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



Castle On The Ohio,
AUG. 18, 1902.

My Dear Carolus:

You know the saying, "Der eine hat den Beutel, der andere das Geld." I find it a difficult problem to keep in touch with my correspondents. I have the leisure, but theirs is the advantage of the paper supply. Thus runs the world. But you, a most faithful correspondent, have been neglected a long while. Therefore this unexpected sub rosa chance is for you.

My dear boy, whatever your experiences since you left me, don't fashion your philosophy in the image of disappointment. All life is a multiplied pain; its highest expressions, love and friendship, are sources of the most heart-breaking sorrow. That has been my experience; no doubt yours also. And you are aware that here under prison conditions, the disappointments, the grief, anguish, are so much more acute, more bitter and lasting. What then? Shall one seal his emotions, or barricade his heart? All, if it were possible, it would be wiser, some claim. But remember, dear Carl, mere wisdom is a barren life.

I think it a natural reaction against your prison existence that you feel the need of self-indulgence. But it is a temporary phase, I hope. You want to live and enjoy, you say. But surely you are mistaken to believe that the time is past when we cheerfully sacrificed all to the needs of the cause. The first flush of emotional enthusiasm may have paled, but in its place there is the deeper and more lasting conviction that permeates one's whole being. There come moments when one asks himself the justification of his existence, the meaning of his life. No torment is more excruciating and overwhelming than the failure to find an answer. You will discover it neither in physical indulgence nor in coldly intellectual pleasure. Something more substantial is needed. In this regard, life outside does not differ so very much from prison existence. The narrower your horizon -- the more absorbed you are in your immediate environment, and dependent upon it -- the sooner you decay, morally and mentally. You can, in a measure, escape the sordidness of life only by living for something higher.

Perhaps that is the secret of my survival. Wider interests have given me strength. And other phases there are. From your own experience you know what sustaining satisfaction is found in prison in the constant fight for the feeling of human dignity, because of the constant attempt to strangle your sense of self-respect. I have seen prisoners offer most desperate resistance in defense of their manhood. On my part it has been a continuous struggle. Do you remember the last time I was in the dungeon? It was on the occasion of Comrade Kropotkin's presence in this country, during his last lecture tour. The old Warden was here then; he informed me that I would not he permitted to see our Grand Old Man. I had a tilt with him, but I did not succeed in procuring a visiting card. A few days later I received a letter from Peter. On the envelope, under my name, was marked, "Political prisoner." The Warden was furious. "We have no political prisoners in a free country," he thundered, tearing up the envelope. "But you have political grafters," I retorted. We argued the matter heatedly, and I demanded the envelope. The Warden insisted that I apologize. Of course I refused, and I had to spend three days in the dungeon.

There have been many changes since then. Your coming to Pittsburgh last year, and the threat to expose this place (they knew you had the facts) helped to bring matters to a point. They assigned me to a range, and I am still holding the position. The new Warden is treating me more decently. He "wants no trouble with me,"- he told me. But he has proved a great disappointment. He started in with promising reforms, but gradually he has fallen into the old ways. In some respects his régime is even worse than the previous one. He has introduced a system of "economy" which barely affords us sufficient food. The dungeon and basket, which he had at first abolished, are in operation again, and the discipline is daily becoming more drastic. The result is more brutality and clubbings, more fights and cutting affairs, and general discontent. The new management cannot plead ignorance, for the last 4th of July the men gave a demonstration of the effects of humane treatment. The Warden had assembled the inmates in the chapel, promising to let them pass the day in the yard, on condition of good behavior. The Inspectors and the old guards advised against it, arguing the "great risk" of such a proceeding. But the Major decided to try the experiment. He put the men on their honor, and turned them loose in the yard. He was not disappointed; the day passed beautifully, without the least mishap; there was not even a single report. We began to breathe easier, when presently the whole system was reversed. It was partly due to the influence of the old officers upon the Warden; and the latter completely lost his head when a trusty made his escape from the hospital. It seems to have terrorized the Warden into abandoning all reforms. He has also been censured by the Inspectors because of the reduced profits from the industries. Now the tasks have been increased, and even the sick and consumptives are forced to work. The labor bodies of the State have been protesting in vain. How miserably weak is the Giant of Toil, because unconscious of his strength!

