anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.



MY NEW NEIGHBOR turns my thoughts into a different channel. It is "Fighting" Tom, returned after several years of absence. By means of a string attached to a wire we "swing" notes to each other at night, and Tom startles me by the confession that he was the author of the mysterious note I had received soon after my arrival in the penitentiary. An escape was being planned, he informs me, and I was to be "let in," by his recommendation. But one of the conspirators getting "cold feet," the plot was betrayed to the Warden, whereupon Tom "sent the snitch to the hospital." As a result, however, he was kept in solitary till his release. In the prison he had become proficient as a broommaker, and it was his intention to follow the trade. There was nothing in the crooked line, he thought; and he resolved to be honest. But on the day of his discharge he was arrested at the gate by officers from Illinois on an old charge. He swore vengeance against Assistant Deputy Hopkins, before whom he had once accidentally let drop the remark that he would never return to Illinois, because he was "wanted" there. He lived the five years in the Joliet prison in the sole hope of "getting square" with the man who had so meanly betrayed him. Upon his release, he returned to Pittsburgh, determined to kill Hopkins. On the night of his arrival he broke into the latter's residence, prepared to avenge his wrongs. But the Assistant Deputy had left the previous day on his vacation. Furious at being baffled, Tom was about to set fire to the house, when the light of his match fell upon a silver trinket on the bureau of the bedroom. It fascinated him. He could not take his eyes off it. Suddenly he was seized with the desire to examine the contents of the house. The old passion was upon him. He could not resist. Hardly conscious of his actions, he gathered the silverware into a tablecloth, and quietly stole out of the house. He was arrested the next day, as he was trying to pawn his booty. An old offender, he received a sentence of ten years. Since his arrival, eight months ago, he has been kept in solitary. His health is broken; he has no hope of surviving his sentence. But if he is to die -- he swears -- he is going to take "his man" along.

Aware of the determination of "Fighting" Tom, I realize that the safety of the hated officer is conditioned by Tom's lack of opportunity to carry out his revenge. I feel little sympathy for Hopkins, whose craftiness in worming out the secrets of prisoners has placed him on the pay-roll of the Pinkerton agency; but I exert myself to persuade Tom that it would be sheer insanity thus deliberately to put his head in the noose. He is still a young man; barely thirty. It is not worth while sacrificing his life for a sneak of a guard.

However, Tom remains stubborn. My arguments seem merely to rouse his resistance, and strengthen his resolution. But closer acquaintance reveals to me his exceeding conceit over his art and technique, as a second-story expert. I play upon his vanity, scoffing at the crudity of his plans of revenge. Would it not be more in conformity with his reputation as a skilled "gun," I argue, to "do the job" in a "smoother" manner? Tom assumes a skeptical attitude, but by degrees grows more interested. Presently, with unexpected enthusiasm, he warms to the suggestion of "a break" Once outside, well -- "I'll get 'im all right," he chuckles.


The plan of escape completely absorbs us. On alternate nights we take turns in timing the rounds of the guards, the appearance of the Night Captain, the opening of the rotunda door. Numerous details, seemingly insignificant, yet potentially fatal, are to be mastered. Many obstacles bar the way of success, but time and perseverance will surmount them. Tom is thoroughly engrossed with the project. I realize the desperation of the undertaking, but the sale alternative is slow death in the solitary. It is the last resort.

With utmost care we make our preparations. The summer is long past; the dense fogs of the season will aid our escape. We hasten to complete all details, in great nervous tension with the excitement of the work. The time is drawing near for deciding upon a definite date. But Tom's state of mind fills me with apprehension. He has become taciturn of late. Yesterday he seemed peculiarly glum, sullenly refusing to answer my signal. Again and again I knock on the wall, calling for a reply to my last note. Tom remains silent. Occasionally a heavy groan issues from his cell, but my repeated signals remain unanswered. In alarm I stay awake all night, in the hope of inducing a guard to investigate the cause of the groan but my attempts to speak to the officers are ignored. The next morning I behold Tom carried on a stretcher from his cell, and learn with horror that he had bled to death during the night.


