Melee 1916

Emily Craft, guest writer

The smell of smoke barely invaded Della’s senses. She held a needle in her fingers. Her newest dress was almost complete. Although simple, ivory lace lined the neckline. Made of rose red cotton, the dress’ sleeves were long enough to be proper, but short enough to reveal a slight amount of wrist. All of that, combined with the hem that fell just above the ankle, made for a creation that would certainly gain attention, good or ill.

Roy ran in as fast as his little five-year-old legs could carry him. “Delly!” He looked up at his big sister with bright, blue eyes, his blonde hair falling in his face. He reached out his little hand and tugged at her skirt.

“Ouch,” Della yelped as the needle slipped and pricked her finger. “What is it, now?” The fifth interruption that evening had made her impatient.

“Delly, the bacon burned!”

Della looked into her little brother’s innocent face and smiled at the mispronunciation of her name that she had come to adore. “All right, let’s see what we can do.” She set aside her work and begrudgingly made her way to the kitchen with Roy on her heels.

Upon entering the smoke-filled inferno, Della could see a pair of legs protruding from under the sink, a toolbox lying at the feet. “Andrew,” Della tried to get her older brother’s attention.

No response.




A shout of “Jeez!” mixed with the clang of forehead to pipe rang through the kitchen. “You scared me.” Andrew’s face appeared from under the sink, a welt already visible.

“What on earth are you doing?”

Her brother’s bright smile broke through Della’s sour mood. “That old pipe was leaking again, so I decided to take a look at it.”

“Well, it looks like we’re not having bacon tonight.” Della observed the charred mess stuck to the bottom of the frying pan.

“We can feed it to the dog,” Roy piped up.

“Or better yet, we can feed it to Samuel’s supervisor,” Andrew murmured under his breath.

“Andrew!” Della scolded her brother of twenty-one as she held back a giggle.

Andrew threw both hands up in defense. “I say it’s fair,” he laughed. “He’s been keeping the boys out there from dawn till dusk every day for three weeks. You’d think they’d mended the roads from here to Baltimore by now.”

“He’s got a point,” Helen joined the conversation from her spot at the table.

“You see? Helen agrees! I say we do it!” Andrew playfully punched Della’s arm as she opened the kitchen window of their Chicago apartment.

“Helen, what are you reading?” Della spotted the paper in her sister’s hands.

“A woman handed it to me when we were on our way back from buying the fabric for the new dress. It’s about women getting the vote.” Helen held up the pamphlet that read Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women.

            Della turned her attention to Andrew. “What time did Samuel say he would be back tonight?”

            Andrew sighed, “He just said that he would be back after dark.”

            Della glanced at the darkening sky. “Well, he’s right, as always.”

            “You bet I am,” Della turned to see her oldest brother entering the kitchen. “We got let off early today, and we couldn’t wait to come home.”

            “We?” Andrew asked.

            “Yes, we.” Joseph limped into the kitchen, his face smudged with dirt.

            Della’s heart beat faster as she took in the sight of her suitor of three years. Any smiles she had held back earlier could hide no longer. Despite the filth, Joseph was still the most handsome man that Della ever laid eyes on. “Are you staying for dinner?”

            “If you don’t mind.”

            “Since when do I mind?” Della giggled.

            “I’ll help you,” he winked.

            “Alright, everybody into the living room,” Andrew prodded Samuel, Helen, and Roy out of the kitchen.

            Joseph began scraping the burned bacon out of the pan. Della wetted a rag under the tap and lifted it to his face, wiping away the grime of the day. Joseph caught her stare. “That’s a nice shade of red you’re wearing.”

            Della looked down at her simple white blouse and blue cotton skirt. “I’m not wearing any red.”

            “I meant here,” Joseph tapped her cheek with a finger.

            Della felt her face grow hotter as she pressed her palms to the sides of her face. She quickly changed the subject. “How was work?”

            “Hard,” Joseph stated plainly, “but it was okay. I’m just glad to be home,” he smiled at her with a gleam in his eye. Despite a bad leg, Joseph was able bodied and worked as hard as any other man who mended roads alongside him.

            “You and Samuel must be exhausted.”

            “Never mind that,” he smiled.

            Half an hour later, the whole family sat around the table, talking between mouthfuls. “There’s a meeting tomorrow about the suffrage,” Helen tried to introduce the topic gently.

            Samuel looked up from his plate, a stern expression on his face. “You’re not going.”

            “Who says?” Helen put her fork down and crossed her arms indignantly.

            “I do.”

            “And what gives you the right?”

            “I’m the man of the house, that’s what gives me the right. I’m supposed to take care of you.”

            “Why shouldn’t she go?” Andrew questioned his older brother of twenty-six.

            “It’s dangerous! All of those meetings turn into riots. Remember what happened the last time?”

            Helen pulled the sleeve of her dress over the scar on her forearm from where a man had cut her in the riot that ensued at the last meeting. She raised her chin in defiance.“Why shouldn’t we have the vote?”

            Samuel put down his fork. “I think you should. But it’s not a matter of the right to vote, it’s a matter of keeping you safe. You’re not going, and that’s final. Della, can I speak to you in the living room for a minute?” Samuel’s expression became indecipherable.

            Andrew cleared his throat. “Helen, let’s clear the table.”

            Della followed Samuel into the living room. “What’s wrong?”

