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      Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist

      Alexander Berkman

      Annotated And Introduced By

      Jessica Moran & Barry Pateman


      To all those who in and out of prison

       fight against their bondage


      “But this I know, that every Law

       That men have made for Man,

       Since first Man took his brother’s life

       And the sad world began,

       But straws the wheat and saves the chaff

       With a most evil fan.”


      *Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), lines 541–546.


      Berkman had been drawn to anarchism by the execution of the Haymarket anarchists, been a member of the Jewish anarchist group Pionere der Frayhayt (Pioneers of Liberty), worked with Johann Most on his paper Freiheit, and, finally gravitated to the autonomists around the Radical Workers League. He found his home in their anarchist communism and belief in the efficacy of non-hierarchical affinity groups that embraced militant tactics to achieve their ends—a society predicated on the maxim of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their need.” However, by his own admission, at the time of the Pinkerton raid into Homestead on July 6, 1892 Berkman had essentially dropped out of anarchist activity. He and his comrade Modest Stein had explored, with the help of Johann Most, the possibility of returning to Russia and playing a role in the movement there. From winter 1891 to summer 1892 they had been living with Emma Goldman in Springfield and then Worcester, Massachusetts.

      The events of Homestead drew him back into political life and, together with other anarchists of the Radical Workers League, he planned the assassination of Henry Clay Frick initially by bomb and then by gun or dagger. Here was a man who manifestly deserved to die because of his treatment of the Homestead workers. A man who had locked out his workers and hired armed detectives against them rather than negotiate with the union. And here, at last, were workers arming themselves against the authorities to achieve their goals. The time was right to act and the air seemed alive with possibility. Of course Berkman could not write, in Prison Memoirs, of others’ involvement in the assassination attempt. Better to portray himself as a lone assassin, as he did when arrested, than implicate his comrades, some of whom, by 1912, had dropped away from the movement. Somehow, one feels, that this scenario rather suited Berkman; for much of his life he saw himself as a man apart—however much he was central to a group around a cause or a paper. Of course when Berkman did climb the stairs to kill Frick he wasn’t quite alone. He had registered at a hotel on July 22 as “Mr Rakhmetov.” A central character in N.G. Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is To Be Done?, Rakhmetov walked beside Berkman that day. It was Rakhmetov, the ascetic and driven revolutionary who Berkman consciously admired and emulated. He turned to Russian literature and Russian history for his role models on that July morning. They provided him with a tradition he could understand and belong to.

      This tradition also gave Berkman a revolutionary script he could follow—one that had been followed by many young radicals before him. If captured, the militant or militants would use their trial to announce to the people why they had carried out their act. If sentenced to death, they would die bravely and, if sentenced to prison, they would try to kill themselves and engage in as many escape attempts as they could. But Berkman’s trial was a farce; he couldn’t speak English and his interpreter wasn’t up to the task. This coupled with his refusal to engage legal counsel and his lack of legal knowledge meant he couldn’t explain himself at his trial and was handed down a sentence far longer than it should have been. The day after his attempt on Frick, he had attempted to kill himself by chewing a dynamite cartridge—the influence of Haymarket anarchist Louis Lingg there for all to see. After his sentence, he urged Emma Goldman to bring him “the gift of Lingg.” When that didn’t work, plans were made for the anarchist Dyer D. Lum to bring poison into the prison to help Berkman die. Lum had previously smuggled into Cook County Jail the dynamite cartridge that Lingg used to blow his face off, yet this particular revolutionary symmetry was denied Berkman by the difficulty of getting the poison into the prison. Voltairine de Cleyre was supposed to have brought poison into the Western State Penitentiary after Lum committed suicide in 1893, but that plan too foundered. All that was left for him, then, was escape.

      From the moment he entered Western State Penitentiary thoughts of escape had been swirling through Berkman’s mind. Very few had managed, even if many dreamed about it, and it wasn’t until 1899 that a real plan could be put into motion. With money pulled together from various sources by Emma Goldman, a house was rented in a street next to the prison and a tunnel was dug from the house towards the prison. Eric B. Morton led the operation with the help of Italian anarchist miners, Vella Kinsella, Harry Gordon (“Yankee”) and, above all, “Tony”—a recently released gay anarchist prisoner who had helped draw up the technical specifications. Emma Goldman left for England on a speaking tour and then to attend the International Revolutionary Congress of the Working People in Paris in September 1900, and Berkman was to join her in Europe. The tunnel was discovered on July 26, 1900. It was Eric B. Morton, rather than Berkman, who fled for Europe. Prison authorities could not be certain of Berkman’s involvement in the tunnel operation

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