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



IN MY UTTER isolation, the world outside appears like a faint memory, unreal and dim. The deprivation of newspapers has entirely severed me from the living. Letters from my comrades have become rare and irregular; they sound strangely cold and impersonal. The life of the prison is also receding; no communication reaches me from my friends. "Pious!' John, the rangeman, is unsympathetic; he still bears me ill will from the days of the jail. Only young Russell still remembers me. I tremble for the reckless boy as I hear his low cough, apprising me of the "stiff" he unerringly shoots between the bars, while the double file of prisoners marches past my door. He looks pale and haggard, the old buoyant step now languid and heavy. A tone of apprehension pervades his notes. He is constantly harassed by the officers, he writes; his task has been increased; he is nervous and weak, and his health is declining. In the broken sentences, I sense some vague misgiving, as of impending calamity.

With intense thankfulness I think of Russell. Again I live through the hopes and fears that drew us into closer friendship, the days of terrible anxiety incident to the tunnel project. My heart goes out to the faithful boy, whose loyalty and discretion have so much aided the safety of my comrades. A strange longing for his companionship possesses me. In the gnawing loneliness, his face floats before me, casting the spell of a friendly presence, his strong features softened by sorrow, his eyes grown large with the same sweet sadness of "Little Felipe." A peculiar tenderness steals into my thoughts of the boy; I look forward eagerly to his notes. Impatiently I scan the faces in the passing line, wistful for the sight of the youth, and my heart beats faster at his fleeting smile.

How sorrowful he looks! Now he is gone. The hours are weary with silence and solitude. Listlessly I turn the pages of my library book. If only I had the birds! I should find solace in their thoughtful eyes: Dick and Sis would understand and feel with me. But my poor little friends have disappeared only Russell remains. My only friend! I shall not see him when he returns to the cell at noon: the line passes on the opposite side of the hall. But in the afternoon, when the men are again unlocked for work, I shall look into his eyes for a happy moment, and perhaps the dear boy will have a message for me. He is so tender-hearted: his correspondence is full of sympathy and encouragement, and he strives to cheer me with the good news: another day is gone, his sentence is nearing its end; he will at once secure a position, and save every penny to aid in my release. Tacitly I concur in his ardent hope; -- it would break his heart to be disillusioned.


The passing weeks and months bring no break in the dreary monotony. The call of the robin on the river bank rouses no echo in my heart. No sign of awakening spring brightens the constant semi-darkness of the solitary. The dampness of the cell is piercing my bones; every movement racks my body with pain. My eyes are tortured with the eternal white of the walls. Somber shadows brood around me.

I long for a bit of sunshine. I wait patiently at the door: perhaps it is clear to-day. My cell faces west; may be the setting sun will steal a glance upon me. For hours I stand with naked breast close to the bars; I must not miss a friendly ray it may suddenly peep into the cell, and turn away from me, unseen in the gloom. Now a bright beam plays on my neck and shoulders, and I press closer to the door to welcome the dear stranger. He caresses me with soft touch, -- perhaps it is the soul of little Dick pouring out his tender greeting in this song of light, -- or may be the astral aura of my beloved Uncle Maxim; bringing warmth and hope. Sweet conceit of Oriental thought, barren of joy in life. . . . The sun is fading. It feels chilly in the twilight, and now the solitary is once more bleak and cold.

As his release approaches, the tone of native confidence becomes more assertive in Russell's letter. The boy is jubilant and full of vitality: within three months he will breathe the air of freedom. A note of sadness at leaving me behind permeates his communications, but he is enthusiastic over his project of aiding me to liberty.

Eagerly every day I anticipate his mute greeting, as he passes in the line. This morning I saw him hold up two fingers, the third crooked, in sign of the remaining "two and a stump." A joyous light is in his eyes, his step firmer, more elastic.

But in the afternoon he is missing from the line. With sudden apprehension I wonder at his absence. Could I have overlooked him in the closely walking ranks? It is barely possible. Perhaps he has remained in the cell, not feeling well. It may be nothing serious; he will surely be in line to-morrow.

For three days, every morning and afternoon, I anxiously scrutinize the faces of the passing men; but Russell is not among them. His absence torments me with a thousand fears. May be the Warden has renewed his inquisition of the boy -- perhaps he got into a fight in the shop -- in the dungeon now -- he'll lose his commutation time. . . Unable to bear the suspense, I am about to appeal to the Chaplain, when a friendly runner surreptitiously hands me a note.

With difficulty I recognize my friend's bold handwriting in the uneven, nervous scrawl. Russell is in the hospital! At work in the shop, he writes, he had suffered a chill. The doctor committed him to the ward for observation, but the officers and the convict nurses accuse him of shamming to evade work. They threaten to have him returned to the shop, and he implores me to have the Chaplain intercede for him. He feels weak and feverish, and the thought of being left alone in the cell in his present condition fills him with horror.

I send an urgent request to see the Chaplain. But the guard informs me that Mr. Milligan is absent; he is not expected at the office till the following week. I prevail upon the kindly Mitchell; recently transferred to the South Block, to deliver a note to the Warden, in which I appeal on behalf of Russell. But several days pass, and still no reply from Captain Wright. Finally I pretend severe pains in the bowels, to afford Frank, the doctor's assistant, an opportunity to pause at my cell. As the "medicine boy" pours the prescribed pint of "horse salts" through the funnel inserted between the bars, I hastily inquire:

"Is Russell still in the ward, Frank? How is he?"

