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




THE ABLE BODIED MEN have been withdrawn to the shops, and only the old and decrepit remain in the cell-house. But even the light duties of assistant prove too difficult for the Swede. The guards insist that he is shamming. Every night he is placed in a strait-jacket, and gagged to stifle his groans. I protest against the mistreatment, and am cited to the office. The Deputy's desk is occupied by "Bighead," the officer of the hosiery department, now promoted to the position of Second Assistant Deputy. He greets me with a malicious grin. "I knew you wouldn't behave," he chuckles; "know you too damn well from the stockin' shop."

The gigantic Colonel, the new Deputy, loose-jointed and broad, strolls in with long, swinging step. He glances over the report against me. "Is that all?" he inquires of the guard, in cold, impassive voice.

"Yes, sir."

"Go back to your work, Berkman."

But in the afternoon, Officer "Bighead" struts into the cellhouse, in charge of the barber gang. As I take my turn in the first chair, the guard hastens toward me. "Get out of that chair," he commands. "It ain't your turn. You take that chair," pointing toward the second barber, a former boilermaker, dreaded by the men as a "butcher."

"It is my turn in this chair," I reply, keeping my seat.

"Dat so, Mr. Officer," the negro barber chimes in.

"Shut up!" the officer bellows. "Will you get out of that chair?" He advances toward me threateningly.

"I won't," I retort, looking him squarely in the eye.

Suppressed giggling passes along the waiting line. The keeper turns purple, and strides toward the office to report me.


"This is awful, Aleck. I'm so sorry you're locked up. You were in the right, too," "Coz" whispers at my cell "But never min', old boy," he smiles reassuringly, "you can count on me, all right. And you've got other friends. Here's a stiff some one sends you. He wants an answer right away. I'll call for it."

The note mystifies me. The large, bold writing is unfamiliar; I cannot identify the signature, "Jim M." The contents are puzzling. His sympathies are with me, the writer says. He has learned all the details of the trouble, and feels that I acted in the defense of my rights. It is an outrage to lock me up for resenting undeserved humiliation at the hands of an unfriendly guard; and he cannot bear to see me thus persecuted. My time is short, and the present trouble, if not corrected, may cause the loss of my commutation. He will immediately appeal to the Warden to do me justice; but he should like to hear from me before taking action.

I wonder at the identity of the writer. Evidently not a prisoner; intercession with the Warden would be out of the question. Yet I cannot account for any officer who would take this attitude, or employ such means of communicating with me.

Presently "Coz" saunters past the cell. "Got your answer ready?" he whispers.

"Who gave you the note, Coz?"

"I don't know if I should tell you."

"Of course you must tell me. I won't answer this note unless I know to whom I am writing."

"Well, Aleck," he hesitates, "he didn't say if I may tell you."

"Then better go and ask him first."

Considerable time elapses before "Coz" returns. From the delay I judge that the man is in a distant part of the institution, or not easily accessible. At last the kindly face of the Italian appears at the cell.

"It's all right, Aleck," he says.

"Who is he?" I ask impatiently.

"I'll bet you'll never guess."

"Tell me, then."

"Well, I'll tell you. He is not a screw."

"Can't be a prisoner?"


"Who, then?"

"He is a fine fellow, Aleck."

"Come now, tell me."

"He is a citizen. The foreman of the new shop."

"The weaving department?"

"That's the man. Here's another stiff from him. Answer at once."


Dear Mr. J. M.:

I hardly know how to write to you. It is the most remarkable thing that has happened to me in all the years of my confinement. To think that you, a perfect stranger -- and not a prisoner, at that -- should bother to intercede in my behalf because you feel that an injustice has been done! It is almost incredible, but "Coz" has informed me that you are determined to see the Warden in this matter. I assure you I appreciate your sense of justice more than I can express it. But I most urgently request you not to carry out your plan. With the best of intentions, your intercession will prove disastrous, to yourself as well as to me. A shop foreman, you are not supposed to know what is happening in the block. The Warden is a martinet, and extremely vain of his authority. He will resent your interference. I don't know who you are, but your indignation at what you believe an injustice characterizes you as a man of principle, and you are evidently inclined to be friendly toward me. I should be very unhappy to be the cause of your discharge. You need your job, or you would not be here. I am very, very thankful to you, but I urge you most earnestly to drop the matter. I must fight my own battles. Moreover, the situation is not very serious, and I shall come out all right.

With much appreciation,
A. B.

Dear Mr. M.:

I feel much relieved by your promise to accede to my request. It is best so. You need not worry about me. I expect to receive a hearing before the Deputy, a decent chap. You will pardon me when I confess I smiled at your question whether your correspondence was welcome. Your notes are a ray of sunshine in darkness, and I am intensely interested in the personality of a man whose sense of justice transcends considerations of personal interest. You know, no great heroism Is required to demand justice for oneself, in the furthering of our own advantage. But where the other fellow is concerned, especially a stranger, it becomes a question of "abstract" justice -- and but few people possess the manhood to jeopardize their reputation or comfort for that.

