The following is an excerpt from The Right Choice, originally titled A Lady’s Choice. It will release in March on amazon. The scene depicts the terror that imprisoned suffragists suffered on November 14, 1917, after they had been sentenced to Occoquan Workhouse for picketing at the White House for women’s suffrage.
Sarah hadn’t been asleep long when frenzied cries awakened her. Screams poured from the cells down the hallway, and the thud of crashing nightsticks echoed in the passage. Hurried footsteps approached their door, and a key turned in the lock.
Sarah tried to focus on the guard at the door, but she could only tell it was a man. His voice thundered again. “Get up, prisoners.”
Two other guards, their faces masked in rage, pushed past him and reached for her. Sarah shrank from the figures standing over her and scooted against the wall, but they grabbed her by the arms and pulled her from the bed. She tried to wrench free of the men’s grasps, but in her feverish condition she could only offer a feeble resistance.
Henrietta’s scream bounced off the cell walls. “No! Leave her alone. She’s sick.” Out of the corner of her eye Sarah saw Henrietta spring from her bed and throw herself against the two attackers. One of them turned, picked up the girl, and hurled her against the wall. Henrietta’s body crumpled at the impact, and her lifeless body toppled in a heap on the floor.
“No, no. Help her.” Sarah tried once again to wiggle free from her captors, but they tightened their grip.
Someone leaned close to her, and a menacing voice whispered in her ear. “You’d better worry about helping yourself. You’ve given us nothing but trouble since the day you came. It’s about time you got what you deserve.”
The two men drug her, twisting and turning, toward the door. She summoned all the saliva she could in her dry mouth and spat the small ball at one of the guards.
He stopped and wiped his face with his free hand. He stared at the wetness between his fingers before he looked into her eyes. He stood there, a snarl curling his lower lip, before he raised his hand and slapped her with a force that snapped her head back. He grabbed her hands and raised her arms above her head.
“Let’s let her cool off some.”
Cold metal encircled her wrists, and Sarah felt her body being lifted. She heard a snap and felt the guards release her. Her full weight dropped toward the floor, and she hung suspended, her body pressed against the bars.
Sharp pains shot through her body at the pressure being exerted on her joints. She looked at her arms stretched above her head and the shackles that cut into her wrists. She stretched her legs downward in an effort to stand, but her feet dangled above the floor. Her toes barely brushed the surface.
She twisted and turned her head in an attempt to glimpse Henrietta, but she couldn’t. “Henrietta, are you all right? Henrietta, wake up.”
No answer came from the still form, and Sarah sobbed in fear for her friend. Screams still echoed through the hallway. Sarah pressed her face into the bars and tried to see where the sounds came from.
Two guards at the end of the passage held a woman down, her back bent across an iron bench. The hand of one encircled her throat while he beat her about the face with his other. Another man held and twisted her wrists over her head.
Other uniformed officers raced in and out of the small cells, and cries of pain and fear rang out each time they entered a new area. Had they gone mad? Why were they doing this to the prisoners?
Sarah pulled at her shackles, but they wouldn’t budge.
She jerked her head up and stared through the bars into the menacing eyes of a guard. “Why are you doing this? We’ve done nothing to deserve this.”
The man glanced over her shackled form and smirked. “I thought in your work you could stand anything. Sweet dreams.”
Without speaking again, the officers pushed the woman who had been beaten in the hall into her small room and banged shut all the doors they had entered. They walked from the cellblock and turned off all lights on the way out.
For the first time since coming to Occoquan, no light shone through the darkness. The black night crept across the floor and obscured everything from sight. Wails drifted from the cells through the murky hallway.
“Why, oh, why?” a woman’s shrill voice wailed.
From the other end of the hall someone groaned in agony. “Sweet Jesus, help us.”
Sarah pressed her head between her arms to block the pitiful cries, but the weeping surrounded her from every direction.
Suddenly a voice rose above all the others, a soothing one lifted in song. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” it sang.
A hush fell over the area, crying ceased, and voices joined in. The song, a familiar one from her days of attending church with her mother, engulfed her. The voices sang on and on, reaching a crescendo with the final words, “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve just begun.”
The cellblock quieted, and sobs no longer could be heard. Soon sounds of sleep filled the night, but Sarah’s aching and feverish body still hung from the bars.
The minutes turned to hours. Her arms felt like they were being pulled from their sockets by her weight, and any attempt to change her position added extra pain. Coughing bouts wracked her chest, and her skin grew hotter by the minute. She shivered from the cold and wondered at her temperature.
“Henrietta.” She called out to her friend from time to time, but no answer came.
The clock from the sewing room downstairs chimed midnight, and she realized six more hours had to pass before the new shift of guards would arrive. Would they release her, or would they leave her hanging as a warning to others?
She felt herself slipping toward unconsciousness and fought to stay awake. She could barely breathe now, and she knew her lungs were filling with fluid. If she slept, she might drown in the mucous filling her body.
Her head lolled against her shoulder, and she tried to straighten to relieve her labored breathing. Her chest hurt, and she felt as if she was drowning. She opened her mouth to scream for help, but she only succeeded in producing a soft moan. Was there nobody to help? Was she to die alone hanging with her arms suspended above her head?