Carry Nation and the American Temperance Movement


Carry Nation, 1895″Show me a joint!” Carry Nation demanded as she stepped from the filthy jail cell that held her for wreaking havoc in several Wichita saloons. Swarms of enthusiastic, teetotaling women cheered her on while her hen-pecked husband, David Nation, followed at her heels and urged his wife to take a break from her “smashing.” Carry, however, was not to be dissuaded: a few short days later, Jesus’ “bulldog” stood before a roaring crowd of WCTU members, rousing them to take up whatever arms they had handy—iron bars, bricks, scrap metal, stones—and become “a sacrifice to the Lord.”{footnote}Asbury, Herbert. Carry Nation: The Woman with the Hatchet (New York: Knopf, 1929), 119.{/footnote} Within a few hours’ time, Carry and three other women had ripped through Wichita’s finest saloons, drawing a crowd of three thousand spectators and incurring over $50,000 worth of damage, all the while serenading the crammed streets with “Nearer My God to Thee.” It was January 21, 1901, the first day that Carry had ever wielded what would become her trademark weapon for the Lord: a hatchet.

Historians make much of Carry Nation’s early years, hoping to discover the source of Nation’s vitriolic hatred of demon rum. Her father was a washed-up Confederate veteran and her mother believed herself to be Queen Victoria, even knighting nearby farmers in their Texas homes and decrying the real Victoria as an imposter. Carry’s grandfather seemed to be the only drinker of the family, sharing a spoonful of his morning’s hot toddy with any of the curious children around the breakfast table. Some mark the source of Nation’s passion for temperance as the dissolution of her first marriage to Charles Gloyd. Carry Amelia Moore had been forbidden to marry Gloyd, for her parents saw that he was shiftless and too enamored of inebriating substances. Carry uncharacteristically defied her parents and married the young doctor. Six months later, she was a pregnant widow, forced to retreat to her parents’ home, having lost her true love to alcohol poisoning. Some seven years later, Carry married David Nation, a sometime lawyer, a sometime minister in the Christian church. Carry Nation would go on to believe that her newly married name was a sign from God that she was to carry the conscience of the nation to temperance and avenge all women everywhere who had ever been victimized by alcohol’s effects.{footnote}Nation, Carry. The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation (Topeka: F.M. Steves & Sons, 1908), 129.{/footnote}
Smashed Saloon
Schilling’s Saloon after Nation’s visit. Photo from Dickinson County Historical Society.
Carry was a zealous child. She frequently experienced personal religious revivals and invited others to join in. Young Carry would perch on her bed and preach sermons from the Book of Revelation to sundry of her father’s patient slaves. Her religious upbringing was in the Christian Church, an aberrant off-shoot of Presbyterianism that despised doctrinal distinction. But doctrinal distinctives were not something to deter Nation. Rather, as she aged, her theology became a mishmash of the “Baptist and Disciples’ belief in baptism by immersion…the Arminian doctrine of the Methodists and also, curiously enough, the predestination tenet of the Presbyterians; and from the Catholics…the sign of the Cross, the crucifix, and the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday.”{footnote}Ibid., 22{/footnote} Nation was relatively ecumenical in her church affiliations, as well. She taught Sunday School in the Methodist church until her zealous fanaticism regarding the Second Blessing forced the pastor to remove her from her post and appoint only self-proclaimed Methodists to teach the children. Nation then moved on to the only other church in her small Texas town, the Episcopal church, where she refused to teach her Sunday School children from the catechism. When the minister found that none of Nation’s students could answer any catechism questions, Nation remonstrated, “I cannot teach the Bible and the catechism, for one contradicts the other. The gospel is to be believed and obeyed and a Christian is a follower of Christ. The catechism in the first lesson asks ‘What is your name? Bob, Tom, or John?’ ‘When did you get that name?’ ‘In my baptism when I was made a Christian.’ Baptism never did make a Christian. Infants cannot be made Christians. They cannot follow Christ, cannot believe or obey the Gospel…Now if I teach my class that the state of a Christian is something they get without the exercise of their will, I contradict what I have been teaching.”{footnote}Ibid., 85{/footnote} The minister ruefully shook his head and relieved Nation of her teaching duties. But Nation was not discouraged. She soon took it upon herself to enthusiastically call sinners to repentance on the street, in the shops, and even during worship services, meeting each new face with “Do you know the Lord?” The residents of Richmond, Texas, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when Carry Nation and her husband pulled up stakes and settled in the small town of Medicine Lodge, Kansas.

