Part 2, Chapter 20 : A Day in the Cell-House
Part 2, Chapter 20
To K. & G.
Good news! I was let out of the cell this morning. The coffee-boy on my range went home yesterday, and I was put in his place.
It's lucky the old Deputy died-he was determined to keep me in solitary. In the absence of the Warden, Benny Greaves, the new Deputy, told me he will "risk" giving me a job. But he has issued strict orders I should not be permitted to step into the yard. I'll therefore still be under special surveillance, and I shall not be able to see you. But I am in touch with our "Faithful," and we can now resume a more regular correspondence.
Over a year in solitary. It's almost like liberty to be out of the cell!
My position as coffee-boy affords many opportunities for closer contact with the prisoners. I assist the rangeman in taking care of a row of sixty-four cells situated on the ground floor, and lettered K. Above it are, successively, I, H, G, and F, located on the yard side of the cell-house. On the opposite side, facing the river, the ranges are labeled A, B, C, D, and E. The galleries form parallelograms about each double cell-row; bridged at the center, they permit easy access to the several ranges. The ten tiers, with a total of six hundred and forty cells, are contained within the outer stone building, and comprise the North Block of the penitentiary. It connects with the South Wing by means of the rotunda.
The bottom tiers A and K serve as "receiving" ranges. Here every new arrival is temporarily "celled," before he is assigned to work and transferred to the gallery occupied by his shopfellows. On these ranges are also located the men undergoing special punishment in basket and solitary. The lower end of the two ranges is designated "bughouse row." It contains the "cranks," among whom are classed inmates in different stages of mental aberration.
My various duties of sweeping the hall, dusting the cell doors, and assisting at feeding, enable me to become acquainted and to form friendships. I marvel at the inadequacy of my previous notions of "the criminal." I resent the presumption of "science" that pretends to evolve the intricate convolutions of a living human brain out of the shape of a digit cut from a dead hand, and labels it "criminal type." Daily association dispels the myth of the "species," and reveals the individual. Growing intimacy discovers the humanity beneath fibers coarsened by lack of opportunity, and brutalized by misery and fear. There is "Reddie" Butch, a rosy-checked young fellow of twenty-one, as frank-spoken a boy as ever honored a striped suit. A jolly criminal is Butch, with his irrepressible smile and gay song. He was "just dying to take his girl for a ride," he relates to me. But he couldn't afford it; he earned only seven dollars per week, as butcher's boy. He always gave his mother every penny he made, but the girl kept taunting him because he couldn't spend anything on her. "And I goes to work and swipes a rig, and say, Aleck, you ought to see me drive to me girl's house, big-like. In I goes. 'Put on your glad duds, Kate/ I says, says 1, 'I'll give you the drive of your life.' And I did; you bet your sweet life, I did, ha, ha, ha! " But when he returned the rig to its owner, Butch was arrested. "'Just a prank, Your Honor/ I says to the judge. And what d' you think, Aleck? Thought I'd die when he said three years. I was foolish, of course; but there's no use crying over spilled milk, ha, ha, ha! But you know, the worst of it is, me girl went back on me. Wouldn't that jar you, eh 7 Well, I'll try hard to forget th' minx. She's a sweet girl, though, you bet, ha, ha, ha!
And there is Young Rush, the descendant of the celebrated family of the great American physician. The delicate features, radiant with spirituality, bear a striking resemblance to Shelley; the limping gait recalls the tragedy of Byron. He is in for murder! He sits at the door, an open book in his hands,-the page is moist with the tears silently trickling down his face. He smiles at my approach, and his expressive eyes light up the darkened cell, like a glimpse of the sun breaking through the clouds. He was wooing a girl on a Summer night; the skiff suddenly upturned, "right opposite here,"-he points to the river,"near McKees Rocks." He was dragged out, unconscious. They told him the girl was dead, and that he was her murderer! He reaches for the photograph on his table, and bursts into sobs.
Daily I sweep the length of the hall, advancing from cell to cell with deliberate stroke, all the while watching for an opportunity to exchange a greeting with the prisoners. My mind reverts to poor Wingie. How he cheered me in the first days of misery; how kind he was! In gentler tones I speak to the unfortunates, and encourage the new arrivals, or indulge some demented prisoner in a harmless whim. The dry sweeping of the hallway raises a cloud of dust, and loud coughing follows in my wake. Taking advantage of the old Block Captain's "cold in the head," I cautiously hint at the danger of germs lurking in the dust-laden atmosphere. "A little wet sawdust on the floor, Mr. Mitchell, and you wouldn't catch colds so often." A capital idea, he thinks, and thereafter I guard the precious supply under the bed in my cell.
