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




THE DISCUSSION WITH the Girl is a source of much mortification. Harassed on every side, persecuted by the authorities, and hounded even into the street, my friend, in her hour of bitterness, confounds my appreciative disagreement with the denunciation of stupidity and inertia. I realize the inadequacy of the written word, and despair at the hopelessness of human understanding, as I vainly seek to elucidate the meaning of the Buffalo tragedy to friendly guards and prisoners. Continued correspondence with the Girl accentuates the divergence of our views, painfully discovering the fundamental difference of attitude underlying even common conclusions.

By degrees the stress of activities reacts upon my friend's correspondence. Our discussion lags, and soon ceases entirely. The world of the outside, temporarily brought closer, again recedes, and the urgency of the immediate absorbs me in the life of the prison.


A spirit of hopefulness breathes in the cell-house. The new commutation law is bringing liberty appreciably nearer. In the shops and yard the men excitedly discuss the increased "good time," and prisoners flit about with paper and pencil, seeking a tutored friend to "figure out" their time of release. Even the solitaries, on the verge of despair, and the long-timers facing a vista of cheerless years, are instilled with new courage and hope.

The tenor of conversation is altered. With the appointment of the new Warden the constant grumbling over the food has ceased. Pleasant surprise is manifest at the welcome change in "the grub." I wonder at the tolerant silence regarding the disappointing Christmas dinner. The men impatiently frown down the occasional "kicker." The Warden is "green," they argue; he did not know that we are supposed to get currant bread for the holidays; he will do better, "jest give 'im a chanc't." The improvement in the daily meals is enlarged upon, and the men thrill with amazed expectancy at the incredible report, "Oysters for New Year's dinner!" With gratification we hear the Major's expression of disgust at the filthy condition of the prison, his condemnation of the basket cell and dungeon as barbarous, and the promise of radical reforms. As an earnest of his régime he has released from solitary the men whom Warden Wright had punished for having served as witnesses in the defense of Murphy and Mongo. Greedy for the large reward, Hopkins and his stools had accused the two men of a mysterious murder committed in Elk City several years previously. The criminal trial, involving the suicide of an officer whom the Warden had forced to testify against the defendants, resulted in the acquittal of the prisoners, whereupon Captain Wright ordered the convict-witnesses for the defense to be punished.

The new Warden, himself a physician, introduces hygienic rules, abolishes the "holy-stoning"2 of the cell-house floor because of the detrimental effect of the dust, and decides to separate the consumptive and syphilitic prisoners from the comparatively healthy ones. Upon examination, 40 per cent of the population are discovered in various stages of tuberculosis, and 20 per cent insane. The death rate from consumption is found to range between 25 and 60 per cent. At light tasks in the block and the yard the Major finds employment for the sickly inmates; special gangs are assigned to keeping the prison clean, the rest of the men at work in the shop. With the exception of a number of dangerously insane, who are to be committed to an asylum, every prisoner in the institution is at work, and the vexed problem of idleness resulting from the anti-convict labor law is thus solved.

The change of diet, better hygiene, and the abolition of the dungeon, produce a noticeable improvement in the life of the prison. The gloom of the cell-house perceptibly lifts, and presently the men are surprised at music hour, between six and seven in the evening, with the strains of merry ragtime by the newly organized penitentiary band.


New faces greet me on the range, but many old friends are missing. Billy Ryan is dead of consumption; "Frenchy" and Ben have become insane; Little Mat, the Duquesne striker, committed suicide. In sad remembrance I think of them, grown close and dear in the years of mutual suffering. Some of the old-timers have survived, but broken in spirit and health. "Praying" Andy is still in the block, his mind clouded, his lips constantly moving in prayer. "Me innocent," the old man reiterates, "God him know." Last month the Board has again refused to pardon the lifetimer, and now he is bereft of hope. "Me have no more money. My children they save and save, and bring me for pardon, and now no more money." Aleck Killain has also been refused by the Board at the same session. He is the oldest man in the prison, in point of service, and the most popular lifer. His innocence of murder is one of the traditions of Riverside. In the boat he had rented to a party of picnickers, a woman was found dead. No clue could be discovered, and Aleck was sentenced to life, because he could not be forced to divulge the names of the men who had hired his boat. He pauses to tell me the sad news; the authorities have opposed his pardon, demanding that he furnish the information desired by them. He looks sere with confinement, his eyes full of a mute sadness that can find no words. His face is deeply seamed, his features grave, almost immobile. In the long years of our friendship I have never seen Aleck laugh. Once or twice he smiled, and his whole being seemed radiant with rare sweetness. He speaks abruptly, with a perceptible effort.

