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


An Alliance with the Birds


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF the revolvers is shrouded in mystery. In vain I rack my brain to fathom the precarious situation; it defies comprehension and torments me with misgivings. Jim's certainty that the weapons did not pass between the bars of the cellar, momentarily allays my dread. But Tony's vehement insistence that he had delivered the package, throws me into a panic of fear. My firm faith in the two confidants distracts me with uncertainty and suspense. It is incredible that Tony should seek to deceive me. Yet Jim has kept constant vigil at the point of delivery; there is little probability of his having missed the package. But supposing he has, what has become of it? Perhaps it fell into some dark comer of the cellar. The place must be searched at once.

Desperate with anxiety, I resort to the most reckless means to afford Jim an opportunity to visit the cellar. I ransack the cell-house for old papers and rags; with miserly hand I gather all odds and ends, broken tools, pieces of wood, a bucketful of sawdust. Trembling with fear of discovery, I empty the treasure into the sewer at the end of the hall, and tightly jam the elbow of the waste pipe. The smell of excrement fills the block, the cell privies overrun, and inundate the hall. The stench is overpowering; steadily the water rises, threatening to flood the cell-house. The place is in a turmoil: the solitaries shout and rattle on the bars, the guards rush about in confusion. The Block Captain yells, "Hey, Jasper, hurry! Call the plumber; get Jim, Quick!"

But repeated investigation of the cellar fails to disclose the weapons. In constant dread of dire possibilities, I tremble at every step, fancying lurking suspicion, sudden discovery, and disaster. But the days pass; the calm of the prison routine is undisturbed, giving no indication of untoward happening or agitation. By degrees my fears subside. The inexplicable disappearance of the revolvers is fraught with danger; the mystery is disquieting, but it has fortunately brought no results, and must apparently remain unsolved.

Unexpectedly my fears are rearoused. Called to the desk by Officer Mitchell for the distribution of the monthly allowance of matches, I casually glance out of the yard door. At the extreme northwestern end, Assistant Deputy Hopkins loiters near the wall, slowly walking on the grass. The unusual presence of the overseer at the abandoned gate wakes my suspicion. The singular idling of the energetic guard, his furtive eyeing of the ground, strengthens my worst apprehensions. Something must have happened. Are they suspecting the tunnel? But work has not been commenced; besides, it is to terminate at the very opposite point of the yard, fully a thousand feet distant. In perplexity I wonder at the peculiar actions of Hopkins. Had the weapons been found, every inmate would immediately be subjected to a search, and shops and cell-house ransacked.

In anxious speculation I pass a sleepless night, morning dawns without bringing a solution. But after breakfast the cell-house becomes strangely quiet; the shop employees remain locked in. The rangemen are ordered to their cells, and guards from the yard and shops march into the block, and noisily ascend the galleries. The Deputy and Hopkins scurry about the hall; the rotunda door is thrown open with a clang, and the sharp command of the Warden resounds through the cell-house, "General search!"

I glance hurriedly over my table and shelf. Surprises of suspected prisoners are frequent, and I am always prepared. But some contraband is on hand. Quickly I snatch my writing material from the womb of the bedtick. In the very act of destroying several sketches of the previous year, a bright thought flashes across my mind. There is nothing dangerous about them, save the theft of the paper. "Prison Types," "In the Streets of New York," "Parkhurst and the Prostitute," "Libertas'a Study in Philology," "The Slavery of Tradition"harmless products of evening leisure. Let them find the booklets! I'll be severely reprimanded for appropriating material from the shops, but my sketches will serve to divert suspicion: the Warden will secretly rejoice that my mind is not busy with more dangerous activities. But the sudden search signifies grave developments. General overhaulings, involving temporary suspension of the industries and consequent financial loss, are rare. The search of the entire prison is not due till spring. Its precipitancy confirms my worst fears: the weapons have undoubtedly been found! Jim's failure to get possession of them assumes a peculiar aspect. It is possible, of course, that some guard, unexpectedly passing through the cellar, discovered the bundle between the bars, and appropriated it without attracting Jim's notice. Yet the latter's confident assertion of his presence at the window at the appointed moment indicates another probability. The thought is painful, disquieting. But who knows? In an atmosphere of fear and distrust and almost universal espionage, the best friendships are tinged with suspicion. It may be that Jim, afraid of consequences, surrendered the weapons to the Warden. He would have no difficulty in explaining the discovery, without further betrayal of my confidence. Yet Jim, a "pete man" of international renown, enjoys the reputation of a thoroughly "square man" and loyal friend. He has given me repeated proof of his confidence, and I am disinclined to accuse a possibly innocent man. It is fortunate, however, that his information is limited to the weapons. No doubt he suspects some sort of escape; but I have left him in ignorance of my real plans. With these Tony alone is entrusted.