In little ways I seek to help the men in solitary. Every trifle means so much. "Long Joe, " the rangeman, whose duty it is to attend to their needs, is engrossed with his own troubles. The poor fellow is serving twenty-five years, and he is much worried by "Wild Bill" and "Bighead" Wilson. They are constantly demanding to see the Warden. It is remarkable that they are never refused. The guards seem to stand in fear of them. "Wild Bill" is a self-confessed invert, and there are peculiar rumors concerning his intimacy with the Warden. Recently Bill complained of indigestion, and a guard sent me to deliver some delicacies to him. "From the Warden's table," he remarked, with a sly wink. And Wilson is jocularly referred to as "the Deputy," even by the officers. He is still in stripes, but he seems to wield some powerful influence over the new Deputy; he openly defies the rules, upbraids the guards, and issues orders. He is the Warden's "runner," clad with the authority of his master. The prisoners regard Bill and Wilson as stools, and cordially hate them; but none dare offend them. Poor Joe is constantly harassed by "Deputy" Wilson; there seems to be bitter enmity between the two on account of a young prisoner who prefers the friendship of Joe. Worried by the complex intrigues of life in the block, the rangeman is indifferent to the unfortunates in the cells. Butch is devoured by bedbugs, and "Praying" Andy's mattress is flattened into a pancake. The simple-minded life-timer is being neglected: he has not yet recovered from the assault by Johnny Smith, who hit him on the head with a hammer. I urge the rangeman to report to the Captain the need of "bedbugging" Butch's cell, of supplying Andy with a new mattress, and of notifying the doctor of the increasing signs of insanity among the solitaries.
Breakfast is over; the lines form in lockstep, and march to the shops. Broom in hand, rangemen and assistants step upon the galleries, and commence to sweep the floors. Officers pass along the tiers, closely scrutinizing each cell. Now and then they pause, facing a "delinquent." They note his number, unlock the door, and the prisoner joins the "sick line" on the ground floor.
One by one the men augment the row; they walk slowly, bent and coughing, painfully limping down the steep flights. From every range they come; the old and decrepit, the young consumptives, the lame and asthmatic, a tottering old negro, an idiotic white boy. All look withered and dejected,-a ghastly line, palsied and blear-eyed, blanched in the valley of death.
The rotunda door opens noisily, and the doctor enters, accompanied by Deputy Warden Greaves and Assistant Deputy Hopkins. Behind them is a prisoner, dressed in dark gray and carrying a medicine box. Dr. Boyce glances at the long line, and knits his brows. He looks at his watch, and the frown deepens. He has much to do. Since the death of the senior doctor, the young graduate is the sole physician of the big prison. He must make the rounds of the shops before noon, and visit the patients in the hospital before the Warden or the Deputy drops in.
Mr. Greaves sits down at the officers' desk, near the hall entrance. The Assistant Deputy, pad in hand, places himself at the head of the sick line. The doctor leans against the door of the rotunda, facing the Deputy. The block officers stand within call, at respectful distances.
"Two-fifty-five!" the Assistant Deputy calls out.
A slender young man leaves the line and approaches the doctor. He is tall and well featured, the large eyes lustrous in the pale face. He speaks in a hoarse voice:
"Doctor, there is something the matter with my side. I have pains, and I cough bad at night, and in the morning-"
"All right," the doctor interrupts, without looking up from his note book. "Give him some salts," he adds, with a nod to his assistant.
"Next!" the Deputy calls.
"Will you please excuse me from the shop for a few days?" the sick prisoner pleads, a tremor in his voice.
The physician glances questioningly at the Deputy. The latter cries, impatiently, "Next, next man!" striking the desk twice, in quick succession, with the knuckles of his hand.
"Return to the shop," the doctor says to the prisoner.
"Next!" the Deputy calls, spurting a stream of tobacco juice in the direction of the cuspidor. It strikes sidewise, and splashes over the foot of the approaching new patient, a young negro, his neck covered with bulging tumors.
"Number?" the doctor inquires.
"One-thirty-seven, A one-thirty-seven!" the Deputy mumbles, his head thrown back to receive a fresh handful of "scrap" tobacco.
