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



THE DISCOVERY OF the tunnel overwhelms me with the violence of an avalanche. The plan of continuing the work, the trembling hope of escape, of liberty, life-all is suddenly terminated. My nerves, tense with the months of suspense and anxiety, relax abruptly. With torpid brain I wonder, "Is it possible, is it really possible?"

An air of uneasiness, as of lurking danger, fills the prison. Vague rumors are afloat: a wholesale jail delivery had been planned, the walls were to be dynamited, the guards killed. An escape has actually taken place, it is whispered about. The Warden wears a look of bewilderment and fear; the officers are alert with suspicion. The inmates manifest disappointment and nervous impatience. The routine is violently disturbed: the shops are closed, the men locked in the cells.

The discovery of the tunnel mystifies the prison and the city authorities. Some children, at play on the street, had accidentally wandered into the yard of the deserted house opposite the prison gates. The piles of freshly dug soil attracted their attention; a boy, stumbling into the cellar, was frightened by the sight of the deep cavern; his mother notified the agent of the house, who, by a peculiar coincidence, proved to be an officer of the penitentiary. But in vain are the efforts of the prison authorities to discover any sign of the tunnel within the walls. Days pass in the fruitless investigation of the yard-the outlet of the tunnel within the prison cannot be found. Perhaps the underground passage does not extend to the penitentiary? The Warden voices his firm conviction that the walls have not been penetrated. Evidently it was not the prison, he argues, which was the objective point of the diggers. The authorities of the City of Allegheny decide to investigate the passage from the house on Sterling Street. But the men that essay to crawl through the narrow tunnel are forced to abandon their mission, driven back by the fumes of escaping gas. It is suggested that the unknown diggers, whatever their purpose, have been trapped in the abandoned gas well and perished before the arrival of aid. The fearful stench no doubt indicates the decomposition of human bodies; the terrible accident has forced the inmates of 28 Sterling Street to suspend their efforts before completing the work. The condition of the house -- the half-eaten meal on the table, the clothing scattered about the rooms, the general disorder -- all seem to point to precipitate flight.

The persistence of the assertion of a fatal accident disquiets me, in spite of my knowledge to the contrary. Yet, perhaps the reckless Tony, in his endeavor to force the wire signal through the upper crust, perished in the well. The thought unnerves me with horror, till it is announced that a negro, whom the police had induced to crawl the length of the tunnel, brought positive assurance that no life was sacrificed in the underground work. Still the prison authorities are unable to find the objective point, and it is finally decided to tear up the streets beneath which the tunnel winds its mysterious way.

The undermined place inside the walls at last being discovered after a week of digging at various points in the yard, the Warden reluctantly admits the apparent purpose of the tunnel, at the same time informing the press that the evident design was the liberation of the Anarchist prisoner. He corroborates his view by the circumstance that I had been reported for unpermitted presence at the east wall, pretending to collect gravel for my birds. Assistant Deputy Warden Hopkins further asserts having seen and talked with Carl Nold near the "criminal" house, a short time before the discovery of the tunnel. The developments, fraught with danger to my friends, greatly alarm me. Fortunately, no clue can be found in the house, save a note in cipher which apparently defies the skill of experts. The Warden, on his Sunday rounds, passes my cell, then turns as if suddenly recollecting something. "Here, Berkman," he says blandly, producing a paper, "the press is offering a considerable reward to anyone who will decipher the note found in the Sterling Street house. It's reproduced here. See if you can't make it out." I scan the paper carefully, quickly reading Tony's directions for my movements after the escape. Then, returning the paper, I remark indifferently, "I can read several languages, Captain, but this is beyond me."

The police and detective bureaus of the twin cities make the announcement that a thorough investigation conclusively demonstrates that the tunnel was intended for William Boyd, a prisoner serving twelve years for a series of daring forgeries. His "pals" had succeeded in clearing fifty thousand dollars on forged bonds, and it is they who did the wonderful feat underground, to secure the liberty of the valuable penman. The controversy between the authorities of Allegheny and the management of the prison is full of animosity and bitterness. Wardens of prisons, chiefs of police, and detective department of various cities are consulted upon the mystery of the ingenious diggers, and the discussion in the press waxes warm and antagonistic. Presently the chief of police of Allegheny suffers a change of heart, and sides with the Warden, as against his personal enemy, the head of the Pittsburgh detective bureau. The confusion of published views, and my persistent denial of complicity in the tunnel, cause the much-worried Warden to fluctuate. A number of men are made the victims of his mental uncertainty. Following my exile into solitary, Pat McGraw is locked up as a possible beneficiary of the planned escape. In 1890 he had slipped through the roof of the prison, the Warden argues, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the man is meditating another delivery. Jack Robinson, Cronin, "Nan," and a score of others, are in turn suspected by Captain Wright, and ordered locked up during the preliminary investigation. But because of absolute lack of clues the prisoners are presently returned to work, and the number of "suspects" is reduced to myself and Boyd, the Warden having discovered that the latter had recently made an attempt to escape by forcing an entry into the cupola of the shop he was employed in, only to find the place useless for his purpose.

