Axe-wielding Temperance Leader

Carrie Nation (1846-1911)

Carry Nation (1846-1911)

I felt invincible. My strength was that of a giant. God was certainly standing beside me. I smashed five saloons with rocks before I ever took a hatchet. ~~Carry Nation

It is important to remember several factors in any discussion involving the temperance movement and the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” in the United States. The temperance movement was motivated by the lack of married women’s property rights, the lack of government/legal accountability in the emerging west, and the abandonment of and violence against many frontier wives as a result of alcoholism. Also important to remember is that while women are often blamed for the 18th Amendment, it was passed and ratified a full year before women got the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, and before the Senate contained a single female; Congress had one, Jeannette Rankin of Montana.  Therefore, women cannot be held accountable for the votes that resulted in the “Great Experiment,” though they were the driving force behind the movement. That said, THE most fascinating participant in the temperance movement would have to be Carry Nation.

Nation was profoundly effected by her unstable early life with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. Her first husband, Dr. Charles Gloyd, was also an alcoholic, though Nation said she was unaware of Gloyd’s condition prior to their marriage. Little more than a year after they married, with a new baby to care for, Nation was widowed at age twenty-one. After a four-year stint as a teacher, Nation was left without employment opportunities and felt obliged to marry David Nation. Very much like her father, Nation moved his family continually to avoid political feuds he had a hand in creating. David Nation eventually divorced Carrie Nation years after she left him for temperance crusading.

Exasperated by the instability that characterized her previously dependent life, Nation turned to the temperance movement and founded her first chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1892 at the age of 46. In May of 1900 she began the crusade that would bring her national notoriety. At a saloon in Kiowa, KS, Nation, who had armed herself with rocks she’d hidden in secret pockets sewn into her dress, proceeded to destroy the illegal establishment (Kansas was ostensibly a “dry” state). She continued to destroy four more saloons, and when she ran out of ammunition at the fifth, she grabbed a hatchet and her reputation was secured.

A six-feet tall, 175 lb woman engaged in the willful destruction of property was such a spectacle at the time that witnesses were paralyzed. In disbelief, patrons and employees stood by as Nation wrecked taverns and saloons. Bolstered by her success in Kiowa, Nation soon moved to Wichita where she expected to find much greater resistance in a town with a reputation for fast and accurate gunmen. She chose the Hotel Carey because if its national fame, arriving at 9:30 in the morning, and proceeded to destroy the fifty-foot cherry bar, antique mirrors, and an offensive nude that hung above the bar. Finally Nation was arrested and jailed, but nothing could persuade her from her mission and the disarming method she had stumbled upon. During that two week stint in jail, large groups of women sang and prayed outside her cell while word spread quickly about Nation and her deeds.

Jailed time and again, Nation continued her crusade for the next ten years. She often referred to judges as “Your Dishonor” and appealed to the governor of Kansas to enforce its laws, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, so the women would not have to. Ironically, her temperance career came to an end when a female “joint” owner in Montana beat her so severely that she never recovered fully. She died a year and a half later. Eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger commented, “What I have always admired about Carry Nation was the fact that she could not stomach hypocrisy… . I wish there were more people today who felt the same way.” I wish there were too.

Whatever we may think of antiquated notions like temperance today, women and their crusade against alcohol effectively changed drinking culture in America. Ratified in 1919, the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933 by the 21st Amendment, a significant period of sobriety for law abiding citizens. Shortly thereafter, the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, offering routine treatment for those suffering from alcoholism. Perhaps this period of sobriety contributed to the nation’s reflection on the effects of alcohol, and to struggle to come up with an ethic concerning the consumption of it.


8 comments on “Axe-wielding Temperance Leader

  1. I think this will be it until next week. I’m going to take weekends off. I had to post this one because Carry Nation was such a firecracker and dynamo, and her street protests (I believe) inspired the street activism in the East and West that eventually made the 19th Amendment possible.

  2. Patti says:

    Aha! Her name and image are very familiar but I never knew who she was until now. I’ve been edified once again.

    After a raid in Wichita her husband joked that she should use a hatchet next time for maximum damage. Nation replied, “That’s the most sensible thing you have said since I married you”.

  3. LOL. Great quote! I love Carry Nation because when she had her “click moment,” and saw the patriarchy, she said, “Forget it!” And then she took up a hatchet and fought her heart out. We’d end patriarchy in a week if more women took this example.

  4. SherryNC says:

    Love the series, Anna Belle! Thank you so much for all the work you’re doing to educate me!

  5. Alison says:

    Wow! Cary Nation! You are the best, Anna Belle. This is all incredibly fascinating.

  6. Thia says:

    Yet another fascinating woman I didn’t know about!

    Thanks for informing me of my history Anna Belle. 🙂

  7. Michael Mountain says:

    This is one Strong Willed lady,whom i will forever admire.

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