Suffrage in 60 Seconds: The Night of Terror

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On November 14, 1917, more than two dozen National Woman's Party members are sentenced to serve prison time for picketing the White House in support of woman suffrage, although the official charge is "obstructing traffic." That night, the women arrive at the women's prison, the Occoquan Work House. And they arrive with demands to be treated as political prisoners. The prison officials are enraged. That night becomes known as the "Night of Terror" for what happens next, as the prison officials beat the suffragists. Mary Nolan, the oldest prisoner at 73, provides this eyewitness account.

"A man sprang at me and caught me by the shoulder. 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.

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.

At the end of the corridor, they pushed me through a door. Then I lost my balance and fell against the iron bed. Mrs. Cosu struck the wall. We had only lain there a few minutes trying to get our breath when Mrs. Lewis was literally thrown in. Her head struck the iron bed. We thought she was dead. She didn't move. We were crying over her as we lifted her to the pad on my bed. We were so terrified. We kept very still."

And the next day, those terrified, battered women began a hunger strike.

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1 minute, 45 seconds

The women of the National Woman's Party sentenced to prison in November 1917 for picketing the White House had no idea what awaited them when they arrived at the Occoquan Workhouse. They endured brutality and abuse from the prison guards, but remained committed to their cause. Ranger Susan provides an eyewitness account. When have you needed courage?

Lucy Burns spent more time in prison than any other American woman suffragist. During the Night of Terror, her hands were shackled above her head all night.

Part of a series of articles titled Suffrage in Sixty Seconds.

Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, National Mall and Memorial Parks, Pennsylvania Avenue, The White House and President's Park

Last updated: September 1, 2020