December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
Weapon in hand and Biblical imprecations on her lips, Carry Nation campaigned to save men from the drunkard’s fate
She was born Carry Amelia Moore in Kentucky, in 1846. By the time she came into the public eye she was Carry A. Nation, an amazon nearly six feet tall who kept her weight clown to 175 pounds by the prodigious wrecking of saloons. The odd spelling of her first name was clue to the imperfect learning of her father. Her mother lived for many years in the delusion that she was Queen Victoria and died in the Missouri State Hospital for the Insane.
In 1867 Carry met and married a young physician, Dr. Charles Gloyd, who showed up at the altar smelling of cloves and alcohol. Marriage did not perform a miracle. In less than two years he was lowered into a drunkard’s grave. Ten years later Carry married David Nation, and together they faced a quarter of a century of bickering, battles, and wandering, while the incompetent Nation almost but never quite made a living with his combined talents as a lawyer, an editor, and a minister of the Gospel.
Meantime Mrs. Nation brooded on her troubles, and she concluded, finally, that she had been chosen to become a martyr to a number of causes which included not only temperance but also the abolition of tobacco and all fraternal orders. (Carry’s first husband had done a good deal of drinking in the quarters of his lodge, from which women were excluded.) This was the mental baggage she was carrying when the Nations moved again, this time to Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where her husband, in the character of the Reverend David Nation, preached a while before reverting to law; and Mrs. Nation was elected president of the Barber County chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
It was an office that she accepted with the utmost seriousness. Kansas was technically dry by constitutional amendment, but actually pretty wet because of the profound appetites of the farmers for the end product of their handsome fields of corn, wheat, and rye. Medicine Lodge alone, as Mrs. Nation quickly discovered, supported seven drinking places, or “joints,” as saloons were popularly known throughout Kansas. She set about to close them by writing appeals to the governor and the attorney general of the state, to the sheriff of Barber County, and to various newspapers. None so much as replied. In this extremity, as she related in her autobiography, Carry Nation had recourse to prayer and divination; and on the afternoon of June 5, 1900, with her eyes tightly shut, she jabbed a pin at random into her opened Bible, then looked to see that she had impaled the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.”
Carry was ready to rise and shine, and within a few minutes “a musical voice murmured in her ear” a command to go to Kiowa—a town reputed to be the wettest in Barber County. Presently the voice added: “Take something in your hands and throw at those places and smash them!” Only then did she know exactly what she was to do.
Next day at dawn she bounced out of bed in exaltation. Singing snatches of hymns, she went into the back yard to assemble a creditable pile of stones and bricks. She wrapped these one by one in old newspapers, put them into the buggy, hitched up her horse, and drove out of Medicine Lodge on the jolting and dusty road to Kiowa, nigh twenty miles distant, and destiny. Having arrived after nightfall, she lay low till morning, then hitched up her rig and drove to the joint operated by a Mr. Dobson, there to make history.
With a dozen or more of the missiles stacked upon her IeIt arm, she pushed open the saloon door to find a few hung-over men working hopefully on their eye openers. They stared incredibly at the apparition of this motherly woman (Carry was 54 years old) in a whisky joint, but they stared only briefly. “Men,” said she, “I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate!” Then she let go with her neolithic artillery.
She had a powerful arm and, unlike most women, she could throw. Her first missile smashed the large mirror behind the bar. The second was a perfect strike that shattered every glass on the back bar and also broke several bottles. Now sure of herself, she poured a torrent of paper-wrapped stones at the surviving bottles of liquor, then turned to address the poor proprietor.
“Now, Mr. Dobson,” she said, “I have finished. God be with you.” She flounced out of the devastated joint, got into her buggy, and was about to drive off when a happy idea took her. Reaching under the seat, she picked up two more of her neatly packaged stones and heaved them through Mr. Dobson’s windows. Then she set her horse to walking briskly down the street.
Kiowa’s horrible day was not done, for Carry’s ammunition was no more exhausted than she. In a matter of minutes she made desolation of two more joints, improving her original technique by ripping several prints of actresses and sporting figures from the walls, overturning beer tables, smashing chairs, to emerge from the last joint smelling gloriously ol the alcohol sprayed by breaking bottles and running in riverlets over the barroom floor. She made no haste to leave the stricken town, but courted the attention of the city marshal and the mayor, of whom she demanded to be arrested. The officials declined, and Carry Nation drove out of Kiowa in what until then was the incomparable triumph of her life.
