On the night of Nov. 14, 1917, 63-year-old Mrs. John Winters Brannan wrapped herself in her heavy sealskin coat to protect herself from the thugs about to hurl her into a cold, filthy prison cell. A scene of violent confusion had suddenly surrounded her and the 32 other suffragists in the Occoquan Work House. The next 12 hours would ever after be known as the night of terror.
Police had arrested the suffragists picketing in front of the White House, taken them in vans to Union Station and put them on the train to Lorton, Va., 20 miles away. There, more vans picked them up and took them to Occoquan, where they waited in the matron’s office.
The women began to notice shabbily dressed men milling outside. Then the workhouse superintendent, William Whittaker, burst into the room. “Seize these women, take them off, that one, that one, — take her off.” The men began manhandling the women, shaking one suffragist violently, throwing another to the floor.
Mrs. John Winters Brannan, though stunned, said to the superintendent, “I will give my name under protest.” Then she started to walk toward the desk.
“Oh, no, you won’t,” shouted the superintendent. “Don’t talk about protest; I won’t have any of that nonsense.”
It was exactly that intransigence – there’d been a century of it — that drove Eunice Dana Brannan to suffer through a night of terror for women’s rights.
Eunice Dana Brannan
Eunice Dana was born on Aug. 27, 1854, in Westport, Conn., the youngest of four children of Charles Dana, founder of the New York Sun and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln. Her ancestor, Richard Dana, had arrived in Cambridge, Mass., from England in 1640, founding a Boston Brahmin dynasty.
In the decade before the Civil War, Charles Dana worked as managing editor of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and made it the leading voice of anti-slavery. He also believed in equal rights for women, an uncompromising position his daughter would adopt.
She married John Winters Brannan, a prominent doctor, in 1882. They had two sons and a daughter who later joined the woman’s rights movement.
A 1917 photo of her reveals a regal society matron in a jeweled dress with an elaborate coiffure. She was ‘an aristocrat of intellect and feeling,’ according to a colleague in the women’s rights movement.
When Eunice Brannan got involved in the women’s rights movement, the idea of standing on a soapbox to harangue strangers horrified her. But she traveled to England in the 1890s to see for herself the tactics used by the Pankhurst sisters, women’s rights activists who called themselves suffra-gettes.
In 1897, she told the Political Equality Club in Geneva, N.Y., that she had changed her mind when she saw the Pankhursts’ orderly outdoor meetings.
But over the next decade English suffragettes made little progress toward the vote. To gain attention for their crusade, the suffragettes began to smash windows, fight with policemen and go to jail.
Mrs. John Winters Brannan did not approve. Around 1908, Munsey’s Magazine reported, ‘Mrs. Brannan is said to have reduced a young English-American suffragist to the freezing point by the icy question, “And I suppose you have been in jail” leveled at her on the moment of introduction.
But decades and decades of work — organizing, marching, petitioning, campaigning — had not brought women full voting rights except in 11 U.S. states.
Mrs. John Winters Brannan would change her mind about going to jail.
President Woodrow Wilson did not publicly support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. On March 4, 1917, the day of his inauguration for a second term, the suffragists picketed outside the White House.
Calling themselves the Silent Sentinels, they picketed nearly every day, rain or shine, wearing white, gold and purple sashes. They held banners that said, “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty.” And they made it impossible for Wilson to enter or leave the White House without seeing them. Eunice Brannan was among the pickets.
Wilson put up with them for a while, even inviting them in for coffee. They refused. Then in April 1917 the United States entered World War I. That month, police started arresting the suffragists for obstructing traffic. The courts released them quickly.
The women kept it up, and they started getting prison sentences. Then the prison sentences got longer and longer. In July, Eunice Brannan was among a group of suffragists sentenced to Occoquan Work House. One suffragist had a high-ranking husband who complained to Wilson, who pardoned them all after three days.
In August, the suffragists unfurled a banner that said,
“Kaiser Wilson Have You Forgotten Your Sympathy With the Poor Germans Because They Were Not Self-Governed? 20,000,000 American Women Are Not Self-Governed. Take the Beam Out of Your Own Eye.”
In October, police arrested one of the suffragists’ leaders, Alice Paul, and the court sentenced her to seven months in prison. To protest her sentence, a larger-than-usual contingent of women picketed the White House. Police arrested them. A judge released them.
The suffragists went right back to the picket line. Again, police arrested them. A judge released them again.
The suffragists returned to the White House picket line. The police arrested 33 and, this time, the judge handed down sentences from six days to six months.
The prisoners came from all over the country and from all walks of life: the great-great-granddaughter of Revolutionary Gen. Artemas Ward, a Framingham, Mass., shopkeeper, a Romanian immigrant, the country’s only woman geologist, a 73-year-old Floridian with a bad leg and three munitions workers from Bridgeport, Conn.
Eunice Brannan got 45 days. She told the judge, “The responsibility for an agitation like ours against injustice rests with those who deny justice, not those who demand it.”
The Night of Terror
The night of terror began when they arrived at Occoquan Work House. Eunice Brannan wrote a deposition about it, and another prisoner, Doris Stevens, included it in her book, Jailed for Freedom.