"Guess Ah's got de big neck, Ah is, Mistah Boyce," the negro says hoarsely.
"Salts. Return to work. Next!"
A young man with parchmcnt-like face, sere and yellow, walks painfully from the line.
"Doctor, I seem to be gettin' worser, and I'm afraid-"
"What's the trouble?"
"Pains in the stomach. Gettin' so turrible, I-"
"Give him a plaster. Next!"
"Plaster hell!" the prisoner breaks out in a fury, his face growing livid. "Look at this, will you?" With a quick motion he pulls his shirt up to his head. His chest and back are entirely covered with porous plasters; not an inch of skin is visible. "Damn yer plasters," he cries with sudden sobs, "I ain't got no more room for plasters, I'm putty near dyin', an' you won't do nothin' fer me."
The guards pounce upon the man, and drag him into the rotunda.
One by one the sick prisoners approach the doctor. He stands, head bent, penciling, rarely glancing up, The elongated ascetic face wears a preoccupied look; he drawls mechanically, in monosyllables, "Next! Numb'r? Salts! Plaster! Salts! Next!" Occasionally he glances at his watch; his brows knit closer, the heavy furrow deepens, and the austere face grows more severe and rigid. Now and then he turns his eyes upon the Deputy Warden, sitting opposite, his jaws incessantly working, a thin stream of tobacco trickling down his chin, and heavily streaking the gray beard. Checks protruding, mouth full of juice, the Deputy mumbles unintelligently, turns to expectorate, suddenly shouts "Next!" and gives two quick knocks on the desk, signaling to the physician to order the man to work. Only the withered and the lame are temporarily excused, the Deputy striking the desk thrice to convey the permission to the doctor.
Dejected and forlorn, the sick line is conducted to the shops, coughing, wheezing, and moaning, only to repeat the ordeal the following morning. Quite often, breaking down at the machine or fainting at the task, the men are carried on a stretcher to the hospital, to receive a respite from the killing toil,-a short intermission, or a happier, eternal reprieve.
The lame and the feeble, too withered to be useful in the shops, are sent back to their quarters, and locked up for the day. Only these, the permitted delinquents, the insane, the men in solitary, and the sweepers, remain within the inner walls during working hours. The pall of silence descends upon the House of Death.
The guards creep stealthily along the tiers. Officer George Dean, lank and tall, tiptoes past the cells, his sharply hooked nose in advance, his evil-looking eyes peering through the bars, scrutinizing every inmate. Suddenly the heavy jaws snap. "Hey, you, Eleven-thirty-nine! On the bed again! Wha-at? Sick, hell! No din-ner! " Noisily he pretends to return to the desk "in front," quietly steals into the niche of a cell door, and stands motionless, alertly listening. A suppressed murmur proceeds from the upper galleries. Cautiously the guard advances, hastily passes several cells, pauses a moment, and then quickly steps into the center of the hall, shouting. "Cells forty-seven K, 1, H! Talking through the pipe! Got you this time, all right," He grins broadly as he returns to the desk, and reports to the Block Captain. The guards ascend the galleries. Levers are pulled, doors opened with a bang, and the three prisoners are marched to the office, For days their cells remain vacant: the men are in the dungeon.
Gaunt and cadaverous, Guard Hughes makes the rounds of the tiers, on a tour of inspection. With bleary eyes, sunk deep in his head, he gazes intently through the bars. The men are out at work. Leisurely he walks along, stepping from cell to cell, here tearing a Picture off the wall, there gathering a few scraps of paper. As I pass along the hall, he slams a door on the range above, and appears upon the gallery. His pockets bulge with confiscated goods. He glances around, as the Deputy enters from the yard. "Hey, jasper!" the guard calls. The colored trusty scampers up the stairs. "Take this to the front." The officer hands him a dilapidated magazine, two pieces of cornbread, a little square of cheese, and several candles that some weakeyed prisoner had saved up by sitting in the dark for weeks. "Show 't to the Deputy," the officer says, in an undertone. "I'm doing business, all right!" The trusty laughs boisterously, "Yassah, yassah, dat yo sure am."
