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




THE ADVERSE DECISION of the Board of Pardons terminates all hope of release by legal means. Had the Board refused to commute my sentence after hearing the argument, another attempt could be made later on. But the refusal to grant a rehearing, the crafty stratagem to circumvent even the presentation of my case, reveals the duplicity of the previous promise and the guilty consciousness of the illegality of my multiplied sentences. The authorities are determined that I should remain in the prison, confident that it will prove my tomb. Realizing this fires my defiance, and all the stubborn resistance of my being. There is no hope of surviving my term. At best even with the full benefit of the commutation time -- which will hardly be granted me, in view of the attitude of the prison management -- I still have over nine years to serve. But existence is becoming increasingly more unbearable; long confinement and the solitary have drained my vitality. To endure the nine years is almost a physical impossibility. I must therefore concentrate all my energy and efforts upon escape.

My position as rangeman is of utmost advantage. I have access to every part of the cell-house, excepting the "crank row." The incident of feeding the insane has put an embargo upon my communication with them, a special hallboy having been assigned to care for the deranged. But within my area on the range are the recent arrivals and the sane solitaries; the division of my duties with the new man merely facilitates my task, and affords me more leisure.

The longing for liberty constantly besets my mind, suggesting various projects. The idea of escape daily strengthens into the determination born of despair. It possesses me with an exclusive passion, shaping every thought, molding every action. By degrees I curtail correspondence with my prison chums, that I may devote the solitude of the evening to the development of my plans. The underground tunnel masters my mind with the boldness of its conception, its tremendous possibilities. But the execution! Why do my friends regard the matter so indifferently? Their tepidity irritates me. Often I lash myself into wild anger with Carl for having failed to impress my comrades with the feasibility of the plan, to fire them with the enthusiasm of activity. My sub rosa route is sporadic and uncertain. Repeatedly I have hinted to my friends the bitter surprise I feel at their provoking indifference; but my reproaches have been studiously ignored. I cannot believe that conditions in the movement preclude the realization of my suggestion. These things have been accomplished in Russia. Why not in America? The attempt should be made, if only for its propagandistic effect. True, the project will require considerable outlay, and the work of skilled and trustworthy men. Have we no such in our ranks? In Parsons and Lum, this country has produced her Zheliabovs; is the genius of America not equal to a Hartman?1 The tacit skepticism of my correspondents pains me, and rouses my resentment. They evidently lack faith in the judgment of "one who has been so long separated" from their world, from the interests and struggles of the living. The consciousness of my helplessness without aid from the outside gnaws at me, filling my days with bitterness. But I will persevere: I will compel their attention and their activity; aye, their enthusiasm!

With utmost zeal I cultivate the acquaintance of Tony. The months of frequent correspondence and occasional personal meetings have developed a spirit of congeniality and good will. I exert my ingenuity to create opportunities for stolen interviews and closer comradeship. Through the aid of a friendly of ficer, I procure for Tony the privilege of assisting his rangeman after shop hours, thus enabling him to communicate with me to greater advantage. Gradually we become intimate, and I learn the story of his life, rich in adventure and experience. An Alsatian, small and wiry, Tony is a man of quick wit, with a considerable dash of the Frenchman about him. He is intelli gent and daring -- the very man to carry out my plan.

For days I debate in my mind the momentous question: shall I confide the project to Tony? It would be placing myself in his power, jeopardizing the sole hope of my Life. Yet it is the only way; I must rely on my intuition of the man's worth. My nights are sleepless, excruciating with the agony of indecision. But my friend's sentence is nearing completion. We shall need time for discussion and preparation, for thorough consideration of every detail. At last I resolve to take the decisive step, and next day I reveal the secret to Tony.

His manner allays apprehension. Serene and self-possessed, he listens gravely to my plan, smiles with apparent satisfaction, and briefly announces that it shall be done. Only the shining eyes of my reticent comrade betray his elation at the bold scheme, and his joy in the adventure. He is confident that the idea is feasible, suggesting the careful elaboration of details, and the invention of a cipher to insure greater safety for our correspondence. The precaution is necessary; it will prove of inestimable value upon his release.

With great circumspection the cryptogram is prepared, based on a discarded system of German shorthand, but somewhat altered, and further involved by the use of words of our own coinage. The cipher, thus perfected, will defy the skill of the most expert.

But developments within the prison necessitate changes in the project. The building operations near the bathhouse destroy the serviceability of the latter for my purpose. We consider several new routes, but soon realize that lack of familiarity with the construction of the penitentiary gas and sewer systems may defeat our success. There are no means of procuring the necessary information: Tony is confined to the shop, while I am never permitted out of the cell-house. In vain I strive to solve the difficulty; weeks pass without bringing light.

