blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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From the Picket Line to Jail: What Workhouse Sentences Meant to Suffragists
   Who Displayed Banners at the White House Gates

by Theodore Tiller, reprinted from The Sun, New York, New York, Sunday, July 22, 1917

Five miles below Mount Vernon, where the Father of American liberties passed his last years, there is the little Potomac River town of Occoquan. Away up the hill from the village is the workhouse of the District of Columbia.

A week ago most folks throughout the United States had never heard of Occoquan. The majority of Washingtonians have only a vague idea of its exact location and appearance. Sixteen militant suffragists and one President of the United States have finally put Occoquan “on the map.”

Occoquan and the officials of the District of Columbia workhouse never expected to see the day when a Presidential pardon for inmates of that penal institution would be rushed from Washington by automobile and bring about a wholesale exodus from the “female department.”

Ordinarily the prisoners at Occoquan serve their time, with allowance for good behavior. Sometimes an angel of mercy from without pays the fine after a man or woman has begun to serve time, but very, very seldom does the warden at Occoquan see the red seal on a Presidential pardon.

Therefore this whole story of the sojourn of the suffragists at Occoquan is an unusual one. Never before have sixteen American women—women of refinement and social position—been committed to a penal institution set apart for the derelicts of a city. Never before have American mothers and wives endured such humiliation and punishment for a cause in which they believed.

This is going to be a story of the two nights and two days spent by the suffragists at the District workhouse, a story of their imprisonment from the time they were stripped of their jewelry and forced into prison suits as they arrived at Occoquan Tuesday afternoon last until the matron told them on Thursday afternoon to “hurry up and dress, you women, and get out. You oughta all dress in twenty minutes.”

But the matron says it took more than an hour for the suffragists to get back into their own clothing, to assemble their personal belongings and say good-by to the “female department” of the District’s workhouse.

While they were dressing Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York and volunteer attorney for the suffragists, engaged in a lively colloquy with the warden and matron over the treatment accorded the women.

Outside the building there waited also J.A.H. Hopkins, Progressive national commmitteeman from New Jersey and a former Democratic politician of prominence. His wife was in the dressing room. Gilson Gardner, husband of another imprisoned suffragist, strode angrily about the grounds.

“The ladies have been shown every consideration, but if they are sent back here we will have to be less considerate,” the warden is quoted as remarking firmly to Mr. Malone.

Mixed With Negroes.
“They’ve been shown no consideration at all,” was the substantive reply of Mr. Malone, who almost shouted his disapproval of finding the suffragists in the same room with white and negro petty thieves, drunkards and women of the underworld. The verbal altercation grew so spirited that Mrs. Minnie Herndon, the matron, asked Mr. Malone to do his arguing outside the building.

This was no jail to which the suffragists were sent after their conviction in police court Tuesday on a charge of picketing the White House and blocking the sidewalk. If the suffragists had known more about the District workhouse it is possible that some of them would have paid the alternative fine of $25. Imprisonment in jail is quite different. The District of Columbia workhouse is no place for the daughter of a former Ambassador to Great Britain, the daughter of a great editor like Charles A. Dana, an artist and nature painted like Mrs. Paul Reyneau and their refined and well bred companions.

The two smaller groups of suffragists who spent a few hours in the District of Columbia jail, a few blocks to the east of the Capitol, had a comparatively “thrilling and interesting experience.” They were not thrown with the other prisoners and save for the reported presence of mice along corridors there was little discomfort.

As workhouses go Occoquan is admirably managed. The place is clean and the prison fare is wholesome. However, Occoquan is not adapted to the detention within its walls of women of social prominence and refined tastes. There are no separate accommodations for such women nor will the prison regulations permit such accommodations. When a suffragist of distinguished lineage reaches Occoquan she is to the matrons just a plain prisoner and is made to feel so.

Some of the Trials They Faced.
The change from milady’s boudoir to prison surroundings, garb and fare undoubtedly was shocking to the suffragists. For instance, here were some of their trials:

Each suffragist was required to take a shower bath in the rather roughly finished bathroom of the women’s dormitory as soon as the group of sixteen arrived.

They were stripped to the skin of their fine clothing and jewelry and required to don the prison suits of gray—one piece wrappers with a string about the waist.

They slept on cots with straw mattresses and were not permitted to converse after retiring. Lights were out at 8:30 P.M. and the suffragists were awakened at 6:30 A.M.

They ate in silence in a large room with about seventy-five other female inmates, white and colored. The colored women predominate and the tables of the white and colored prisoners are only a few feet apart.

