Today in Herstory: Ethel Byrne Refuses to Cooperate with Authorities on Birth Control Charges

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


January 23, 1917: Ethel Byrne, imprisoned birth control advocate, is fully resisting jailhouse authorities today, just as she vowed to do yesterday when sentenced to 30 days for distributing contraceptive information.

She committed her “crime” at what was the country’s first and only birth control clinic, opened on October 16th at 46 Amboy Street in Brooklyn, and run by Byrne, her sister Margaret Sanger and Fania Mindell until it was raided by police on October 26th.

Byrne is not yet in her cell in the Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island because after initially arriving there early today, a writ of habeus corpus brought her back to court, and by the time it was dismissed, it was too late to return her to the Workhouse to complete the rest of the in-processing procedure. She is spending the night in a cell at The Tombs, in Lower Manhattan.

"The Tombs," on the left, and the "Bridge of Sighs" connecting it to the Criminal Courts Building on the right.
“The Tombs,” on the left, and the “Bridge of Sighs” connecting it to the Criminal Courts Building on the right.

But regardless of location, her hunger strike is on, and she says she will not cooperate in any way with her jailers:

I do not intend to have any physical contact. My sentence is unjust and I shall protest against it in this way. I shall not work, eat, or drink while I am here.

Commissioner of Correction Burdette Lewis is skeptical and equally determined:

I have not paid much attention to Mrs. Byrne’s threatened hunger strike. We have had threats of hunger strikes before. We have had people who said they were on hunger strikes, but we never had a real honest-to-goodness hunger strike yet. While some prisoners are announcing that they were voluntarily starving in prison we are keeping a record of what they ate, and they did eat.

I do not expect there will be any trouble with Mrs. Byrne. Persons have gone without food for more than thirty days and have remained healthy. If, however, the physicians on the island should report that Mrs. Byrne was dying, or if experts should say she must be fed to be kept alive, we certainly shall feed her forcibly.

I do not propose to issue bulletins on the progress of the hunger strike Mrs. Byrne says she will declare. I do not know whether she has started it yet. Advertising is what she wants, and I will not help her to get it. I will issue a permit to a woman reporter from each newspaper to visit the prison to see how Mrs. Byrne has been received. They can make only one visit, however, and cannot keep going there to see Mrs. Byrne and have her talk voluminously on the progress of the strike.

Aside from food and water, Byrne has thus far refused a bath and a physical examination. The confrontation with the woman doctor who was to perform the exam was temporarily avoided when the order came down that she be immediately returned to court for a hearing. But upon arrival at Blackwell’s Island tomorrow, the battle of wills shall be renewed.

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