With the last hope of a pardon gone, a prison breakout seemed to Sasha the only solution. He had been contemplating this dramatic move since his earliest days in the penitentiary, and was always on the lookout for opportunities, vowing that he “would make use of any means, however terrible, to escape from this hell to regain liberty.”
Sasha had conceived a getaway scheme in early 1897. The plan was to rent a house across the street from Riverside and dig an underground passage leading from the house to the prison, below the eastern wall. Sasha was entranced by the idea. “Who knows? It may prove the symbol and precursor of Russian idealism on American soil,” he said. “And what tremendous impression the consummation of the bold plan will make! What a stimulus to our propaganda, as a demonstration of anarchist initiative and ability!”
By 1899, once all the options for a pardon were exhausted, Berkman resolved to put his plan into action. The time seemed right. Warden Wright had released him from solitary shortly after the Board of Pardons closed the door on legal appeal, and had made him an assistant rangeman, which gave him access to a wide section of the prison and increased his familiarity with the institution’s landscape. Sasha was optimistic. “These things have been accomplished in Russia,” he thought. “Why not in America?” He thrilled at the idea of freedom. “The wine of sunshine and liberty,” he said, “tingles in every fiber.”
Berkman engaged the help of a fellow prisoner called “Tony,” an Alsatian whom he described as “small and wiry,” “intelligent and daring,” with a “quick wit” and “a considerable dash of the Frenchman about him.”
Tony, imprisoned for sodomy, was due to finish his term in several weeks, and would smuggle out diagrams, blueprints, and measurements when he left the prison. Sasha’s comrades would arrange the excavation of the tunnel, while Tony would serve as Sasha’s contact, using a cipher code known only to them.
Emma did not take a lead role in the operation [with anarchist business to conduct in Great Britain and France, she was due to depart for Europe in November 1899.] It was just as well, she thought. The authorities were less likely to suspect mischief if she was out of the country.
To direct the operation, Emma chose Eric B. Morton. Morton, a carpenter, was a Norwegian-born anarchist nicknamed “Ibsen,” and “Eric the Red,” after the hero of a medieval Icelandic saga. He was tall, strong, and imposing, highly literate, and very resourceful. Goldman described him as “a veritable Viking, in spirit and physique, a man of intelligence, daring, and will-power.” With Morton in charge, the plan was set. When Tony handed over the blueprints, the excavation process would begin. Once Sasha was through the tunnel and clear of the prison grounds, he would be spirited to Mexico or Canada, and then on to Europe. Morton assured Emma that soon they all would be celebrating with Berkman in Paris.
The escape plot was launched in April 1900, when a man and woman, identifying themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Brown, rented a house at 28 Sterling Street, directly opposite the southeastern corner of the penitentiary. John C. Langfitt, the rental agent, who also worked as a guard at the prison, was told that Mr. Brown was an inventor of electrical mining equipment. Mr. Brown was in fact Eric B. Morton himself; his “wife” was Vella Kinsella, an anarchist comrade from Chicago whom Goldman had met at a Haymarket meeting.
Morton was to dig a tunnel about 300 feet in length, starting in the cellar of the house, running under the eastern wall of the prison, and ending up inside the yard by the stable. Italian miners from the Pittsburgh coal region had been hired to assist with the digging. When the tunnel was finished, Berkman was to sneak out of the cellblock, make his way to the stable, rip up the wooden flooring, enter the tunnel, and crawl back along it to the house. There he would find civilian clothes, money, and directions to a designated meeting place.
The digging, which began in May 1900, proved more difficult than expected. Morton and his coworkers encountered rocky soil beneath the eastern wall that stymied their advance. As a result, they were forced to dig underneath the foundations, and there they were nearly asphyxiated by poisonous fumes leaking into the tunnel from a gas main. This caused considerable delay and required the installation of machinery to pump fresh air to the men, who were “toiling prostrate in the narrow passage deep in the bowels of the earth.” And the constraints on time and money necessitated a very narrow tunnel, which could be constructed only by stretching out “flat on the stomach,” as Morton described it. The process “was so exhausting it was impossible to keep at it more than half an hour at a time. Naturally progress was slow.”
