Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Mary Short (later Koehler) 1872-?

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By Megan Kessler
Undergraduate, Eastern Illinois University

In early November 1917, Mary Short of Minneapolis, Minnesota, travelled to Washington, D.C. to picket in support of suffrage for women while simultaneously condemning Alice Paul’s unjust imprisonment. Born in 1872 and a state officer for Minnesota’s branch of the National Woman’s Party, Short certainly knew that she might be arrested or jailed for her picketing actions before the White House. During the latter part of 1917, police had detained, fined, and imprisoned picketing suffragists for "obstructing traffic" on Pennsylvania Avenue. Still, Short and forty other women from the National Woman’s Party stood as silent sentinels on November 10, 1917. In the late afternoon many of them, Short included, were arrested and presented before a judge. He agreed with their charge—obstructing traffic in the nation’s capital—but refused to sentence them. Naturally, the forty-one suffragists returned to the White House to continue their picketing. Again, they were arrested. This time, however, the judge did not waver. He ordered the picketers to return to court on Friday, November 14. All offenders were assessed fines or, if they failed to pay, sentences ranging from six to sixty days. As a first-time offender, Short received a thirty-day sentence. After the women refused to pay their fines, police jailed the suffragists in Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse.

Upon their arrival at the workhouse the suffragists demanded to be treated as political prisoners. The now infamous Night of Terror followed their request. Short witnessed the assault and harassment that guards and superintendent W.H. Whittaker waged on outspoken or returning prisoners. Many were beaten, prodded, dragged, and thrown roughly into solitary confinement.

On November 19 Short paid her fine and received an early release. Newspaper accounts moved public opinion about the treatment of the Occoquan suffrage prisoners. By the end of November, the suffragists jailed on the infamous Night of Terror walked free.

In December 1917, Short received the National Woman’s Party Prison Pin in recognition of her time spent in Occoquan Workhouse.

Sources:

Information regarding Mary Short’s birth and death dates is elusive, but the 1920 census includes a Mary Koehler born in 1872 in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Mary Short appears in Doris Stevens’s 1920 Jailed for Freedom three times. First, she is listed as a November 10, 1917 White House picketer. Later, her name and a short biography are included in the "Suffrage Prisoners" appendix. The third inclusion is a photograph that features Short alongside other suffragists shortly before their arrest. Her name is also among the prison pin awardees in the February 1920 edition of The Suffragist. The information regarding Short's November 1917 activism and arrest can be found in The Suffragist, November 17, 1917 and in The Cornell Daily Sun. These sources, combined with Mary Nolan’s recollection of the Night of Terror published in Jailed for Freedom, are the central sources for this sketch.

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.

The Cornell Daily Sun

"Forty-one Suffrage Pickets Answer the Attempt [of] the Democratic Administration to Crush Suffrage," The Suffragist. Volume V, no. 95. November 17, 1917, pp. 6-7. Accessible in Gerritsen Online, a subscription database at many academic libraries.

The Suffragist. Volume VIII, no. 1. February, 1920.

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