The Kiowa raid was given only short notice in Wichita and Topeka papers, but more, much more, was to come. Carry Nation was resolved to lay waste to every joint in the state, including what she called “the murder mills of the metropolis of Wichita.”
Wichita was as wet as a bar rag. Forty-odd joints ran openly with no concealment other than curtained windows and doors. Each displayed a modest sign, “Sample Room,” the current cryptogram for saloon, especially in dry territory. A few more were operated in conjunction with eating places. Another reason Wichita attracted Mrs. Nation was that a majority of Kansas wholesale liquor dealers had their warehouses there.
For her first sortie into Wichita, Carry Nation dressed in the garb she wore to the end ol her career: a black alpaca dress fastened by a row of dark pearl buttons extending up the left side from hem to yoke; a broad bow of white ribbon at her throat; heavy, square-toed shoes; black cotton stockings; a black poke bonnet with a silk ribbon tied under her chin; and, except in hot weather, a heavy cape ol navy blue cloth. Almost always she carried an umbrella. Cartoonists, with whom she was for many years a favorite character, found hergetup perfect for quick and easy delineation.
She was thus attired when she took a train of steamcars for Wichita, save that in place of the umbrella she carried her husband’s rugged walking stick and a valise in which she had put a foot-long iron rod. The press of Wichita had not been warned of her coming. On her first day in the city she went forth to inspect the sample rooms and made no comment until she entered the most elegant joint in all Kansas. This was operated in the basement of the Hotel Carey, and its long, curved bar reflected the brilliance of hundreds of electric lights. On one wall her beady black eyes did not miss an enormous oil painting, Cleopatra at the Bath . She stopped dead in her tracks.
Carry Nation had not planned to pass any comment during this her initial tour of Wichita joints, but the naked Cleopatra changed her mind. She reflected—so she wrote later—that woman is stripped ol everything by the saloons. Her husband is torn from her. She is robbed of her sons. Then they take away her clothes “and her virtue.” This reflection occupied Mrs. Nation no more than a moment. She strode to the bar, pointed a quivering finger at the startled bartender.
“Young man,” she demanded, “what are you doing in this hellhole?”
“I’m sorry, madam,” he replied, “but we do not serve ladies.”
“Serve me? ” screamed Carry Nation. “Do you think I’d drink your hellish poison?” She pointed at Cleopatra. “Take that filthy thing down,” she cried, “and close this murder-mill.”
Then she snatched a bottle from the bar, threw it to the floor, and ran out into the street. She returned to her hotel, to muse on the Hotel Carey bar, “this hell glittering with crystallized tears,” and to take from her valise the short iron bar. This she bound with stout cord to the cane and, hiding this formidable weapon beneath her cape, returned in the morning to the Hotel Carey, pausing in an alley to pick up a fair load of stones, which she wrapped in a newspaper. Now she was ready for Cleopatra.
On cat’s feet the enemy of Cleopatra entered the Carey bar to find bartender Parker serving half a dozen men. They had time only to gape before Carry started heaving rocks that smashed the immense gilt frame and tore through the canvas. “Glory to God!” she shouted. “Peace on earth, good will to men!” Then she heaved another stone to crash almost into the exact center of the great mirror behind the bar. (“Cost fifteen hunnert dollars,” bartender Parker told the police.) It tumbled in fragments.
The drinkers and bartender lammed through the rear doorway, and Carry moved into the second phase of the battle. Bringing forth the wicked tool she had fashioned from cane and iron rod, she tore around one end of the bar and began slashing at the orderly array of bottles, decanters, and glassware on the back bar. All disintegrated with a most satisfying noise. When Detective Park Massey, followed by curious guests, walked into the saloon, Carry had lifted one of the finest and biggest brass cuspidors in Kansas to the top of the cherry bar and was beating it furiously.
“Madam,” said the officer, “I must arrest you for defacing property.”
