I am honored to present an exclusive feature article by a guest blogger, a first for Miss Cellania! WTM is an amateur historian and an old internet friend, who wishes to remain otherwise anonymous. You can read more of his stories at Neatorama.
Sam Peckinpah’s ‘magnificently bloody’ 1969 Western, The Wild Bunch, opens with a Texas bank robbery and ambush that is complicated by an ill-timed and ill-placed temperance march by the teetotaling townspeople.
Although this film may not be entirely historically accurate – e.g., it is set in 1913 but the machine gun used is a Browning M1917 – it is quite accurate in its depiction of the temperance movement of the day.
The temperance movement, which sought to banish alcohol altogether, even that used for medicinal purposes, began in the early 19th century, eventually became well-organized and well-funded, and had gained a sizable following by the 20th century. It had by that time become a powerful special interest group with considerable political influence, this being the Prohibition Party.
An essential part of the prohibition movement and the Prohibition Party, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was founded in 1873 by women “concerned about the problems alcohol was causing their families and society”.
Women, being hard-wired to be nurturing, maternal, and family-oriented, experienced firsthand the evils of ‘drink’, as they bore the brunt of its detrimental effects - absent or abusive husbands and/or fathers of their children, financial hardship, broken families, and social stigma.
Womans Holy War – Grand Charge on the Enemy’s Works
Millions of women participated in the WCTU’s anti-alcohol activities through the decades, but only one name stands out among all these many others – Carry Nation.
Carrie Amelia Moore was born on November 25, 1846 in Garrard County, Kentucky. The spelling of her Christian name is the source of much confusion; both Carrie and Carry are correct. Birth records indicate that her Christian name was actually Carrie, but her uneducated father recorded it as Carry in the family Bible. For reasons that will become obvious, she later adopted the latter.
There may be something to this, as Carrie’s mother suffered from mental illness and periodically thought that she was either a lady-in-waiting to the queen of England or that she was the queen herself. Two siblings also suffered from similar delusions.
As a child, Carrie was pious to the extent that she carried a Bible with her practically everywhere she went, but she then had no known aversion to alcohol. In 1867, she married Dr. Charles Gloyd, not realizing that he was an alcoholic. They had a daughter, Charlien, who suffered from multiple serious physical and mental disabilities, which Carrie blamed on her husband's drinking. Carrie believed God had punished them because of his drinking and the marriage ended in divorce. This experience instilled in Carrie a lifelong hatred for alcohol.
Kansas adopted prohibition in 1880, but people widely ignored the new law. Carrie began calling vociferously for its enforcement. She began with simple protests such as offering bartenders greetings like “Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls”. Eventually, she began standing outside saloons with other WCTU members, praying loudly and singing hymns. However, prohibition was enforced unevenly and with many saloon owners ignoring the ban completely, Carrie came to believe she needed to abandon the passive methods of the WCTU in order to make an impact.
Frustrated by her lack of success in closing the saloons, Carrie prayed for divine guidance. On June 5, 1900, she believed that it was being sent. As she later explained, she claimed to have heard the words “Go to Kiowa”, spoken in a murmuring, musical tone, low and soft. But the “I’ll stand by you” that purportedly followed was very clear, positive and emphatic. Driven by her claim of divine ordination to promote temperance, she then went forth with a vengeance.
Carrie promptly went to Kiowa, Kansas, gathered some rocks and bricks wrapped in newspaper, and entered a saloon at the Hotel Carey. She announced, “Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate”. With that, she began to destroy whiskey bottles and other objects by throwing the rocks and bricks. Her husband jokingly suggested that her efforts would be more effective if instead she used a hatchet, and the rest, as they say, is history.
She later returned to the Hotel Carey, concealing a hatchet under the black cape that soon became her trademark. “Glory to God, peace on earth and goodwill to men”, she shouted as she flailed against bottles, kegs, risqué paintings, mirrors, chairs, tables, and other of the saloon’s fixtures. Liquor flowed in rivers across the floor. Because saloons were then illegal, she did not face arrest.
Upon beginning her ‘smashing’ temperance campaign against alcohol, Carrie formally adopted the name Carry A. Nation, mainly for its value as a slogan. She even registered it as a trademark in Kansas, believing that it was providential and that she would ultimately “Carry A Nation” to prohibition.
Carry responded with alacrity to appeals from citizens of other towns to close their saloons, as her violent approach, which had received national attention, was getting results. Her behavior provoked a tremendous uproar and sent her to jail repeatedly for disorderly conduct, vandalism, and disturbing the peace in locations where liquor sales were legal. Between 1900 and 1910, Carry was arrested at least 30 times, in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, while many other incidents did not end in arrest simply because the smashed saloons were illegal and the owners just endured the vandalism. She paid her fines from lecture-tour fees and sales of souvenir hatchets and photographs inscribed with "Carry A Nation, Home Defender", or some such, at times earning as much as $3000 per week, this in an age when a typical working man made about $100 a month.
Not one to mince words, Carry called prohibition opponents “rum-soaked, whiskey-swilled, saturn-faced rummies”. Drinking men she called “nicotine-soaked, beer-besmirched, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devils”.
During her temperance campaigns, she would also grab cigarettes and cigars from smokers and ridicule well-dressed people. She even applauded the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, telling a crowd that he secretly drank and that drinkers always got what they deserved.
During these times, Carry suffered numerous physical assaults. Performing ‘hatchetations’, as she called her saloon attacks, soon became dangerous as the men began to fight back. Nonetheless, the Kansas WCTU presented her with a gold medallion inscribed, “To the Bravest Woman in Kansas”.
