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Are Prisoners Telling the Truth?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 08, 2017

During mid-November 1917, newspapers across the country began carrying stories of the government’s mistreatment of suffragist Alice Paul and her supporters. The women had received sentences of up to seven months in the Occoquan, Va., workhouse for blocking the sidewalk in front of the White House as they picketed it, trying to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support the constitutional amendment giving all women the vote. Accounts smuggled out by them talked of brutal treatment: hunger strikes and force-feeding, along with solitary confinement and the refusal to allow them to see visitors and contact lawyers.

The New York Times of Nov. 18 reported, “Matthew O’Brien, a Washington lawyer, who visited the District of Columbia Workhouse at Occoquan, Va., today, declared at the headquarters of the Woman’s Party tonight that militant suffragists imprisoned in the workhouse for picketing the White House were being brutally and inhumanely treated.

“All communication with the outside world was refused, and Superintendent Whittaker at first declined to admit Mr. O’Brien, who went there with an order from the court to confer with his clients.”

Finally O’Brien was able to see his clients.

“In a letter which those at militant headquarters asserted was smuggled out of the workhouse Miss Burns declared that she was manacled to the bars of her cell and threatened with being placed in a straitjacket and gagged if she persisted in talking with her fellow women prisoners. Miss Burns, being more athletic than the others, refused to don the prison garb, and she said that all her outer garments were stripped from her by force. She wrapped herself in a blanket. All the other women are said to be wearing the prison uniform, as their clothes were taken from them. … Mr. O’Brien tomorrow will appeal to the courts for remedy against what he describes as ‘most brutal and illegal treatment’ of the thirty suffrage prisoners. Every effort was being made to place the women incommunicado.”

Once the attorney was outside the workhouse,  he said, “My clients reported to me that from the time of their arrival every effort was made to terrorize them; that they were not allowed to state to the Superintendent their desires; that when an attempt was made by Mrs. Lewis, speaking for all of them, to tell Superintendent Whittaker that they expected to be subjected to no indignities, thirty women were seized by eighty guards, flung off their feet and dragged from the room.

“My clients informed me that because they refused to give their names the Superintendent ordered his guards to seize them and they were taken to punishment cells in the men’s quarters.”

The next day the New York Sun carried a story showing that O’Brien was not bluffing.

“Judge Edmund Waddill, Jr., in the United States District Court at Richmond, Va., to-day ordered issued a writ of habeas corpus seeking the release of the twenty-eight suffragists who are undergoing rigid disciplinary treatment in the District of Columbia workhouse at Occoquan. Judge Waddill set the hearing for November 27 at Alexandria, Va.

“The application for a writ of habeas corpus alleged acts of cruelty and charged as one example that Lucy Burns, vice-chairman of the Woman’s party, which has been active in picketing the White House, had been handcuffed to the bars of a cell formerly used for the incarceration of prisoners suffering from delirium tremens. The writ seeks the release of the women on the ground that prisoners sentenced for offences committed in the District of Columbia cannot be imprisoned in the State of Virginia.

“The issue of the writ does not release the suffragists from the workhouse, but orders them to be produced in court at Alexandria on November 27, when the authorities must show cause why they should not be freed in accordance with their allegations.”

As both sides prepared for court, the Sun continued, “The prison medical authorities insist that none of the prisoners is suffering anything more than extreme physical discomfort from the forced feeding. Women who have succeeded in getting momentary word from Miss Paul through the prison hospital windows were assured by her that she felt exceedingly weak and that the forcible feeding process had inflamed her nose and throat to such an extent that each application of the treatment brought excruciating pain.”

On Nov. 22, James Arthur Seavey from the New York Tribune was unexpectedly granted access to the prisoners.

“This afternoon I visited the District of Columbia jail, in which suffragists are serving various terms of imprisonment for picketing the White House, and every facility was given to me to talk with the prisoners. … I saw and talked, without interruption, with Miss Alice Paul, chairman of the National Woman’s Party; Miss Lucy Burns, the most militant, probably, of all the members of that party, and with Miss Rose Windsor.”

Seavey began his tour: “Miss Burns was telling me in police court when she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, a week ago Wednesday, about the discomforts of the District Jail, she told me that there vermin on the walls, vermin in the beds and rats, and that white rats and gray rats played tag o’ nights about the cell floors. I examined the walls of Miss Burns’ cell very carefully, and found not a trace of vermin.

“Although Miss Burns is being forcibly fed to break the hunger strike she has undertaken, she looked quite as well as when I saw her a week and a half ago.

“‘Fairly well thank you,’ she said, and smiled.

“‘In spite of forcible feeding?’

“‘Yes, in spite of forcible feeding.’

“‘But,’ I said, “they tell me you give them all sorts of trouble when they try to feed you.’

“‘Of course I do. I do not want to be fed, yet they pry open my mouth, which hurts me a lot, and when they get it open they insert a wedge to keep it open, while they run one of those horrid rubber tubes down my throat. I have asked them to feed me with a soft tube, although I much prefer to be fed through the nose.’”

The journalist then met with Paul.

“The head of the National Woman’s Party, when I entered the ward, was propped up by a pillow reading Goethe’s ‘Faust’ in the original German. … If she weighs more than ninety pounds appearances are deceptive.”

“‘If you will, Miss Paul,’ I said. ‘I would so much like to have you, as the head of the National Woman’s Party, put that party on record as to its attitude regarding this war. Does the party stand for pacifism or does it stand by the nation in its need?’

“The young woman looked at me earnestly and her eyes flashed as she replied: ‘The party has already put itself on record. It is devoted entirely and solely to the passage of the Anthony amendment. We do not intend to let any other issue becloud that one. In the party are both pacifists and those who are doing they can to help the country at war.’

“‘And how about yourself, Miss Paul,’ I inquired. “‘Oh I detest war. I am a Quaker and Quakers have neither part not lot in wars.’

“As I was taking my leave I asked the frail-looking prisoner if she had any fault to find with the treatment she is receiving in jail. ‘Of course, I have’ was the prompt and somewhat vigorous reply.

“Paul concluded the interview saying, ‘We are not ordinary prisoners. We are here because we stood quite still in front of the White House and held banners inscribed with various questions which we would like the President to answer. … We ask for books and periodicals and newspapers. We are denied them. We ask to see our friends. We are prohibited from seeing them.’”

The Tribune reporter next dealt with the food.

“Then I went to the mess hall. The prisoners were taking supper. It consisted of noodle soup, white bread and coffee. The coffee was good. The soup was very good. … From the mess halls the pilgrimage led to the kitchen. On the range was a great dish of what the chef at the Shoreham or Willard would call sauté potatoes. … I saw bins of yellow corn meal, rice and hominy. Into each bin I dug deep in several places with a scoop and found the contents bright and clean and wholesome.”

Seavey’s conclusion left readers across the nation confused.

“What has been written above is an unofficial but a true and unprejudiced report of conditions prevailing in the jail of the District of Columbia on November 22. The suffragists, when they speak of conditions in the jail, ought to be more sparing in the use of such adjectives as ‘frightful,’ ‘brutal,’ ‘appalling’ and ‘disgraceful.’”

Were the stories of mistreatment all a hoax perpetrated by the women to win support for their cause? Were they secretly disloyal to America in time of war with Germany? Or was the United States government attempting to stifle free speech? It would be up to Judge Waddill to find out the truth.

Next Week: Saving face.


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