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Was Hunger Strike a Victory?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 22, 2017

After months of picketing the White House by Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party and her supporters, who were attempting to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support the constitutional amendment giving all women the vote, the issue seemed to be headed for a climax in a Virginia courtroom. The women had been arrested for blocking the sidewalk in front of the White House, and many had received harsh sentences to the Occoquan, Va., workhouse, where they claimed to have been tortured and mistreated because they declared they were political prisoners.

The Los Angeles Times of Nov. 18 explained, “Federal Judge Waddill today ordered a writ of habeas corpus issued seeking the release of twenty-eight Woman’s Party militants. … 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 the incarceration of prisoners in delirium tremens.

“Besides citing alleged acts of cruelty, the petition for the writ seeks the release of the militants on the legal ground that prisoners sentenced for offenses committed in the District of Columbia cannot be imprisoned in the State of Virginia.”

While Paul awaited her day in court, she received a mysterious visitor, who offered a deal: President Wilson would use his influence behind the scenes to help the amendment pass through Congress after the next election in November 1918. Paul refused. Doris Stevens, who also had served time for picketing, described in her book Jailed for Freedom, “The trial occurred on November 23rd. No one present can ever forget the tragic scene enacted in the little Virginia court room that cold, dark November morning. … There was Superintendent Whittaker in his best Sunday clothes, which mitigated very little the cruel and nervous demeanor which no one who has come under his control will ever forget. His thugs were there, also dressed in their best clothes, which only exaggerated their coarse features and their shifty eyes.”

Almost at once there was drama.

“It was discovered just as the trial was to open that Miss Lucy Burns and Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, who it will be remembered had been removed to the (Washington, D.C.) jail before the writ had been issued, were absent from among the prisoners.

“‘They are too ill to be brought into court,’ Mr. Whittaker replied to the attorneys for the defense.

“‘We demand that they be brought into court at our risk,’ answered counsel for the defense. It was clear that the government did not wish to have Miss Burns with the marks still fresh on her wrists from her manacling and handcuffing, and Mrs. Lewis with a fever from the shock of the first night, brought before the judge who was to decide the case. … ‘If it was necessary to handcuff Miss Burns to the bars of her cell, we consider her well enough to appear,’ demanded her lawyer … Miss Burns and Mrs. Lewis were accordingly ordered brought to court.”

While the attorneys for the women wanted to present evidence on the treatment of prisoners, which would fill newspaper headlines, the judge dealt with the technical manner first: Could the District of Columbia imprison citizens in nearby Virginia? Before any evidence of the atrocities could be presented, the judge issued a decision.

“The locking up of thirty human beings is an unusual sort of thing and judicial officers ought to be required to stop long enough to see whether some prisoners ought to go and some not. … This class of prisoners and this number of prisoners should have been given special consideration. There cannot be any controversy about this question. … You ought to lawfully lock them up instead of unlawfully locking them up – if they are to be locked up. … The petitioners are, therefore, one and all, in the Workhouse without semblance of authority or legal process of any kind and they will accordingly be remanded to the custody of the Superintendent of the Washington Asylum and Jail.”

Stevens concluded, “It having been decided that the prisoners were illegally detained in the workhouse, it was not necessary to go into a discussion of the cruelties committed upon the prisoners while there.”

The evidence of what had taken place in the workhouse would never be entered into the official record. The New York Tribune announced, “Twenty-four militants of the Woman’s Party, serving terms in the District of Columbia workhouses, at Occoquan, Va., for picketing the White House, were released on parole to-day and spent the night in Washington.

“The prisoners were gathered up by their compatriots from Cameron House, who were in court, bundled into automobiles and hurried to Washington. Their attorneys hope to be able to put some of them on the stand to-morrow to tell of the alleged cruel and unusual treatment to which they have been subjected at the workhouse.”

But that would never happen. The government had a different idea. According to the Washington Herald, “Despite their protests, twenty-two suffragists, picket prisoners and hunger strikers, were put out of the District jail yesterday – released unconditionally.

“It looked like a sad affair for Warden Zinkan for a while. He had dropped his austerity on receipt of the release order and was seen to skip about his office, singing under his breath. ‘They’re going away! They’re going away.’

“‘They say they won’t go,’ he fumed, all his recent boyish elation turned to baffled and almost spluttering wrath. … I’ll – I’ll throw them … I’ll call the guards and throw them out,’ he repeated, a bit helplessly.’”

Why the sudden and unexpected release? “Judge Mullowney stated that his order was issued in compliance with a representation from Superintendent Zinkhan, of the District jail, that the health of the hunger striking pickets would be endangered by further imprisonment. Some of the pickets who were not hunger striking were also in bad physical condition and it was thought best to include them in the release.”

After her release, Paul spoke.

“We are put out of jail as we were put into jail, at the whim of the Government. They tried to terrorize and suppress us. They could not, and so freed us. The Administration has found that it dare not imprison American women for asking a share in the democracy for which we are fighting abroad. Our prisoners in Occoquan were released from that institution last Saturday on the court ruling that they were illegally and lawlessly confined. The action of the Judge in commuting our sentence today acknowledges it was unjust, arbitrary, and a gross discrimination made in an attempt to suppress legitimate propaganda, an attempt which failed.

“Twenty-two of us are out, but nine are unjustly imprisoned. Those of us who hunger-struck were freed. The others were not. These, too, must be released before the Government’s conscience is clear.”

Was it finally over? Had Paul secretly agreed to Wilson’s deal?

“We hope that no more demonstrations will be necessary, that the amendment will run steadily on to passage and ratification, without further suffering. But what we do depends on what the Administration does. We have one aim: The immediate passage of the Federal amendment. As for picketing we are well pleased at what it has accomplished.”

On Nov. 29, The New York Times uncovered “a decision to prevent them from becoming martyrs through hunger-striking. The authorities have decided to give a trial to the English cat-and-mouse system of dealing with hunger-striking suffragists. Under this system prisoners who starve themselves will not be kept in prison until lack of food endangers their health. No effort will be made to feed them forcibly, but after starvation has produced weakness they will be compelled to leave the jail.

“All the suffragists not released yesterday were freed from jail today. They were Miss Amy Jungling of New York. Mrs. George Scott of Montclair, N.J. … They will remain in Washington over Thanksgiving. It was said at the Headquarters of the National Woman’s Party that many of them were too weak to travel.”

Finally, “Miss Alice Paul, Chairman of the Woman’s Party, who was released from jail yesterday, said today, ‘The victory of our hunger strike is complete.’”

The question now was would Wilson change his mind or honor the deal. The answer to that wouldn’t come until 1918, but for Thanksgiving 1917, it appeared that Moorestown Quaker Alice Paul had more to be thankful for than ex-New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson.

Next Week: Wartime holidays.


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