The men are groaning, and wishing Old Sandy back. In short, things are just as they were during your time. Men and Wardens may come and go, but the system prevails. More and more I am persuaded of the great truth: given authority and the opportunity for exploitation, the results will be essentially the same, no matter what particular set of men, or of "principles," happens to be in the saddle.

Fortunately I am on the "home run." I'm glad you felt that the failure of my application to the Superior Court would not depress me. I built no castles upon it. Yet I am glad it has been tried. It was well to demonstrate once more that neither lower courts, pardon boards, nor higher tribunals, are interested in doing justice. My lawyers had such a strong case, from the legal standpoint, that the State Pardon Board resorted to every possible trick to avoid the presentation of it. And now the Superior Court thought it the better part of wisdom to ignore the argument that I am being illegally detained. They simply refused the application, with a few meaningless phrases that entirely evade the question at issue.

Well, to hell with them. I have "2 an' a stump" (stump, 11 months) and I feel the courage of perseverance. But I hope that the next legislature will not repeal the new commutation law. There is considerable talk of it, for the politicians are angry that their efforts in behalf of the wealthy U.S. grafters in the Eastern Penitentiary failed. They begrudge the "common" prisoner the increased allowance of good time. However, I shall "make" it. Of course, you understand that both French leave and Dutch act are out of the question now. I have decided to stay -- till I can walk through the gates.

In reference to French leave, have you read about the Biddle affair? I think it was the most remarkable attempt in the history of the country. Think of the wife of the Jail Warden helping prisoners to escape! The boys here were simply wild with joy. Everyone hoped they would make good their escape, and old Sammy told me he prayed they shouldn't be caught. But all the bloodhounds of the law were unchained; the Biddle boys got no chance at all.

The story is this. The brothers Biddle, Jack and Ed, and Walter Donnan, while in the act of robbing a store, killed a man. It was Dorman who fired the shot, but he turned State's evidence. The State rewards treachery. Dorman escaped the noose, but the two brothers were sentenced to die. As is customary, they were visited in the jail by the "gospel ladies," among them the wife of the Warden. You probably remember him -- Soffel; he was Deputy Warden when we were in the jail, and a rat he was, too. Well, Ed was a good-looking man, with manners, and so forth. Mrs. Soffel fell in love with him. It was mutual, I believe. Now witness the heroism a woman is capable of, when she loves. Mrs. Soffel determined to save the two brothers; I understand they promised her to quit their criminal life. Every day she would visit the condemned men, to console them. Pretending to read the gospel, she would stand close to the doors, to give them an opportunity to saw through the bars supplied them with revolvers, and they agreed to escape together. Of course, she could not go back to her husband, for she loved Ed, loved him well enough never to see her children again. The night for the escape was set. The brothers intended to separate immediately after the break, subsequently to meet together with Soffel. But the latter insisted on going with them. Ed begged her not to. He knew that it was sheer suicide for all of them. But she persisted, and Ed acquiesced, fully realizing that it would prove fatal. Don't you think It showed a noble trait in the boy? He did not want her to think that he was deserting her. The escape from jail was made successfully; they even had several hours' start. But snow had fallen, and it was easy to trace two men and a woman in a sleigh. The brutality of the man-hunters is past belief. When the detectives came upon the boys, they fired their Winchesters into the two brothers. Even when the wounded were stretched on the ground, bleeding and helpless, a detective emptied his revolver into Ed, killing him. Jack died later, and Mrs. Soffel was placed in jail. You can imagine the savage fury of the respectable mob. Mrs. Soffel was denounced by her husband, and all the good Christian women cried, "Unclean!" and clamored for the punishment of their unfortunate sister. She is now here, serving two years for aiding in the escape. I caught a glimpse of her when she came in. She has a sympathetic face, that bears signs of deep suffering; she must have gone through a terrible ordeal. Think of the struggle before she decided upon the desperate step; then the days and weeks of anxiety, as the boys were sawing the bars and preparing for the last chance! I should appreciate the love of a woman whose affection is stronger than the iron fetters of convention. In some ways this woman reminds me of the Girl -- the type that possesses the courage and strength to rise above all considerations for the sake of the man or the cause held dear. How little the world understands the vital forces of life!


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