Kate Heffelfinger: From the Workhouse to the State Hospital

March 13, 2010 at 10:56 am

In 1917, three years before women’s right to vote was recognized, a group of more than thirty suffragists, members of the National Woman’s Party, were arrested in DC on charges of “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” the latest in a long line of charges against the protesting women. Their real crime, however, was daring to speak up for themselves and their rights — especially when a woman’s role was one of quiet support for a nation newly at war. But how do you support a nation that doesn’t support you? They dared to stand outside the White House with banners asking how long they must wait for liberty. These women wanted more than answers. They wanted — and fought for — their rights and the rights of their countrywomen and if you can’t have your vote in a ballot box, your vote is cast in the streets, in the press and sometimes in a jail cell.

The thirty-three women arrested that day were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. As protestors returning to the line after a series of unjust arrests and subsequent trips to Occoquan, they were no strangers to the violent and abusive behavior they faced. Many had already been beaten, violently force fed rotten and maggot infested food, denied medical attention and forced to live in unsanitary conditions. Still, little could have prepared them for what has become known as the “Night of Terror” for the appalling treatment it brought them.  By order of Occoquan’s superintendent, as many as forty guards armed with clubs went on a rampage, attacking the jailed and defenseless women. They were dragged, beaten and choked, slammed into the hard iron furnishings of the cells, and chained up — injured and bleeding. One woman suffered a heart attack which was ignored while she saw her compatriot lying unconscious and presumed dead on the floor. Shamefully, it took a night of terror to affect change. When news got out about the nightmare endured at Occoquan, public outrage rose to the point that even President Woodrow Wilson, staunchly opposed to women’s suffrage, started to reverse his position. While he may not have cared about the plight of the women, he was shocked at the events of that night and he was not blind to the outrage of his public. The wheels of our government are slow to move and it took three more years for women to get the vote they never should’ve been made to fight for but it was a turning point and tales of that night are often used to urge women to exercise their right vote.

Miss Kate Heffelfinger after her release from the Occoquan Workhouse.

These were women of conscience and conviction gathering from their varied backgrounds and home towns in a shared purpose. Among them was Miss Kate Heffelfinger. Kate was from Shamokin, PA, less than twenty miles from my own home town. She was an art student and a member of the National Woman’s Party, an instrumental part of the movement. When other groups sought to gain respect and favor by softening their position or putting their fight on hold to support our nation’s war efforts, the National Woman’s Party held fast, challenging the idea of fighting for democracy elsewhere while being deprived of their vote at home. As a member of the party, Kate was no stranger to the injustice our courts could deliver. She was sentenced to jail three times — all for her part in meetings and demonstrations on behalf of women’s right to vote. It seems little is known about her exact role in the movement, aside from her arrests and even less about her life immediately after but we know she stood up with the NWP and demanded her rights, faced down impassioned and violent opposition on the street  and was subjected to the brutality of Occoquan Night of terror. She earned a Jailed for Freedom pin, designed by Alice Paul and given to her by the NWP in a meeting honoring all of the women imprisoned for their actions in the interest equal voting rights. She was a vital part of the movement that won the vote for herself, her sisters in the suffrage movement and every woman in the nation. For that she is not just a part of women’s history but our broader, shared history.

A portrait of Kate Heffelfinger wearing her Jailed for Freedom pin.

Sadly, more seems to be known of her later life. With a history of behavior perceived as bizarre and one drastic action, she lost her hard fought right to vote along with the rest of her rights when she was thrown into a state hospital. From an article in the Daily Item, a local newspaper:

One Shamokin resident who preferred not to be identified said her father delivered animal feed for Hex Warehouse to Heffelfinger’s home on Marshall Street.

“You’d just see a hand come out the door and she’d pay for it,” the woman recalled her father telling her…

James R. Holland, of Shamokin, was an independent contractor hired to clean out Heffelfinger’s home and organize the contents for sale shortly after she was committed to Danville State Hospital. Holland’s father, Richard F. Holland, was an assistant cashier and trust officer of National Dime Bank in Shamokin, which handled the sale.

