Living My Life : Volume 1, Chapter 12
(1869 - 1940) ~ Russian-American Mother of Anarcho-Communism : She is an Anarchist, pure and simple. She represents the idea of Anarchism as framed by Josiah Warren, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tolstoy. Yet she also understands the psychologic causes which induce a Caserio, a Vaillant, a Bresci, a Berkman, or a Czolgosz to commit deeds of violence. (From : Hippolyte Havel Bio.)
• "The individual educator imbued with honesty of purpose, the artist or writer of original ideas, the independent scientist or explorer, the non-compromising pioneers of social changes are daily pushed to the wall by men whose learning and creative ability have become decrepit with age." (From : "Minorities Versus Majorities," by Emma Goldman.)
• "...it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think." (From : "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For," by Emma Go....)
• "Patriotism is inexorable and, like all insatiable monsters, demands all or nothing. It does not admit that a soldier is also a human being, who has a right to his own feelings and opinions, his own inclinations and ideas." (From : Patriotism, A Menace to Liberty," by Emma Goldman,....)
Volume 1, Chapter 12
I WAS CALLED BEFORE THE HEAD MATRON, A TALL WOMAN WITH A stolid face. She began taking my pedigree. "What religion?" was her first question. "None, I am an atheist...... Atheism is prohibited here. You will have to go to church." I replied that I would do nothing, of the kind. I did not believe in anything the Church stood for and, not being a hypocrite, I would not attend. Besides, I came from Jewish people. Was there a synagogue?
She said curtly that there were services for the Jewish convicts on Saturday afternoon, but as I was the only Jewish female prisoner, she could not permit me to go among so many men.
After a bath and a change into the prison uniform I was sent to my cell and locked in.
I knew from what Most had related to me about Blackwell's Island that the prison was old and damp, the cells small, without light or water. I was therefore prepared for what was awaiting me. But the moment the door was locked on me, I began to experience a feeling of suffocation. In the dark I groped for something to sit on and found a narrow iron cot. Sudden exhaustion overpowered me and I fell sleep.
I became aware of a sharp burning in my eyes, and I jumped up in fright. A lamp was being held close to the bars. "What is it?" I cried, forgetting where I was. The lamp was lowered and I saw a thin, ascetic face gazing at me. A soft voice congratulated me on my sound sleep. It was the evening matron on her regular rounds. She told me to undress and left me.
But there was no more sleep for me that night. The irritating feel of the coarse blanket, the shadows creeping past the bars, kept me awake until the sound of a gong again brought me to my feet. The cells were being unlocked, the door heavily thrown open. Blue and white striped figures slouched by, automatically forming into a line, myself a part of it. "March!" and the line began to move along the corridor down the steps towards a corner containing wash-stands and towels. Again the command: "Wash!" and everybody began clamoring for a towel, already soiled and wet. Before I had time to splash some water on my hands and face and wipe myself half-dry, the order was given to march back.
Then breakfast: a slice of bread and a tin cup of warm brownish water. Again the line formed, and the striped humanity was broken up in sections and sent to its daily tasks. With a group of other women I was taken to the sewing-room.
The procedure of forming lines -- "Forward, march!" -- was repeated three times a day, seven days a week. After each meal ten minutes were allowed for talk. A torrent of words would then break forth from the pent-up beings. Each precious second increased the roar of sounds; and then sudden silence.
The sewing-room was large and light, the sun often streaming through the high windows, its rays intensifying the whiteness of the walls and the monotony of the regulation dress. In the sharp light the figures in baggy and ungainly attire appeared more hideous. Still, the shop was a welcome relief from the cell. Mine, on the ground floor, was gray and damp even in the day-time; the cells on the upper floors were somewhat brighter. Close to the barred door one could even read by the help of the light coming from the corridor windows.
The locking of the cells for the night was the worst experience of the day. The convicts were marched along the tiers in the usual line. On reaching her cell each left the line, stepped inside, hands on the iron door, and awaited the command. "Close!" and with a crash the seventy doors shut, each prisoner automatically locking herself in. More harrowing still was the daily degradation of being forced to march in lock-step to the river, carrying the bucket of excrement accumulated during twenty-four hours.
