Many and strange were the expedients resorted to in order to give occupation to the mind, and thus save ourselves from being driven mad. It was ever present before me that were I to “let go” of myself madness, was inevitable. It required, at times, all the effort I was capable of making to enable me to choke off despondency and wrench the mind away from dwelling upon the miseries of such a life.
Looking back to those times memory shows me a picture of myself in that whitewashed cell of mine, sitting with slate and pencil, devoting hours and hours to all sorts of calculations. Not only have I counted every brick in my cell and every bolt that studded the ironclad doors, and every perforation in the iron ventilators in that cell, and calculated the weight of the bricks used in building it, and also worked out the number of bricks used in building the entire prison and figured out the total weight.
Yes, many an hour have I spent turning that prison inside out and upside down, re-arranging the bricks of it into a pyramid one time or into a square, and so on, and calculating dimensions; then, again, placing the bricks end to end with a view to finding out what distance they would extend; that done, place them side by side to see how far they would stretch by that arrangement, and after that build them up one on top of another to find out how high they would reach. As a result of calculations I could at one time have told the total number of buttons on the clothing of the entire population of that prison or the number of “broad arrow” marks that was stamped on their clothing. I have taken clippings of my hair for several weeks from the weekly cuttings, and measured these samples with a micrometer (one of the tools I used when pattern-making) and calculated by these measurements that over six feet of hair had been cut off my head during thirteen years.
On one occasion I got a volume of Cassell’s Popular Educator, issued to me as a library book. It was the volume where the shorthand lessons commence. I started in to study them, and after mastering the lessons in that volume applied and obtained the other volumes one after the other until I learnt all that was to be got in them about shorthand. Then, by way of practice, I set to work on the Bible. Starting at the beginning of the Old Testament, I worked my way right through the whole book to the end of the New Testament, stenographing every word of it from cover to cover. That finished, I started again and went over the same ground a second time. By the time I had finished all this I could write pretty fast, and was curious to know what my speed was. As I had no watch or clock in the cell to measure a minute for me I was puzzled for a while as to how the test could be made. However, I eventually hit upon an idea that enabled me to solve it.
Away up in the turret of the prison church was a clock that struck the hours. We could hear the striking in our cells. I utilised that clock for my purpose in this way. Sitting with pencil and slate one evening, when I knew by the quietness of the prison that it was nearing seven, I waited till the clock started to strike, and simultaneously I started to write something from memory at my best speed and came to a stop when the clock finished striking. Counting the number of words I had been able to write I made a note of it.
Next night I was again ready waiting for the clock, but this time with my finger on the pulse of my wrist. When the clock began striking I began counting the pulse beats, and noted how many beats were made while the clock was striking seven. Assuming that my pulse was beating at the rate of a normal healthy man (seventy beats per minute) and that it made a certain number of beats in a definite period of time, and that I was able to write a certain number of words in exactly the same period of time, I was able, by the simple Rule of Three, to calculate the number of words per minute I could write.
In the long winter evenings in the cells we used to do a good deal of telegraphing, and continue it after turning into bed at eight o’clock. Many and many a night have I lain awake for hours in the dark holding converse with comrades in the various cells on our corridor, for telegraphing could be carried on between two prisoners though four or five cells might intervene – that is, provided the fellow receiving the message pressed his ear against the wall, making, as it were, an air-tight connection. By this means the listening ear could hear the slightest tap on the wall. The slightest sound with the finger nail, that would be quite inaudible to the person making it, could be distinctly heard by the air-tight ear in any of the four or five cells on either side of whoever was sending the message.
John Daly for many months had a chum in his cell that helped him to while away many an hour. This was a spider he tamed and trained, and many an interesting bulletin came from John concerning the whims and antics of his pet. John placed a standing order with me during this time for supplying all the moths I could capture in my cell for his spider. Flies were very scarce in the cells. Scarcity of food, I suppose, accounts for this, but in the season there used to be a great many moths, hence John’s order; but as he himself will, I hope, tell the story of his spider later on, I must only refer to it in a passing way. So, too, with the poisoning of John in Chatham with belladonna. I saw him inside half an hour after the dose had been administered to him. We were being brought out of our cells after dinner to go to labour. Looking at him I saw at once that he was very bad, his eyes bulging and his tongue protruding.
To my whispered question, “What’s the matter, John?” he replied with great difficulty, “Belladonna; they’ve poisoned me.”
That was all he could say. A few minutes later, after we had been distributed to our respective labour gangs, I saw John drop and being picked up and carried away. A Special Commission was afterwards appointed to investigate this poisoning, and also the treatment of the treason felony prisoners generally. The result was published in a Government Blue Book.
After Dr. Gallagher, Alf Whitehead, and some others had been driven mad by the prison treatment something happened that made me feel sure for a time that I, too, was going smash. The thought was horrifying. My turn had come-going mad like the others. The torture of that experience is just as fresh in my memory to-day as it was at that time. The recollection can never leave me.
This is what led up to it. One evening, sitting in the quietness of the cell, there commenced a loud buzzing in my ears. I slapped my ears again and again to try and get rid of it, but the buzzing was persistent, and nothing I could do would remove it or ease it. I tried everything I could think of, but all to no purpose. All night long it kept buzzing away, and with a queer sickening feeling the thought came to me that I was nearing the insanity mark. I reasoned the matter out with myself there in the dark, and came to the conclusion that the tension on the nerves had been so great that the breaking point had been reached – that the system was breaking down, and that this buzzing was the first indication that I had noticed.
While in the cell the noise kept buzzing away, but once outside I couldn’t hear it – I assumed the noise of the working parties in the labour yards drowned the other sound. For several days this kept up – the buzzing, torturing me in the cell, while outside in the yards it didn’t bother me. One evening on being marched back from labour to my cell, glancing up to the roof of the penal cells in the distance I noticed that a fresh telegraph wire had been run from the military barrack on the adjoining hill into the prison, and this wire was fastened right over my cell, in fact insulated at the ventilator opening that led from the cell – I could have shouted with joy. That buzzing after all was not inside of me, but came down the ventilator shaft into my cell from this telegraph wire on the roof. The cell looked less gloomy that evening when I got home to it.