“Defacing?” she screamed. “Defacing? I am defacing nothing! I am destroying! ”
The general appearance of the Hotel Carey bar indicated Mrs. Nation had a better understanding of the niceties of the language than did Detective Massey. When she was taken before fudge O. D. Kirk, the charge was read and Mrs. Nation was asked whether she pled guilty. “I’ll have nothing to do with this court,” she snapped, “until that man over there throws away his cigar. It’s rotten and the smell of it poisons me.” And “that man,” who happened to be the prosecuting attorney, dropped the offending cigar into a cuspidor.
There was a terrible to-do about Carry Nation in the Kansas courts before she was released on bail, and at last the charges were dismissed because, said the prosecuting attorney, he feared for the crusader’s mental condition. The crusader’s mental condition was unchanged, or perhaps it was intensified, by the hundreds of congratulatory telegrams, letters, and callers that Hooded her. There were many requests for help from women in towns and cities all over Kansas and from other states. Carry Nation was delighted. She felt she was on the way to the martyrdom and fame she strongly .wanted. Even New York City and Boston papers had given front-page notice of her destruction of the Hotel Carey’s saloon.
There is no need to tell of more than one of the score or more subsequent raids, all during 1901, which by year’s end had made her incomparably the most notorious female character in the United States. The raid in question gave her the symbol by which she is best remembered half a century later. It also shows graphically the perfection of technique she had achieved.
This attack was in Topeka, to which Carry had corne in order “to free the Capital of Kansas from the shame of its saloons.” With her she brought lour brand-new hatchets that cost 85 cents each and were of the same fine quality as one she had used with terrible effect on the Douglas Avenue Sample Room of James Kurnes, in Wichita.
Snow was falling heavily in Topeka when, at the ungodly hour of six in the morning, Mrs. Nation, a Mrs. John White, and a Miss Madeline Southard, a local evangelist of some power, met on Kansas Avenue and proceeded to the restaurant (and barroom) of K. C. Russam, who had got word that the now-famous enemy of whisky was in town. At the entrance of his place, even at this early hour, the three women ran head-on into a couple of surly guards and were defeated after a brisk contact during which Mrs. Nation sustained slight wounds from her own weapon on forehead and one hand.
Pausing only long enough to stanch the flow of blood with handkerchiefs, the three raiders plodded through the deepening snow across Kansas Avenue, to note there were no guards on duty at the elegant entrance to the Senate Bar, Topeka’s finest drinking establishment. Mrs. Nation, Mrs. White, and Miss Southard pushed open the door and entered without disturbing Benner Tucker, the popular and efficient bartender, who was busy polishing glasses. He became aware of his visitors when he heard pounding and the tinkle of breaking glass.
Mr. Tucker turned instantly to see Miss Southard at work with bright shining hatchet on the cigar case, while Mrs. Nation and Mrs. White were chopping away at the glossy-smooth bar, raising chips of a size and depth beyond the ability of most women. Tucker knew instantly who his callers were. He grabbed the house revolver from behind the bar and advanced with the idea he would frighten these vixens. Frighten? Mrs. Nation met him halfway, lunged, and swung her weapon viciously at his head. Tucker dodged, snatched the hatchet from her hand, fired two shots into the rococo ceiling, then went through the rear door at a dead run, shouting for the police.
Carry Nation gave a bellow of triumph. From one of her companions she took another hatchet and attacked the big mirror. While glass was still falling, she swept her weapon, much like a stick on a picket fence, along the long row of glassware on the back bar, and shouted her special kind of abuse at the absent bartender. “How do you do,” she called, “you maker of drunkards and widows?”
While the acolytes, Mrs. White and Miss Southard, continued to perform as well as their limited imaginations permitted, Mrs. Nation went ahead with feverish experimentation. “The arm of God smiteth!” she cried and grabbed the cash register from its moorings on the bar. With little more than a genteel grunt she lifted the heavy machine above her head, then heaved it halfway across the saloon, to watch it crash to the floor, with its bell ringing No Sale as never before, while tiny wheels and bolts and silver rolled in happy confusion. It had been a mighty effort. She had been granted the strength of giants.