Since our correspondence began, I have had occasion to speak to some of the men in your charge. I want to thank you in their name for your considerate and humane treatment of them.

"Coz" is at the door, and I must hurry. Trust no one with notes, except him. We have been friends for years, and he can tell you all you wish to know about my life here.


My Dear M.:

There is no need whatever for your anxiety regarding the effects of the solitary upon me. I do not think they will keep me in long; at any rate, remember that I do not wish you to intercede.

You will be pleased to know that my friend Harry shows signs of improvement, thanks to your generosity. "Coz" has managed to deliver to him the tid-bits and wine you sent. You know the story of the boy. He has never known the love of a mother, nor the care of a father. A typical child of the disinherited, he was thrown, almost in infancy, upon the tender mercies of the world. At the age of ten the law declared him a criminal. He has never since seen a day of liberty. At twenty he is dying of prison consumption. Was the Spanish Inquisition ever guilty of such organized child murder? With desperate will-power he clutches at life, in the hope of a pardon. He is firmly convinced that fresh air would cure him, but the new rules confine him to the hospital. His friends here have collected a fund to bring his case before the Pardon Board; it is to be heard next month. That devoted soul, "Coz," has induced the doctor to issue a certificate of Harry's critical condition, and he may be released soon. I have grown very fond of the boy so much sinned against. I have watched his heart and mind blossom in the sunshine of a little kindness, and now-I hope that at least his last wish will be gratified: just once to walk on the street, and not hear the harsh command of the guard. He begs me to express to his unknown friend his deepest gratitude.


Dear M.:

The Deputy has just released me. I am happy with a double happiness, for I know how pleased you will be at the good turn of affairs. It is probably due to the fact that my neighbor, the Big Swede -- you've heard about him -- was found dead in the strait-jacket this morning. The doctor and officers all along pretended that he was shamming. It was a most cruel murder; by the Warden's order the sick Swede was kept gagged and bound every night. I understand that the Deputy opposed such brutal methods, and now it is rumored that he intends to resign. But I hope he will remain. There is something big and broad-minded about the gigantic Colonel. He tries to be fair, and he has saved many a prisoner from the cruelty of the Major. The latter is continually inventing new modes of punishment; it is characteristic that his methods involve curtailment of rations, and consequent saving, which is not accounted for on the books. He has recently cut the milk allowance of the hospital patients, notwithstanding the protests of the doctor. He has also introduced severe punishment for talking. You know, when you have not uttered a word for days and weeks, you are often seized with an uncontrollable desire to give vent to your feelings. These infractions of the rules are now punished by depriving you of tobacco and of your Sunday dinner. Every Sunday from 30 to 50 men are locked up on the top range, to remain without food all day. The system is called "Killicure" (kill or cure) and it involves considerable graft, for I know numbers of men who have not received tobacco or a Sunday dinner for months.

Warden Wm. Johnston seems innately cruel. Recently he introduced the "blind" cell, -- door covered with solid sheet iron. It is much worse than the basket cell, for it virtually admits no air, and men are kept in it from 30 to 60 days. Prisoner Varnell was locked up in such a cell 79 days, becoming paralyzed. But even worse than these punishments is the more refined brutality of torturing the boys with the uncertainty of release and the increasing deprivation of good time. This system is developing insanity to an alarming extent.

Amid all this heartlessness and cruelty, the Chaplain is a refreshing oasis of humanity. I noticed in one of your letters the expression, "because of economic necessity", and -- I wondered. To be sure, the effects of economic causes are not to be underestimated. But the extremists of the materialistic conception discount character, and thus help to vitiate it. The factor of personality is too often ignored by them. Take the Chaplain, for instance. In spite of the surrounding swamp of cupidity and brutality notwithstanding all disappointment and ingratitude, he is to-day, after 30 years of incumbency, as full of faith in human nature and as sympathetic and helpful, as years ago. He has had to contend against the various administrations, and he is a poor man; necessity has not stifled his innate kindness.

And this is why I wondered. "Economic necessity" -- has Socialism pierced the prison walls?


Dear, Dear Comrade:

Can you realize how your words, "I am socialistically inclined," warmed my heart? I wish I could express to you all the intensity of what I feel, my dear friend and comrade. To have so unexpectedly found both in you, unutterably lightens this miserable existence. What matter that you do not entirely share my views, -- we are comrades in the common cause of human emancipation. It was indeed well worth while getting in trouble to have found you, dear friend. Surely I have good cause to be content, even happy. Your friendship is a source of great strength, and I feel equal to struggling through the ten months, encouraged and inspired by your comradeship, and devotion. Every evening I cross the date off my calendar, joyous with the thought that I am a day nearer the precious moment when I shall turn my back upon these walls, to join my friends in the great work, and to meet you, dear Chum, face to face, to grip your hand and salute you, my friend and comrade!

Most fraternally,

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