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

Chapter 29

Dreams of Freedom


LIKE AN ENDLESS miserere are the days in the solitary. No glimmer of light cheers the to-morrows. In the depths of suffering, existence becomes intolerable; and as of old, I seek refuge in the past. The stages of my life reappear as the acts of a drama which I cannot bring myself to cut short. The possibilities of the dark motive compel the imagination, and halt the thought of destruction. Misery magnifies the estimate of self; the vehemence of revolt strengthens to endure. Despair engenders obstinate resistance; in its spirit hope is trembling. Slowly it assumes more definite shape: escape is the sole salvation. The world of the living is dim and unreal with distance; its voice reaches me like the pale echo of fantasy; the thought of its turbulent vitality is strange with apprehension. But the present is bitter with wretchedness, and gasps desperately for relief.

The efforts of my friends bring a glow of warmth into my life. The indefatigable Girl has succeeded in interesting various circles: she is gathering funds for my application for a rehearing before the Pardon Board in the spring of '98, when my first sentence of seven years will have expired. With a touch of old-time tenderness, I think of her loyalty, her indomitable perseverance in my behalf. It is she, almost she alone, who has kept my memory green throughout the long years. Even Fedya, my constant chum, has been swirled into the vortex of narrow ambition and self-indulgence, the plaything of commonplace fate.

Resentment at being thus lightly forgotten tinges my thoughts of the erstwhile twin brother of our ideal-kissed youth. By contrast, the Girl is silhouetted on my horizon as the sole personification of revolutionary persistence, the earnest of its realization. Beyond, all is darkness -- the mystic world of falsehood and sham, that will hate and persecute me even as its brutal high priests in the prison. Here and there the gloom is rent: an unknown sympathizer, or comrade, sends a greeting; I pore eagerly over the chirography, and from the clear, decisive signature, "Voltairine de Cleyre," strive to mold the character and shape the features of the writer. To the Girl I apply to verify my "reading," and rejoice in the warm interest of the convent-educated American, a friend of my much-admired Comrade Dyer D. Lum, who is aiding the Girl in my behalf.

But the efforts for a rehearing wake no hope in my heart. My comrades, far from the prison world, do not comprehend the full significance of the situation resulting from the investigation. My underground connections are paralyzed; I cannot enlighten the Girl. But Nold and Bauer are on the threshold of liberty. Within two months Carl will carry my message to New York. I can fully rely on his discretion and devotion; we have grown very intimate through common suffering. He will inform the Girl that nothing is to be expected from legal procedure; instead, he will explain to her the plan I have evolved.

My position as rangeman has served me to good advantage. I have thoroughly familiarized myself with the institution; I have gathered information and explored every part of the cell-house offering the least likelihood of an escape. The prison is almost impregnable; Tom's attempt to scale the wall proved disastrous, in spite of his exceptional opportunities as kitchen employee, and the thick fog of the early morning. Several other attempts also were doomed to failure, the great number of guards and their vigilance precluding success. No escape has taken place since the days of Paddy McGraw, before the completion of the prison. Entirely new methods must be tried: the road to freedom leads underground! But digging out of the prison is impracticable in the modem structure of steel and rock. We must force a passage into the prison: the tunnel is to be dug from the outside! A house is to be rented in the neighborhood of the penitentiary, and the underground passage excavated beneath the eastern wall, toward the adjacent bath-house. No officers frequent the place save at certain hours, and I shall find an opportunity to disappear into the hidden opening on the regular biweekly occasions when the solitaries are permitted to bathe.

The project will require careful preparation and considerable expense. Skilled comrades will have to be entrusted with the secret work, the greater part of which must be carried on at night. Determination and courage will make the plan feasible, successful. Such things have been done before. Not in this country, it is true. But the act will receive added significance from the circumstance that the liberation of the first American political prisoner has been accomplished by means similar to those practiced by our comrades in Russia. Who knows? It may prove the symbol and precursor of Russian idealism on American soil. And what tremendous impression the consummation of the bold plan will make! What a stimulus to our propaganda, as a demonstration of Anarchist initiative and ability! I glow with the excitement of its great possibilities, and enthuse Carl with my hopes. If the preparatory work is hastened, the execution of the plan will be facilitated by the renewed agitation within the prison. Rumors of a legislative investigation are afloat, diverting the thoughts of the administration into different channels. I shall foster the ferment to afford my comrades greater safety in the work.

During the long years of my penitentiary life I have formed many friendships. I have earned the reputation of a "square man" and a "good fellow," have received many proofs of confidence, and appreciation of my uncompromising attitude toward the generally execrated management. Most of my friends observe the unwritten ethics of informing me of their approaching release, and offer to smuggle out messages or to provide me with little comforts. I invariably request them to visit the newspapers and to relate their experiences in Riverside. Some express fear of the Warden's enmity, of the fatal consequences in case of their return to the penitentiary. But the bolder spirits and the accidental offenders, who confidently bid me a final good-bye, unafraid of return, call directly from the prison on the Pittsburgh editors.