Nation Cartoon
Hatchet in hand, she smashed away, / For surely drink a nation imperils. / But to her dismay, ‘twas all for naught, / For sin comes in people, not in barrels. WCJ
Carry Nation readily admitted, “I never saw anything that needed rebuke, exhortation, or warning, but that I felt it was my duty to meddle with it.”{footnote}Asbury, xviii.{/footnote} And Carry found plenty to rebuke in her new Kansas community, particularly booze. Legally, Kansas was a dry state, as were several other Middle Western states; alcohol was allowable only for medicinal purposes. Practically, this didn’t stop proprietors from opening “tasting rooms” or pharmacy clerks from offering a little extra something in the back room. Whether through bureaucratic inefficiency or only a half-hearted resolution to obey an unpopular Kansas law, the government winked at imbibing and peddling offenders. Indeed, bootlegging seemed to be Kansas’ most popular pastime, and Carry had seen enough. She became a self-appointed “Home Defender,” announcing that ” ‘mothers with their hands tied have beheld the mutilation [by the saloon] of their sons and daughters till Almighty God heard their groanings and sent me to answer the prayers of those grand women — the W.C.T.U.'”{footnote}Ibid., xvi{/footnote} Nation organized the first Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter in Barber County and quickly established herself as the Jail Evangelist. What Nation found as she visited the jails with her anti-liquor literature was that alcohol played a role in many of the inmates’ incarcerations. When she happened upon a saloon keeper in the streets, she could hardly contain her fury, unleashing a volley of criticisms and anathemas upon him, greeting him with ” ‘Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls!’ or ‘How do you do, maker of drunkards and widows?'” Or barring his way, she would cry “Shame on you! You rum-soaked Republican rummy! You ally of Satan!”{footnote}Ibid., 64{/footnote} Like the early women’s temperance crusaders in 1873-1874, Nation, with her enthusiastic followers, usually assaulted the joints with prayers and squealing hymns on her hand organ or a verse of her favorite temperance song:

Who hath sorrow? Who hath woe?
They who dare not answer no;
They whose feet to sin incline,
While they tarry at the wine.

She would pounce upon unsuspecting drinkers in the bars, proffering prayers on their behalf or would condemn them to everlasting punishment until many ran from the saloons and the shopkeepers sought safety behind locked and barricaded doors.
Frances Willard, 1898
Between the harassed saloon keepers and the chagrined town officials, all seven “joints” in Medicine Lodge closed shop in the space of a few short weeks in 1899 and Carry Nation now had a reputation as the next “John Brown,” a willing martyr for the cause of temperance.{footnote}Ibid., 65{/footnote} Nation’s growing sense of her new calling as a Home Defender distracted her from her homemaking duties and was a cause for consternation for her husband, who had once again taken up the pastorate. Nation would choose her husband’s sermon texts and pop up in the sermon to correct or redirect her husband’s sermon to her brand of Christian activism. She fasted several times a week, dropped to her knees in prayer multiple times a day—a practice which she called “Advancing [the Kingdom of God] on her knees”—and roamed the streets in a homemade version of sackcloth and ashes, hysterically crying for the city officials to uphold their own prohibition laws. She soon discovered that many thought she was slightly insane. Nation now believed that since she had made no headway with the government, she was destined by God to take matters into her own hands.