“She ran around town in dark clothes all the time, picking up junk,” Holland recalled.

“She had every kid in the neighborhood scared to death of her,” his wife, Phyllis, said. “She looked like a witch.”

Her outwardly strange behavior may have earned her the name Crazy Katie but I have to wonder what it takes to be called crazy in a place as strange as Shamokin. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that Shamokin is a depressed mining town with an odd and almost fictional Flannery O’Connor quality about it. It’s a very dull gray place full of very colorful characters.  While I don’t know what it was like in Kate’s day, I can say that I’ve scarcely visited Shamokin without seeing someone or something that points to that strangeness. Of course, even then it usually took a little more than scaring kids and collecting junk to lose your freedom to a hospital.

Bernice Shade lives in Heffelfinger’s home today, and lived next door to her before Heffelfinger was sent to Danville State Hospital after throwing a rocking chair through Shade’s front window. Shade and her husband, Bill, were at a movie at the time. Mrs. Shade’s mother was watching their children when someone knocked at the door.

“She looked out from the upstairs window and saw it was Crazy Katie. That’s what they called her,” Shade said.

Afraid, her mother decided to stay inside and hope Heffelfinger would go away.

That’s when Heffelfinger threw the chair through the front window, shouting, “He’s raping his daughter!”

Shade said: “My daughter was screaming because she was getting her hair washed, and you know how little kids hate to get their hair washed.”

The police were called, and Heffelfinger was taken away.

It was just that simple. A woman misinterpreting a child’s screams of protest is “taken away” to spend her days in a state hospital. Some terrible things happen to children in this world when people don’t listen and if we know nothing else about Kate, she was not a woman to sit quietly by. For that she was repaid with the 1950s version of psychiatric care. Sure, she was mistaken and should have been made to pay for any repairs, even a fine, but to be incarcerated in a state hospital for the rest her days was truly an injustice and make no mistake about it — even in a hospital — it’s incarceration. If the door locks behind you and you don’t have the key, if someone else controls whether and when you come and go, it’s incarceration. A woman of strength and conviction lost her autonomy that day. She lost the kind of freedom that not only defined her but helped us define ourselves.

When she was taken away, her belongings which told so much about her were sold and trashed. She had the junk she collected over the years mixed in with treasures from her earlier days and without the benefit anyone connected to her overseeing her belongings, surely some important pieces to the puzzle were lost. I would love to know what happened to her Jailed for Freedom pin — a hard earned reminder given only to a few that could so easily have been swept into a box and mistaken for a mere trinket.

Junk and valuables were so intermingled, it was inevitable that some significant items were thrown away.

Holland recalled seeing boxes of linens, rags, and suffrage banners in the attic.

All were trashed.

In a time when the woman’s vote is taken for granted, it’s hard to even grasp the opposition these women faced but it was more than just speaking up until someone finally caved. It was truly a hard fought battle and Kate was a critical part of that battle. It is unfortunate to say that her name has been all but lost to time. A woman whose sacrifice and successful protest were so important to the course of our history should be recognized and honored in history books everywhere along with her sisters in protest yet even lifelong residents of Shamokin have never heard her name, much less her story. For the few who do know of her around here, it may sadly be as Crazy Katie and not Miss Kate Heffelfinger, the bold, young art student who went down to DC to take a stand.

Her story, even mentioning her name, makes me question how much opposition each of us are willing to face down for our convictions, for our rights and for others. What are we willing to endure to be a part of the change we desperately need? It took the Night of Terror to turn things around back then but every night is somebody’s night of terror and, thanks to inaction, the world is slow to change for the better.

Lately, I see myself adopting Kate as sort of a patron saint of my own convictions and I hope to fight as hard as she did in her early days — for myself and for the many who have ended up in a situation like hers in her later days. The roads are newly clear of snow, the days are getting longer and there is little to truly keep us from gathering where we can be heard. Hasn’t it long been time for us to cast our votes in the streets?

• • •

Library of Congress: Kate Heffelfinger

Library of Congress: Photographs from the record of the National Woman’s Party


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