On March 6, 1917, Margaret Sanger was released from the Queens County Penitentiary after serving a thirty-day sentence for opening an illegal birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Her release, set for eight in the morning, was delayed until 10:30. As the Washington Post reported Sanger apologized for keeping a crowd of supporters waiting, “But you see, I was fighting another battle of principle. I was defeating an attempt to take my finger-prints.”
Sanger contended “It is time that the people of this country learn to discriminate between political prisoners who are jailed for a principle and the criminal cutthroat class.” She claimed that the warden had been attempting to persuade her to be fingerprinted since she had arrived, but that she had denied his requests and demanded to be treated as a political prisoner. At eight o’clock of the morning of her release, she reported that he tried a different tack, sending two keepers named Murray and Foley to attempt to subdue her by force. Sanger reported that the pair “struggled with me for nearly two hours, I think, to get my finger-prints.” Sanger contended that she resisted all efforts, promising that she would remain in prison for life rather than capitulate.
Sanger showed evidence of her struggle to reporters on scene, “wrists reddened as though they had been rubbed vigorously.” She told the New York Times, “I was bruised and exhausted, though they tried to be as gentle as they could.” A New York Tribune reported noted caustically, “Nobody outside the Corrections Department knows what scars Keepers Murray and Foley are nursing.”
Police Commissioner, Burdette Lewis, provided a different version of the story, claiming that the night prior to her release, “Mrs. Sanger was brought to the office and an attempt was made to take her finger-prints, against her desires, without the use of force. They succeeded in getting ‘good enough’ finger-prints to serve for purposes of identification.” Sanger claimed that the keepers tried, but when she resisted, “they abandoned the attempt. I cautioned them that they had no right to lay hands on me.”
Sanger’s supporters swept her away to a breakfast, playing the Marseilleise and hailing her as a heroine for women’s rights. She used her ordeal to focus attention on the birth control cause, crowing:
I’ve served my time and what good has it done the State? Nothing has been changed. My principles haven’t. And the birth control movement is stronger than ever.
Did the Corrections Department get Margaret Sanger’s fingerprints or was she able to fend them off? Her lawyer, Jonah Goldstein, was told that morning that her release was delayed by her refusal to submit to finger-printing, which leads credence to Sanger’s version. Are her prints, possibly smeared and useless, still held by the state? If I can find evidence one way or the other, I will post it in the comments.
For news coverage of Margaret Sanger’s release see “Mrs. Sanger Free, Hailed as Heroine,” New York Tribune, Mar. 6, 1917, “Mrs. Sanger is Freed,” Washington Post, Mar. 6, 1917, and “Mrs. Sanger Flays Mrs. Davis’ Plans,” New York Times, Mar. 7, 1917.