A process of elimination and the espionage of the trusties gradually center exclusive suspicion upon myself. In surprise I learn that young Russell has been cited before the Captain. The fear of indiscretion on the part of the boy startles me from my torpor. I must employ every device to confound the authorities and save my friends. Fortunately none of the tunnelers have yet been arrested, the controversy between the city officials and the prison management having favored inaction. My comrades cannot be jeopardized by Russell. His information is tied to the mere knowledge of the specific person for whom the tunnel was intended; the names of my friends are entirely familiar to him. My heart goes out to the young prisoner, as I reflect that never once had he manifested curiosity concerning the men at the secret work. Desperate with confinement, passionately yearning for liberty though he was, he had yet offered to sacrifice his longings to aid my escape. How transported with joy was the generous youth when I resolved to share my opportunity with him! He had given faithful service in attempting to locate the tunnel entrance; the poor boy had been quite distracted at our failure to find the spot. I feel confident Russell will not betray the secret in his keeping. Yet the persistent questioning by the Warden and Inspectors is perceptibly working on the boy's mind. He is so young and inexperienced-barely nineteen; a slip of the tongue, an inadvertent remark, might convert suspicion into conviction.

Every day Russell is called to the office, causing me torments of apprehension and dread, till a glance at the returning prisoner, smiling encouragingly as he passes my cell, informs me that the danger is past for the day. With a deep pang, I observe the increasing pallor of his face, the growing restlessness in his eyes, the languid step. The continuous inquisition is breaking him down. With quivering voice he whispers as he passes, "Aleck, I'm afraid of them. The Warden has threatened him, he informs me, if he persists in his pretended ignorance of the tunnel. His friendship for me is well known, the Warden reasons; we have often been seen together in the cellhouse and yard; I must surely have confided to Russell my plans of escape. The big, strapping youth is dwindling to a shadow under the terrible strain. Dear, faithful friend! How guilty I feel toward you, how torn in my inmost heart to have suspected your devotion, even for that brief instant when, in a panic of fear, you had denied to the Warden all knowledge of the slip of paper found in your cell. It cast suspicion upon me as the writer of the strange Jewish scrawl. The Warden scorned my explanation that Russell's desire to learn Hebrew was the sole reason for my writing the alphabet for him. The mute denial seemed to point to some secret; the scrawl was similar to the cipher note found in the Sterling Street house, the Warden insisted. How strange that I should have so successfully confounded the Inspectors with the contradictory testimony regarding the tunnel, that they returned me to my position on the range. And yet the insignificant incident of Russell's hieroglyphic imitation of the Hebrew alphabet should have given the Warden a pretext to order me into solitary! How distracted and bitter I must have felt to charge the boy with treachery! His very reticence strengthened my suspicion, and all the while the tears welled into his throat, choking the innocent lad beyond speech. How little I suspected the terrible wound my hasty imputation had caused my devoted friend! In silence he suffered for months, without opportunity to explain, when at last, by mere accident, I learned the fatal mistake.

In vain I strive to direct my thoughts into different channels. My misunderstanding of Russell plagues me with recurring persistence; the unjust accusation torments my sleepless nights. It was a moment of intense joy that I experienced as I humbly begged his pardon to-day, when I met him in the Captain's office. A deep sense of relief, almost of peace, filled me at his unhesitating, "Oh, never mind, Aleck, it's all right; we were both excited." I was overcome by thankfulness and admiration of the noble boy, and the next instant the sight of his wan face, his wasted form, pierced me as with a knifethrust. With the earnest conviction of strong faith I sought to explain to the Board of Inspectors the unfortunate error regarding the Jewish writing. But they smiled doubtfully. It was too late: their opinion of a prearranged agreement with Russell was settled. But the testimony of Assistant Deputy Hopkins that he had seen and conversed with Nold a few weeks before the discovery of the tunnel, and that he saw him enter the "criminal" house, afforded me an opportunity to divide the views among the Inspectors. I experienced little difficulty in convincing two members of the Board that Nold could not possibly have been connected with the tunnel, because for almost a year previously, and since, he had been in the employ of a St. Louis firm. They accepted my offer to prove by the official time-tables of the company that Nold was in St. Louis on the very day that Hopkins claimed to have spoken with him. The fortunate and very natural error of Hopkins in mistaking the similar appearance of Tony for that of Carl, enabled me to discredit the chief link connecting my friends with the tunnel. The diverging views of the police officials of the twin cities still further confounded the Inspectors, and I was gravely informed by them that the charge of attempted escape against me had not been conclusively substantiated. They ordered my reinstatement as rangeman, but the Captain, on learning the verdict, at once charged me before the Board with conducting a secret correspondence with Russell. On the pretext of the alleged Hebrew note, the Inspectors confirmed the Warden's judgment, and I was sentenced to the solitary and immediately locked up in the South Wing.

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