Presently the Leader and the Dispatch begin to voice their censure of the hurried whitewash by the State Board of Charities. The attitude of the press encourages the guards to manifest their discontent with the humiliating eccentricities of the senile Warden. They protest against the whim subjecting them to military drill to improve their appearance, and resent Captain Wright's insistence that they patronize his private tailor, high-priced and incompetent. Serious friction has also arisen between the management and Mr. Sawhill, Superintendent of local industries. The prisoners rejoice at the growing irascibility of the Warden, and the deeper lines on his face, interpreting them as signs of worry and fear. Expectation of a new investigation is at high pitch as Judge Gordon, of Philadelphia, severely censures the administration of the Eastern Penitentiary, charging inhuman treatment, abuse of the insane, and graft. The labor bodies of the State demand the abolition of convict competition, and the press becomes more assertive in urging an investigation of both penitentiaries. The air is charged with rumors of legislative action.


The breath of spring is in the cell-house. My two comrades are jubilant. The sweet odor of May wafts resurrection! But the threshold of life is guarded by the throes of new birth. A tone of nervous excitement permeates their correspondence. Anxiety tortures the sleepless nights; approaching return to the living is tinged with the disquietude of the unknown, the dread of the renewed struggle for existence. But the joy of coming emancipation, the wine of sunshine and liberty tingles in every fiber, and hope flutters its disguised wings.

Our plans are complete. Carl is to visit the Girl, explain my project, and serve as the medium of communication by means of our prearranged system, investing apparently innocent official letters with sub rosa meaning. The initial step will require time. Meanwhile "K" and "G" are to make the necessary arrangements for the publication of our book. The security of our manuscripts is a source of deep satisfaction and much merriment at the expense of the administration. The repeated searches have failed to unearth them. With characteristic daring, the faithful Bob had secreted them in a hole in the floor of his shop, almost under the very seat of the guard. One by one they have been smuggled outside by a friendly officer, whom lave christened "Schrauhe."1 By degrees Nold has gained the confidence of the former mill-worker, with the result that sixty precious booklets now repose safely with a comrade in Allegheny. I am to supply the final chapters of the book through Mr. Schraube, whose friendship Carl is about to bequeath to me.

The month of May is on the wane. The last note is exchanged with my comrades. Dear Bob was not able to reach me in the morning, and now I read the lines quivering with the last pangs of release, while Nold and Bauer are already beyond the walls. How I yearned for a glance at Carl, to touch hands, even in silence! But the customary privilege was refused us. Only once in the long years of our common suffering have I looked into the eyes of my devoted friend, and stealthily pressed his hand, like a thief in the night. No last greeting was vouchsafed me today. The loneliness seems heavier, the void more painful.

The routine is violently disturbed. Reading and study are burdensome: my thoughts will not be compelled. They revert obstinately to my comrades, and storm against my steel cage, trying to pierce the distance, to commune with the absent: I seek diversion in the manufacture of prison "fancy work," ornamental little fruit baskets, diminutive articles of furniture, picture frames, and the like. The little mementos, constructed of tissue-paper rolls of various designs, I send to the Girl, and am elated at her admiration of the beautiful workmanship and attractive color effects. But presently she laments the wrecked condition of the goods, and upon investigation I learn from the runner that the most dilapidated cardboard boxes are selected for my product. The rotunda turnkey, in charge of the shipments, is hostile, and I appeal to the Chaplain. But his well meant intercession results in an order from the Warden, interdicting the expressage of my work, on the ground of probable notes being secreted therein. I protest against the discrimination, suggesting the dismembering of every piece to disprove the charge. But the Captain derisively remarks that he is indisposed to "take chances," and I to resort to the subterfuge of having my articles transferred to a friendly prisoner and addressed by him to his mother in Beaver, Pa., thence to he forwarded to New York. At the same time the rotunda keeper detains a valuable piece of ivory sent to me by the Girl for the manufacture of ornamental toothpicks. The local ware, made of kitchen bones bleached in lime, turns yellow in a short time. My request for the ivory is refused on the plea of submitting the matter to the Warden's decision, who rules against me. I direct the return of it to my friend, but am informed that the ivory has been mislaid and cannot be found. Exasperated, I charge the guard with the theft, and serve notice that I shall demand the ivory at the expiration of my time. The turnkey jeers at the wild impossibility, and I am placed for a week on "Pennsylvania diet" for insulting an officer.

1 German for "screw"

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