The guard steps into the next cell, throwing a quick look to the front. The Deputy is disappearing through the rotunda door. The officer casts his eye about the cell. The table is littered with magazines and papers. A piece of matting, stolen from the shops, is on the floor. On the bed are some bananas and a bunch of grapes,-forbidden fruit. The guard steps back to the gallery, a faint smile on his thin lips. He reaches for the heartshaped wooden block hanging above the cell. It bears the legend, painted in black, A 480. On the reverse side the officer reads, "Collins Hamilton, dated-." His watery eyes strain to decipher the penciled marks paled by the damp, whitewashed wall. "Jasper!" he calls, "come up here." The trusty hastens to him.
"You know who this man is, jasper? A four-eighty."
"Ah sure knows. Dat am Hamilton, de bank 'bezleh."
"Where's he working?"
"Wat he wan' teh work foh? He am de Cap'n's clerk. In de awfice, he am."
"All right, jasper." The guard carefully closes the clerk's door, and enters the adjoining cell. It looks clean and orderly. The stone floor is bare, the bedding smooth; the library book, tin can, and plate, are neatly arranged on the table. The officer ransacks the bed, throws the blankets on the floor, and stamps his feet upon the pillow in search of secreted contraband. He, reaches up to the wooden shelf on the wall, and takes down the little bag of scrap tobacco,-the weekly allowance of the prisoners. He empties a goodly part into his hand, shakes it up, and thrusts it into his mouth. He produces a prison "plug" from his pocket, bites off a piece, spits in the direction of the privy, and yawns; looks at his watch, deliberates a moment, spurts a stream of juice into the corner, and cautiously steps out on the gallery. He surveys the field, leans over the railing, and squints at the front. The chairs at the officers' desk are va. cant. The guard retreats into the cell, yawns and stretches, and looks at his watch again. It is only nine o'clock. He picks up the library book, listlessly examines the cover, flings the book on the shelf, spits disgustedly, then takes another chew, and sprawls down on the bed.
At the head of the hall, Senior Officer Woods and Assistant Deputy Hopkins sit at the desk. Of superb physique and glowing vitality, Mr. Woods wears his new honors as Captain of the Block with aggressive self-importance. He has recently been promoted from the shop to the charge of the North Wing, on the morning shift, from 5 A.M. to I P.M. Every now and then he leaves his chair, walks majestically down the hallway, crosses the open center, and returns past the opposite cell-row.
With studied dignity he resumes his seat and addresses his superior, the Assistant Deputy, in measured, low tones. The latter listens gravely, his head slightly bent, his sharp gray eyes restless above the heavy-rimmed spectacles. As Mr. Hopkins, angular and stoop -shouldered, rises to expectorate into the nearby sink, he espies the shining face of Jasper on an upper gallery. The Assistant Deputy smiles, produces a large apple from his pocket, and, holding it up to view, asks:
"How does this strike you, jasper?"
"Looks teh dis niggah like a watahmelon, Cunnel.
Woods struggles to suppress a smile. Hopkins laughs, and motions to the negro. The trusty joins them at the desk.
"I'll bet the coon could get away with this apple in two bites," the Assistant Deputy says to Woods.
"Hardly possible," the latter remarks, doubtfully.
"You don't know this darky, Scot." Hopkins rejoins. "I know him for the last-let me see-fifteen, eighteen, twenty years. That's when you first came here, eh, jasper?"
"Yassah, 'bout dat."
"In the old prison, then?" Woods inquires.
"Yes, of course. You was there, jasper, when 'Shoebox' Miller got out, wasn't you?"
"Yo 'member good, Cunnel. Dat Ali was, sure 'nuf. En mighty slick it was, bress me, teh hab imsef nailed in dat shoebox, en nick his get-away."
"Yes, yes. And this is your fourth time since then, I believe. "
"No, sah, no, sah; dere yo am wrong, Cunnel. Youh remnishent am bad. Dis jus' free times, jus' free."
"Come off, it's four."
"Free, Cunnel, no moah."
"Do you think, Mr. Hopkins, jasper could eat the apple in two bites?" Woods reminds him.
"I'm sure he can. There's nothing in the eating line this coon couldn't do. Here, jasper, you get the apple if you make it in two bites. Don't disgrace me, now."
The negro grins. "Putty big, Cunnel, but Ah'm a gwine teh try powful hard."
With a heroic effort he stretches his mouth, till his face looks like a veritable cavern, reaching from ear to ear, and edged by large, shimmering tusks. With both hands he inserts the big apple, and his sharp teeth come down with a loud snap. He chews quickly, swallows, repeats the performance, and then holds up his hands. The apple has disappeared.