My Providence comes unexpectedly, in the guise of a fight in the yard. The combatants are locked up on my range. One of them proves to be "Mac," an aged prisoner serving a third term. During his previous confinement, he had filled the position of fireman, one of his duties consisting in the weekly flushing of the sewers. He is thoroughly familiar with the underground piping of the yard, but his reputation among the inmates is tinged with the odor of sycophancy. He is, however, the only means of solving my difficulty, and I diligently set myself to gain his friendship. I lighten his solitary by numerous expressions of my sympathy, often secretly supplying him with little extras procured from my kitchen friends. The loquacious old man is glad of an opportunity to converse, and devote every propitious moment to listening to his long-winded stories of the "great jobs" he had accomplished in "his" time, the celebrated "guns" with whom he had associated, the "great hauls" he had made and "blowed" in with th' fellers." I suffer his chatter patiently encouraging the recital of his prison experiences, and leading him on to dwell upon his last "bit." He becomes reminiscent of his friends in Riverside, bewails the early graves of some, others "gone bugs," and rejoices over his good chum Patty McGraw managing to escape. The ever-interesting subject gives "Mac" a new start, and he waxes enthusiastic over the ingenuity of Patty, while I express surprise that he himself had never attempted to take French leave. ''What!" he bristles up, "think I'm such a dummy?" and with great detail he discloses his plan, "'way in th' 80's" to swim through the sewer. I scoff at his folly. "You must have been a chump, Mac, to think it could be done,'' I remark. "I was, was I? What do you know about the piping, eh? Now, let me tell you. Just wait," and, snatching up his Library slate, he draws a complete diagram of the prison sewerage. In the extreme southwest corner of the yard he indicates a blind underground alley.

"What's this?" I ask, in surprise,

"Nev'r knew that, did yer? It's a little tunn'l, connectin' th' cellar with th' females, see? Not a dozen men in th' dump know 't; not ev'n a good many screws. Passage ain't been used fer a long time."

In amazement I scan the diagram. I had noticed a little trap door at the very point in the yard indicated in the drawing, and I had often wondered what purpose it might serve. My heart dances with joy at the happy solution of my difficulty. The "blind alley" will greatly facilitate our work. It is within fifteen feet, or twenty at most, of the southwestern wall. Its situation is very favorable: there are no shops in the vicinity; the place is never visited by guards or prisoners.

The happy discovery quickly matures the details of my plan: a house is to be rented opposite the southern wall, on Sterling Street. Preferably it is to be situated very near to the pine where the wall adjoins the cell-house building. Dug in a direct line across the street, and underneath the south wall, the tunnel will connect with the "blind alley." I shall manage the rest.


Slowly the autumn wanes. The crisp days of the Indian sum mer linger, as if unwilling to depart. But I am impatient with anxiety, and long for the winter. Another month, and Tony will be free. Time lags with tardy step, but at last the weeks dwarf into days, and with joyful heart we count the last hours.

To-morrow my friend will greet the sunshine. He will at once communicate with my comrades, and urge the immediate realization of the great plan. His self-confidence and faith will carry conviction, and stir them with enthusiasm for the undertaking. A house is to be bought or rented without loss of time, and the environs inspected. Perhaps operations could not being till spring; meanwhile funds are to be collected to further the work. Unfortunately, the Girl, a splendid organizer, is absent from the country. But my friends will carefully follow the directions I have entrusted to Tony, and through him I shall keep in touch with the developments. I have little opportunity for sub rosa mail; by means of our cipher, however, we can correspond officially, without risk of the censor's understanding, or even suspecting, the innocent-looking flourishes scattered through the page.

With the trusted Tony my thoughts walk beyond the gates, again and again I rehearse every step in the project, and study every detail. My mind dwells in the outside. In silent preoccupation I perform my duties on the range. More rarely I converse with the prisoners: I must take care to comply with the rules and to retain my position. To lose it would be disas trous to all my hopes of escape.

As I pass the vacant cell, in which I had spent the last year of my solitary, the piteous chirping of a sparrow breaks in upon my thoughts. The little visitor, almost frozen, hops on the bar above. My assistant swings the duster to drive it away, but the sparrow hovers about the door, and suddenly flutters to my shoulder. In surprise I pet the bird; it seems quite tame. "Why, it's Dick!" the assistant exclaims "Think of him coming back!" My hands tremble as I examine the little bird. With great joy I discover the faint marks of blue ink I had smeared under its wings last summer, when the Warden had ordered my little companion thrown out of the window. How wonderful that it should return and recognize the old friend and the cell! Tenderly I warm and feed the bird. What strange sights my little pet must have seen since he was driven out into the world! what struggles and sorrows has he suffered! The bright eyes look cheerily into mine, speaking mute confidence and joy, while he pecks from my hand crumbs of bread and sugar. Foolish birdie, to return to prison for shelter and food! Cold and cruel must be the world, my little Dick; or is it friendship, that is stronger than even love of liberty?

So may it he. Almost daily I see men pass through the gates and Soon return again, driven back by the world--even like you, little Dick. Yet others there are who would rather go cold and hungry in freedom, than be warm and fed in prison -- even like me, little Dick. And still others there be who would risk life and liberty for the sake of their friendship -- even like you and, I hope, Tony, Little Dick.


1Hartman engineered the tunnel beneath the Moscow railway, undermined in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Alexander II., in 1880.

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