Last updated: October 6, 2022
The Occoquan Workhouse (later Lorton Reformatory and Lorton Correctional Complex) in Lorton, Virginia was a jail facility used by the District of Columbia. It was built in 1910. At first, it housed prisoners serving short sentences for offenses like disorderly conduct. Inmates were put to work in agriculture and factory production. Occoquan is also notable as a site of women’s suffrage history. In 1917, dozens of suffragists served time there after being arrested picketing the White House. They endured poor conditions and even violence. These activists publicized their experiences. The resulting public outrage helped to turn the tide toward the suffrage cause.
In January 1917, the National Woman’s Party began an unprecedented campaign of picketing outside the White House. These activists, led by Alice Paul, had split from the larger and older National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Paul and the NWP believed that NAWSA was moving too slowly and being too timid in the fight for suffrage. They aimed to get faster results by pressuring President Woodrow Wilson directly. Paul and other leaders like Lucy Burns borrowed aggressive tactics from British suffragettes. British leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst engaged in public protest and civil disobedience. Despite public criticism that pickets were “unladylike,” the NWP forged ahead with them.
The picketers were known as the “Silent Sentinels.” Six days a week, they stood outside the White House gates. They held large signs demanding that Wilson support a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. “Mr. President,” one sign demanded, “how long must women wait for liberty?”
At first, media coverage was positive. But after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, public opinion began to turn against the picketers. Many Americans felt that criticism of the government during wartime was unpatriotic and even treasonous. But the NWP refused to stop picketing.
The protests infuriated Wilson and much of the public. The police began to arrest and charge protesters with “obstructing traffic.” But the suffragists refused to pay their fines. They pointed out that the First Amendment guaranteed their right to free assembly. Instead, judges began to sentence suffragists to jail.
“Jailed for Freedom”
Many suffragists were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, VA. As a workhouse, Occoquan was different from traditional prisons that relied on solitary confinement and physical punishment. The Progressive reformers who designed Occoquan thought that rehabilitation should occur through work and social interaction. They wanted to educate and train inmates for productive, successful lives after prison. Inmates worked on a nearby farm, produced consumer and industrial goods for sale, and did laundry for the facility.
However, the minimum-security conditions did not mean prisoners were treated well. The mostly poor and working-class inmates at Occoquan experienced brutality from the guards, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. The middle-class white suffragists quickly got a window into this world. When they arrived at Occoquan, suffragist prisoners were forced to strip naked, sprayed with water, and given rough, dirty uniforms to wear. Wardens blocked them from contacting their families. They crowded into dirty, freezing cells. “The beans, hominy, rice, cornmeal…and cereal have all had worms in them,” suffragist Virginia Bovee reported from jail. “Sometimes the worms float on top of the soup.” Suffragist prisoner Doris Stevens chronicled the women's experiences in her 1920 account, Jailed For Freedom.
The imprisoned Sentinels were also assigned work, but they refused to do it. They pointed out that they had not committed any crimes, and they argued that they should be treated as political prisoners. Paul, Burns, and several others started hunger strikes to protest their treatment. After several days, guards force-fed them by holding them down and shoving tubes up their noses or down their throats, pumping raw eggs into their bodies.
The Night of Terror
The violence against suffragists at Occoquan peaked on November 14, 1917. On the orders of prison warden W. H. Whittaker, workhouse guards brutalized dozens of suffragist prisoners in what would be called the “Night of Terror.” Guards handcuffed Lucy Burns in her cell with her hands over her head, forcing her to stand all night. They pushed Dora Lewis into her cell so hard that her head smashed against an iron bedframe and she was knocked unconscious. Alice Cosu, Lewis’s cellmate, suffered a heart attack from the shock and vomited repeatedly. Despite the other prisoners’ pleas, guards refused to call a doctor. Twenty-year-old Dorothy Day, who would later launch the Catholic Worker Movement, was lifted twice by guards and slammed down over a metal bench.
With the help of Dudley Field Malone, a Wilson administration official and the husband of one of the prisoners, accounts of the violence were shared with the press. Two weeks later, a judge ordered the prisoners released, and eventually vacated their convictions.
After their release, the Silent Sentinels continued to picket. They also traveled the country on a train tour dubbed the “Prison Special,” dressed in replica prison garb and sharing their experiences with the world. Shocked at the spectacle of middle-class white women being treated so brutally, many Americans who heard them sympathized. In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced his support for the suffrage amendment.
Occoquan Workhouse later expanded to house inmates convicted of more serious crimes in a walled penitentiary. It was renamed “Lorton Reformatory” and later “Lorton Correctional Complex.” By the 1950s and 1960s, the prison was overcrowded. Unrest and violence were frequent. In the 1980s, reformers pointed to Lorton as a prime example of the overcrowding and deterioration of American prisons. In the late 1990s it was ordered closed. The last prisoners left in November of 2001.
In 2005, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A group of local community leaders mobilized to preserve and transform it. In September of 2008, the Workhouse Arts Center opened at the site. It offers affordable studio space for emerging artists and hosts exhibitions, performances, and other events. Although the original workhouse building where the “Night of Terror” occurred is no longer standing, the center engages visitors with the “Lucy Burns Museum” to interpret the site’s suffrage legacy.
Korgen, Wilson. "The Lasting Legacy of Suffragists at the Lorton Women's Workhouse." Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, March 21, 2018. https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/lasting-legacy-of-suffragists-at-lorton-occoquan-womens-workhouse.
National Register of Historic Places, D.C. Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District, Lorton, Fairfax County, Virginia, National Register #06000052, 2005.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed For Freedom. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1920.
Workhouse Arts Center, "Suffrage History at the Workhouse," http://www.workhousearts.org/lucyburnsmuseum/suffragehistory/.
Article by Ella Wagner, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.