The reflection is reassuring. Even if indiscretion on Tony's part is responsible for the accident, he has demonstrated his friendship. Realizing the danger of his mission, he may have thrown in the weapons between the cellar bars, ignoring my directions of previously ascertaining the presence of Jim at his post. But the discovery of the revolvers vindicates the veracity of Tony, and strengthens my confidence in him. My fate rests in the hands of a loyal comrade, a friend who has already dared great peril for my sake.

The general search is over, bringing to light quantities of various contraband. The counterfeit outfit, whose product has been circulating beyond the walls of the prison, is discovered, resulting in a secret investigation by Federal officials. In the general excitement, the sketches among my effects have been ignored, and left in my possession. But no clue has been found in connection with the weapons. The authorities are still further mystified by the discovery that the lock on the trapdoor in the roof of the cell-house building had been tampered with. With an effort I suppress a smile at the puzzled bewilderment of the kindly old Mitchell, as, with much secrecy, he confides to me the information. I marvel at the official stupidity that failed to make the discovery the previous year, when, by the aid of Jim and my young friend Russell, I had climbed to the top of the cell-house, while the inmates were at church, and wrenched off the lock of the trapdoor, leaving in its place an apparent counterpart, provided by Jim. With the key in our possession, we watched for an opportunity to reach the outside roof, when certain changes in the block created insurmountable obstacles, forcing the abandonment of the project. Russell was unhappy over the discovery, the impulsive young prisoner steadfastly refusing to be reconciled to the failure. His time, however, being short, I have been urging him to accept the inevitable. The constant dwelling upon escape makes imprisonment more unbearable; the passing of his remaining two years would be hastened by the determination to serve out his sentence.

The boy listens quietly to my advice, his blue eyes dancing with merriment, a sly smile on the delicate lips. "You are right, Aleck," he replies, gravely, "but say, last night I thought out a scheme; it's great, and we're sure to make our get-a-way." With minute detail he pictures the impossible plan of sawing through the bars of the cell at night, "holding up" the guards, binding and gagging them, and "then the road would be clear." The innocent boy, for all his back-country reputation of "bad man," is not aware that "then" is the very threshold of difficulties. I seek to explain to him that, the guards being disposed of, we should find ourselves trapped in the cell-house. The solid steel double doors leading to the yard are securely locked, the key in the sole possession of the Captain of the night watch, who cannot be reached except through the well-guarded rotunda. But the boy is not to be daunted. "We'll have to storm the rotunda, then," he remarks, calmly, and at once proceeds to map out a plan of campaign. He smiles incredulously at my refusal to participate in the wild scheme. "Oh, yes, you will, Aleck. I don't believe a word you say. I know you're keen to make a get-a-way." His confidence somewhat shaken by my resolution, he announces that he will "go it alone."

The declaration fills me with trepidation: the reckless youth will throw away his life; his attempt may frustrate my own success. But it is in vain to dissuade him by direct means. I know the determination of the boy. The smiling face veils the boundless self-assurance of exuberant youth, combined with indomitable courage. The redundance of animal vitality and the rebellious spirit have violently disturbed the inertia of his rural home, aggravating its staid descendants of Dutch forbears. The taunt of "ne'er-do-well" has dripped bitter poison into the innocent pranks of Russell, stamping the brand of desperado upon the good-natured boy.

I tax my ingenuity to delay the carrying out of his project. He has secreted the saws I had procured from the Girl for the attempt of the previous year, and his determination is impatient to make the dash for liberty. Only his devotion to me and respect for my wishes still hold the impetuous boy in leash. But each day his restlessness increases; more insistently he urges my participation and a definite explanation of my attitude.

At a loss to invent new objections, I almost despair of dissuading Russell from his desperate purpose. From day to day I secure his solemn promise to await my final decision, the while I vaguely hope for some development that would force be abandonment of his plan. But nothing disturbs the routine, and I grow nervous with dread lest the boy, reckless with impatience, thwart my great project.

The weather is moderating; the window sashes in the hall are being lowered: the signs of approaching spring multiply. I chafe at the lack of news from Tony, who had departed on his mission to New York. With greedy eyes I follow the Chaplain on his rounds of mail delivery. Impatient of his constant pauses on the galleries, I hasten along the range to meet the postman.

"Any letters for me, Mr. Milligan?" I ask, with an effort to steady my voice.

"No, m' boy."

My eyes devour the mail in his hand. "None to-day, Aleck," he adds; "this is for your neighbor Pasquale."