“… I . . . saw the guards seizing the different women of the party with the utmost violence, the furniture being overturned and the room a scene of the utmost disturbance,” wrote Brannan. “I saw Miss [Kathryn] Lincoln lying on the floor, with every appearance of having just been thrown down by the two guards who were standing over her in a menacing attitude.
“… The whole group of women were thrown, dragged or herded out of the office on to the porch, down the steps to the ground, and forced to cross the road … to the Administration Building. During all of this time, . . . Superintendent Whittaker was . . . directing the whole attack. . . .
The thugs hurled the women into freezing, filthy stone cells, where they had no privacy. An exposed toilet in the cell could only flush from the corridor, so the women had to ask the same guards who’d abused them to flush the toilet for them.
Eunice Brannan looked across the corridor and saw Kathryn Lincoln. Brannan asked whether she was all right after the guards had thrown her to the floor.
Instantly Superintendent Whittaker rushed forward, shouting at her, “Stop that ; not another word from your mouth, or I will handcuff you, gag you and put you in a strait jacket.”
The guards shackled Lucy Burns’ hands to the top of the cell, so she had to stand all night.
They slammed the frail Dorothy Day down on an iron bench. When they hurled Dora Lewis into the cell, her head struck the iron bed. Alice Cosu saw her pass out and suffered a heart attack.
Mary Nolan, the 73-year-old Floridian, wrote that Alice Cosu was vomiting. “We called and called. We asked them to send our own doctor, because we thought she was dying. . . . They [the guards] paid no attention. A cold wind blew in on us from the outside, and we three lay there shivering and only half conscious until morning.”
Eunice Brannan thought of the offense with which they had been charged — obstructing traffic, — and felt their treatment was out of all proportion to the offense. She also concluded the superintendent, the matron and guards must have had the support of higher authorities.
The Next Day
The day after the night of terror, Mrs. John Winters Brannan put on prison clothes. A guard gave her a cup of skimmed milk and a slice of toast, and then took her to the sewing room. There she was went to work sewing on the underpants of the male prisoners.
Marines from Quantico stood as sentinels outside the workhouse. None of their friends or family had any word about their situation. Matthew O’Brien, their attorney, tried to visit them but couldn’t. The phones to the Women’s Congress headquarters were tapped.
Finally, one of the marine sentinels went to the women’s headquarters and said ‘unknown tortures’ were going on. O’Brien, got a court order and forced his way into the workhouse. Still he couldn’t see his clients.
Some of the women refused to eat, including Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis. On Day 7, they prison officials force fed them. Lewis wrote that five people seized her and held her down. The doctor forced a tube down her throat, “I gasping and suffocating with the agony of it.”
9 Days After the Night of Terror
Finally O’Brien got a writ of habeas corpus to show cause why the women should be detained in a Virginia prison after their arrest in Washington, D.C. The hearing started nine days after the night of terror, on November 23, in a little courthouse in Alexandria.
The suffragists filed into court one by one, shocking some of the spectators. Some were so weak they had to lie on the benches. Eunice Brannan collapsed, and court officers took her to a sofa in an anteroom.
Three of the most brutally abused women didn’t appear in court. The judge asked why. The defense said they were too ill. O’Brien retorted the prison officials didn’t want people to see their injuries. The judge ordered the three to be brought in the next day.
Testimony About the Night of Terror
On the morning of November 24, Eunice Brannan got a chance to talk to her husband, now the chairman of the board of trustees of Bellevue Hospital in New York City. He testified during the hearing that day:
“I find Mrs. Brannan in a state of almost complete collapse from the shocking treatment to which she has been subjected in Occoquan Workhouse … Today is the first opportunity I have had to hear my wife’s full story, though I have been in Washington three times this week, attempting to find out the actual conditions of her imprisonment.”
The superintendent had forbidden her to describe her treatment to anyone, he said. Brannan said he noticed the look of terror that came into the faces of all the women prisoners when William Whittaker stepped near them.
“From my wife’s account it was evident that the suffrage prisoners were deliberately terrorized when they entered Occoquan and were treated with great brutality by the men guards, who handled them and knocked them about with the fury of thugs, under the immediate direction of Mr. Whittaker himself, who called out that the men ‘would be glad to get their hands on them and handle them rough.’”
Brannan concluded the suffragists had broken no law, since the Constitution guarantees their right to petition and the Clayton Act makes picketing in the District legal.
“If they are guilty of an offense it is trivial in comparison with the outrageous insults and brutal treatment to which they have been subjected.”
The judge ruled for the women, saying they could be paroled pending appeal. Eunice Brannan and two others agreed to their release, fearing prison would kill them. The others insisted on serving out their sentences in the Washington District Jail.
Vindication for the Night of Terror
News of the night of terror sparked protests across the country. In March 1918, four months after the night of terror, a judge ruled they’d been illegally arrested, convicted and detained in Occoquan Work House.
In 1918, Eunice Brannan burned one of Wilson’s speeches in Lafayette Square. “We have forgotten the history of our country if we have forgotten how to object, how to resist, how to agitate when it is necessary to readjust matters,” she announced
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
With thanks to David Dismore, “Today in Herstory: The “Silent Sentinels” Go Back to Court — This Time, to Seek Justice,” feminist.org blog. And to Chas Wells, Biographical Sketch of Eunice Dana (Mrs. John Winters) Brannan, Alexander Street, and Doris Stevens, “Jailed for Freedom.” This story updated in 2022.