            Samuel bit his lower lip. “Andrew and I got letters in the post yesterday.”

            Della’s stomach dropped. “Oh, no.”

            “We’ve been drafted to go into Mexico.”

            “What for?”

            “The revolution needs to be stopped, apparently.”

            Della sank to the couch. “I’m going to be sick.”

            Samuel sat next to her. “Listen, I know it’s been difficult since Momma died. You’ve had to take her place. I don’t want you to have to do this on your own. Joseph won’t be brought into this, and if America gets involved in the war with Germany, he won’t be sent to fight because of his bad leg.”

            “What are you saying?”

            Samuel paused for a moment. “Joseph asked for my permission to marry you.”


            “Of course I gave him permission. He loves you, and I know that you love him. He’s a steady, hardworking man.”

            “I know that, and I will happily marry him. It’s just that…”Della looked down at her hands, unable to speak.

            “I know that it’s been hard to trust in anyone since Papa left us. But Joseph won’t leave you. He was one of my closest friends before the two of you ever met, and I know that when he makes a promise, he keeps it.”

            “I know that. I do. I do love him, and I trust him.”

            “But you’re still scared?”

            “Yeah,” Della whispered.

            “It’s going to be fine. Joseph will be here to help you.”

            “When do you leave?”


*          *          *

            “What happened next?” Roy asked wide-eyed as Joseph’s story reached its climax.

            Joseph responded with a glimmer in his eye. “You’ll have to find out tomorrow night.” He gently placed Roy on his feet on the floor. “It’s past your bedtime.”

            Helen stood from the couch and took Roy’s hand. “Come on. I’ll help you get ready for bed.” Roy toddled after her.

            Della smiled to herself as she twirled her wedding ring on her finger. Joseph’s presence at home made a world of difference.

            The next morning, Joseph read the newspaper headline. “Sixteen U.S. citizens executed by Pancho Villa.”

            “Who?” Roy asked.

            “He’s a Mexican revolutionary.”

            “Oh.” Roy went back to eating his porridge.

            Della cleared the table. “Helen, go down to the post office and see if there is any mail.”

            “Will you show me the dress first?”  

            Della smiled. “Very well.” She led Helen to her work table and proudly displayed her finished red dress.

“Beautiful! Just what I wanted.” Helen’s eyes sparkled. “Della, I hope you do open your own dress shop!”She hurriedly put on her coat and ran out the door. “I’ll be back soon!”

Ten minutes later, Helen came bounding through the door. “We have four letters,” she handed Della the envelopes.

Della shuffled through the envelopes and handed one to Joseph, “Will you read this one?”

Joseph opened the envelope and removed the letter. Della’s stomach dropped as his face went pale. He whispered, “Andrew has been injured. He’s in a hospital down in Texas.”

“Is that all?”

“Samuel has been killed.”

*    *    *

The streets of Chicago buzzed with excitement. Tensions were high, and Della could feel the air become heavier with every step she took. Posters decorated shop windows, advertising the debut concert of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Other posters promoted the suffrage movement.

On the next block, a woman stood on the stairwell of a building and spoke to an eager crowd. “Emma Goldman,” she declared, “arrested under the accusation ‘of violating the Comstock Act of 1873’” (This). The crowd, already tense, hung onto every word as the woman went on. “In what country of freedom are we exposed to the vagaries of law for our own speech?”

Shouts of the most derogatory nature arose, spawning a fast-growing conflict. In the middle of the crowd, Della spotted a woman in a dress – a red, cotton dress, lined with lace, and a hem that fell just above the ankle. “Helen.” Della ran into the heat of the fight as the riot became larger. “Helen!”

Helen looked up with a satisfied smile on her face just as a shot rang out, and Della watched in horror as her little sister crumbled to the ground, the blood from the wound in her chest merging with the red of her dress.

*          *          *

June in Chicago was a lovely thing. It was always Samuel and Helen’s favorite time of year. Four months had gone by since Helen’s death. Five had gone by since Samuel had been killed. After being arrested for attending a riot, Della had been locked up for three. Nothing could compare to the sweet reunion of the small family when she returned home.

She still had nightmares about being dragged by her hair across the cell floor by the wardens. Her gums still ached from the force feedings she endured. The bruises from the beatings still lined her arms. But she knew how to hold her own. She knew how to fight for her morals.

Della clutched in her palm a pin that had been given to her the day before. It read “NWP, Votes for Women” in commemoration of the founding of the National Women’s Party, which “opted for confrontation and direct action instead of questionnaires and lobbying” (National). Helen would have been proud.

Standing in front of where Samuel and Helen were buried, Della, Joseph, Roy, and Andrew on his crutches remained silent. Visiting the graves resurfaced memories, some going back almost to infancy.

“They would be proud of where we are now,” Andrew spoke up.

“And where we’re going,” Joseph added.

Della looked up at her husband, thinking about all the two had been through. They were strong. All of them were, even little Roy. “I think they already were.”

The four turned to leave, ready to face another Chicago day of 1916.



Works Cited

“This Day in History: February 11.” History, 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “National Woman’s Party (NWP).” Britannica. Accessed

12 April 2017.


Weatherford, Doris. A History of the American Suffragist Movement. MTM Publishing. 2005.

“Force-feeding of Suffragettes.” The History Learning Site. Accessed 13 April 2017.

“A Brief History of Women’s Protests.” Time. Accessed 13 April 2017.