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




IT IS SEPTEMBER the nineteenth. The cell-house is silent and gray in the afternoon dusk. In the yard the rain walks with long strides, hastening in the dim twilight, hastening whither the shadows have gone. I stand at the door, in reverie. In the somber light, I see myself led through the gate yonder,-it was ten years ago this day. The walls towered menacingly in the dark, the iron gripped my heart, and I was lost in despair. I should not have believed then that I could survive the long years of misery and pain. But the nimble feet of the rain patter hopefully; its tears dissipate the clouds, and bring light; and soon I shall step into the sunshine, and come forth grown and matured, as the world must have grown in the struggle of suffering

"Fresh fish!" a rangeman announces, pointing to the long line of striped men, trudging dejectedly across the yard, and stumbling against each other in the unaccustomed lockstep. The door opens, and Aleck Killian, the lifetimer, motions me. He walks with measured, even step along the hall. Rangeman "Coz" and Harry, my young assistant, stealthily crowd with him into my cell. The air of mystery about them arouse my apprehension.

"What's the matter, boys!" I ask.

They hesitate and glance at each other, smiling diffidently.

"You speak, Killain," Harry whispers.

The lifetimer carefully unwraps a little package, and I be come aware of the sweet scent of flowers perfuming the cell. The old Prisoner stammers in confusion, as he presents me with a rose, big and red. "We swiped it in the greenhouse," he says.

"Fer you, Aleck," Harry adds.

"For your tenth anniversary," corrects "Coz." "Good luck to you Aleck."

Mutely they grip my hand, and steal out of the cell.

In Solitude I muse over the touching remembrance. These men -- they are the shame Society hides within the gray walls. These, and others like them. Daily they come to be buried alive in this grave; all through the long years they have been discounted in the economy of existence. And all the while the world has been advancing, it is said; science and philosophy, art and letters, have made great strides. But wherein is the improvement that augments misery and crowds the Prisons? The discovery of the X-ray will further scientific research I am told. But where is the X-ray of social insight that will discover in human understanding and mutual aid the elements of true progress! Deceptive is the advance that involves the ruthless sacrifice of peace and health and life; superficial and unstable the civilization that rests upon the treacherous sands of strife and warfare. The progress of science and industry, far from promoting man's happiness and social harmony, merely accentuates discontent and sharpens the contrasts. The knowledge gained at so much cost of suffering and sacrifice bears bitter fruit, for lack of wisdom to apply the lessons learned. There are no limits to the achievements of man, were not humanity divided against itself, exhausting its best energies in sanguinary conflict, suicidal and unnecessary. And these, the thousands stepmothered by cruel stupidity, are the victims castigated by Society for her own folly and sins. That Young Harry. A child of the slums, he has never known the touch of a loving hand. Motherless, his father a drunkard, the heavy arm of the law was laid upon him at the age of ten. From reform school to reformatory the social orphan has been driven about. "You know, Aleck," he says, "I nev'r had no real square meal, to feel full, you know; 'cept once, on Christmas in de ref." At the age of nineteen, he has not seen a day of liberty since early childhood.

Three years ago he was transferred to the penitentiary, under a sentence of sixteen years for an attempted escape from the Morganza reform school, which resulted in the death of a keeper. The latter was foreman in the tailor shop, in which Harry was employed together with a number of other youth. The officer had induced Harry to do overwork, above the regular task, for which he rewarded the boy with an occasional dainty of buttered bread or a piece of corn-cake. By degrees Harry's voluntary effort became part of his routine work, and the reward in delicacies came more rarely. But when they entirely ceased the boy rebelled, refusing to exert himself above the required task. He was reported, but the Superintendent censured the keeper for the unauthorized increase of work. Harry was elated; but presently began systematic persecution that made the boy's life daily more unbearable. In innumerable ways the hostile guard sought to revenge his defeat upon the lad, till at last, driven to desperation, Harry resolved upon escape. With several other inmates the fourteen-year-old boy planned to flee to the Rocky Mountains, there to hunt the "wild" Indians, and live the independent and care-free life of Jesse James. "You know, Aleck," Harry confides to me, reminiscently, "we could have made it easy; dere was eleven of us. But de kids was all sore on de foreman. He 'bused and beat us, an' some of de boys wouldn' go 'cept we knock de screw out first. It was me pal Nacky that hit 'im foist, good an' hard, an' den I hit 'im, lightly. But dey all said in court that I hit 'im both times. Nacky's people had money, an' he beat de case, but I got soaked sixteen years." His eyes fill with tears and he says plaintively: "I haven't been outside since I was a little kid, an' now I'm sick, an' will die here mebbe."