The Assistant Deputy roars with laughter. "What did I tell you, eh, Scot? What did I tell you, ho, ho, ho!" The tears glisten in his eye.
They amuse themselves with the negro trusty by the hour. He relates his experiences, tells humorous anecdotes, and the officers are merry. Now and then Deputy Warden Greaves drops in. Woods rises.
"Have a seat, Mr. Greaves."
"That's all right, that's all right, Scot," the Deputy mumbles, his eye searching for the cuspidor. "Sit down, Scot; I'm as young as any of you."
With mincing step he walks into the first cell, reserved for the guards, pulls a bottle from his hip pocket, takes several quick gulps, wabbles back to the desk, and sinks heavily into Woods's seat.
"Jasper, go bring me a chew," he turns to the trusty.
"Yassah. Scrap, Dep'ty?"
"Yah. A nip of plug, too."
"Yassah, yassah, immejitly."
"What are you men doing here?" the Deputy blusters at the two subordinates.
Woods frowns, squares his shoulders, glances at the Deputy, and then relaxes into a dignified smile. Assistant Hopkins looks sternly at the Deputy Warden from above his glasses. "That's all right, Greaves," he says, familiarly, a touch of scorn in his voice. "Say, you should have seen that nigger jasper swallow a great, big apple in two bites; as big as your head, I'll swear."
"That sho? " the Deputy nods sleepily.
The negro comes running up with a paper of scrap in one hand, a plug in the other. The Deputy slowly opens his eyes. He walks unsteadily to the cell, remains there a few minutes, and returns with both hands fumbling at his hip pocket. He spits viciously at the sink, sits down, fills his mouth with tobacco, glances at the floor, and demands, hoarsely:
"Where's all them spittoons, eh, you men?"
"Just being cleaned, Mr. Greaves," Woods replies.
"Cleaned, always th' shame shtory. I ordered-ya-ordered-hey, bring shpittoon, jasper." He wags his head drowsily.
"He means he ordered spittoons by the wagonload, " Hopkins says, with a wink at Woods. "It was the very first order he gave when he became Deputy after Jimmie McPane died. I tell you, Scot, we won't see so soon another Deputy like old Jimmie. He was Deputy all right, every inch of him. Wouldn't stand for the old man, the Warden, interfering with him, either. Not like this here," he points contemptuously at the snoring Greaves. "Here, Benny," he raises his voice and slaps the Deputy on the knee, "here's jasper with your spittoon."
Greaves wakes with a start, and gazes stupidly about; presently, noticing the trusty with the large cuspidor, he spurts a long jet at it.
"Say, jasper," Hopkins calls to the retiring negro, "the Deputy wants to hear that story you told us a while ago, about how you got the left hind foot of a she-rabbit, on a moonlit night in a graveyard."
"Who shaid I want to hear 't?" the Deputy bristles, suddenly wide awake.
"Yes, you do, Greaves," Hopkins asserts. "The rabbit foot brings good luck, you know. This coon here wears it on his neck. Show it to the Deputy, jasper."
Prisoner Wilson, the Warden's favorite messenger, enters from the yard. With quick, energetic step he passes the officers at the desk, entirely ignoring their presence, and walks nonchalantly down the hall, his unnaturally large head set close upon the heavy, almost neckless shoulders.
"Hey, you, Wilson, what are you after?" the Deputy shouts after him.
Without replying, Wilson continues on his way.
"Dep'ty Wilson," the negro jeers, with a look of hatred and envy.
Assistant Deputy Hopkins rises in his seat. "Wilson," he calls with quiet sternness, "Mr. Greaves is speaking to you. Come back at once."
His face purple with anger, Wilson retraces his steps. "What do you want, Deputy?" he demands, savagely.
The Deputy looks uneasy and fidgets in his chair, but catching the severe eye of Hopkins, he shouts vehemently: "What do you want in the block?"
"On Captain Edward S. Wright's business," Wilson replies with a sneer.
"Well, go ahead. But next time I call you, you better come back."
"The Warden told me to hurry. I'll report to him that you detained me with an idle question," Wilson snarls back.
"That'll do, Wilson," the Assistant Deputy warns him.
"Wait till I see the Captain," Wilson growls, as he departs.
"If I had my way, I'd knock his damn block off," the Assistant mutters.