Approximately twenty white women, exclusive of the suffragist leaders, were imprisoned at Occoquan. Some of them were old offenders, notably “Big Jane,” who weighs more than two hundred pounds and is brought down now and then for drunkenness and disturbing the peace. The “suffrage martyrs” took their meals alongside “Big Jane” and other offenders, including illiterates.

In the so-called rest room and library the suffragists were again thrown in contact with what Matron Herndon declared to be “the riff-raff of Washington.” Any female prisoner, white or colored, refined or coarse, was privileged to go into these rest quarters after working hours.

The suffragists were told that after work they might go out on the lawn surrounding the woman's dormitory. Here the female prisoners sit for an hour or so after the 5 o’clock dinner each afternoon. Two or three of the women started to walk about the lawn a bit.

“You can come out here, but you’re supposed to sit down,” sharply warned an attendant.

“Can’t we even walk around a little for exercise?” asked Miss Julia Hurlebut of New Jersey.

“You may walk just a little if you stay close to the building,” said the attendant.

In playful mood the suffragists suggested a running race or leapfrog. This was forbidden. The matron permitted them to go through a “setting up exercise.” On the lawn the female prisoners are wont to sit about conversing and bemoaning their fate. The “regulars” could never understand why the suffragists were “sent down” for their first offence.

“What you in for?” one of the one year women asked the suffrage group soon after its arrival.

“Picketing,” was the laconic reply.

This really apparently meant nothing at all to the questioner, but she continued:

“Been convicted more than once?”


“Humph! That’s funny. I never heard of nobody bein’ sent down here for the first ‘fence.”

The lack of the toilet facilities to which they had been accustomed is a sore point with the suffragists now returned to Washington.

“We couldn’t get a toothbrush until the second morning,” one of them complained, “and a comb hasn’t touched my hair since I went in there. Most of us forgot to take along combs. Each prisoner is supposed to have her own comb and brush, which is kept in a bag which hangs about the waist of the prison suit. I was offered a prison comb and brush, but I wouldn’t have used it for anything.”

Just outside the shower bathroom is a long metal trough with several spigots of running water. It is here that each female prisoner is required to wash her face and hands when arising. The women stand in line awaiting their turn, bathe faces as rapidly as possible and prepare for the march to the breakfast table.

An overflow of inmates in the colored sleeping quarters necessitated housing eighteen colored women in the long, narrow room used ordinarily for white prisoners. In the presence of these eighteen colored women, some of them convicted of vagrancy and street brawls, and of the white “regulars,” the suffragists disrobed and prepared for the night’s sleep. All the inmates of that particular dormitory had the same bathroom and dressing facilities.

Wherever the suffragist prisoners went about the women’s quarters they were confronted with large placards headed, “Rules and Regulations for Prisoners.” Here were some of the rules to which they were subject:

Prisoners shall bathe once a week and as much oftener as the management shall require.

Strict silence must be observed within the enclosure when under orders, in the dining room and in the sleeping quarters.

Each prisoner must labor silently, faithfully and diligently at whatever work may be assigned.

Insolence from any prisoner will not be tolerated, nor will profane, vulgar or in any manner disrespectful language be permitted.

Prisoners must always approach an officer in a respectful manner and give the military salute.

Prisoners must be prompt to move in line at the proper signal, march in military order silently and yield obedience to the officer in command.

All prisoners are expected to attend religious services and take part in singing or other forms of service when requested.

Prisoners must not at any time leave the line or their place of employment without permission of the officer in charge.

Other regulations say that if a prisoner has any complaint to make he or she will be heard by the superintendent.

The matron of the Occoquan workhouse knows neither class nor color in the discharge of what she considers her official duties. She appeared to have a rather indefinite idea that her suffragist boarders were persons of prominence, but she wasn’t particular about their lineage, social standing or wealth. Just after the suffragists has departed because of the President’s pardon the matron sighed with evident relief and said to the writer:

“This place isn’t built for Senators’ wives [albeit there was no wife of a Senator in the party]. I tell you how I feel about this thing. When a woman comes here she is just a prisoner in my sight. I don’t know any differences between white and black, rich and poor. I’m not going to give anybody any special privileges. All of ’em must stand in line. If my own daughter came here she’d take her medicine, although I would know it was my daughter all the time, see?

Nobody Escapes the Bath.
“When these suffragettes came down they went through the same performance as though they’d been sent here for drunk and disorderly. I made ’em take a shower bath. Nobody escapes the shower bath. Here it is; it’s hot or cold, just as they like it, but they have all got to bathe. We get a lot of dirty looking prisoners down here. This place is for the riffraff of Washington, not Senator’s wives, understand?