I was put in charge of the sewing-shop. My task consisted in cutting the cloth and preparing work for the two dozen women employed. In addition I had to keep account of the incoming material and the outgoing bundles. I welcomed the work. It helped me to forget the dreary existence within the prison. But the evenings were torturous. The first few weeks I would fall asleep as soon as I touched the pillow. Soon, however, the nights found me restlessly tossing about, seeking sleep in vain. The appalling nights -- even if I should get the customary two months' commutation time, I still had nearly two hundred and ninety of them. Two hundred and ninety -- and Sasha? I used to lie awake and mentally figure in the dark the number of days and nights before him. Even if he could come out after his first sentence of seven years, he would still have more than twenty-five hundred nights! Dread overcame me that Sasha could not survive them. Nothing was so likely to drive people to madness, I felt, as sleepless nights in prison. Better dead, I thought. Dead? Frick was not dead, and Sasha's glorious youth, his life, the things he might have accomplished - all were being sacrificed -- perhaps for nothing. But -- was Sasha's Attentat in vain? Was my revolutionary faith a mere echo of what others had said or taught me? "No, not in vain!" something within me insisted. "No sacrifice is lost for a great ideal."
One day I was told by the head matron that I would have to get better results from the women. They were not doing so much work, she said, as under the prisoner who had had charge of the sewing-shop before me. I resented the suggestion that I become a slave-driver. It was because I hated slaves as well as their drivers, I informed the matron, that I had been sent to prison. I considered myself one of the inmates, not above them. I was determined not to do anything that would involve a denial of my ideals. I preferred punishment. One of the methods of treating offenders consisted in placing them in a corner facing a blackboard and compelling them to stay for hours in that position, constantly before the matron's vigilant eyes. This seemed to me petty and insulting. I decided that if I was offered such an indignity, I would increase my offense and take the dungeon. But the days passed and I was not punished.
News in prison travels with amazing rapidity. Within twenty-four hours all the women knew that I had refused to act as a slave-driver. They had not been unkind to me, but they had kept aloof. They had been told that I was a terrible "anarchist" and that I didn't believe in God. They had never seen me in church and I did not participate in their ten-minute gush of talk. I was a freak in their eyes. But when they learned that I had refused to play the boss over them, their reserve broke down. Sundays after church the cells would be opened to permit the women an hour's visit with one another. The next Sunday I received visits from every inmate on my tier. They felt I was their friend, they assured me, and they would do anything for me. Girls working in the laundry offered to wash my clothes, others to darn my stockings. Everyone was anxious to do some service. I was deeply moved. These poor creatures so hungered for kindness that the least sign of it loomed high on their limited horizons. After that they would often come to me with their troubles, their hatred of the head matron, their confidences about their infatuations with the male convicts. Their ingenuity in carrying on flirtations under the very eyes of the officials was amazing.
My three weeks in the Tombs had given me ample proof that the revolutionary contention that crime is the result of poverty is based on fact. Most of the defendants who were awaiting trial came from the lowest strata of society, men and women without friends, often even without a home. Unfortunate, ignorant creatures they were, but still with hope in their hearts, because they had not yet been convicted. In the penitentiary despair possessed almost all of the prisoners. It served to unveil the mental darkness, fear, and superstition which held them in bondage. Among the seventy inmates, there were no more than half a dozen who showed any intelligence whatever. The rest were outcasts without the least social consciousness. Their personal misfortunes filled their thoughts; they could not understand that they were victims, links in an endless chain of injustice and inequality. From early childhood they had known nothing but poverty, squalor, and want, and the same conditions were awaiting them on their release. Yet they were capable of sympathy and devotion, of generous impulses. I soon had occasion to convince myself of it when I was taken ill.
The dampness of my cell and the chill of the late December days had brought on an attack of my old complaint, rheumatism. For some days the head matron opposed my being taken to the hospital, but she was finally compelled to submit to the order of the visiting physician.
