Remembering the Night of Terror
Michael Burgan, History Author and Playwright


In 2020, the United States marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave all U.S. women the right to vote. When the amendment was first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918, a dozen states had already legalized suffrage for women, but the piecemeal state-by-state battle was anathema to many suffragists, who wanted to see women voting across the country. 

The effort to amend the Constitution to guarantee women’s right to vote had officially begun in 1878, when Susan B. Anthony drafted an amendment that was introduced in the U.S. Senate by A. A. Sargent of California. The effort failed. By then, the U.S. territories of Wyoming and Utah had already given women the vote; Wyoming went on to become the first state to grant that right, in 1890. 

The push for a Constitutional amendment gained steam in the early years of the 20th century and accelerated in 1917. A key event that year in the struggle was what is known now as the Night of Terror. As the year began, suffragists began protesting outside the White House. They tried to catch the attention of Woodrow Wilson, who had said women’s suffrage was an issue best left to the states. As they marched on Pennsylvania Avenue, some of the protesters carried signs. One said, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” After the United States entered World War I, the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” another sign declared, “Democracy should begin at home.”

As the protests went on, the suffragists were harassed, arrested, and sent to court. When convicted, most ended up at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. By some standards of the day, Occoquan was a decent prison, though inmates still faced bad food, unsanitary living conditions, and brutal guards. The workhouse would gain its greatest notoriety as the site of the Night of Terror.

Before that night, on November 10, 1917, the women once again took to the streets in front of the White House. By now, the women were demanding that the government recognize the women who had been arrested as political prisoners, ensuring they had more rights. The government said no—they were merely common criminals.

On the 10th, the protesters broke up into five groups. D.C. police loaded the first group into a waiting Black Maria. Their crime, said Captain Flather of the city police force, was blocking traffic on a city street. All five groups were eventually arrested, and on November 14, 31 of the women were convicted and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse. When they arrived, they waited in the office of Superintendent W. H. Whittaker, demanding to meet with him and assert their status as political prisoners. Whittaker had already shared his feelings about the suffragists and their cause: “We are going to stop this picketing if it costs the lives of some of your women, and it will cost the lives of some of these women, but we are going to stop it.” 

At first, Whittaker refused to meet with the women on the 14th. Then, suddenly, around 10 o’clock, he burst into the office with a horde of men trailing behind him. Dora Lewis rose to assert that they were political prisoners, but Whittaker cut her off: “You shut up! I have men here glad to handle you. Seize her!” Two men dragged Lewis out of the room. Another pair grabbed Dorothy Day, who later won fame as a progressive Roman Catholic political activitst. Taking her out of Whittaker’s office, the guards twisted her arms painfully as she reflexively resisted. One of the men said, “The dammed Suffrager…I will put her through hell.” 

At her cell, the guards threw Day into a bench. She later recalled, “When I tried to pick myself up again…I was thrown to the floor. When another prisoner tried to come to my rescue, we found ourselves in the midst of a milling crowd of guards being pummeled and pushed and kicked and dragged, so that we were scarcely conscious, in the shock of what was taking place.” 

As the Night of Terror progressed, one suffragist leader was handcuffed to the bars of her cell. Other women were slammed into furniture or against cell walls. As women called out to check on each other, Whittaker entered the cell block and roared, “Don’t you dare speak, any of you, or I’ll shove a bit in your mouth and throw you in a straitjacket.”

The next day, some of the women began a hunger strike. Whittaker worried they might die of starvation, so he ordered them force fed. Lucy Burns later said, “I was seized and laid on my back, where five people held me….. Dr. Gannon then forced the tube through my lips and down my throat, I gasping and suffocating with the agony of it…. I was moaning and making the most awful sounds quite against my will, for I did not wish to disturb my friends in the next room.”

Finally, on November 27, the suffragists still being held at Occoquan were back in court. A judge ruled that their detention at the workhouse was illegal. But that meant they were brought to the jail in Washington. Finally, though, thanks to public outcry, they were released. 

Eunice Dana Brannan had no doubts about who was ultimately responsible for the Night of Terror and what followed: “The [Wilson] Administration is behind the attempt to suppress our campaign for the Federal suffrage amendment.” The criticism in some circles over how the women were treated seemed to lead Wilson to change his views on women’s suffrage. In January 1918, he came out in support of the 19th Amendment. 

After the amendment was ratified in 1920, Doris Stevens of the National Woman’s Party publishedJailed for Freedom. It detailed many of the memories of the women who experienced the Night of Terror. Stevens wrote: “That women have been aroused never again to be content with their subjection there can be no doubt.”

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