Conversing in low tones, we sweep the range. I shorten my strokes to enable Harry to keep pace. Weakly he drags the broom across the floor. His appearance is pitifully grotesque. The sickly features, pale with the color of the prison whitewash, resemble a little child's. But the eyes look oldish in their wrinkled sockets, the head painfully out of proportion with the puny, stunted body. Now and again he turns his gaze on me, and in his face there is melancholy wonder, as if he is seeking something that has passed him by. Often I ponder, is there a crime more appalling and heinous than the one Society has committed upon him, who is neither man nor youth and never was child? Crushed by the heel of brutality, this plant had never budded. Yet there is the making of a true man in him. His mentality is pathetically primitive, but he possesses character and courage, and latent virgin forces. His emotional frankness borders on the incredible; he is unmoral and unsocial, as a field daisy might be, surrounded by giant trees, yet timidly tenacious of its own being. It distresses me to witness the yearning that comes into his eyes at the mention of outside." Often he asks: "Tell me, Aleck, how does it feel on de street, to know that you're free t' go where you please, wid no screw to faller you?" Ah, if he'd only had the chance, he reiterates, he'd be so careful not to get into trouble. He would like to keep company with a nice girl, he continues, blushingly; he had never had one. But he fears his days are numbered. His lungs are getting very bad, and now that his father has died, he has no one to help him get a pardon. Perhaps father wouldn't have helped him, either; he was always drunk and never cared for his children. "He had no business t' have any children," Harry comments passionately. And he can't expect any assistance from his sister; the poor girl barely makes a living in the factory. "She's been workin' ev'r so long in the pickle works," Harry explains. "That feller, the boss there, must be rich; it's a big factory," he adds, niIvely, "he oughter give 'er enough to marry on." But he fears he will die in the prison. There is no one to aid him, and he has no friends. "I never had no friend," he says, wistfully; "there ain't no real friends. De older boys in de ref always used me, an' dey use all de kids. But dey was no friends, an' every one was against me in de court, an' dey put all de blame on me. Everybody was always against me," he repeats bitterly.

Alone in the cell, I ponder over his words. "Everybody was always against me," I hear the boy say. I wake at night, with the quivering cry in the darkness, "Everybody against me!" Motherless in childhood, reared in the fumes of brutal inebriation, cast into the slums to be crushed under the wheels of the law's Juggernaut, was the fate of this social orphan. Is this the fruit of progress? This the spirit of our Christian civilization? In the hours of solitude, the scheme of existence unfolds in kaleidoscope before me. In variegated design and divergent angle it presents an endless panorama of stunted minds and tortured bodies, of universal misery and wretchedness, in the elemental aspect of the boy's desolate life. And I behold the suffering and agony resolve themselves in the dominance of the established, in tradition and custom that heavily encrust humanity, weighing down the already fettered soul till its wings break and it beats helplessly against the artificial barriers....The blanced face of Misery is silhouetted against the night. The silence sobs with the piteous cry of the crushed boy. And I hear the cry, and it fills my whole being with the sense of terrible wrong and injustice, with the shame of my kind, that sheds crocodile tears while it swallows its helpless prey. The submerged moan in the dark. I will echo their agony to the ears of the world. I have suffered with them, I have looked into the heart of Pain, and with its voice and anguish I will speak to humanity, to wake it from sloth and apathy, and lend hope to despair.

The months speed in preparation for the great work. I must equip myself for the mission, for the combat with the world that struggles so desperately to defend its chains. The day of my resurrection is approaching, and I will devote my new life to the service of my fellow-sufferers. The world shall hear the tortured; it shall behold the shame it has buried within these walls, yet not eliminated. The ghost of its crimes ahall rise and harrow its ears, till the social conscience is roused to the cry of its victims. And perhaps with eyes once opened, it will behold the misery and suffering in the world beyond, and Man will pause in his strife and mad race to ask himself, wherefore? whither?

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