Blackwell's Island Penitentiary was fortunate in the absence of a "steady" physician. The inmates were receiving medical attendance from the Charity Hospital, which was situated near by. That institution had six weeks' post-graduate courses, which meant frequent changes in the staff. They were under the direct supervision of a visiting physician from New York City, Dr. White, a humane and kindly man. The treatment given the prisoners was as good as patients received in any New York hospital.
The sick-ward was the largest and brightest room in the building. Its spacious windows looked out upon a wide lawn in front of the prison and, farther on, the East River. In fine weather the sun streamed in generously. A month's rest, the kindliness of the physician, and the thoughtful attention of my fellow prisoners relieved me of my pain and enabled me to get about again.
During one of his rounds Dr. White picked up the card hanging at the foot of my bed giving my crime and pedigree. "Inciting to riot," he read. "Piffle! I don't believe you could hurt a fly. A fine inciter you would make!" he chuckled, then asked me if I should not like to remain in the hospital to take care of the sick. "I should, indeed," I replied, "but I know nothing about nursing." He assured me that neither did anyone else in the prison. He had tried for some time to induce the city to put a trained nurse in charge of the ward, but he had not succeeded. For operations and grave cases he had to bring a nurse from the Charity Hospital. I could easily pick up the elementary things about tending the sick. He would teach me to take the pulse and temperature and to perform similar services. He would speak to the Warden and the head matron if I wanted to remain.
Soon I took up my new work. The ward contained sixteen beds, most of them always filled. The various diseases were treated in the same room, from grave operations to tuberculosis, pneumonia, and childbirth. My hours were long and strenuous, the groans of the patients nerve-racking; but I loved my job. It gave me opportunity to come close to the sick women and bring a little cheer into their lives. I was so much richer than they: I had love and friends, received many letters and daily messages from Ed. Some Austrian anarchists, owners of a restaurant, sent me dinners every day, which Ed himself brought to the boat. Fedya supplied fruit and delicacies weekly. I had so much to give; it was a joy to share with my sisters who had neither friends nor attention. There were a few exceptions, of course; but the majority had nothing. They never had had anything before and they would have nothing on their release. They were derelicts on the social dung-heap.
I was gradually given entire charge of the hospital ward, part of my duties being to divide the special rations allowed the sick prisoners. They consisted of a quart of milk, a cup of beef tea, two eggs, two crackers, and two lumps of sugar for each invalid. On several occasions milk and eggs were missing and I reported the matter to a day matron. Later she informed me that a head matron had said that it did not matter and that certain patients were strong enough to do without their extra rations. I had had considerable opportunity to study this head matron, who felt a violent dislike of everyone not Anglo-Saxon. Her special targets were the Irish and the Jews, against whom she discriminated habitually. I was therefore not surprised to get such a message from her.
A few days later I was told by the prisoner who brought the hospital rations that the missing portions had been given by this head matron to two husky Negro prisoners. That also did not surprise me. I knew she had a special fondness for the colored inmates. She rarely punished them and often gave them unusual privileges. In return her favorites would spy on the other prisoners, even on those of their own color who were too decent to be bribed. I myself never had any prejudice against colored people; in fact, I felt deeply for them because they were being treated like slaves in America. But I hated discrimination. The idea that sick people, white or colored, should be robbed of their rations to feed healthy persons outraged my sense of justice, but I was powerless to do anything in the matter.
After my first clashes with this woman she left me severely alone. Once she became enraged because I refused to translate a Russian letter that had arrived for one of the prisoners. She had called me into her office to read the letter and tell her its contents. When I saw that the letter was not for me, I informed her that I was not employed by the prison as a translator. It was bad enough for the officials to pry into the personal mail of helpless human beings, but I would not do it. She said that it was stupid of me not to take advantage of her good-will. She could put me back in my cell, deprive me of my commutation time for good behavior, and make the rest of my stay very hard. She could do as she pleased, I told her, but I would not read the private letters of my unfortunate sisters, much less translate them to her.