Morton feared the sounds of all the digging would attract attention from neighbors and the prison guards. On May 12 he bought a piano from William M. Crump, who ran a music store on Smithfield Street. Kinsella was a trained pianist with a superior singing voice. In the early morning, and late at night, she would sing and play, muffling the noises from below. The unsuspecting prison staff found the music pleasant, according to a variety of sources, including Goldman, who said that “the guards on the wall greatly enjoyed the fine performances.” Neighbors also could hear the relentless playing. “The shades were always down,” they reported, “but the house was rarely silent. During the intervals when there was no music,” they “heard a grinding, whirring noise, which gave them the impression that the Browns were always grinding coffee.”
Later in May the Browns were joined at the house by another couple, a man and woman. The foursome rarely ventured outside and never mingled with the neighbors. This odd behavior, along with the endless singing and loud piano playing, made the neighbors more and more curious. As one newspaper account noted later, “The Misses Letitia and Jennie McCarthy, who live just opposite, had their suspicions aroused because of the small quantity of furniture going into the supposed home of the new family, and by the fact that the principal article taken in was a piano.” The strange goings-on continued through June. In early July the music suddenly stopped and the occupants disappeared, leaving the house on Sterling Street vacant. The tunnel was complete.
It was time for Berkman to make his move. As a rangeman, he had access to large sections of the prison grounds. Additionally, he now kept two starlings, fledglings he had adopted, trained, and named Sis and Dick. He convinced the warden to allow him to take the delicate birds into the yard for a daily ten minutes of fresh air and sunshine. On July 5, with this errand as a cover, he made his way to the concealed tunnel opening, through which he planned to crawl his way to freedom. There he suffered a shock. The entrance to the hole was unexpectedly blocked, covered with a big load of bricks and stone that had only recently been dumped during a prison construction project. The hole into the tunnel was impassable. Sasha was devastated by this bad luck. He sent a letter to Tony, later published in his memoirs. “It’s terrible. It’s all over. Couldn’t make it.”
The tunnel was not discovered until July 26. That day, some children playing in the street wandered into the yard of the now unoccupied house. The piles of freshly dug soil attracted their attention. A boy, stumbling into the cellar, located the secret passage and ran home and told his mother. She informed the sales agent, John Langfitt, who immediately notified Warden Wright. After the warden examined the tunnel, he called in a crew, who traced its path to the point inside the prison wall. In the house the police found an uneaten meal and a pot of coffee in the kitchen, a suit of clothes with money in one of the pockets, and a note in cipher code which could not be understood, all presumably intended for an escapee who had never arrived.
“One of the boldest and most systematic plans for the release of one or more prisoners from Riverside penitentiary was thwarted yesterday by accident,” blared the newspapers. Berkman was among those instantly suspected. “The first theory advanced when the matter was discovered,” read the press report, “seemed to point to the release of Alexander Berkman, the anarchist, who is serving a twenty-two years’ sentence for the shooting of H. C. Frick; but the conclusion reached now by Director Muth, of the Allegheny police department, is that the real object of the rescuers was to secure the freedom of the notorious real estate swindler J. C. Boyd.”
The revelation of the tunnel confounded the prison authorities. There were scant clues as to the identity of the diggers or the inmate who planned to escape. They narrowed the suspects to a few, including Berkman; Boyd; James Riley, a diamond thief; Paddy Cronin, leader of a gang of train robbers; George “Snake” Wilson, a safecracker; and Paddy McGraw, who had attempted a previous escape. Berkman, however, was their prime suspect. Yet they could find no proof against him, and some inspectors “argued that Berkman’s friends could not afford” such an expensive, “remarkable” undertaking.
On August 5, 1900, after almost two weeks of probing, the Board of Inspectors, led by George A. Kelly, declared that it had “abandoned hopes of discovering either who dug the tunnel or for whom it was intended.” On October 5 the board made a further announcement: “The Board of Inspectors, after a patient and careful investigation of the tunnel mystery, failed to find anything indicating any complicity on the part of the prison officials or employees in the matter, and further, that no prisoners escaped. As to the convicts for whom the tunnel was intended, that is still a matter of conjecture, and various opinions exist.”
Although no evidence was found to implicate Berkman in the plot, he nevertheless was locked up in the most restrictive solitary confinement. He was allowed no contact with any other prisoner, and even the guards were forbidden to speak with him, merely pausing briefly on their rounds in silence. He was placed under constant observation, with an officer assigned to watch his door. His privileges were revoked, and he was denied access to mail and reading material. His birds, Sis and Dick, were taken from him. So it was, without work, exercise, or companionship, that he passed his next days in solitary confinement, unbearable, “monotonous, interminable.”