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Horrors in Virginia Workhouse

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 25, 2017

As October 1917 was coming to an end, a true American horror story was playing out. Alice Paul, a Moorestown, N.J., Quaker and president of the National Woman’s Party, along with a number of her supporters, was confined to the Occoquan, Va., workhouse. She had been sentenced to seven months for blocking a sidewalk as she and others picketed the White House while trying to convince President. Woodrow Wilson to support a constitutional amendment giving all women the right to vote and not leaving the issue to the individual states. Once inside the workhouse, Paul demanded to be treated as a political prisoner. When this was refused, she and prisoners began a hunger strike. The government’s response was forced feeding by shoving a hose down her throat and sliding raw eggs into her.

Paul and the others had been held incommunicado; even her lawyer Dudley Field Malone had been barred from seeing his client. Field was a longtime friend of President Wilson, dating back to Wilson’s early days running for governor of New Jersey. During the 1916 presidential election, Malone had been sent to states where women could vote to convince them that Wilson was in fact a supporter of women’s suffrage. In September 1917, Malone had resigned his post with the administration over the treatment of the pickets; now he was representing Paul.

In early November after weeks of trying, Malone was granted a meeting with his client, and he later released an open letter.

“Miss Paul and Miss Winslow both are very weak and are being forcibly fed. They are resisting food as a protest against the failure of the Government to treat as political offenders women who are arrested for demanding the passage of the Federal suffrage amendment.

“‘I was shocked to find that Miss Paul, because she is the leader of the National Woman’s Party, had been singled out from among the other suffragists and transferred to the psychopathic ward, in spite of her demand first to see her personal physician and her attorney.’”

Malone went on. “Miss Paul is imprisoned in a room in the midst of insane patients, whose shrieks she can hear day and night. For fear she may not hear them the door of her room has been taken off. One of the windows has been boarded up with heavy wooden shutters, and the other one cannot be opened to let in air, so that most of the air must come from the inside halls of the building. Against her protests, alienists (an old term for psychiatrists or psychologists) have repeatedly been sent to interview Miss Paul and have even brought with them a stenographer to take down what she says.”

As for Paul’s condition, “I talked with Miss Paul for an hour and a half, and she is more sane than any of the administration officials who have been responsible for this outrage. I demanded of the Warden that this malicious attempt to discredit Miss Paul’s leadership and to reflect on her sanity in placing her in the psychopathic ward, surrounded by maniacs, cease at once, and that she be removed forthwith. If this is not done, I shall appeal to the court for relief from this unspeakable situation.”

Still Paul had no direct contact with the outside world. Doris Stevens had taken over the everyday running of the Woman’s Party in Paul’s absence, and she later wrote, “Later we established daily communication with Miss Paul through one of the charwomen who scrubbed the hospital floors. She carried paper and pencil carefully concealed upon her. On entering Miss Paul’s room she would, with very comical stealth, first elaborately push Miss Paul’s bed against the door, then crawl practically under it, and pass from this point of concealment the coveted paper and pencil. Then she would linger over the floor to the last second, imploring Miss Paul to hasten her writing. Faithfully every evening this silent, dusky, messenger made her long journey after her day’s work, and patiently waited while I wrote an answering note to be delivered to Miss Paul the following morning. Thus it was that while in the hospital Miss Paul directed our campaign, in spite of the Administration’s most painstaking plans to the contrary.”

James Seavey from the New York Tribune got to see one of the letters.

“Miss Paul’s letter was written on the back of another letter, the only one she has been allowed to see since she has been in jail. … the following memorandum was written on the letter, apparently before it was delivered to Miss Paul: ‘Why not let this miserable creature starve? The country will be much better off without her and her gang of pickets. They are a rotten lot, are crazy, and should be locked up for life. If they would starve, it would save the expense of keeping them. Let them starve.’”

For the first time in weeks Paul was able to tell the world, “Miss Winslow and I are at opposite ends of this building, each locked in a room with an iron barred door. I saw her as they brought me on a stretcher from the psychopathic ward, but have not seen her since. We are each in a ward with three windows. To-day they nailed two of my windows shut so that they cannot be opened. The third window has been nailed shut at the bottom, so that the only air that I have now is from the top of one window.”

As far as her treatment, “We have, of course, been deprived of everything else that was included in our original demand – letters, books, visitors, decent food, except as they force it upon us through tubes. Two weeks ago they did give us letters like this one, on the back of which I am writing.

“I was in the psychopathic ward just a week, and was only released, I think, because of Mr. Malone’s efforts. It was apparently an attempt at intimidation. Dr. Gannon said that if I persisted in hunger-striking he would ‘write a prescription’ to have me taken to the psychopathic ward and fed forcibly. I persisted, and was thereupon placed upon a stretcher and taken there.”

And what was it like the ward?

“I was locked in my room, so I did not see the other inmates, except once or twice, when they came and looked through my bars. One could hear them, however. The last morning I was there the cries began at 5:30 o’clock. I turned on the light to look at the time. The cries had probably awakened me. The morning before they began when it was still dark. When one person started shrieking the others usually joined in and continued for an hour or two. Then all would be silent for several hours, and the cries would be resumed.”

Finally Paul concluded, “One day when I had a new nurse she introduced herself thus, ‘I know you are not insane’ she was endeavoring to be kind, but it was staggering to have people express their friendliness to you by assuring you that they did not consider you insane.

“With love. A. PAUL”

On Nov. 16, Seavey reported in the Tribune that Malone’s threats in Paul’s letter might be having an effect.

“Another reason may be found in the fact that there was a long conference this afternoon between the President and two of the three commissioners of the District of Columbia. The pickets and their sentence were not the only thing discussed, but I learned to-night from a semi-official source that, when the matter of the militants was brought up, the question of pardoning them all over again was thoroughly discussed. What, if anything, was finally decided upon will be made public only through an official announcement.”

Malone was going to court while Paul was winning over the hearts and minds of many. Meanwhile, inside the Occoquan workhouse, government officials were planning a “night of terror” that would be long remembered.

Next Week: Free at last.



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