Then came the matter of the missing rations. The sick women began to suspect that they were not getting their full share and complained to the doctor. Confronted with a direct question from him, I had to tell the truth. I did not know what he said to the offending matron, but the full rations began to arrive again. Two days later I was called downstairs and locked up in the dungeon.
I had repeatedly seen the effect of a dungeon experience on other women prisoners. One inmate had been kept there for twenty-eight days on bread and water, although the regulations prohibited a longer stay than forty-eight hours. She had to be carried out on a stretcher; her hands and legs were swollen, her body covered with a rash. The descriptions the poor creature and others had given me used to make me ill. But nothing I had heard compared with the reality. The cell was barren; one had to sit or lie down on the cold stone floor. The dampness of the walls made the dungeon a ghastly place. Worse yet was the complete shutting out of light and air, the impenetrable blackness, so thick that one could not see the hand before one's face. It gave me the sensation of sinking into a devouring pit. "The Spanish Inquisition come to life in America I thought of Most's description. He had not exaggerated.
After the door shut behind me, I stood still, afraid to sit down or to lean against the wall. Then I groped for the door. Gradually the blackness paled. I caught a faint sound slowly approaching; I heard a key turn in the lock. A matron appeared. I recognized Miss Johnson, the one who had frightened me out of my sleep on my first night in the penitentiary. I had come to know and appreciate her as a beautiful personality. Her kindness to the prisoners was the one ray of light in their dreary existence. She had taken me to her bosom almost from the first, and in many indirect ways she had shown me her affection. Often at night, when all were asleep, and quiet had fallen on the prison, Miss Johnson would enter the hospital ward, put my head in her lap, and tenderly stroke my hair. She would tell me the news in the papers to distract me and try to cheer my depressed mood. I knew I had found a friend in the woman, who herself was a lonely soul, never having known the love of man or child.
She came into the dungeon carrying a camp-chair and a blanket. "You can sit on that," she said, "and wrap yourself up. I'll leave the door open a bit to let in some air. I'll bring you hot coffee later. It will help to pass the night." She told me how painful it was for her to see the prisoners locked up in the dreadful hole, but she could do nothing for them because most of them could not be trusted. It was different with me, she was sure.
At five in the morning my friend had to take back the chair and blanket and lock me in. I no longer was oppressed by the dungeon. The humanity of Miss Johnson had dissolved the blackness.
When I was taken out of the dungeon and sent back to the hospital, I saw that it was almost noon. I resumed my duties. Later I learned that Dr. White had asked for me, and upon being informed that I was in punishment he had categorically demanded my release.
No visitors were allowed in the penitentiary until after one month had been served. Ever since my entry I had been longing for Ed, yet at the same time I dreaded his coming. I remembered my terrible visit with Sasha. But it was not quite so appalling in Blackwell's Island. I met Ed in a room where other prisoners were having their relatives and friends to see them. There was no guard between us. Everyone was so absorbed in his own visitor that no one paid any attention to us. Still we felt constrained. With clasped hands we talked of general things.
My second visit took place in the hospital, Miss Johnson being on duty. She thoughtfully put a screen to shut us out from the view of the other patients, she herself keeping at a distance. Ed took me in his arms. It was bliss to feel again the warmth of his body, to hear his beating heart, to cling hungrily to his lips. But his departure left me in an emotional turmoil, consumed by a passionate need for my lover. During the day I strove to subdue the hot desire surging through my veins, but at night the craving held me in its power. Sleep would come finally, sleep disturbed by dreams and images of intoxicating nights with Ed. The ordeal was too torturing and too exhausting. I was glad when he brought Fedya and other friends along.
Once Ed came accompanied by Voltairine de Cleyre, She had been invited by New York friends to address a meeting arranged in my behalf. When I had visited her in Philadelphia, she had been too ill to speak. I was glad of the opportunity to come closer to her now. We talked about things nearest to our hearts - Sasha, the movement. Voltairine promised to join me, on my release, in a new effort for Sasha. Meanwhile she would write to him, she said. Ed, too, was in touch with him.
