By Lynn Wenzel, Independent Scholar
Julia Sampson Hurlbut was born on August 31, 1882 in South Norwalk, Connecticut to Frank Moseley Hurlbut and Martha Newton Sampson Hurlbut. At the age of 17 in 1900, Hurlbut was living with her mother and father, twin sisters Ruth and Elsa and brother Stephen in Morristown, New Jersey. After her mother’s death in 1907, she moved to Manhattan with her father, a bank teller, and brother, but devoted most of her work for suffrage within New Jersey, with the exception of extensive traveling in 1916 as an envoy for the militant National Woman’s Party.
On June 15, 1912, at the age of 29, while in New Jersey, Hurlbut applied for a passport in order to sail to England. It is certainly possible that she intended to study and perhaps participate in the militant British woman suffrage activities, including those of the Women’s Social and Political Union led by Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. 1912 was a pivotal year in the United States for woman suffrage. Women were energized by the Progressive Movement, believing that now that six states had given women the vote, they could affect national policy. Women had written, or helped write, important planks in the Progressive Party platform and, for the first time, a major party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke out in favor of woman suffrage while the Democratic and Republican parties ignored it. The New York Herald wrote, “With a suddenness and force that have left observers gasping, women have injected themselves into the national campaign this year in a manner never before dreamed of in American politics.” Hurlbut spent four months in England and returned to the United States on October 10, 1912 on the ship Oceanic.
After several years of political work, New Jersey suffragists convinced the state legislature to hold a referendum on a suffrage amendment to the state constitution. Hurlbut worked tirelessly toward this goal, serving as Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the Congressional Union (CU) for Women’s Suffrage and as Vice President of the Women’s Political Union (WPU) of New Jersey, headquartered in Newark. She participated in frequent public relations events, among them the sailing of tugboats from Jersey City and New York to transfer a Suffrage Torch. She also served as Recording Secretary of the Union, which hosted a Suffrage Baseball Game featuring Kansas City vs. Newark, and participated in frequent automobile parades. The suffrage referendum was defeated in October 1915. Referenda similar to New Jersey’s were also defeated in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that year. After the heartbreaking defeat of the New Jersey state amendment, Hurlbut, like many other suffragists, abandoned the focus on state constitutional reform and began to devote her energies toward attainment of a federal amendment.
In 1916, Alice Paul, leader of the Congressional Union (CU), decided to found the National Woman’s Party (NWP) as a political party for women in the states where suffrage had been won. An appeal went out to all members of the suffrage states to meet in Chicago in June to form the new party. Envoys to carry this appeal to the west were elected, Hurlbut among them. She traveled as a spokesperson of the unenfranchised women of New Jersey. Five thousand people gathered in Union Station in Washington, D.C. to see the envoys off—what the Washington Times described as a “banner-carrying, flag-waving, flower-laden cheering crowd.” The envoys made a tremendous impression in the west. Their arrival by automobile or by train, with purple, white and gold banners floating from the windows, created a thrilling event. As an envoy, Hurlbut traveled to Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, California and Washington and finally, back to Chicago, where the NWP was officially launched, demanding an amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating voting rights would no longer be restricted to men.
On July 14, 1917, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille during the French Revolution, fearing for their inspiring leader Alice Paul’s health, activists decided to fulfill Paul’s plans and send three contingents of demonstrators to the White House. Hurlbut participated in the action, carrying a banner inscribed with the French national motto, LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY. Hurlbut was in the first group led by Mrs. J.A.H. Hopkins (Allison Turnbull), and including Mrs. Paul Reyneau, Mrs. B. R. Kincaid, Minnie D. Abbot and Anne Martin. A large crowd had collected outside the NWP Headquarters. The police made no attempt to disperse them. There was some applause and cheering. The pickets crossed the street and took up their station at the upper gate of the White House. The second group led by Amelia Walker took up their position at the lower gate of the White House. The third group of pickets then arrived. The police waited four minutes, then “politely” (according to the New York Times, July 15, 1917) arrested the women, including Hurlbut, on a charge of “violating an ordinance” and “unlawful assembly.”
In court on July 17, Judge Mullowney sentenced the 16 women to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse on the charge of “obstructing traffic.” The situation at the Workhouse was horrific. The cells were freezing cold with only thin, lice-infested, filthy blankets provided. The floors crawled with cockroaches and there were worms in the rice and watery soup. Rats ran back and forth across the floor of the cells. Open toilets could only be flushed by a guard. None of the women was allowed to speak to an attorney. Fortunately for Hurlbut, this group of women was pardoned by President Wilson after serving only three days. Wilson’s action resulted from protests and complaints by husbands who had witnessed the cruel treatment of their wives in prison. The St. Paul Daily News wrote about the suffragists’ arrests and imprisonment and impending war: “The American people will not be filled with greater enthusiasm for a war for democracy abroad which begins with the suppression of democracy at home…this rank encroachment on the rights of citizens peacefully to petition their President, will, if it goes unrebuked, greatly encourage petty officials in many parts of the country to larger exercise of their tendency to suppress by force all who do not happen to agree with their conception of freedom, justice, liberty and democracy.”
After her release from prison, Hurlbut spent several months speaking in New Jersey on behalf of woman suffrage. By that time, the United States had entered World War I. With other New Jersey women, under the auspices of the Red Cross, Hurlbut had learned to sew, knit and prepare surgical dressings for wounded soldiers as well as to raise money in Liberty Loan drives. Like her comrades in the suffrage wars, Hurlbut believed that active loyalty and support of the war would make woman suffrage inevitable. She joined the conflict in Europe as a relief worker under the auspices of the YMCA, managing an officers’ club at Chatillon-sur-Seine in France and overseeing hut canteens for the troops, suffering the same poor food, lice and constant fear as the soldiers. While serving in France, Hurlbut met John Ter Bush Bissell, a West Point graduate, Captain in the 7th Machine Gun Company and Croix de Guerre recipient. They were married at the front on May 19, 1919. Hurlbut was 37, Bissell, 26. After the war, Bissell remained a career officer in the Army and Hurlbut settled into the peripatetic life of a military wife, living in Baltimore, Maryland, Kentucky, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and New York. In 1925, while stationed at West Point, Hurlbut gave birth to a daughter, Barbara. In 1946, Hurlbut and her husband retired to Carmel, California where they lived in a house overlooking the ocean. Hurlbut and her husband were long-time members of the Adirondack League Club, owning a hunting and fishing lodge there. Both were passionate fishing enthusiasts and traveled often to Maine and eastern Canada. Hurlbut’s health began to deteriorate and after many months of invalidism she died from a cerebral stroke on October 30, 1962 at Carmel Community Hospital in Monterey County, California. She is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the Bissell family plot, alongside a plaque dedicated to her husband. Brigadier General John Bissell outlived her by 14 years and was interred at the West Point Cemetery.
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