Mrs. Nation paused only to badger the still-absent bartender again. “Good morning,” she shouted, “you destroyer of men’s soulsl” then turned her attention into demolition channels. First she strode up to face the monstrous refrigerator. With the hammer end of her hatchet she smashed the lock, opened the vast door, which she grasped firmly in her two hands, and tore it fair from its hinges. Taking up her hatchet again, she cut the rubber tube which conducted the beer from the tanks to the faucets, and then, using the tube as a hose, sprayed good St. Louis beer over the walls and ceilings, to cascade down and drench herself and co-workers in malted foam. A squad of police entered to arrest the crusaders, after disarming them.
The whole gorgeous story went out over the wires, and Carry and Hatchet went into the folklore of the nation. Cartoonists got busy. Almost before one knew it, too, miniature hatchets labeled with her name were being hawked in cities from coast to coast and offered for sale by news butchers on trains.
Other hatchet women appeared as if by magic. In Danville, Kansas, a tall, lean female named Mary Sheriff wrecked a local joint with a hatchet, collected a group of women she called the Flying Squadron of Jesus, and swept through Harper County like a plague, attacked sample rooms in Attica, Anthony, and other towns and leaving them in dreadful condition; while in Elk County there arose a smasher fit to talk with Mrs. Nation herself. She was Mrs. McHenry. In a brief war she laid waste to every joint in the county, then moved on to new successes all over the state. Other imitators erupted, if only briefly, in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. These plagiarists had no effect on Mrs. Nation’s fame save to enhance it.
In that day a character of the celebrity of Carry Nation was headed surely for the lyceum circuit. Billed variously, according to neighborhood, as The Home Defender, The Smasher, The Wrecker of Saloons, The Woman with the Hatchet, she toured much of the United States. She began publication of a weekly paper, The Hatchet . She went to Washington for the express purpose of talking to—not with—President Theodore Roosevelt, to warn him of the hideous example his daughter Alice was setting for pure womanhood by smoking cigarettes.
The White House guard was polite but firm; he met Mrs. Nation before she got to the door to inform her it was not possible to see the President. When she began a harangue about cigarette fiends, the guard broke in.
“Madam,” he said, “do not make a lecture here.” Mrs. Nation sighed and left with a well-turned phrase: “I suppose you have the same motto here in the White House that they have in the saloons, ‘All the Nations Welcome Except Carry.’ ” She went away to tell a newspaper reporter that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President McKinley, might have recovered from the wounds of his assassin “had not his blood been poisoned by nicotine,” and left such dark inference as the reporter cared to form in regard to what might well happen to the Roosevelts.
Though a few individual members of the W.C.T.U. considered Carry Nation a true hero-martyr in the John Brown tradition, she was treated coolly, then with increasing hostility by virtually all of the Union. The excitement she created gradually died in the United States. She went abroad to lecture in the British Isles, where she appeared in the music halls and was greeted by large audiences and often with showers of eggs and vegetables. Finding on return that she was in great danger of being wholly forgotten, she attacked the barroom in Washington’s Union Depot, late in 1909, and wrought fearful havoc with three hatchets she told the police were Faith, Hope, and Charity. In the following January she made her last attack. It was, properly enough, in Butte, Montana, then, as now, a lively town, and it was directed at May Maloy’s Dance Hall & Café. For the sake of the record, it was on January 26, 1910, when Carry Nation entered Miss Maloy’s place with the avowed intention to destroy a painting, and was met at the entrance by the proprietor herself, a young and powerful woman, who went hammer-and-tongs at the astonished crusader. The encounter was brief, terrible, and one-sided. The old champ went down, and went away to Arkansas. On January 13, 1911, she was stricken while speaking against joints and jointists at Eureka Springs and died on June 9 in Evergreen Hospital, Leavenworth, Kansas.
In Mrs. Nation’s day almost nobody had a good word for saloons. The brewers and distillers were inclined to let the saloonkeeper fight his own battles, smugly confident that more genteel vendors of their wares would take his place. Though the Anti-Saloon League ignored Carry Nation, her furious onslaught focused publicity on the liquor outlets, and she also forced Kansas and other pseudo-dry states—as one commentator put it—to “live up to their pretensions.” He thought that “a whole host of temperance workers were unequal to her influence.”
Carry Nation was a unique character in many ways, including the fact that she is best remembered by the symbol she made her own, much as an earlier American female, Miss Liz/ie Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, is remembered for a slightly larger symbol, which was the ax.