"Yes, Aleck," he is saying, "it's true. They refused me."

"But they pardoned Mac," I retort hotly. "He confessed to a cold-blooded murder, and he's only been in four years"

"Good luck," he remarks. "How, good luck?"

"Mac's father accidentally struck oil on his farm."

"Well, what of it?"

"Three hundred barrels a day. Rich. Got his son a pardon."

"But on what ground did they dismiss your application? They know you are innocent."

"District Attorney came to me. 'You're innocent, we know. Tell us who did the murder.' I had nothing to tell. Pardon refused."

"ls there any hope later on, Aleck?"

"When the present administration are all dead, perhaps."

Slowly he passes on, at the approach of a guard. He walks weakly, with halting step.

"Old Sammy" is back again; his limp heavier, shoulders bent lower. "I'm here again, friend Aleck," he smiles apologetically. "What could I do? The old woman died, an' my boys went off somewhere. The farm was sold that I was borned in," his voice trembles with emotion. "I couldn't find th' boys, an' no one wanted me, an' wouldn't give me any work. 'Go to th' pogy, they told me. I couldn't, Aleck. I've worked all me life; I don't want no charity. I made a bluff," he smiles between tears, "Broke into a store, and here I am."

With surprise I recognize "Tough" Monk among the first-grade men. For years he had been kept in stripes, and constantly punished for bad work in the hosiery department. He was called the laziest man in the prison: not once in five years had he accomplished his task. But the new Warden transferred him to the construction shop, where Monk was employed at his trade of blacksmith. "I hated that damn sock makin'," he tells me. "I've struck it right now, an' the Major says I'm the best worker in th' shop. Wouldn't believe it, eh, would you? Major promised me a ten-spot for the fancy iron work I did for them 'lectric posts in the yard. Says it's artistic, see? That's me all right; it's work I like. I won't lose any time, either. Warden says Old Sandy was a fool for makin' me knit socks with them big paws of mine. Th' Major is aw' right."

With a glow of pleasure I meet "Smiling" Al, my colored friend from the jail. The good-nautred boy looks old and infirm. His kindness has involved him in much trouble; he has been repeatedly punished for shouldering the faults of others, and know the Inspectors have informed him that he is to lose the greater part of his commutation time. He has grown wan with worry over the uncertainty of release. Every morning is tense with expectation. "Might be Ah goes to-day, Aleck," he hopefully smiles as I pause at his cell. But the weeks pass. The suspense is torturing the young negro, and he is visibly failing day by day.

A familiar voice greets me. "Hello, Berk, ain't you glad 't see an old pal?" Big Dave beams on me with his cheerful smile.

"No, Davy. I hoped you wouldn't come back."

He becomes very grave. "Yes, I swore I'd swing sooner than come back. Didn't get a chance't. You see," He explains, his tone full of bitterness, "I goes t' work and gets a job, good job, too; an' I keeps 'way from th' booze an' me pals. But th' damn bulls was after me. Got me sacked from me job three time an' den I knocked one of 'em on th' head. Damn his soul to hell, wish I'd killed 'im. 'Old offender,' they says to the jedge, and he soaks me for a seven spot. I was a sucker all right for tryin' t' be straight."


