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1900 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Carry Nation Took an Ax

On May 31 the customers at Jasper Dobson’s speakeasy in Kiowa, Kansas, were startled to see a determined, grim-faced middle-aged woman stride through the doors. She wore the sedate outfit of a church deaconess, but Carry Nation’s attire was the only thing demure about her. With a six-foot, 175-pound frame strengthened by years of physical labor running a Texas rooming house, Nation hurled bricks and rocks in all directions to destroy the saloon’s bottles, glassware, and furnishings. She wrecked two more “joints” (as speakeasies were called) that day, and officials soon closed the rest of the dozen saloons in Kiowa, a town of eight hundred.

Nation had begun her antisaloon campaign in 1899 in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. She and her second husband, a ne’er-do-well named David Nation, had recently moved there after seven years of homesteading in the Oklahoma Territory. Frustrated at the persistence of saloons in a state that had outlawed liquor in 1880, the devout Nation stood in the doorway of a bar-room with another woman and sang hymns until the police were shamed into closing it. Within six months, according to Nation’s memoirs, she and her fellow choristers had succeeded in shutting down all seven of the town’s joints.

Having cleaned up Medicine Lodge and Kiowa (at least temporarily), Nation continued her rampage throughout Kansas and neighboring states, leaving a trail of devastation that earned her the nickname Cyclone Carry. Along the way she refined her methods of destruction. In Wichita, two days after Christmas, she supplemented the rocks and bricks with a stout iron rod. Then in Topeka the following month Nation first wielded the weapon that became her trademark, the hatchet. By the spring of 1901 she had addressed the Kansas legislature, given the governor a stern lecture, and ignited a wave of copycat violence that saw more than a hundred joints destroyed in fifty Kansas towns.

Cyclone Carry had good reason to hate liquor, for it had ruined her first marriage and killed the only man she ever loved. In 1865 the eighteen-year-old Carry had caught the eye of Dr. Charles Gloyd, a handsome boarder in her house. Her parents, knowing Gloyd’s weakness for liquor, tried to discourage their unworldly daughter, but their efforts worked no better than parental interference usually does in such cases. The two were married in 1867, and Carry soon got pregnant, but before the baby was born, she fled her drunken husband’s house. Gloyd died before little Charlien saw her first birthday.

In her role as a “direct-action temperance advocate” (as one biographer calls her), Nation relied on God to direct her and on chivalry to protect her. So strong was the taboo against a man’s hitting a woman that once, when Nation received a gentle slap from a railroad passenger whose cigar she had yanked from his mouth (another Nation obsession and one more in line with modern attitudes), The New York Times published an editorial on the incident. Some bar owners brought in women skilled at fighting—often their wives—to protect the premises when Nation came to town. (In Butte, Montana, in 1910, Nation picked the wrong saloon to raid and was soundly thrashed by its female owner.)

After a year or so or itinerant vandalism punctuated by stays in assorted jails, Carrie Nation’s “hatchetations” grew less frequent. She took more and more to the lecture circuit, where her incoherent yet vigorous rambles drew crowds that came as much to jeer as to applaud. She also appeared onstage in an adaptation of T. S. Arthur’s classic temperance novel Ten Nights in a Bar-Room . Wherever she went, she brought along a sack of miniature souvenir hatchets, which she sold to finance her activities. In 1909 she moved to the Arkansas hills, where she lived in a simple house she called Hatchet Hall. She died in a Kansas hospital in 1911, a few years short of seeing her long-time goal of nationwide prohibition enacted into law. A more lasting memorial could long be found in the Kansas state constitution, which until 1987 retained its absolute (though progressively weakened) ban on open saloons.

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