“Well, they must all bathe. Twice a week is the general rule; oftener if they want to, and at least once on Saturdays.

“I took all their clothing away and their jewelry and ornaments. That’s the rule, and they all look alike to me when the law sends them down. I gave them prison suits, just like the other women have. Here’s the beds they sleep on. See, it’s a good mattress and clean sheets. Nothing fancy, though.

“If these women had stayed here one more day I was going to put ’em in the blackberry patch doing outdoor work. I had them in the sewing room the first two days and they did fairly well except for these conferences with their lawyer and husbands. I told the superintendent they would have to get down to work in earnest on the third day and I couldn’t have any more conferences. Such things disrupt the place and make it hard for me to manage the other prisoners. This is some troublesome job and I can’t play favorites.”

Mrs. Herndon says the suffragists took an exceptionally long time to dress when the pardon came. She hustled them all into a big dressing room—in the colored dormitory, by the way—and admonished”

“Now if you women will just stop talking and do what the officer tells you you can be dressed and out of here in twenty minutes.”

“My, it took them more than an hour,” said Mrs. Herndon. “I had their clothing and jewelry all laid out on the chairs for them, but they just talked and fooled so much I thought they’d never get out of here.”

Matron Firm But Kind.
The matron is a tall, thin woman with a quick eye and a jaw denoting determination and grit. She rules with a firm hand, but on a visit through the hospital, where several colored women were sick, she spoke kindly to them and the patients seemed appreciative of her efforts to make them comfortable.

Mrs. Herndon, however, is a stickler for discipline when prisoners are well and able to work and the visit of the suffragists plainly harassed her and brought the fear of a disturbance of prison routine and authority.

All of the suffragists, ranging in years from 20 to 62, were put in the sewing room on the day of their arrival. They sewed away for the entire day, except for the time allowed for conferences with counsel. The confinement was irksome to most of the suffragists and some of them actually wanted the outdoor work on the prison farm.

“Yes, you’re going to the blackberry farm to-morrow,” said Mrs. Herndon, whose plans were upset by the President’s action. It was Mrs. Herndon’s intention to keep a strict account of the quantity of blackberries picked by each suffragist.

“Each woman is capable of turning in so many pans of berries a day,” she said, “and I intended to put a checker right behind these suffragettes to see that they picked their share.”

The Occoquan prison is practically self-supporting and there is a farm for both the male and female prisoners. The two departments are about two hundred yards apart and there is no communication whatever between the two.

The District of Columbia workhouse lies about a mile from the railroad. When prisoners are sent from police court in Washington a bus meets them at the station and the offenders are piled in and taken “over the hills to the workhouse.”

The suffragists left Washington late Tuesday in company with a group of colored women convicted that day. There was also along “Big Jane” Gannon, white, returning to the workhouse for another stay. The colored women were placed in a separate bus at the station. “Big Jane” rode with the suffragists, greeted the warden with the affability that comes of a “hangover” and expressed the hope that no special favors would be shown the suffragettes.

Asked for Like Treatment.
“Warden,” she explained as she alighted, “are these suffragettes going to get the same treatment I get?”

“That’s right, Jane,” said the warden,” said the warden.

“That’s the way,” said the unfortunate prodigal, “and that’s why I don’t mind coming down here now and then.”

When the women lined up to furnish the enrolling officer with their names “Big Jane” stood at the head of the line.

The District’s farm at Occoquan covers a large acreage, most of it under cultivation. On an average there are about 500 male convicts in the men’s department and the females range from 50 to 100. Everything on the women’s side of the road separating the two departments is operated by the feminine inmates. They cultivate the vegetable patches, conduct the laundry, lay out the walks and keep the grounds in order.

It was the intention of the matron to put the majority of the suffragists at outside work. Mrs. Brannan, more than 62 years old, was scheduled for lighter employment inside.

Entering the female department one comes first to the office of the matron. On each side of the corridor are six sleeping rooms for the officers. Just beyond is the officers’ dining room, and a few feet further there is a big kitchen with a range in the middle of the room. Just off the kitchen is the dining room, and it was here that the suffragists first came in contact with the derelicts who constitute the ordinary grist of a police court.

This dining room is approximately 30 feet wide and 60 feet long. The tables for the white women are on the right as one enters. On the left are two rows of tables for the colored women. Should the colored side become crowded, nothing would be thought of switching the overflow to the opposite side, just as the overflow from the colored sleeping quarters occupied eighteen cots in the separate quarters for whites.

