon involved in a heated discussion of the respective merits of the two political parties, Tommy staunchly siding with the Republican. "Me gran'fader and me fader was Republicans," he vociferates, "an' all me broders vote de ticket. Me fer de Gran' Ole Party, ev'ry time." Some one twits him on his political wisdom, challenging the boy to explain the difference in the money standards. Tommy boldly appeals to me to corroborate him; but before I have an opportunity to speak, he launches upon other issues, berating Spain for her atrocities in Cuba, and insisting that this free country cannot tolerate slavery at its doors. Every topic is discussed, with Tommy orating at top speed, and continually broaching new subjects. Unexpectedly he reverts to local affairs, waxes reminiscent over former days, and loudly smacks his lips at the "great feeds" he enjoyed on the rare occasions when he was free to roam the back streets of Smoky City. "Say, Aleck, my boy," he calls to me familiarly, "man a penny I made you all right. How? Why, peddlin' extras, of course! Say, dem was fine days, all right; easy money; papers went like hot cakes off the griddle. Wish you'd do it again, Aleck."

Invisible to each other, we chat, exchange stories and anecdotes, the boys talking incessantly, as if fearful of silence. But every now and then there is a lull; we become quiet, each absorbed in his own thoughts. The pauses lengthen -- lengthen into silence. Only the faint steps of "Crazy Smith" disturb the deep stillness.


Late in the evening the young prisoners are relieved. But Johnny remains, and his apprehensions reawaken. Repeatedly during the night he rouses me from my drowsy torpor to be reassured that he is not in danger of the gallows, and that he will not be tried for his assault. I allay his fears by dwelling on the Warden's aversion to giving publicity to the sex practices in the prison, and remind the boy of the Captain's official denial of their existence. These things happen almost every week, yet no one has been taken to court from Riverside on such charges. Johnny grows more tranquil, and we converse about his family history, talking in a frank, confidential manner. With a glow of pleasure, I become aware of the note of tenderness in his voice. Presently he surprises me by asking:

"Friend Aleck, what do they call you in Russian?"

He prefers the fond "Sashenka," enunciating the strange word with quaint endearment, then diffidently confesses dislike for his own name, and relates the story he had recently read of a poor castaway Cuban youth; Filipe was his name, and he was just like himself.

"Shall I call you Filipe?" I offer.

"Please do, Aleck, dear; no, Sashenka."

The springs of affection well up within me, as I lie huddled on the stone floor, cold and hungry. With closed eyes, I picture the boy before me, with his delicate face, and sensitive, girlish lips.

"Good night, dear Sashenka," he calls.

"Good night, little Felipe."

In the morning we are served with a slice of bread and water. I am tormented by thirst and hunger, and the small ration fails to assuage my sharp pangs. Simthy still refuses to drink out of the Deputy's hand; his doors remain unopened. With tremulous anxiety Johnny begs the Deputy Warden to tell him how much longer he will remain in the dungeon, but Greaves curtly commands silence, applying a vile epithet to the boy.

"Deputy," I call, boiling over with indignation, "he asked you a respectful question. I'd give him a decent answer."

"You mind your own business, you hear?" he retorts.

But I persist in defending my young friend, and berate the Deputy for his language. He hastens away in a towering passion, menacing me with "what Smithy got."

Johnny is distressed at being the innocent cause of trouble. The threat of the Deputy disquiets him, and he warns me to prepare. My cell is provided with a double entrance, and I am apprehensive of a sudden attack. But the hours pass without the Deputy returning, and our fears are allayed. The boy rejoices on my account, and brims over with appreciation of my intercession.

The incident cements our intimacy; our intimacy, our first diffidence disappears, and we become openly tender and affectionate. The conversation lags: we feel weak and worn. But every little while we hail each other with words of encouragement. Smithy incessantly paces the cell; the gnawing of the river rats reaches our ears; the silence is frequently pierced by the wild yells of the insane man, startling us with dread foreboding. The quiet grows unbearable, and Johnny calls again:

"What are you doing, Sashenka?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking, Felipe."

"Am I in your thoughts, dear?"

"Yes, kiddie, you are."

"Sasha, dear, I've been thinking too!'

"What, Felipe?"

"You are the only one I care for. I haven't a friend in the whole place."

"Do you care much for me, Felipe?"

"Will you promise not to laugh at me, Sashenka?"

"I wouldn't laugh at you."

"Cross your hand over your heart. Got it, Sasha?"


"Well, I'll tell you. I was thinking -- how shall I tell you? I was thinking, Sashenka -- if you were here with me -- I would to like to kiss you."

An unaccountable sense of joy glows in my heart, I muse in silence.

"What's the matter, Sashenka? Why don't you say something? Are you angry with me?"

"No, Felipe, you foolish little boy."