My visitors were always sent up to the hospital. I was therefore surprised one day to be called to the Warden's office to see someone. It proved to be John Swinton and his wife. Swinton was a nationally known figure; he had worked with the abolitionists and had fought in the Civil War. As editor-in-chief of the New York Sun he had pleaded for the European refugees who came to find asylum in the United States. He was the friend and adviser of young literary aspirants, and he had been one of the first to defend Wait Whitman against the misrepresentations of the purists. Tall, erect, with beautiful features, John Swinton was an impressive figure.
He greeted me warmly, remarking that he had just been saying to Warden Pillsbury that he himself had made more violent speeches during the abolition days than anything I said at Union Square. Yet he had not been arrested. He had told the Warden that he ought to be ashamed of himself to keep "a little girl like that" locked up. "And what do you suppose he said? He said he had no choice -- he was only doing his duty. All weaklings say that, cowards who always put the blame on others." Just then the Warden approached us. He assured Swinton that I was a model prisoner and that I had become an efficient nurse in the short time. In fact, I was doing such good work that he wished I had been given five years. "Generous cuss, aren't you?" Swinton laughed. "Perhaps you'll give her a paid job when her time is up?" "I would, indeed," Pillsbury replied. "Well, you'd be a damn fool. Don't you know she doesn't believe in prisons? Sure as you live, she'd let them all escape, and what would become of you then?" The poor man was embarrassed, but he joined in the banter. Before my visitor took leave, he turned once more to the Warden, cautioning him to "take good care of his little friend," else he would "take it out of his hide."
The visit of the Swintons completely changed the attitude of the head matron towards me. The Warden had always been quite decent, and she now began showering privileges on me: food from her own table, fruit, coffee, and walks on the island. I refused her favors except the walks; it was my first opportunity in six months to go out in the open and inhale the spring air without iron bars to check me.
In March 1894 we received a large influx of women prisoners. They were nearly all prostitutes rounded up during recent raids. The city had been blessed by a new vise crusade. The Lexow Committee, with the Reverend Dr. Parkhurst at its head, wielded the broom which was to sweep New York clean of the fearful scourge. The men found in the public houses were allowed to go free, but the women were arrested and sentenced to Blackwell's Island.
Most of the unfortunates came in a deplorable condition. They were suddenly cut off from the narcotics which almost all of them had been habitually using. The sight of their suffering was heart-breaking. With the strength of giants the frail creatures would shake the iron bars, curse, and scream for dope and cigarettes. Then they would fall exhausted to the ground, pitifully moaning through the night.
The misery of the poor creatures brought back my own hard struggle to do without the soothing effect of cigarettes. Except for the ten weeks of my illness in Rochester, I had smoked for years, sometimes as many as forty cigarettes a day. When we were very hard pressed for money, and it was a toss-up between bread and cigarettes, we would generally decide to buy the latter. We simply could not go for very long without smoking. Being cut off from the satisfaction of the habit when I came to the penitentiary, I found the torture almost beyond endurance. The nights in the cell became doubly hideous. The only way to get tobacco in prison was by means of bribery. I knew that if any of the inmates were caught bringing me cigarettes, they would be punished. I could not expose them to the risk. Snuff tobacco was allowed, but I could never take to it. There was nothing to be done but to get used to the deprivation. I had resisting power and I could forget my craving in reading.
Not so the new arrivals. When they learned that I was in charge of the medicine chest, they pursued me with offers of money; worse still, with pitiful appeals to my humanity. "Just a whiff of dope, for the love of Christ!" I rebelled against the Christian hypocrisy which allowed the men to go free and sent the poor women to prison for having ministered to the sexual demands of those men. Suddenly cutting off the victims from the narcotics they had used for years seemed ruthless. I would have gladly given the addicts what they craved so terribly. It was not fear of punishment which kept me from bringing them relief; it was Dr. White's faith in me. He had trusted me with the medicines, he had been kind and generous -- I could not fail him. The screams of the women would unnerve me for days, but I stuck to my responsibility.