"Such impudence in a convict cannot be tolerated," Woods comments.
"The Cap'n won't hear a word against Wilson," the Deputy says meekly.
Hopkins frowns. They sit in silence. The negro busies himself, wiping the yellow-stained floor around the cuspidor. The Deputy ambles stiffly to the open cell. Woods rises, steps back to the wall, and looks up to the top galleries. No one is about. He crosses to the other side, and scans the bottom range. Long and dismal stretches the hall, in melancholy white and gray, the gloomy cell-building brooding in the center, like some monstrous hunchback, without life or motion. Woods resumes his seat.
"Quiet as a church," he remarks with evident satisfaction.
"You're doing well, Scot," the Deputy mumbles. "Doing well. "
A faint metallic sound breaks upon the stillness. The officers prick up their ears. The rasping continues and grows louder. The negro trusty tiptoes up the tiers.
"It's somebody with his spoon on the door," the Assistant Deputy remarks, indifferently.
The Block Captain motions to me. "See who's rapping there, will you?"
I walk quickly along the hall. By keeping close to the wall, I can see up to the doors of the third gallery. Here and there a nose protrudes in the air, the bleached face glued to the bars, the eyes glassy. The rapping grows louder as I advance.
"Who is it?" I call.
"Up here, 18 C."
"Is that you, Ed?"
"Yes. Got a bad hemorrhage. Tell th' screw I must see the doctor."
I run to the desk. "Mr. Woods," I report, " 18 C got a hemorrhage. Can't stop it. He needs the doctor."
"Let him wait," the Deputy growls.
"Doctor hour is over. He should have reported in the morning, " the Assistant Deputy flares up.
"What shall I tell him, Mr. Woods?" I ask.
"Nothing! Get back to your cell."
"Perhaps you'd better go up and take a look, Scot," the Deputy suggests.
Mr. Woods strides along the gallery, pauses a moment at 18 C, and returns.
"Nothing much. A bit of blood. I ordered him to report on sick list in the morning."
A middle-aged prisoner, with confident bearing and polished manner, enters from the yard. It is the "French Court," one of the clerks in the "front office."
"Good morning, gentlemen," he greets the officers. He leans familiarly over the Deputy's chair, remarking: "I've been hunting half an hour for you. The Captain is a bit ruffled this morning. He is looking for you."
The Deputy hurriedly rises. "Where is he?" he asks anxiously.
"In the office, Mr. Greaves. You know what's about?"
"What? Quick, now."
"They caught Wild Bill right in the act. Out in the yard there, back of the shed."
The Deputy stumps heavily out into the yard.
"Who's the kid?" the Assistant Deputy inquires, an amused twinkle in his eye.
"Who? That boy on the whitewash gang?"
"Yes, Fatty Bobby."
The clatter on the upper tier grows loud and violent. The sick man is striking his tin can on the bars, and shaking the door. Woods hastens to C 18.
"You stop that, you hear!" he commands angrily.
"I'm sick. I want th' doctor."
"This isn't doctor hour. You'll see him in the morning."
"I may be dead in the morning. I want him now."
"You won't see him, that's all. You keep quiet there."
Furiously the prisoner raps on the door. The hall reverberates with hollow booming.
The Block Captain returns to the desk, his face crimson. He whispers to the Assistant Deputy. The latter nods his head. Woods claps his hands, deliberately, slowly-one, two, three. Guards hurriedly descend from the galleries, and advance to the desk. The rangemen appear at their doors.
"Everybody to his cell. Officers, lock 'em in!" Woods commands.
"You can stay here, jasper," the Assistant Deputy remarks to the trusty.
The rangemen step into their cells. The levers are pulled, the doors locked. I hear the tread of many feet on the third gallery. Now they cease, and all is quiet.
"C 18, step out here!"
The door slams, there is noisy shuffling and stamping, and the dull, heavy thuds of striking clubs. A loud cry and a moan. They drag the prisoner along the range, and down the stairway. The rotunda door creaks, and the clamor dies away.
A few minutes elapse in silence. Now some one whispers through the pipes; insane solitaries bark and crow. Loud coughing drowns the noises, and then the rotunda door opens with a plaintive screech.
The rangemen are unlocked. I stand at the open door of my cell. The negro trusty dusts and brushes the officers, their backs and arms covered with whitewash, as if they had been rubbed against the wall.
