Night of Terror - Suffragists

"Night of Terror," November 14, 1917.

In January of 1917 many women demonstrated outside the White House, demanding the vote for women. With the First World War raging in Europe they were met with opposition from the news media and the general public.

Women of the movement like Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and members of the National Woman's Party looked to expose the hypocrisy of newly elected President Woodrow Wilson "Making the world safe for Democracy" when there was none at home. Their banners (See Picture), "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty." Infuriated Law Enforcement as well as the President. They hung Wilson in effigy and burned copies of his speeches.

Six months later with a charge of obstructing traffic the suffragists were arrested. They were fed rancid food, denied medical care and visitors were not permitted.  The prison authorities considered them traitors.  “Just for demanding equal rights and the vote”.

When released the women returned to the White House gates. Their ranks swelled. By November, there were more marches and more arrests.

The cruel activates at the Occoquan Workhouse where the suffragists were housed and the activities of its superintendent, W.H. Whittaker, was well known.

 

The infamous "Night of Terror," November 14, 1917.

 Whittaker and his workhouse guards greeted the 33 returning suffragists with Forty-four club-wielding men who beat, kicked, dragged and choked their charges, which included at least one 73-year-old woman. Women were lifted into the air and flung to the ground. One was stabbed between the eyes with the broken staff of her banner. Lucy Burns was handcuffed to the bars of her cell in a torturous position. Women were dragged by guards twisting their arms and hurled into concrete "punishment cells." They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.  Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women. By the end of the night, they were barely alive.

The Warden ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote.  For 2 week, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food--all of it colorless slop--was infested with worms.

When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

During these months of torture and intimidation Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy.   The doctor admonished the men: 'Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.'

 For all the pain, this brutal night may have turned the tide. Less than two weeks later, a court-ordered hearing exposed the beaten women to the world and the judge agreed they had been terrorized for nothing more than exercising their constitutional right to protest. It would take three more years to win the vote, but the courageous women of 1917 had won a new definition of female patriotism.

 

 
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