The peculiar death of my friend preys on my mind. Was it suicide or accident? Tom had been weakened by long confinement; in some manner he may have ruptured a blood vessel, dying for lack of medical aid. It is hardly probable that he would commit suicide on the eve of our attempt. Yet certain references in his notes of late, ignored at the time, assume new significance. He was apparently under the delusion that Hopkins was "after him." Once or twice my friend had expressed fear for his safety. He might be poisoned, he hinted. I had laughed the matter away, familiar with the sporadic delusions of men in solitary. Close confinement exerts a similar effect upon the majority of prisoners. Some are especially predisposed to auto-suggestion; Young Sid used to manifest every symptom of the diseases he read about. Perhaps poor Tom's delusion was responsible for his death. Spencer, too, had committed suicide a month before his release, in the firm conviction that the Warden would not permit his discharge. It may be that in a sudden fit of despondency, Tom had ended his life. Perhaps I could have saved my friend: I did not realize how constantly he brooded over the danger he believed himself threatened with. How little I knew of the terrible struggle that must have been going on in his tortured heart! Yet we were so intimate; I believed I understood his every feeling and emotion.

The thought of Tom possesses my mind. The news from the Girl about Bresci's execution of the King of Italy rouses little, interest in me. Bresci avenged the peasants and the women and children shot before the palace for humbly begging bread. He did well, and the agitation resulting from his act may advance the Cause. But it will have no bearing on my fate. The last hope of escape has departed with my poor friend. I am doomed to perish here. And Bresci will perish in prison, but the comrades will eulogize him and his act, and continue their efforts to regenerate the world. Yet I feel that the individual, in certain cases, is of more direct and immediate consequence than humanity. What is the latter but the aggregate of individual existences-and shall these, the best of them, forever be sacrificed for the metaphysical collectivity? Here, all around me, a thousand unfortunates daily suffer the torture of Calvary, forsaken by God and man. They bleed and struggle and suicide, with the desperate cry for a little sunshine and life. How shall they be helped? How helped amid the injustice and brutality of a society whose chief monuments are prisons? And so we must suffer and suicide, and countless others after us, till the play of social forces shall transform human history into the history of true humanity,-and meanwhile am bones will bleach on the long, dreary road.

Bereft of the last hope of freedom, I grow indifferent to life. The monotony of the narrow cell daily becomes more loathsome. My whole being longs for rest. Rest, no more to awaken. The world will not miss me. An atom of matter, I shall return to endless space. Everything will pursue its wonted course, but I shall know no more of the bitter struggle and strife. My friends will sorrow, and yet be glad my pain is over, and continue on their way. And new Brescis will arise, and more kings will fall, and then all, friend and enemy, will go my way, and new generations will be born and die, and humanity and the world be whirled into space and disappear, and again the little stage will be set, and the same history and the same facts will come and go, the Playthings of cosmic forces renewing and transforming forever.

How insignificant it all is in the eye of reason, how small and puny life and all its pain and travail!... With eyes closed, I behold myself suspended by the neck from the upper bars of the cell. My body swings gently against the door, striking it softly, once, twice, -- just like Pasquale, when he hanged himself in the cell next to mine, some months ago. A few twitches, and the last breath is gone. My face grows livid, my body rigid; slowly it cools. The night guard passes. "What's this, eh?" He rings the rotunda bell. Keys clang; the lever is drawn, and my door unlocked. An officer draws a knife sharply across the rope at the bars: my body sinks to the floor, my head striking against the iron bedstead. The doctor kneels at my side; I feel his hand over my heart. Now he rises. "Good job, Doc?" I recognize the Deputy's voice. The physician nods. "Damn glad of it," Hopkins sneers. The Warden enters, a grin on his parchment face. With an oath I spring to my feet. In terror the officers rush from the cell. "Ah, I fooled you, didn't I, you murderers!"

The thought of the enemy's triumph fans the embers of life. It engenders definace, and strengthens stubborn resistance.

This page has been accessed times since November 29, 2006.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]