I feel apprehensive at Tony's silence. Another twenty-four hours must elapse before the Chaplain returns. Perhaps there will be no mail for me to-morrow, either. What can be the matter with my friend? So many dangers menace his every step--he might be sick--some accident--Anxious days pass without mail. Russell is becoming more insistent, threatening a "break." The solitaries murmur at my neglect. I am nervous and irritable. For two weeks I have not heard from Tony; something terrible must have happened. In a ferment of dread, I keep watch on the upper rotunda. The noon hour is approaching: the Chaplain fumbles with his keys; the door opens, and he trips along the ranges. Stealthily I follow him under the galleries, pretending to dust the bars. He descends to the hall.

"Good morning, Chaplain," I seek to attract his attention, wistfully peering at the mail in his hand.

"Good morning, m' boy. Feeling good to-day?"

"Thank you; pretty fair." My voice trembles at his delay, but I fear betraying my anxiety by renewed questioning.

He passes me, and I feel sick with disappointment. Now he pauses. "Aleck," he calls, "I mislaid a letter for you yesterday. Here it is."

With shaking hand I unfold the sheet. In a fever of hope and fear, I pore over it in the solitude of the cell. My heart palpitates violently as I scan each word and letter, seeking hidden meaning, analyzing every flourish and dash, carefully distilling the minute lines, fusing the significant dots into the structure of meaning. Glorious! A house has been rented--28 Sterling Street--almost opposite the gate of the south wall. Funds are on hand, work is to begin at once!

With nimble step I walk the range. The river wafts sweet fragrance to my cell, the joy of spring is in my heart. Every hour brings me nearer to liberty: the faithful comrades are steadily working underground. Perhaps within a month, or two at most, the tunnel will be completed. I count the days, crossing off each morning the date on my calendar. The news from Tony is cheerful, encouraging: the work is progressing smoothly, the prospects of success are splendid. I grow merry at the efforts of uninitiated friends in New York to carry out the suggestions of the attorneys to apply to the Superior Court of the State for a writ, on the ground of the unconstitutionality of my sentence. I consult gravely with Mr. Milligan upon the advisability of the step, the amiable Chaplain affording me the opportunity of an extra allowance of letter paper. I thank my comrades for their efforts, and urge the necessity of collecting funds for the appeal to the upper court. Repeatedly I ask the advice of the Chaplain in the legal matter, confident that my apparent enthusiasm will reach the ears of the Warden: the artifice will mask my secret project and lull suspicion. My official letters breathe assurance of success, and with much show of confidence I impress upon the trusties my sanguine expectation of release. I discuss the subject with officers and stools, till presently the prison is agog with the prospective liberation of its fourth oldest inmate. The solitaries charge me with messages to friends, and the Deputy Warden offers advice on behavior beyond the walls. The moment is propitious for a bold stroke. Confined to the cell-house, I shall be unable reach the tunnel. The privilege of the yard is imperative.

It is June. Unfledged birdies frequently fall from their nests, and I induce the kindly runner, "Southside" Johnny, to procure for me a brace of sparlings. I christen the little orphans Dick and Sis, and the memory of my previous birds is revived among inmates and officers. Old Mitchell is in ecstasy over the intelligence and adaptability of my new feathered friends. But the birds languish and waste in the close air of the block; the need sunshine and gravel, and the dusty street to bathe in. Gradually I enlist the sympathies of the new doctor by the curious performances of my pets. One day the Warden strolls in, and joins in admiration of the wonderful birds.

"Who trained them!" he inquires.

"This man," the physician indicates me. A slight frown flits over the Warden's face. Old Mitchell winks at me, encouragingly.

"Captain," I approach the Warden, "the birds are sickly for lack of air. Will you permit me to give them an airing in the yard?"

"Why don't you let them go? You have no permission keep them."

"Oh, it would be a pity to throw them out," the doctor intercedes. "They are too tame to take care of themselves."

"Well, then," the Warden decides, "let Jasper take them out every day."

"They will not go with any one except myself," I inform him. "They follow me everywhere."

The Warden hesitates.

"Why not let Berkman go out with them for a few moments the doctor suggests. "I hear you expect to be free soon," he remarks to me casually. "Your case is up for revision?"


"Well, Berkman," the Warden motions to me, "I will permit you ten minutes in the yard, after your sweeping is done. What time are you through with it?"

"At 9:30A.M."

"Mr. Mitchell, every morning, at 9:30, you will pass Berkman through the doors. For ten minutes, on the watch." Then turning to me, he adds: "You are to stay near the greenhouse; there is plenty of sand there. If you cross the dead line of the sidewalk, or exceed your time a single minute, you will be punished."

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