Their clothes cleaned and smoothed, the guards loll in the chairs, and sit on the desk. They look somewhat ruffled and flustered. jasper enlarges upon the piquant gossip. "Wild Bill," notorious invert and protege of the Warden, he relates, had been hanging around the kids from the stocking shop; he has been after "Fatty Bobby" for quite a while, and he's forever pestering "Lady Sally," and Young Davis, too. The guards are astir with curiosity; they ply the negro with questions. He responds eagerly, raises his voice, and gesticulates excitedly. There is merriment and laughter at the officers' desk.
Dinner hour is approaching. Officer Gerst, in charge of the kitchen squad, enters the cell-house. Behind him, a score of prisoners carry large wooden tubs filled with steaming liquid. The negro trusty, his nostrils expanded and eyes glistening, sniffs the air, and announces with a grin: "Dooke's mixchoor foh dinneh teh day!"
The scene becomes animated at the front. Tables are noisily moved about, the tinplate rattles, and men talk and shout. With a large ladle the soup is dished out from the tubs, and the pans, bent and rusty, stacked up in long rows. The Deputy Warden flounces in, splutters some orders that remain ignored, and looks critically at the dinner pans. He produces a pocket knife, and ambles along the tables, spearing a potato here, a bit of floating vegetable there. Guard Hughes, his inspection of the cells completed, saunters along, casting greedy eyes at the food. He hovers about, waiting for the Deputy to leave. The latter stands, hands dug into his pockets, short legs wide apart, scraggy beard keeping time with the moving jaws. Guard Hughes winks at one of the kitchen men, and slinks into an open cell. The prisoner fusses about, pretends to move the empty tubs out of the way, and then quickly snatches a pan of soup, and passes it to the guard. Negro jasper, alert and watchful, strolls by Woods, surreptitiously whispering. The officer walks to the open cell and surprises the guard, his head thrown back, the large pan covering his face. Woods smiles disdainfully, the prisoners giggle and chuckle.
"Chief Jim," the head cook, a Pittsburgh saloonkeeper serving twelve years for murder, promenades down the range. Largebellied and whitecapped, he wears an air of prosperity and independence. With swelling chest, stomach protruding, and hand wrapped in his dirty apron, the Chief walks leisurely along the cells, nodding and exchanging greetings. He pauses at a door: it's Cell 9 A-the "Fat Kid." Jim leans against the wall, his back toward the dinner tables; presently his hand steals between the bars. Now and then he glances toward the front, and steps closer to the door. He draws a large bundle from his bosom, hastily tears it open, and produces a piece of cooked meat, several raw onions, some cakes. One by one he passes the delicacies to the young prisoner, forcing them through the narrow openings between the bars. He lifts his apron, fans the door sill, and carefully wipes the ironwork; then he smiles, casts a searching look to the front, grips the bars with both hands, and vanishes into the deep niche.
As suddenly he appears to view again, takes several quick steps, then pauses at another cell. Standing away from the door, he speaks loudly and laughs boisterously, his hands fumbling beneath the apron. Soon he leaves, advancing to the dinner tables. He approaches the rangeman, lifts his eyebrows questioningly, and winks. The man nods affirmatively, and retreats into his cell. The Chief dives into the bosom of his shirt, and flings a bundle through the open door. He holds out his hand, whispering: "Two bits. Broke now? Be sure you pay me to-morrow. That steak there's worth a plunk."
The gong tolls the dinner hour. The negro trusty snatches two pans, and hastens away. The guards unlock the prisoners, excepting the men in solitary who are deprived of the sole meal of the day. The line forms in single file, and advances slowly to the tables; then, pan in hand, the men circle the block to the center, ascend the galleries, and are locked in their cells.
The loud tempo of many feet, marching in step, sounds from the yard. The shop workers enter, receive the pan of soup, and walk to the cells. Some sniff the air, make a wry face, and pass on, empty-handed. There is much suppressed murmuring and whispering.
Gradually the sounds die away. It is the noon hour. Every prisoner is counted and locked in. Only the trusties are about.
The afternoon brings a breath of relief. "Old Jimmie" Mitchell, rough-spoken and kind, heads the second shift of officers, on duty from I till 9 Pm. The venerable Captain of the Block trudges past the cells, stroking his flowing white beard, and profusely swearing at the men. But the prisoners love him: he frowns upon clubbing, and discourages trouble-seeking guards.
