Unlock Her Story: The Lucy Burns Museum and Tales of a Suffragist Hero

An exhibit at the Lucy Burns Museum in Workhouse Arts Center

The Lucy Burns Museum, located in the former infamous Lorton Reformatory (also referred to as the Lorton Correctional Complex) honors suffragist Lucy Burns, who was imprisoned in the facility and endured brutal treatment while there. The museum also documents Lorton’s history and transformation from a model facility when it opened in 1910 to a prison complex known for its overcrowded conditions, brutal violence, riots and frequent escapes. The museum includes some of the prison cells, which were added in the 1960s.

Growing up and listening to the nightly news in the DC suburbs, it was a rare day that didn’t have some mention about an escape or correctional officer death or some sort of bloodshed. So I was keen to visit this interesting museum and learn more about Lucy Burns and Lorton Reformatory.

Who Was Lucy Burns?

Lucy Burns was an indomitable force in the fight for women’s suffrage and rights in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Alongside her close friend Alice Paul, she co-founded the National Woman’s Party, a political organization solely dedicated to championing women’s suffrage on a federal level.

Born in 1879 in New York, Burns received her early education at the Packer Collegiate Institute, a school dedicated to “teaching girls to be ladies” while also instilling more liberal educational ideals. Burns’ academic journey took her through several prestigious institutions, including Columbia University, Vassar College and Yale University, before she decided to teach. When she became restless under the constraints of teaching, Burns moved to Germany to further her language studies at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin.

Photograph from the Records of the National Woman’s Party /
Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. – Library of Congress

In 1909, Burns left her academic pursuits to become an activist with the Women’s Social and Political Union in the United Kingdom. Her dedication was intense. In Edinburgh, she organized parades and boycotted the 1911 census as part of the suffrage campaign.

When she returned to the United States, Burns cofounded the National Woman’s Party with Alice Paul in 1916, differing from other suffragist groups by adopting a more militant approach. They initiated a series of direct actions, including protests, picketing in front of the White House and even hunger strikes.

Burns and the Night of Terror

Burns showed extraordinary courage when she was arrested multiple times for picketing the White House in 1917. While imprisoned, she not only organized protests from within but also went on hunger strikes, asserting her status as a political prisoner. Her brave acts led to further imprisonment and even solitary confinement.

Perhaps the most harrowing episode came during her third arrest in 1917, when Burns and the other 31 women arrested with her were subjected to a “Night of Terror” at the Occoquan Workhouse, later known as the Lorton Reformatory. On the night of November 14, 1917, known as the “Night of Terror,” the superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, W.H. Whittaker, ordered the nearly 40 guards to brutalize the suffragists.

They beat Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, then left her there for the night. They threw Dora Lewis into a dark cell and smashed her head against an iron bed, which knocked her out. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, believing Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. Dorothy Day, who later co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, was slammed repeatedly over the back of an iron bench. Guards also grabbed, dragged, beat, choked, pinched and kicked the other women.

Despite brutal treatment and no medical attention, the suffragists’ spirits remained unbroken. When news leaked out about what the protesters had endured, the stories galvanized more support for the suffrage amendment.

After enduring unthinkable abuse, including dangerous force-feeding procedures, Burns’ indomitable spirit eventually paid off. Her activism, along with that of the other suffragists, greatly contributed to the United States passing the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote in the United States. Lucy Burns left an indelible mark as a fervent activist, a brilliant organizer and an unyielding advocate for women’s rights.

Lorton Reformatory Reformed

In the early 20th century, the District of Columbia established the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax County as an experimental, humane prison. Initially lacking fences, guard towers, or cellblocks, the facility aimed to treat prisoners fairly and teach them useful trades.

From 1910 to 1998, it served as the District’s correctional facility and gained visibility for holding suffragist Lucy Burns and other influential figures. However, over the years, conditions at Lorton Correctional Complex deteriorated. The workhouse itself evolved from a progressive humane model facility to an overcrowded prison riddled with issues like violence and murder, riots and escapes. Lorton stopped accepting new inmates in 1998. The last inmates moved out in 2001. Later, Fairfax County took 55 acres of the 3500-acre Lorton complex to create the Workhouse Arts Center in 2008.

Know Before You Go

While you’re there, be sure to enjoy browsing the artists studios in the adjacent buildings.

The Workhouse Arts Center is accessible to all visitors to the Workhouse. Service animals are welcome across the entire campus, in the theater, studios, galleries, and museum. Visitors to the main building, W-16, an elevator is located inside, through the Vulcan Gallery at the rear of the building. All other campus buildings are only one floor. There is plenty of parking available, with open-air parking lots located at both the north and south ends of campus.

Getting there: 9518 Workhouse Wy, Lorton, VA
Hours: Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sunday noon – 5 p.m. The Workhouse closes to the general public for New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday and Monday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Website: Lucy Burns Museum

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