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Jailed Suffragists Continue Resistance

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 01, 2017

Word that Moorestown Quaker Alice Paul was on a hunger strike trying to receive treatment as a “political prisoner” at the District of Columbia jail seemed to energize both her supporters and opponents. Paul had been picketing the White House trying to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support the amendment that would give all women the vote. In response, the government had begun arresting pickets for blocking the sidewalk, and in October 1917, Paul was sentenced to seven months. Lucy Burns, a 39-year-old supporter of Paul, had recently been released after a 60-day imprisonment at the Occoquan, Va., workhouse. She wrote to her sister in early November.

“I do not feel that I can take the rest you advise, and return to Brooklyn. Conditions here are so terrible that I cannot resist going back to jail to help out those still confined. They are threatened with the insane asylum, and forceful feeding. Large numbers force better conditions for all, and insure better treatment.”

Burns would get her wish.  The New York Sun of Nov. 14 carried “Terms of imprisonment varying from six days to six months were to-day handed down in the Washington police court against the thirty-one suffragists recently held guilty of ‘obstructing traffic’ by picketing the White House … (it) was announced that the newly sentenced women would demand of their jailers consideration as political prisoners and not as mere lawbreakers.”

Receiving a lighter sentence was 73-year-old Mary Nolan from Jacksonville, Fla.  She later told of her treatment to her lawyer.

“It was about half past seven at night when we got to Occoquan workhouse. … A man sprang at me and caught me by the shoulder. I am used to remembering a bad foot, which I have had for years, and I remember saying, ‘I’ll come with you; don’t drag me; I have a lame foot.’ But I was jerked down the steps and away into the dark. … Out of doors it was very dark. The building to which they took us was lighted up as we came to it. I only remember the American flag flying above it because it caught the light from a window in the wing. … I saw Dorothy Day brought in. She is a frail girl. The two men handling her were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench – twice. … Then they threw in two mats and two dirty blankets … We had only lain there a few minutes, trying to get our breath, when Mrs. Lewis, doubled over and handled like a sack of something, was literally thrown in. Her head struck the iron bed. We thought she was dead. She didn’t move. … At this Mr. Whittaker came to the door and told us not to dare to speak, or he would put the brace and bit in our mouths and the straitjacket on our bodies.”

Over the next several days, Lucy Burns was able to smuggle notes out of the workhouse.

“Wednesday, November 14. Demanded to see Superintendent Whittaker.  Request refused. … Superintendent Whittaker came at 9 p.m. He refused to hear our demand for political rights. Seized by guards from behind, flung off my feet, and shot out of the room.  All of us were seized by men guards and dragged to cells in men’s part. … I was handcuffed all night and manacled to the bars part of the time for asking the others how they were, and was threatened with a straitjacket and a buckle gag. …

“The next day I asked for counsel to learn the state of the case. I was told to ‘shut up’ and was again threatened with a straitjacket and a buckle gag. Later I was taken to put on prison clothes, refused and resisted strenuously. I was then put in a room where delirium tremens are kept.”

Burns and 55-year-old Dora Lewis, from Philadelphia, refused to eat.  Lewis remembered, “I was seized and laid on my back, where five people held me, a young colored woman leaping upon my knees, which seemed to break under the weight. Dr. Gannon then forced the tube through my lips and down my throat, I gasping and suffocating with the agony of it. I didn’t know where to breathe from and everything turned black when the fluid began pouring in. I was moaning and making the most awful sounds quite against my will, for I did not wish to disturb my friends in the next room. Finally the tube was withdrawn. I lay motionless.”

Burns put up such a struggle that even more drastic measures were taken.

“Dr. Gannon told me then I must be fed. Was stretched on bed, two doctors, matron, four colored prisoners present, Whittaker in hall. I was held down by five people at legs, arms and head. I refused to open mouth. Gannon pushed tube up left nostril. I turned and twisted my head all I could, but he managed to push it up. It hurts nose and throat very much and makes nose bleed freely. Tube drawn out covered with blood. Operation leaves one very sick. Food dumped directly into stomach feels like a ball of lead. Left nostril, throat and muscles of neck very sore all night … This morning Dr. Ladd appeared with his tube. Mrs. Lewis and I said we would not be forcibly fed. Said he would call in men guards and force us to submit. Went away and we were not fed at all this morning.”

Outside the workhouse, lawyers for the women were working to protect their rights, and on Nov. 18 The New York Times reported, “Federal Judge Waddill today ordered a writ of habeas corpus issued seeking the release of twenty-eight Woman’s Party militants imprisoned at Occoquan workhouse for picketing the White House. … The application for the writ alleged acts of cruelty and charged as one example that Lucy Burns, Vice Chairman of the Woman’s Party, had been handcuffed to the bars of a cell formerly used for incarceration of prisoners in delirium tremens.”

The next day the pro-Wilson Washington Post carried an interview with one of the guards telling the other side of the story.

“‘Them ladies? Why, man, they’re bolsheviki!’ An Occoquan guard was talking. He was considerably nicked and rumpled, and he said that he had just gotten a little time off to recuperate. … He was talking about the 31 pickets of the Woman’s National party, who, according to their sisters outside the workhouse, have been beaten, abused and threatened by Occoquan officials.

“‘We try to use em peaceable,’ continued the guard mournfully. ‘But them ladies pack a punch that would drop a ox. I know.’

“‘And that Miss Lucy Burns,’ went on the guard as he rubbed a bruised place on his cheek, ‘she’s got six months to go.’ His voice dropped several notes. ‘If she stays,’ he went on, ‘we strike. I gotta wife to take care of, and them older lady pickets they don’t care what they do to us.’”

The unnamed guard continued. “‘Two of em punched Billy,’ he remarked, ‘just because he went near em. And the worst of it is we got orders that we ain’t to do nothing to them. Here we get kicked and scratched and beat up for $55 a month.

“‘If them women get the ballot,’ he concluded, ‘I ain’t never going near an election booth again. It won’t be safe.’”

It wasn’t until Nov. 21 that the Washington Times finally carried a government admission.

“Miss Lucy Burns, suffrage picket, was forcibly fed today in the District Jail through the nose. She had sworn never to submit to the usual feeding by a mouth tube. Woman’s Party headquarters received word that a terrific struggle was heard in Miss Burns’ room. … Jail officials again withheld all information. Miss Burns and Miss Lawrence Lewis, Philadelphia, were moved last night from the Occoquan, Va., workhouse to the jail.”

The battle of Alice Paul and her supporters would now move from the dark cells of the workhouse to a federal courtroom.  But until the judge handed down a verdict, the women were still in the hands of their “merciful or merciless” jailers…you take your pick.

Next Week: The ruling.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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