One day a young Irish girl was brought to the hospital for an operation. In view of the seriousness of the case Dr. White called in two trained nurses. The operation lasted until late in the evening, and then the patient was left in my charge. She was very ill from the effect of the ether, vomited violently, and burst the stitches of her wound, which resulted in a severe hemorrhage. I sent a hurry call to the Charity Hospital. It seemed hours before the doctor and his staff arrived. There were no nurses this time and I had to take their place.
The day had been an unusually hard one and I had had very little steep. I felt exhausted and had to hold on to the operating-table with my left hand while passing with my right instruments and sponges. Suddenly the operating-table gave way, and my arm was caught. I screamed with pain. Dr. White was so absorbed in his manipulations that for a moment he did not realize what had happened. When he at last had the table raised and my arm was lifted out, it looked as if every bone had been broken. The pain was excruciating and he ordered a shot of morphine. "We'll set the arm later. This has got to come first." "No morphine," I begged. I still remembered the effect of morphine on me when Dr. Julius Hoffmann had given me a dose against insomnia. It had put me to sleep, but during the night I had tried to throw myself out of the window, and it had required all of Sasha's strength to pull me back. The morphine had crazed me, now I would have none of it.
One of the physicians gave me something that had a soothing, effect. After the patient on the operating-table had been returned to their bed, Dr. White examined my arm. "You're nice and chubby," he said; "that has saved your bones. Nothing has been broken -- just flattened a bit." My arm was put in a splint. The doctor wanted me to go to bed, but there was no one else to sit up with the patient. It might be her last night: her tissues were so badly infected that they would not hold the stitches, and another hemorrhage would prove fatal. I decided to remain at her bedside. I knew I could not sleep with the case as serious as it was.
All night I watched her struggle for life. In the morning I sent for the priest. Everyone was surprised at my action, particularly the head matron. How could I, an atheist, do such a thing, she wondered, and choose a priest, at that! I had declined to see the missionaries as well as the rabbi. She had noticed how friendly I had become with the two Catholic sisters who often visited us on Sunday. I had even made coffee for them. Didn't I think that the Catholic Church had always been the enemy of progress and that it bad persecuted and tortured the Jews? How could I be so inconsistent? Of course, I thought so, I assured her. I was just as opposed to the Catholic as to the other Churches. I considered them all alike, enemies of the people. They preached submission, and their God was the God of the rich and the mighty. I hated their God and would never make peace with him. But if I could believe in any religion at all, I should prefer the Catholic Church. "It is less hypocritical," I said to her; "it makes allowance for human frailties and it has a sense of beauty." The Catholic sisters and the priest had not tried to preach to me like the missionaries, the minister, and the vulgar rabbi. They left my soul to its own fate; they talked to me about human things, especially the priest, who was a cultured man. My poor patient had reached the end of a life that had been too hard for her. The priest might give her a few moments of peace and kindness; why should I not have sent for him? But the matron was too dull to follow my argument or understand my motives. I remained a "queer one," in her estimation.
Before my patient died, she begged me to lay her out. I had been kinder to her, she said, than her own mother. She wanted to know that it would be my hand that would get her ready for the last journey. I would make her beautiful; she wanted to look beautiful to meet Mother Mary and the Lord Jesus. It required little effort to make her as lovely in death as she had been in life. Her black curls made her alabaster face more delicate than the artificial methods she had used to enhance her looks. Her luminous eyes were closed now; I had closed them with my own hands. But her chiseled eyebrows and long, black lashes were remindful of the radiance that had been hers. How she must have fascinated men! And they destroyed her. Now she was beyond their reach. Death had smoothed her suffering. She looked serene in her marble whiteness now.