The prisoners eat their meals rather sullenly because of the absolute silence rule. This was one of the galling regulations to the suffragists. The food is said to be wholesome but plain, and the suffragists claim they ate but little at Occoquan. Some friend in Washington sent down three crates of fruit on Wednesday. It was returned by the warden and never reached the addressees.

Branching to the right and left of the kitchen are the dormitories. Each consists of a long, narrow room with cots beside the walls. The cots are about three feet apart. At the far end of the room is the washroom with the trough and spigots. Just off the washroom is the shower bath toward which prisoners are required to wander “at least once a week.”

Complain of No Privacy.
The suffragists complain there was absolutely no privacy about the bathrooms. They also rebelled at the common drinking dipper, the rough underclothing and the absence of toilet articles.

“Why, do you know what happened?” asked the attractive Mrs. Reyneau and the attractive Miss Hurlbut in chorus. “Some of the regular prisoners told us that on Monday, the day before we arrived, all the women were required to wash out their clothing so that we might have clean suits. This shows that it was expected the court would send us down there. We had to put on these second hand suits that had been worn by other women—no telling who wore them.

“The woollen stockings they gave us were so thick that we couldn’t get them in our shoes. They didn’t have enough prison shoes to go around and several of us were forced to go without stockings the whole time. The underwear they gave us was unbleached cotton and ticking. It was awful, and some of us didn’t have a hairbrush, and we just wouldn’t use the one furnished by the prison.”

Miss Mary Hall Ingham of Philadelphia interjected with: “There is one thing to be said in favor of Occoquan. It was delightfully cool there at night. A breeze came through our sleeping rooms all the time. The place was clean, too, but it was awful to be cooped up with all these other prisoners just as though we had committed some crime. Several of those women asked me how we happened to be sent down ‘on our first offence.’”

Miss Ingham says that several years ago she attended a banquet given at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel by the Public Charities Association of Philadelphia.

“Among the speakers of that evening,” said Miss Ingham, “was a Mr. Whittaker, who spoke on model workhouses and penal institutions. I listened with much interest. This week I was a prisoner in the workhouse at which Mr. Whittaker is general superintendent. I didn’t mention the matter of our former meeting.”

As the little group of returning suffragists talked animatedly of their experiences, shooting information at me so rapidly that I had to call for time, one or another of the sixteen suffragists, breaking into the conversation wherever the thought occurred, said:

“I missed my nail file worse than anything.”

“My hair hasn’t been done since I left Washington. I never wanted a comb so badly in my life.”

“Don’t say the meals were good and we had plenty of sugar and coffee. It isn’t so.”

“We were permitted to talk a little while in the sewing room, but not more than two or three were allowed to sit together.”

“We had to dress and undress right before everybody else.”

“They started out calling us by our first names, but that didn’t last long. It was just impossible for these prison guards to speak of Mrs. Brannan as ‘Eunice.’ It was remarkable how refinement and breeding showed even in prison clothes. Even in that old gray prison suit Mrs. Brannan was still MRS. BRANNAN.”

(This latter sentence of comment came from the pretty Mrs. Reyneau, one of the youngest of the imprisoned suffragists.)

“They wouldn’t give us anything to write a letter with and we were told that only business letters could be forwarded.”

“I know I wanted to write my husband very much and I couldn’t get ink or pen or paper,” commented Mrs. Reyneau.

The prison rules say that prisoners may write one letter a week on business, the same to be submitted to the superintendent before mailing. The superintendent will take into consideration requests for permission to write additional letters.

There are three ways by which one may reach Occoquan, railroad, boat and automobile. The suffragists went to the workhouse on a late afternoon train. They returned by automobile over country roads macadamized between Alexandria and Washington. Should you go to Occoquan by boat the magnificent old home of George Washington looms atop of the hills shortly before you reach the landing place at Occoquan. When it was first proposed several years ag to appropriate for a District workhouse in Virginia the members of Congress from the Old Dominion raised quite a rumpus against the programme “to profane the sacred soil of Virginia by turning loose upon it the criminal classes of the District of Columbia.”

Nevertheless the District workhouse is on sacred Virginia soil, and its activities are broadening year by year as the population of the national capital increases.

Occoquan overlooks the sweep of the Potomac and is set on a knoll with Virginia valleys stretching below. Its buildings are all of one story construction and both inside and out of the buildings are painted white. Male prisoners engaged on outdoor work wear ankle chains unless they are “trustees.” The female prisoners are not chained unless they become unmanageable. All prisoners are given numbers as soon as they enter the institution.

