Memos from Purgatory

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Memos from Purgatory
First edition
Author Harlan Ellison
Cover artist Leo and Diane Dillon
Country United States
Language English
Subject Street gangs, prison
Publisher Regency
Publication date
Media type Print (paperback)
Pages 160

Memos from Purgatory is Harlan Ellison's account of his experience with kid gangs when he joined one to research them for his first novel, Web of the City. It also describes the author's experience during an overnight stay in prison.


  • New Introduction: Memo '83 (1983 edition)
  • New Introduction: Memo '75 (1975 edition)
  • Memo '69 (1969 and 1975 editions)
  • A Message from the Sponsor
  • Prologue
  • Book One: The Gang
    • Nine chapters
  • Transition
  • Book Two: The Tombs
    • Seven chapters
  • Conclusion


In 1954, Harlan Ellison joined the teenage street gang The Barons under an assumed name in order to research his first novel, Web of the City. The gang's territory was in Red Hook, considered to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn. He acted as war counselor for the gang for ten weeks before leaving. After publishing Web of the City in 1958, Ellison decided to write a nonfictional account of his experience. This became "Book One: The Gang" in Memos from Purgatory.

The second part of the book, "The Tombs", was expanded from an essay Ellison wrote about his experience in jail. In 1960, two police officers searched Ellison's apartment and found a .22 revolver, a switchblade knife, and a set of brass knuckles, all of which Ellison had kept as memorabilia from his time with The Barons. Ellison was arrested under New York State's Sullivan Act banning the possession of concealed weapons and incarcerated overnight at The Tombs. Disgusted by the conditions in the jail, Ellison wrote an essay entitled "Buried in the Tombs" for The Village Voice. The article was later expanded into book two of Memos from Purgatory, with a dedication to Ellison's friend Ted White, who had encouraged him to write down his experiences.[1]

Television adaptation[edit]

Ellison later adapted "Book One: The Gang" into a teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The episode aired in 1964 under the slightly different title "Memo from Purgatory" and starred James Caan as the author Jay Shaw (based on Ellison). The character of Shaw decides to write a book about a juvenile street gang and researches his subject by joining The Barons gang in Brooklyn. Although this is the same gang Ellison joined to research Web of the City, the events of the episode were fictionalized.


Below is an excerpt about zip guns, a common weapon among street gangs:

"Or how about that homemade cannon, the zip-gun, about which you've heard so much? Have you any idea how simple they are to make? Not the detailed and involved weapons made by kids who only want to sport a deadly-looking piece, but the quickly-made item to be used in a killing.
"The tube-rod in a coffee percolator is the barrel. Did you know it's exactly right for a .22 calibre slug? Or perhaps it's not the stem of from a coffee pot. Perhaps it's a snapped-off car radio antenna. Either one will do the job. They mount it on a block of wood for a grip, with friction tape, and then they rig a rubber-band-and-metal-firing-pin device that will drive the .22 bullet down that percolator stem or antenna shell, and kill another teen-ager. What they don't bother to tell you is that a zip-gun is the most inaccurate, poorly-designed, dangerous weapon of the streets. Not only dangerous to the victim, but equally dangerous to the assailant, for too often the zip will explode in the firer's hand, too often the inaccuracy of the home-made handgun will cause an innocent bystander to be shot. It is a booby trap of the most innocent-seeming sort, and there are many kids in Brooklyn (or in Queens, Long Island City and Astoria, where the Kicks, another club much given to the use of the zip, roam) with only two or three fingers on a hand, from having snapped that rubber band against the metal firing pin."


  1. ^ Porter, Andrew (editor), The Book of Ellison, p 20-21, ALGOL Press, 1978. ISBN 0-916186-07-5

External links[edit]