"You are laughing at me."

"No, dear; I feel just as you do."



"Oh, I am so glad, Sashenka."

In the evening the guards descend to relieve Johnny; he is to be transferred to the basket, they inform him. On the way past my cell, he whispers: "Hope I'll see you soon, Sashenka." A friendly officer knocks on the outer blind door of my cell. "That you thar Berkman? You want to b'have to th' Dep'ty. He's put you down for two more days for sassin' him."

I feel more lonesome at the boy's departure. The silence grows more oppressive, the hours of darkness heavier.

Seven days I remain in the dungeon. At the expiration of the week, feeling stiff and feeble, I totter behind the guards, on the way to the bathroom. My body looks strangely emaciated, reduced almost to a skeleton. The pangs of hunger revive sharply with the shock of the cold shower, and the craving for tobacco is overpowering at the sight of the chewing officers. I look forward to being placed in a cell, quietly exulting at my victory as I am led to the North Wing. But, in the cell-house, the Deputy assigns me to the lower end of Range A, insane

department. Exasperated by the terrible suggestion, my nerves on with the dungeon experience, I storm in furious protest, demanding to be returned to "the hole." The Deputy, startled violence, attempts to soothe me, and finally yields. I am placed in Number 35, the "crank row" beginning several cells further.

Upon the heels of the departing officers, the rangeman is at my door, bursting with the latest news. The investigation is over, the Warden whitewashed! For an instant I am aghast, failing to grasp the astounding situation. Slowly its full significance dawns on me, as Bill excitedly relates the story. It's the talk of the prison. The Board of Charities had chosen its Secretary, J. Francis Torrance, an intimate friend of the Warden, to conduct the investigation. As a precautionary measure, I was kept several additional days in the dungeon. Mr. Torrance has privately interviewed "Dutch" Adams, Young Smithy, and Bob Runyon, promising them their full commutation time, notwithstanding their bad records, and irrespective of their future behavior. They were instructed by the Secretary to corroborate the management, placing all blame upon me! No other witnesses were heard. The "investigation" was over within an hour, the committee of one retiring for dinner to the adjoining residence of the Warden.

Several friendly prisoners linger at my cell during the afternoon, corroborating the story of the rangeman, and completing the details. The cell-house itself bears out the situation; the change in the personnel of the men is amazing. "Dutch" Adams has been promoted to messenger for the "front office," the most privileged "political" job in the prison. Bob Runyon, a third-timer and notorious "kid man," has been appointed a trusty in the shops. But the most significant cue is the advancement of Young Smithy to the position of rangeman. He has but recently been sentenced to a year's solitary for the broken key discovered in the lock of his door. His record is of the worst. He is a young convict of extremely violent temper who has repeatedly attacked fellow-prisoners with dangerous weapons. Since his murderous assault upon the inoffensive "Praying Andy," Smithy was never permitted out of his without the escort of two guards. And now this irresponsible man is in charge of a range!

At supper, Young Smithy steals up to my cell, bringing a slice of cornbread. I refuse the peace offering, and charge him with treachery. At first he stoutly protests his innocence, but gradually weakens and pleads his dire straits in mitigation. Torrance had persuaded him to testify, but he avoided incriminating me. That was done by the other two witnesses; he merely exonerated the Warden from the charges preferred by James Grant. He had been clubbed four times, but he denied to the committee that the guards practice violence; and he supported the Warden in his statement that the officers are not permitted to carry clubs or blackjacks. He feels that an injustice has been done me, and now that he occupies my former position, he will be able to repay the little favors I did him when he was in solitary.

Indignantly I spurn his offer. He pleads his youth, the torture of the cell, and begs my forgiveness; but I am bitter at his treachery, and bid him go.

Officer McIlvaine pauses at my door. "Oh, what a change, what an awful change!" he exclaims, pityingly. I don't know whether he refers to my appearance, or to the loss of range liberty; but I resent his tone of commiseration; it was he who had selected me as a victim, to be reported for talking. Angrily I turn my back to him, refusing to talk.

Somebody stealthily pushes a bundle of newspapers between the bars. Whole columns detail the report of the "investigation," completely exonerating Warden Edward S. Wright. The base charges against the management of the penitentiary were the underhand work of Anarchist Berkman, Mr. Torrance assured the press. One of the papers contains a lengthy interview with Wright, accusing me of fostering discontent and insubordination among the men. The Captain expresses grave fear for the safety of the community, should the Pardon Board reduce my sentence, in view of the circumstance that my lawyers are preparing to renew the application at the next session.

In great agitation I pace the cell. The statement of the Warden is fatal to the hope of a pardon. My life in the prison will now be made still more unbearable. I shall again be locked in solitary. With despair I think of my fate in the hands of the enemy, and the sense of my utter helplessness overpowers me.

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