Nation Home
Carry Nation Home, 1898. National Park Service
Carry resorted to practicing bibliomancy, which she had often used to make decisions. She would open to a random portion of Scripture, stab the page with a pin, and use that verse as a personal, divine revelation. One June afternoon in 1900, Carry’s pin landed on Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” Carry took that to mean that God was now calling her to an even greater mission than ever before—to utterly destroy the liquor industry. As Carry slept that night, she was awakened by a divine voice that thrice called out “Go to Kiowa,” a nearby Kansas town drenched in alcohol. The voice continued, “Take something in your hands and throw at those places and smash them!”{footnote}Ibid., 84{/footnote} The next day, Carry donned her best black dress and cape, wrapped stones and brick bats in a heavy cloth, and set off for Kiowa. Carry Nation single-handedly marched into three Kiowa saloons and destroyed them with her missiles as bar keepers ran for cover and city officials stood aghast at Nation’s brazen behavior. Crowds of citizens surrounded her as she threw her last rock through a plate glass saloon window and cried, ” ‘Men of Kiowa, I have destroyed three of your places of business. If I have broken a statue of Kansas, put me in jail. If I am not a law-breaker, your Mayor and Councilmen are. You must arrest one of us, for if I am not a criminal they are.'”{footnote}Ibid., 85{/footnote} Carry Nation had perhaps accidentally happened upon what would be a tidy solution for her “smashings” and a sticky problem for Kansas officials: she wasn’t technically breaking the law. The property she was damaging was illegally operating anyway. For Nation to destroy it and be prosecuted for doing so was to admit that the government had been tolerating illegal activity, a rather embarrassing predicament in a state that was fighting to keep prohibition laws intact. When the Marshal refused to arrest her, Nation left Kiowa loudly proclaiming her famous benediction, “Peace on earth, good will to men!”

NationPosterIn local temperance circles and among the most zealous W.C.T.U. members, Carry Nation rocketed overnight to celebrity. Raids on the small-town saloons became more frequent and Nation set her sights on the two largest offenders in Kansas, Wichita and Topeka, drawing hundreds of women with her in her “Hatchet Brigade.” But Nation’s methodology was not always appreciated by all of her fellow temperance workers. The larger chapters of the W.C.T.U in Kansas and the more industrial towns in the East decried Nation’s antics as too violent, if not ineffectual. The W.C.T.U. had come a long way since those few women prayed and sang hymns on a snowy Ohio street in 1873. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the W.C.T.U. became a powerhouse of political and social change in America. Though temperance was initially the rallying cry of these mostly upper-class, educated women, Willard’s “Do Everything” motto drove the W.C.T.U. to pursue a rigorous course for women’s suffrage, improved working conditions for women and children, and a wide-sweeping indoctrination program in public school curriculum promoting Willard’s “New Testament Socialism.”{footnote}Tyler, Helen E. Where Prayer and Purpose Meet: The WCTU Story (Illinois: Signal Press, 1949), 95.{/footnote} Willard’s org-anization was calculated, refined, and though Willard had died the year before Nation received her divine call, she would hardly have approved of Nation’s extreme tactics. But it was hard to argue with Carry Nation’s success in Kansas. Within six months, she had accomplished what twenty years of prohibition legislation couldn’t do.
Though she did not live to see it, the United States followed Carry Nation and the W.C.T.U.’s prodding and enacted the 18th Amendment.
Carry Nation marched on. All told, she was arrested over thirty times, usually for inciting crowds to riot. She was beaten, by men and women alike, but was rarely dissuaded from her God-given mission, even preaching to cheering crowds with a raw beefsteak over her bruises. Her mission to dry up Satan’s stranglehold took her to the Oklahoma territory, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Canada, and even England. She lectured, roused crowds, stopped traffic for three hours in New York City, and took her temperance rhetoric straight to the White House. She stumped for the temperance cause in Presbyterian churches, Methodist Episcopal churches, and lyceums across the Middle West. But the farther Carry got from her Kansas roots, the less seriously people took her. She was reduced to selling souvenir hatchets (a trio of which she had named Faith, Hope, and Charity) to pay for her ever-mounting legal fees and to finance her self-published temperance newspapers, the Smasher’s Mail and The Hatchet. Her later years found her appearing on vaudeville stages, haran-guing dwindling crowds of drunk patrons and wishing for enough strength to take up her hatchet again. Nation’s marriage to David Nation had long ago dissolved, but she had scraped together enough money to open and operate for a short time a home for the wives and children of drunkards. Her final days were spent in relative obscurity. She had fallen from the heights of God’s service to the level of a laughing-stock and byword in almost every national publication. When she died in 1911, her grave lay unmarked for the next twelve years, until finally a group of her friends and neighbors pooled their money for a granite grave marker, faintly answering Willard’s call to “Do Everything”:

Carry A. Nation
Faithful to the Cause
of Prohibition.
“She Hath Done
What She Could.”