100 Years Ago, Women Were Beaten and Tortured For the Right to Vote | A Mighty Girl
By November, many of the Silent Sentinels had been repeatedly arrested and Occoquan superintendent W.H. Whittaker was frustrated. On November 14, he ordered the nearly 40 male guards to “teach the women a lesson.” The guards attacked the 33 women with clubs, brutalizing them and throwing them into cells. According to affidavits taken during a later investigation, women were dragged, choked, pinched, and kicked — and some women received even worse treatment. They twisted Dora Lewis’ arm behind her back and slammed her into a iron bed twice before leaving her unconscious on the floor. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, believed that Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack, but she was denied medical treatment until the next morning. Dorothy Day, who later co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, was slammed repeatedly over the back of an iron bench.
After she started a roll call from her cell to check in on her fellow prisoners, Lucy Burns was identified as the group’s ringleader. When she refused the guards’ orders to stop the roll call, they handcuffed her arms to the cell bars above her head, leaving her standing bleeding all night. In solidarity, other women stood holding their arms above their own heads until she was released.
After the Night of Terror, the women refused to eat for three days; the guards tried to tempt the women to eat with fried chicken, which Burns considered an insult: “They think there is nothing in our souls above fried chicken.” As the hunger strike continued, Whittaker began to fear that one of the prisoners would die, leading to even more negative publicity, so he ordered Burns to be removed to another jail, where she too was force fed. She was held down by five people as a tube was forced through her nostril, a practice which caused painful, severe nosebleeds. Burns ultimately served more jail time than any other American suffragist.
Reflecting on these horrific events years later, Paul observed: “Seems almost unthinkable now, doesn’t it? It was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote.”