In the large cage at the center of the block, the men employed about the cell-house congregate in their idle moments. The shadows steal silently in and out of the inclosure, watchful of the approach of a guard. Within sounds the hum of subdued conversation, the men lounging about the sawdust barrel, absorbed in "Snakes" Wilson's recital of his protracted struggle with "Old Sandy." He relates vividly his persistent waking at night, violent stamping on the floor, cries of "Murder! I see snakes!" With admiring glances the young prisoners hang upon the lips of the old criminal, whose perseverance in shamming finally forced the former Warden to assign "Snakes" a special room in the hospital, where his snake-seeing propensities would become dormant, to suffer again violent awakening the moment he would be transferred to a cell. For ten years the struggle continued, involving numerous clubbings, the dungeon, and the strait-jacket, till the Warden yielded, and "Snakes" was permanently established in the comparative freedom of the special room.

Little groups stand about the cage, boisterous with the wit of the "Four-eyed Yegg," who styles himself "Bill Nye," or excitedly discussing the intricacies of the commutation law, the chances of Pittsburgh winning the baseball pennant the following season, and next Sunday's dinner. With much animation, the rumored resignation of the Deputy Warden is discussed. The Major is gradually weeding out the "old gang," it is gossiped. A colonel of the militia is to secure the position of assistant to the Warden. This source of conversation is inexhaustible in every detail of local life serving for endless discussion and heated debate. But at the 'lookout's' whispered warning of an approaching, guard, the circle breaks up, each man pretending to be busy dusting and cleaning. Officer Mitchell passes by; with short legs wide apart, he stands surveying the assembled idlers from beneath his fierce-looking eyebrows.

"Quiet as me grandmother at church, ain't ye? All of a sudden, too. And mighty busy, every damn one of you. You 'Snakes' there, what business you got here, eh?"

"I've jest come in fer a broom."

"You old reprobate, you, I saw you sneak in there an hour ago, and you've been chawin' the rag to beat the band. Think this a barroom, do you? Get to your cells, all of you."

He trudges slowly away, mumbling: "You loafers, when I catch you here again, don't you dare talk so loud."

One by one the men steal back into the cage, jokingly teasing each other upon their happy escape. Presently several rangemen join the group. Conversation becomes animated; voices are raised in dispute. But anger subsides, and a hush falls upon the men, as Blind Charley gropes his way along the wall. Bill Nye reaches for his hand, and leads him to a seat on the barrel. "Feelin' better to-day, Charley?" he asks gently.

"Ye-es, I -- think a little -- better," the blind man says in an uncertain, hesitating manner. His face wears a bewildered expression, as if he has not yet become resigned to his great misfortune. It happened only a few months ago. In company with two friends, considerably the worse for liquor, he was passing a house on the outskirts of Allegheny. It was growing dark, and they wanted a drink. Charley knocked at the door. A head appeared at an upper window. "Robbers!" some one suddenly cried. There was a flash. With a cry of pain, Charley caught at his eyes. He staggered, then turned round and round, helpless, in a daze. He couldn't see his companions, the house and the street disappeared, and all was utter darkness. The ground seemed to give beneath his feet, and Charley fell down upon his face, moaning and calling to his friends. But they had fled in terror, and he was alone in the darkness, -- alone and blind.

"I'm glad you feel better, Charley," Bill Nye says kindly. "How are your eyes?"

"I think -- a bit -- better."

The gunshot had severed the optic nerves in both eyes. His sight is destroyed forever; but with the incomplete realization of sudden calamity, Charley believes his eyesight only temporarily injured.

"Billy," he says presently, "when I woke this morning it -- didn't seem so -- dark. It was like -- a film over my eyes. Perhaps - - it may -- get better yet," his voice quiver expectancy of having his hope confirmed.

"Ah, whatcher kiddin' yourself for," "Snakes" interposes.

"Shut up, you big stiff," Bill flares up, grabbing "Snakes" by the throat. "Charley," he adds, "I once got paralyzed in my left eye. It looked just like yours now, and I felt as if there was a film on it. Do you see things like in a fog, Charley?"

"Yes, yes, just like that."

"Well, that's the way it was with me. But little by little things got to be lighter, and now the eye is as good as ever."

"Is that right, Billy?" Charley inquires anxiously. "What did you do?"

"Well, the doc put things in my eye. The croaker here giving you some applications, ain't he?"

"Yes; but he says it's for the inflammation."

"That's right. That's what the doctors told me. You just take it easy, Charley; don't worry. You'll come out all right, see if you don't."