During the Jewish Easter holidays I was again called to the Warden's office. I found my grandmother there. She had repeatedly begged Ed to take her to see me, but he had declined in order to spare her the painful experience. The devoted soul could not be stopped. With her broken English she had made her way to the Commissioner of Corrections, procured a pass, and come to the penitentiary. She handed me a large white handkerchief containing matzoth, gefüllte fish, and some Easter cake of her own baking. She tried to explain to the Warden what a good Jewish daughter her Chavele was; in fact, better than any rabbi's wife, because she gave everything to the poor. She was fearfully wrought up when the moment of departure came, and I tried to soothe her, begging her not to break down before the Warden. She bravely dried her tears and walked out straight and proud, but I knew she would weep bitterly as soon as she got out of sight. No doubt she also prayed to her God for her Chavele.
June saw many prisoners discharged from the sick-ward, only a few beds remaining occupied. For the first time since coming to the hospital I had some leisure, enabling me to read more systematically. I had accumulated a large library; John Swinton had sent me many books, as did also other friends; but most of them were from Justus Schwab. He had never come to see me; he had asked Ed to tell me that it was impossible for him to visit me. He hated prison so much that he would not be able to leave me behind. If he should come, he would be tempted to use force to take me back with him, and it would only cause trouble. Instead he sent me stacks of books. Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and many other English and American authors I learned to know and love through the friendship of Justus. At the same time other elements also became interested in my salvation -- spiritualists and metaphysical redeemers of various kinds. I tried honestly to get at their meaning, but I was no doubt too much of the earth to follow their shadows in the clouds.
Among the books I received was the Life of Albert Brisbane, written by his widow. The fly-leaf had an appreciative dedication to me. The book came with a cordial letter from her son, Arthur Brisbane, who expressed his admiration and the hope that on my release I would allow him to arrange an evening for me. The biography of Brisbane brought me in touch with Fourier and other pioneers of socialist thought.
The prison library had some good literature, including the works of George Sand, George Eliot, and Ouida. The librarian in charge was an educated Englishman serving a five-year sentence for forgery. The books he handed out to me soon began to contain love notes framed in most affectionate terms, and presently they flamed with passion. He had already put in four years in prison, one of his notes read, and he was starved for the love of woman and companionship. He begged me at least to give him the companionship. Would I write him occasionally about the books I was reading? I disliked becoming involved in a silly prison flirtation, yet the need for free, uncensored expression was too compelling to resist. We exchanged many notes, often of a very ardent nature.
My admirer was a splendid musician and played the organ in the chapel. I should have loved to attend, to be able to hear him and feel him near, but the sight of the male prisoners in stripes, some of them handcuffed, and still further degraded and insulted by the lip-service of the minister, was too appalling to me. I had seen it once on the fourth of July, when some politician had come over to speak to the inmates about the glories of American liberty. I had to pass through the male wing on an errand to the Warden, and I heard the pompous patriot spouting of freedom and independence to the mental and physical wrecks. One convict had been put in irons because of an attempted escape. I could hear the clanking of his chains with his every movement. I could not bear to go to church.
The chapel was underneath the hospital ward. Twice on Sundays I could listen on the stairway to my prison flame playing the organ. Sunday was quite a holiday: the head matron was off duty, and we were free from the irritation of her harsh voice. Sometimes the two Catholic sisters would come on that day. I was charmed with the younger one, still in her teens, very lovely and full of life. Once I asked her what had induced her to take the veil. Turning her large eyes upwards, she said: "The priest was young and so beautiful!" The "baby nun," as I called her, would prattle for hours in her cheery young voice, telling me the news and gossip. It was a relief from the prison grayness.
Of the friends I made on Blackwell's Island the priest was the most interesting. At first I felt antagonistic to him. I thought he was like the rest of the religious busybodies, but I soon found that he wanted to talk only about books. He had studied in Cologne and had read much. He knew I had many books and he asked me to exchange some of them with him. I was amazed and wondered what kind of books he would bring me, expecting the New Testament or the Catechism. But he came with works of poetry and music. He had free access to the prison at any time, and often he would come to the ward at nine in the evening and remain till after midnight. We would discuss his favorite composers -- Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms -- and compare our views on poetry and social ideas. He presented me with an English. Latin dictionary as a gift, inscribed: "With the highest respect, to Emma Goldman."