Head downward, he thumps heavily along the hall, on his first round of the bottom ranges. Presently a voice hails him: "Oh, Mr. Mitchell! Come here, please."
"Damn your soul t' hell," the officer rages, "don't you know better than to bother me when I'm counting, eh? Shut up now, God damn you. You've mixed me all up."
He returns to the front, and begins to count again, pointing his finger at each occupied cell. This duty over, and his report filed, he returns to the offending prisoner.
"What t' hell do you want, Butch?"
"Mr. Mitchell, my shoes are on th'bum. I am walking on my socks."
"Where th' devil d' you think you're going, anyhow? To a ball? "
"Papa Mitchell, be good now, won't you?" the youth coaxes.
"Go an' take a-thump to yourself, will you?"
The officer walks off, heavy-browed and thoughtful, but pauses a short distance from the cell, to hear Butch mumbling discontentedly. The Block Captain retraces his steps, and, facing the boy, storms at him:
"What did you say? 'Damn the old skunk!' that's what you said, eh? You come on out of there!"
With much show of violence he inserts the key into the lock, pulls the door open with a bang, and hails a passing guard:
"Mr. Kelly, quick, take this loafer out and give 'im-ergive 'im a pair of shoes."
He starts down the range, when some one calls from an upper tier:
"Jimmy, Jimmy! Come on up here!"
"I'll jimmy your damn carcass for you," the old man bellows, angrily. "Where th' hell are you?"
"Here, on B, 20 B. Right over you."
The officer steps back to the wall, and looks up toward the second gallery.
"What in th'name of Jesus Christ do you want, Slim?"
"Awful cramps in me stomach. Get me some cramp mixture, Jim. "
"Cramps in yer head, that's what you've got, you big bum you. Where in hell did you get your cramp mixture, when you was spilling around in a freight car, eh?"
"I got booze then," the prisoner retorts.
"Like hell you did! You were damn lucky to get a louzy hand-out at the back door, you ornery pimple on God's good earth."
"Th'hell you say! The hand-out was a damn sight better'n th' rotten slush I get here. I wouldn't have a belly-ache, if it wasn't for th' hogwash they gave us to-day. "
"Lay down now! You talk like a horse's rosette."
It's the old man's favorite expression, in his rich vocabulary of picturesque metaphor and simile. But there is no sting in the brusque speech, no rancor in the scowling eyes. On the way to the desk he pauses to whisper to the block trusty:
"John, you better run down to the dispensary, an' get that big stiff some cramp mixture."
Happening to glance into a cell, Mitchell notices a new arrival, a bald-headed man, his back against the door, reading.
"Hey you!" the Block Captain shouts at him, startling the green prisoner off his chair, "take that bald thing out of there, or I'll run you in for indecent exposure."
He chuckles at the man's fright, like a boy pleased with a naughty prank, and ascends the upper tiers.
Duster in hand, I walk along the range. The guards are engaged on the galleries, examining cells, overseeing the moving of the newly-graded inmates to the South Wing, or chatting with the trusties. The chairs at the officers' desk are vacant. Keeping alert watch on the rotunda doors, I walk from cell to cell, whiling away the afternoon hours in conversation. Johnny, the friendly runner, loiters at the desk, now and then glancing into the yard, and giving me "the office" by sharply snapping his fingers, to warn me of danger. I ply the duster diligently, while the Deputy and his assistants linger about, surrounded by the trusties imparting information gathered during the day. Gradually they disperse, called into a shop where a fight is in progress, or nosing about the kitchen and assiduously killing time. The "coast is clear," and I return to pick up the thread of interrupted conversation.
But the subjects of common interest are soon exhausted. The oft-repeated tirade against the "rotten grub," the "stale punk," and the "hogwash"; vehement cursing of the brutal "screws," the "stomach-robber of a Warden" and the unreliability of his promises; the exchange of gossip, and then back again to berating the food and the treatment. Within the narrow circle runs the interminable tale, colored by individual temperament, intensified by the length of sentence. The whole is dominated by a deep sense of unmerited suffering and bitter resentment, often breathing dire vengeance against those whom they consider responsible for their misfortune, including the police, the prosecutor, the informer, the witnesses, and, in rare instances, the trial judge. But as the longed-for release approaches, the note of hope and liberty rings clearer, stronger, with the swelling undercurrent of frank and irrepressible sex desire.
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