In a typical ‘hatchetation’, she’d go bursting through the saloon door, swinging her hatchet furiously, busting open beer kegs and smashing bottles, while strong men either fled or watched helplessly, cowering in corners or beneath tables.
While she was thus traveling around the country, her husband sued for divorce, on grounds of cruelty and desertion. He received the divorce after a trial in 1901. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that they had no children in their 24 years together, because she also opposed “lustful marriage”.
For a while, Carry was in great demand as a temperance lecturer, so much so that she engaged a manager. While on tours, she also railed against fraternal orders, tobacco, foreign foods, corsets, skirts of ‘improper length’, and risqué works of art. The public ate it up.
One reason that Carry Nation became so popular was that there was an undeniable entertainment value inherent to her hatchetations. The sight of a woman in her late 50’s, dressed as she was, terrorizing saloons full of men half her age, was irresistible to witness, as evidenced by the grins of those present in this and other illustrations.
With her celebrity status and international fame, Carry
• Published biweekly newsletters, The Smasher’s Mail and the Home Defender
• Appeared in vaudeville
• Published an autobiography, 'The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation'
• Sold autographed photos of herself
• Published a newspaper, The Hatchet
• Began a worldwide paid-lecture circuit
• Sold miniature hatchets and hatchet pins
• Acted in a 1903 play titled Hatchetation, which included a reenactment of a saloon smashing
Her 'hatchetation' period was brief but brought her international notoriety. Having by then become known as the "Vessel of Wrath", she reached the peak of her fame in 1902, but from then on it was all downhill. Shortly before her death, Carry Nation had become more an object of ridicule than an effective campaigner for prohibition. The image of her in her severe garb, carrying a hatchet, and wrecking legitimate businesses, was used to belittle both the causes of temperance and of women's suffrage.
Unlike today’s TV preachers, all of whom seem to have become quite wealthy, Carry was generous to a fault. Throughout her life she extended help and hospitality to those in need, even when she was in no financial position to do so, and even when it created serious marital conflict. Though her income was fabulous for the time, she gave it all away helping others.
In January 1910, a female saloon owner in Montana assaulted Carry during one of her hatchetations, and she was badly hurt. The next year, January 1911, Carry collapsed on stage when lecturing in Arkansas. As she lost consciousness she said, using the epitaph she had asked for in her autobiography, "I have done what I could".
After lingering for five months, Carry Nation died at the age of 65 on June 2, 1911, at a sanitarium in Leavenworth, Kansas. Like that other famous beer barrel-buster, Eliot Ness, she died a pauper and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field. The WCTU later erected a large gravestone with her name and an engraving, ‘Faithful to the Cause of Prohibition’ “She Hath Done What She Could”.
Carry Nation never lived to see nationwide prohibition in America, which was established with the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which went into effect on January 16, 1920. So strong had become public sentiment in favor of Prohibition, and so powerful had been the influence of the Prohibition Party, that Congress actually overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the legislation.
If Hell was rent as the result of Prohibition, it was rent with long, loud laughs. Prohibition, called ‘The Noble Experiment’ by its advocates, didn’t produce the predicted utopia; instead, as per the Law of Unintended Consequences, it produced the Roaring Twenties.
Prohibition, aka the Volstead Act, simply couldn’t be enforced. Smuggling and ‘moonshiners’ made it a laughingstock, especially in locales such as New Orleans and Galveston. People were going to drink, and there weren’t enough police or Treasury agents in the world to stop them. And in a land where nearly everyone violated the new law, widespread acts of lawlessness became the New Normal.
The common vernacular changed as new words were coined to match this New Normal, e.g., bathtub gin, bootlegger, speakeasy, and rumrunner. There was even a nationwide contest to suggest the best word to describe the ‘lawless drinker’. The winning entry: ‘scofflaw’.
Amid the general lawlessness, hard-faced men in black limousines, dressed in pinstripe suits and fedoras, stepped in to argue over who was going to control what had once been the wholesale liquor trade. Tommy guns blazed along city streets, Al Capone, Joe Kennedy, and many others made fortunes, and a nondescript Treasury agent named Eliot Ness formed the special Prohibition task force later known as the Untouchables.
Prohibition, eventually considered a failure, was repealed on December 5, 1933, by the 21st Amendment. The Prohibition Party, having seen its ‘Noble Experiment’ fail miserably, went into steep decline and soon disappeared altogether.
The Underworld, by then firmly established via Prohibition profits, ventured into other profitable enterprises – gambling, narcotics, hijackings, and labor unions, just to name a few – and it is still with us today, draining off illicit billions each year.
Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, it isn’t working for illegal drugs, and it isn’t going to work for tobacco, firearms, pornography, or anything else that people might wish to possess, not so long as a potential for profit is present. Family fortunes were made in Galveston as a result of rumrunning from Cuba, and Prohibition also gave us the Kennedy political dynasty and nationwide organized crime, with all of its attendant fallout. Hardly a fair trade. Meanwhile, liquor sales in the United States reached a record high in 2017. Carry Nation and the WCTU might have won the Prohibition battle, but, as usual, The Law of Unintended Consequences won the war. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Sources and Further Reading
Carrie Nation Biography
United States History
This Day in History
Find A Grave
Wikipedia: Temperance Movement
Wikipedia: Temperance Movement in the US
WTM has written other, related articles, such as The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar and America’s Jack the Ripper and the Downfall of Eliot Ness.