Bill reddens guiltily at the unintended expression, but quickly holds up a warning finger to silence the giggling "Snowball Kid." Then, with sudden vehemence, he exclaims: "By God, Charley, if I ever meet that Judge of yours on a dark night, I'll choke him with these here hands, so help me! It's a damn shame to send you here in this condition. You should have gone to a hospital, that's what I say. But cheer up, old boy, you won't have to serve your three years; you can bet on that. We'll all club together to get your case up for a pardon, won't we, boys?"

With unwonted energy the old yegg makes the rounds of the cage, taking pledges of contributions. "Doctor George" appears around the corner, industriously polishing the brasswork, and Bill appeals to him to corroborate his diagnosis of the blind man's condition. A smile of timid joy suffuses the sightless face, as Bill Nye slaps him on the shoulder, crying jovially, "What did I tell you, eh? You'll be O.K. soon, and meantime keep your mind busy how to avenge the injustice done you," and with a violent wink in the direction of "Snakes," the yegg launches upon a reminiscence of his youth. As far as he can remember, he relates, the spirit of vengeance was strong within him. He has always religiously revenged any wrong he was made to suffer, but the incident that afforded him the greatest joy was an experience of his boyhood. He was fifteen then, and living with his widowed mother and three elder sisters in a small country place. One evening, as the family gathered in the large sitting-room, his sister Mary said something which deeply offended him. In great rage he left the house. Just as he was crossing the street, he was met by a tall, well-dressed gentleman, evidently a stranger in the town. The man guardedly inquired whether the boy could direct him to some address where one might pass the evening pleasantly. "Quick as a flash a brilliant idea struck me," Bill narrates, warming to his story. "Never short of them, anyhow," he remarks parenthetically, "but here was my revenge!" 'You mean a whore-house, don't you?' I ask the fellow. Yes, that's what was wanted, my man says. 'Why,' says I to him, kind of suddenly, 'see the house there right across the street? That's the place you want and I point out to him the house where the old lady and my three sisters are all sitting around the table, expectant-like -- waiting for me, you know. Well, the man gives me a quarter, and up he goes, knocks on the door, and steps right in. I hide in a dark corner to see what's coming, you know, and sure enough, presently the door opens with a bang and something comes out with a rush, and falls on the veranda, and mother she's got a broom in her hand, and the girls, every blessed one of them, out with flatiron and dustpan, and biff, baff, they rain it upon that thing on the steps. I thought I'd split my sides laughing. By an' by I return to the house, and mother and sisters are kind of excited, and I says, innocent-like, 'What's up, girls?' Well you ought to hear 'em! Talk, did they? 'That beast of a man the dirty thing that came to the house and insulted us with --' they couldn't even mention the awful things he said; and Mary -- that's the sis I got mad at -- she cries, 'Oh, Billie, you': " so big and strong, I wish you was here when that nasty old thing came up.'"

The boys are hilarious over the story, and "Doctor George" motions me aside to talk over" old times." With a hearty pressure I greet my friend, whom I had not seen since the days of the first investigation. Suspected of complicity, he had been removed to the shops, and only recently returned to his former position in the block. His beautiful thick hair has grown thin and gray; he looks aged and worn. With sadness I notice his tone of bitterness. "They almost killed me, Aleck!" he says; "if it wasn't for my wife, I'd murder that old Warden." Throughout his long confinement, his wife had faithfully stood by him, her unfailing courage and devotion sustaining him in the hours of darkness and despair. "The dear girl," he muses, "I'd be dead if it wasn't for her." But his release is approaching. He has almost served the sentence of sixteen years for alleged complicity in the bank robbery at Leechburg, during which the cashier was killed. The other two men convicted of the crime have both died in prison. The Doctor alone has survived, "thanks to the dear girl," he repeats. But the six months at the workhouse fill him with apprehension. He has been informed that the place is a veritable inferno, even worse than the penitentiary. However, his wife is faithfully at work, trying to have the workhouse sentence suspended, and full liberty may be at hand.

2The process of whitening stone floors by pulverizing sand into their surfaces.

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