On one occasion I asked him why he never gave me the Bible. "Because no one can understand or love it if he is forced to read it," he replied. That appealed to me and I asked him for it. Its simplicity of language and legendry fascinated me. There was no make-believe about my young friend. He was devout, entirely consecrated. He observed every fast and he would lose himself in prayer for hours. Once he asked me to help him decorate the chapel. When I came down, I found the frail, emaciated figure in silent prayer, oblivious of his surroundings. My own ideal, my faith, was at the opposite pole from his, but I knew he was as ardently sincere as I. Our fervent was our meeting-ground.
Warden Pillsbury often came to the hospital. He was an unusual man for his surroundings. His grandfather had been a jailer, and both his father and himself had been born in the prison. He understood his wards and the social forces that had created them. Once he remarked to me that he could not bear "stool-pigeons"; he preferred the prisoner who had pride and who would not stoop to mean acts against his fellow convicts in order to gain privileges for himself. If an inmate asseverated that he would reform and never again commit a crime, the Warden felt sure he was lying. He knew that no one could start a new life after years of prison and with the whole world against him unless he had outside friends to help him. He used to say that the State did not even supply a released man with enough money for his first week's meals. How, then, could he be expected to "make good?" He would relate the story of the man who on the morning of his release told him: "Pillsbury, the next watch and chain I steal I'll send to you as a present." "That's my man," the Warden would laugh.
Pillsbury was in a position to do much good for the unfortunates in his charge, but he was constantly hampered. He had to allow prisoners to do cooking, washing, and cleaning for others than themselves. If the table damask was not properly rolled before ironing, the laundress stood in danger of confinement to the dungeon. The whole prison was demoralized by favoritism. Convicts were deprived of food for the slightest infraction, but Pillsbury, who was an old man, was powerless to do much about it. Besides, he was eager to avoid a scandal.
The nearer the day of my liberation approached, the more unbearable life in prison became. The days dragged and I grew restless and irritable with impatience. Even reading became impossible. I would sit for hours lost in reminiscences. I thought of the comrades in the Illinois penitentiary brought back to life by the pardon of Governor Altgeld. Since I had come to prison, I realized how much the release of the three men, Neebe, Fielden, and Schwab, had done for the cause for which their comrades in Chicago had been hanged. The venom of the press against Altgeld for his gesture of justice proved how deeply he had struck the vested interests, particularly by his analysis of the trial and his clear demonstration that the executed anarchists had been judicially killed in spite of their proved innocence of the crime charged against them. Every detail of the momentous days of 1887 stood out in strong relief before me. Then Sasha, our life together, his act, his martyrdom -- every moment of the five years since I had first met him I now relived with poignant reality. Why was it, I mused, that Sasha was still so deeply rooted in my being? Was not my love for Ed more ecstatic, more enriching? Perhaps it was his act that had bound me to him with such powerful cords. How insignificant was my own prison experience compared with what Sasha was suffering in the Allegheny purgatory! I now felt ashamed that, even for a moment, I could have found my incarceration hard. Not one friendly face in the court-room to be near Sasha and comfort him -- solitary confinement and complete isolation, for no more visits had been allowed him. The Inspector had kept his promise; since my visit in November 1892, Sasha had not again been permitted to see anyone. How he must have craved the sight and touch of a kindred spirit, how he must be yearning for it!
My thoughts rushed on. Fedya, the lover of beauty, so fine and sensitive! And Ed. Ed -- he had kissed to life so many mysterious longings, had opened such spiritual sources of wealth to me! I owed my development to Ed, tied to the others, too, who had been in my life. And yet, more than all else, it was the prison that bad proved the best school. A more painful, but a more vital, school. Here I bad been brought close to the depths and complexities of the human soul; here I had found ugliness and beauty, meanness and generosity. Here, too, I had learned to see life through my own eyes and not through those of Sasha, Most, or Ed. The prison had been the crucible that tested my faith. It had helped me to discover strength in my own being, the strength to stand alone, the strength to live my life and fight for my ideals, against the whole world if need be. The State of New York could have rendered me no greater service than by sending me to Blackwell's Island Penitentiary!
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