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Force Feeding Inflicted on Prisoners

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 18, 2017

As October 1917 was coming to an end, many Ocean County men were at Camp Dix preparing to become part of the great army being sent to France to “make the world safe for democracy.” At the same time a young Moorestown Quaker, Alice Paul, the head of the National Woman’s Party, was inside the Occoquan, Va., workhouse, sentenced to seven months for picketing the White House in an effort to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support a constitutional amendment giving all American women the right to vote. On Oct. 28, papers across the country carried an affidavit sworn by Margaret Kessler, a former picketer recently released from the workhouse, which didn’t bode well for Alice Paul.

“The following conversation took place between her and Superintendent Whittaker at Occoquan workhouse on the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 18, 1917, in the presence of four other persons: ‘Mr. Whittaker – Will you return to Denver at once?’ ‘Mrs. Kessler – No, I will not.’ ‘Mr. Whittaker – Will you promise that you will not picket any more?’ ‘Mrs. Kessler – Mr. Whittaker, I am not here charged with picketing. The charge that brought me here is the charge that of obstructing traffic.’

‘Mr. Whittaker – We are going to stop this picketing if it costs the lives of some of your women, and it will cost the lives of some of these women, but we are going to stop it.’ ‘Mrs. Kessler – Mr. Whittaker, it is a great price for liberty.’ ‘Mr. Whittaker – But that is what we are going to do anyway.’”

On her arrival at the workhouse, Paul demanded she and her fellow pickets be treated as political prisoners. When this was rejected, on Nov. 6 she announced a hunger strike, and according to The New York Times, “Tonight Dr. Cora Smith King, Miss Paul’s physician, who was permitted to attend her, issued a bulletin saying Miss Paul was much thinner than when she entered the jail, Oct. 22, was refusing food, and would not touch a morsel until she and her companions received the same treatment as seventeen murderers, who have the privilege of special food, air, exercise, and the newspapers. ‘If we are to be starved, I prefer to be starved at once’ was the message Miss Paul sent out to the workers. ‘There is no use giving us special food today and not tomorrow simply to keep us alive as long as possible.’”

Paul would later tell of her ordeal.

“From the moment we undertook the hunger strike, a policy of unremitting intimidation began. One authority after another, high and low, in and out of prison, came to attempt to force me to break the hunger strike.

“‘You will be taken to a very unpleasant place if you don’t stop this,’ was a favorite threat of the prison officials, as they would hint vaguely of the psychopathic ward, and St. Elizabeth’s, the Government insane asylum. They alternately bullied and hinted. Another threat was ‘You will be forcibly fed immediately if you don’t stop.’”

Paul continued after about three days, “Coming close to my bedside and addressing the attendant, who stood at a few respectful paces from him, Dr. White said: ‘Does this case talk?’

“‘Why wouldn’t I talk?’ I answered quickly. ‘Oh these cases frequently will not talk, you know,’ he continued in explanation.”

“‘Indeed I’ll talk,’ I said gaily, not having the faintest idea that this was an investigation of my sanity.’

“‘Please talk,’ said Dr. White. ‘Tell me about suffrage; why you have opposed the President.’ He listened attentively, interrupting only occasionally to say, ‘But, has not President Wilson treated you women very badly?’ I cited his extraordinary power, his influence over his party, his undisputed leadership in the country, always painstakingly explaining that we opposed President Wilson merely because he happened to be President, not because he was President Wilson. Again came an interruption from Dr. White, ‘But isn’t President Wilson directly responsible for the abuses and indignities which have been heaped upon you? You are suffering now as a result of his brutality, are you not?’ Suddenly it dawned upon me that he was examining me personally; that his interest in the suffrage agitation and the jail conditions did not exist, and that he was merely interested in my reactions to the agitation and to jail.’”

On Nov. 9, the New York Tribune carried the government version of what happened next.