Mrs. Eunice Dana Brannan of New York was No. 5974. The other suffragists were numbered 5972 to 5987 inclusive.

Mrs. Louis Parker Mayo of Framingham, Mass., was the first suffragist given a number. She is not even a member of the National Woman’s party, but “picketed” the White House on Bastille day just because of her interest in the cause.

Naturally those on the outside want to know what the suffragists ate—or might have eaten—at Occoquan. Here’s a menu for the first day:

Fried Hominy with Gravy.
Wheat Bread.
Blackberry Jam.
Sugar and Cream.

Beef and Cabbage.
Buttered Beets.
String Beans.
Corn Bread.

Quite different, one must admit, in comparison with an eight course dinner.

The women prisoners arose at 6:30 o’clock, breakfasted within twenty minutes and then went to the sewing room, where they stitched shirts and overalls until luncheon. The dinner hour came at 5 P.M., and after dinner there was a rest period until the time arrived for “lights out” at 8:30. This rest period may be spent on the lawn surrounding the dormitory or in the library. The books in the library are mainly shelf worn volumes supplied by donation. These books covered practically every variety of topics from Jules Verne’s fanciful tales to Gibbon’s “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Illiterate inmates spent their spare time gossiping about prison affairs on the lawn. A matron is constantly on guard.

White Miss Doris L. Stevens of Nebraska was submitting to questions regarding her ancestry, occupation, age and other things, the matron was rudely interrupted by a colored prisoner who indignantly complained:

“I want to report that ’ere co’ored gal who is wukking with me. She’s always a-cussin’ me and calling me names.”

“You get back to your work and I’ll look into it,” commanded Mrs. Herndon, who proceeded with her interrogation of Miss Stevens. All of the suffragists were admonished that in the eyes of Occoquan they were convicts sent down for sixty days and would have to obey the rules of the institution and expect no favors.

“Even the short time they were here and with all my determination to keep them in line,” said Mrs. Herndon afterward. “they upset the place and I have been worried to death. The slightest thing here interferes with discipline.”

Mrs. J.A.H. Hopkins, wife of the New Jersey political leader who interceded for the women in an interview with the President, said no favors were shown the suffragists despite their refinement and unfamiliarity with prison surroundings.

“We were denied even the most necessary toilet articles,” she said.

“We were not given an opportunity to write a letter home. All our clothes and even our wedding rings were taken from us when we reached the workhouse. There was absolutely no privacy about the toilet facilities. The prison clothing was coarse.

“No prison shoes were available for some of us and the woollen stockings were too thick to get within our own shoes. We were advised to go barelegged and some of us did. Ice water was brought us one morning, but the matron said we were not supposed to have it and took it away. We thought at first the enforced association with negro women of the underworld was an intended indignity, but the excuse was made that the negro dormitory was filled and it was necessary to put eighteen of them in our sleeping room.”

At the head of each bed in the dormitories is the name of the occupant—Nellie Jones, Sarah Smith and so on. The suffragists were listed plainly as Doris Stevens, Julia Hurlburt, &c.

Supt. Whittaker claims that within the law the women were given all the privileges possible. They were permitted to confer with counsel at length and in one or two instances were allowed to see a protesting relative who came to advise the women to pay the $25 fine and leave Occoquan.

The suffragists accepted the President’s pardon without making any promise concerning further picketing. The pardon was unconditional. They assert they would not have accepted the pardon had there been any strings attached, and at the headquarters of the National Women’s party statements were made after the return of the prisoners that “picketing will be followed if we deem it necessary.”

However, the women are confident that the President will soon get behind the Susan B. Anthony amendment.

 . . .

Indicating the wealth and position of the Occoquan prisoners was the amount of money and jewelry taken from them when they entered the institution. About $500 in new bills and nearly $50,000 worth of jewelry was turned over to Mrs. Herndon for safe-keeping. Mrs. Mayo was permitted to keep her lorgnette “so that she might read the bill of fare.” as they put it at the prison. All other ornaments and jewelry were taken from the prisoners.

“Goodness, I guess there was over $50,000 worth,” said the matron, just after the suffragists left in their automobiles for the return trip to Washington, large white beds, good meals, and needed toilet articles.  end

   Silent Sentinels and the Night of Terror
   Introduction & Table of Contents

   Voices from Occoquan
   Introduction & Table of Contents

   1917 Suite: A Month, a Year, a Term of Liberty
   Introduction & Cross-issue Table of Contents

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