"What Russell?" he asks indifferently.

"Russell Schroyer, put four days ago under observation."

"Oh, that poor kid! Why, he is paralyzed."

For an instant I am speechless with terror. No, it cannot be. Some mistake. "Frank, I mean young Schroyer, from the construction shop. He's Number 2608."

"Your friend Russell; I know who you mean. I'm sorry for the boy. He is paralyzed, all right."

"But. . . No, it can't be! Why, Frank, it was just a chill and a little weakness."

"Look here, Aleck. I know you're square, and you can keep a secret all right. I'll tell you something if you won't give me away."

"Yes, yes, Frank. What is it?"

"Sh-sh. You know Flem, the night nurse? Doing a five spot for murder. His father and the Warden are old cronies. That's how he got to be nurse; don't know a damn thing about it, an' careless as hell. Always makes mistakes. Well, Doc ordered an injection for Russell. Now don't ever say I told you. Flem got the wrong bottle; gave the poor boy some acid in the injection. Paralyzed the kid; he did, the damn murderer."

I pass the night in anguish, clutching desperately at the faint hope that it cannot be -- some mistake -- perhaps Frank has exaggerated. But in the morning the "medicine boy" confirms my worst fears: the doctor has said the boy will die. Russell does not realize the situation: there is something wrong with his legs, the poor boy writes; he is unable to move them and suffers great pain. It can't be fever, he thinks; but the physician will not tell him what is the matter. . . .

The kindly Frank is sympathetic; every day he passes notes between us, and I try to encourage Russell. He will improve, I assure him; his time is short, and fresh air and liberty will soon restore him. My words seem to soothe my friend, and he grows more cheerful, when unexpectedly he learns the truth from the wrangling nurses. His notes grow piteous with misery. Tears fill my eyes as I read his despairing cry, "Oh, Aleck, I am so young. I don't want to die." He implores me to visit him; if I could only come to nurse him, he is sure he would improve. He distrusts the convict attendants who harry and banter the country lad; their heartless abuse is irritating the sick boy beyond patience. Exasperated by the taunts of the night nurse, Russell yesterday threw a saucer at him. He was reported to the doctor, who threatened to send the paralyzed youth to the dungeon. Plagued and tormented, in great suffering, Russell grows bitter and complaining. The nurses and officers are persecuting him, he writes; they will soon do him to death, if I will not come to his rescue. If he could go to an outside hospital, he is sure to recover.

Every evening Frank brings sadder news: Russell is feeling worse; he is so nervous, the doctor has ordered the nurses to wear slippers; the doors in the ward have been lined with cotton, to deaden the noise of slamming; but even the sight of a moving figure throws Russell into convulsions. There is no hope, Frank reports; decomposition has already set in. The boy is in terrible agony; he is constantly crying with pain, and calling for me.

Distraught with anxiety and yearning to see my sick friend, I resolve upon a way to visit the hospital. In the morning, as the guard hands me the bread ration and shuts my cell, I slip my hand between the sill and door. With an involuntary cry I withdraw my maimed and bleeding fingers. The overseer conducts me to the dispensary. By tacit permission of the friendly "medicine boy" I pass to the second floor, where the wards are located, and quickly steal to Russell's bedside. The look of mute joy on the agonized face subdues the excruciating pain in my hand. "Oh, dear Aleck," he whispers, "I'm so glad they let you come. I'll get well if you'll nurse me." The shadow of death is in his eyes; the body exudes decomposition. Bereft of speech, I gently press his white, emaciated hand. The weary eyes close, and the boy falls into slumber. Silently I touch his dry lips, and steal away.

In the afternoon I appeal to the warden to permit me to nurse my friend. It is the boy's dying wish; it will ease his last hours. The Captain refers me to the Inspectors, but Mr. Reed informs me that it would be subversive of discipline to grant my request. Thereupon I ask permission to arrange a collection among the prisoners: Russell firmly believes that he would improve in an outside hospital, and the Pardon Board might grant the petition. Friendless prisoners are often allowed to circulate subscription lists among the inmates, and two years previously I had collected a hundred and twenty-three dollars for the pardon of a lifetimer. But the Warden curtly refuses my plea, remarking that it is dangerous to permit me to associate with the men. I suggest the Chaplain for the mission, or some prisoner selected by the authorities. But this offer is also vetoed, the Warden berating me for having taken advantage of my presence in the dispensary to see Russell clandestinely, and threatening to punish me with the dungeon. I plead with him for permission to visit the sick boy who is hungry for a friendly presence, and constantly calling for me. Apparently touched by my emotion, the Captain yields. He will permit me to visit Russell, he informs me, on condition that a guard be present at the meeting. For a moment I hesitate. The desire to see my friend struggles against the fear of irritating him by the sight of the hated uniform; but I cannot expose the dying youth to this indignity and pain. Angered by my refusal, perhaps disappointed in the hope of learning the secret of the tunnel from the visit, the Warden forbids me hereafter to enter the hospital

Late at night Frank appears at my cell. He looks very grave, as he whispers:

"Aleck, you must bear up."


"Yes, Aleck."

"Worse? Tell me, Frank."

"He is dead. Bear up, Aleck. His last thought was of you. He was unconscious all afternoon, but just before the end -- it was 9:33 -- he sat up in bed so suddenly, he frightened me. His arm shot out, and he cried, 'Good bye, Aleck.' "

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