“The door clanged behind me. The bolt shot.”
“I was locked in the Cleveland police station,” wrote Winnifred Huck. “My eyes were getting used to the darkness, and I thought that soon I could see as well as the rats whose green eyes shown from the corners of the room.” In 1925, the former Illinois Congresswoman decided to satisfy her curiosity about prisons, rehabilitation, and working-class life across the United States—by becoming an inmate.
Huck staged the theft of a friend’s coat. Taking on an assumed name, Elizabeth Sprague, she appeared before a judge and was sentenced to six months in prison. Although it might seem frightening to voluntarily enter prison, Huck was more panicked by the prospect of having her identify found out: “There was no need to act at my trial. I was so scared that everybody thought I was afraid of being sentenced. Of course I was really frightened lest somebody should recognize me.” To stay as invisible as possible, Huck undertook her experiment in Ohio, rather than her native Illinois. She filled in Ohio Governor A. Victor Donahey on her plan, expecting that he would pardon her after about three weeks in the clink.
Apart from the governor, only her mother and husband knew the truth about where she was. Not even her four children knew she was in the Cleveland jail. The prison warden, matrons, and other prisoners all believed her to be Elizabeth Sprague—not Winnifred Huck, a woman who presided over the House Chamber during her whirlwind 14 weeks in Congress three years earlier.
In jail, the Congresswoman saw fistfights, dodged come-ons from her cellmate Mabel, and looked into the smiling face of a woman just locked up for murdering a man. Her new friends Dot and Marge nicknamed her swarming cell “Cockroach Manor.” After three days in jail—and almost no sleep—Huck was transferred to the Ohio State Reformatory for Women at Marysville.
In a moment that tested Huck’s acting skills, Marysville Superintendent Mittendorf began digging into her personal history. “Elizabeth, what started your trouble? You have education, good parents, a wholesome background. These things I can see. What happened?” the kind, graying man asked. “Did you get into bad company?” Huck looked away as she thought of her colleagues in the House of Representatives. “Well,” she replied carefully and cleverly, “some people do look down on them, and even call some of them crooks, but I never felt that way about them.”
Governor Donahey pardoned Huck after three weeks in Marysville, and she immediately enjoyed dinner at his house. But her experiment was not over. The Congresswoman wanted to see what life was like for a female ex-convict. She tried working a series of jobs, sometimes just scraping by, and sometimes saving enough money to travel and try her luck in a different city.
In Wheeling, West Virginia, Huck begged for work and eventually got a job in a factory. The plight of poverty caught up with her. She paid her last 15 cents for breakfast, squeezing it goodbye. “I was learning what it means to be always in the shadow of the wolf, to be bound by iron necessity not to spend a single penny more than the absolute minimum required to live.”
Huck cobbled enough money together to get to Kansas City, where she got a job in an asylum. With her scant savings, she splurged at a 10 cent store, and purchased beads, combs, and other trinkets to mail back to her fellow inmates at Marysville. But fed up with strapping down mental patients, Huck quit the job, headed home, and left behind “Elizabeth Sprague.” As the back door of the asylum slammed, she stepped out into freedom, “and into the sweetest, most invigorating air I ever inhaled in my life.”
Huck wrote about her experiences in a popular series of 28 newspaper articles, publishing recommendations for prison reform. Her unusual experiment helped her understand the lives, hopes, and pressures of the people she had served. In her final article, she connected her experience to legislation, arguing that “pardon and parole laws though still in their infancy, are, I believe, the greatest institutions of the age in the development of justice and reform.” Back home, Huck hung her pardon from prison on the wall—next to her certificate of election to Congress.
Sources: Greensboro Daily Record, June 27, 1925-August 1, 1925; and Chicago Daily Tribune, July 2, 1925.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.Follow @USHouseHistory