“Miss Alice Paul, head of the Woman’s Party, and Miss Rose Winslow, hunger striking in the District jail hospital, were fed late to-day by the jail authorities. Liquid food was given them through rubber tubes, breaking a fast of something over seventy-two hours.

“Whether force was employed may be always a matter of dispute. Dr. J.A. Gannon, the jail physician, said it was not, and that both women took the nourishment without protest.

“Dr. Gannon called in several other physicians today to examine the strikers and give their opinion as to the necessity for forcible feeding. It was agreed that both women were in such a condition that they must be fed.

“To-night the physician would say nothing more than that the prisoners had accepted nourishment without protest and now were in a satisfactory condition. The jail superintendent refused to permit any one to see the prisoners or to make any statement whatever concerning their treatment.”

The same day the Washington Post presented a few more details.

“Dr. Gannon, Supt. L.F. Zinkhan, of the jail, and four physicians took part in the conference. ‘Miss Paul and Miss Winslow were fed by means of tubes at 3 o’clock in the afternoon,’ stated Dr. Gannon. ‘Miss Paul was not forcibly fed, but willingly submitted and appeared to feel much better for having something in her stomach. We gave her through a tube a pint of milk, two eggs, two teaspoons of sugar and a pinch of salt.’”

The reply from Paul’s supporters was swift, and the Post continued, “Miss Lucy Burns, of the executive committee said, ‘It is ridiculous to suppose that anyone who is refusing to eat food in a normal way would suddenly become willing to eat in a most painful and disgusting fashion.’

“Dr. Cora Smith King, Miss Paul’s physician, who was allowed to visit the prisoner on Monday, but refused permission to be present during the forcible feeding, declared: ‘The statement accredited to Dr. Gannon sounds foolish on the face of it. Any person willing to submit to eating would most certainly do so in a less revolting way than through a tube.’”

Finally it was noted, “Miss Helen Paul attempted to see her sister yesterday but was refused. She said, ‘I told Mr. Zinkhan that he would kill my sister if he forcibly fed her.’”

Paul’s sister then issued a statement.

“How can such a brutal thing be thought of when all she is asking for is decent treatment for the others imprisoned with her? What has she done that she should be treated like a criminal, and not even as well, for they are permitted exercise and visitors and can buy food at the jail canteen. She has given her life to working for suffrage for women. I know she has bitterly opposed the Democratic party, but I can’t believe that the President or the men he has appointed will deliberately risk her life.”

The Tribune reported on Nov. 12 of a protest meeting held in New York where “Mrs. J.A. Hopkins of New Jersey, who has served her time as a picket told of the horrors of the jail both Occoquan and the district jail.

“‘Alice Paul and Rose Winslow will die,’ she said, ‘if something isn’t done immediately. They are being tortured for lack of food, fresh air and exercise. And worse than that they are being subjected to danger from the most horrible diseases. Our government is using every precaution to protect soldiers and sailors against disease and at the same time throwing these perfectly innocent women into the jaws of the same disease. We can not and we must not stand for these outrages which the government is perpetrating.’”

“‘President Wilson is directly responsible for the treatment of those women,’ said Mrs. Mary Beard, wife of Professor Charles A. Beard, chairman of last night’s meeting and a member of the expedition. ‘He appoints the district commissioners and the Chief of Police. We no longer care to talk to Mr. Wilson about the Federal amendment. We can take care of him and his party politically. But we must make our protest against the inhuman treatment of these innocent women.’”

Only days before, the state of New York had voted to give women there the vote. Now, “Mrs. Clarence Smith was then called upon to tell what Mrs. Beard meant by ‘taking care of the President politically.’

“‘We women can vote for Congressman next November,’ explained Mrs. Smith. ‘Sixteen Democratic representatives will be up for reelection. Fourteen are in this city. New York women must not let (a) Democratic representative go back to Congress unless he is pledged to the Federal Amendment.”

Today most textbooks credit Woodrow Wilson as a hero in the movement to give women the vote. I wonder what Alice Paul would have said.

Next Week: Saving Alice Paul.


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