A century ago, Carry A. Nation became famous worldwide for demolishing illegal saloons with rocks, bricks and hatchets. She was the face of the female fight for Prohibition, which drained the nation of liquor 100 years ago this month.
Perhaps you can conjure up an image of her — sporting a serious expression and her trademark black dress, Bible in hand. Deeply religious, Nation believed illegal local saloons hurt women and children in her town of Medicine Lodge, Kan. Ministering to men in jail only underscored her conviction that alcohol was at the root of many of the day’s problems.
Like so many women in history, however, the typical portrayal of Nation differs from her real story.
Men who opposed Prohibition went to great lengths to caricature her, calling her a religious fanatic, dismissing her own autobiography as incoherent and ignoring anything sympathetic to her. They painted her as a humorless scold who was freakishly large, mentally ill and self-absorbed. Those images remain persistent, even today.
“Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” wrote Daniel Okrent in his 2011 bestseller, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
In 2019’s winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, “1919: The Year that Changed America,” Martin W. Sandler describes her as “standing over six feet tall” and repeats a claim that she died in a mental institution.
But when you allow Nation to tell her own story, a different picture emerges. In truth, Nation was a determined, passionate and devout woman, who was increasingly angry and impatient at the way illegal saloons encouraged drunkenness in her home state. And she stood only a few inches taller than five feet, based on photographs and a dress of hers at the Kansas Historical Society.
Born in 1846, Nation first experienced the ravages of alcohol as a young woman. She fell in love with and married a doctor who turned out to be an alcoholic. By 22, she was a widow and a single mother.
She remarried and helped raise her second husband’s children along with her daughter; she took in orphans and worked to help the poor.
When the children were grown, Nation joined an active Woman’s Christian Temperance Union chapter in Kansas. Since its founding in Ohio in 1874, the WCTU had worked to dry up America and shut down a growing number of saloons, which were typically raucous and dirty gathering places that sold beer and alcohol to male patrons. Sometimes they offered gambling or prostitution in the back rooms.
Bartenders often served as local bankers, cashing patrons’ paychecks — and encouraging the men to drink them.
Most women wouldn’t be seen in such a place, though they might buy beer from a side entrance and drink it at home. Alcohol like rum was often used for medicinal purposes for people of all ages. But saloons encouraged male drinkers to stay, socialize and drink, and families suffered from the lost income, as well as from drunken violence and abuse.
Nation’s WCTU chapter urged Kansas officials to enforce the state’s constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol. But the state looked the other way.
In June 1900, when she was 54, Nation prayed for an answer and heard a response, she wrote later. She loaded her buggy with stones and broken bricks, and headed to Kiowa, Kan. Early the next morning, she entered a saloon and launched an attack, shattering windows and bottles. When she ran out of rocks, she left and reloaded. At her second stop, a brick failed to break a mirror, so she hurled a billiard ball through the glass, leaving a hole behind.
In all, she destroyed at least three saloons before the mayor and the sheriff ran her out of town, according to her own account and to Fran Grace’s “Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life.”
Soon after, she went to Wichita, where she destroyed a nude painting hanging in a hotel bar after the manager refused to remove it. This time, she wrote later, she packed an iron rod, noting, “I found out by smashing in Kiowa that I could use a rock but once.”
Over the next year or so, she continued to wreck saloons around the state, using hatchets as her weapon of choice. Although the WCTU distanced itself from her, Nation gained a devoted following of other women and ministers in the Midwest.
To Nation, “hatchetation” was her only option. “A good solid vote is the best thing in the world with which to smash the saloons,” she told the Kansas legislature in 1901. “But you wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock.”
She was jailed many times, but rarely for long.
Although Nation occasionally launched attacks later, she spent much of the next several years on the lecture circuit, joining vaudeville acts and performing in temperance plays. She enjoyed her role as an entertainer and was good at it, Grace wrote. Nation went on to make a comfortable living speaking and selling tiny souvenir hatchet pins to fans.
After moving to Arkansas in 1909, Nation died in a hospital of heart failure in 1911; she would never see Prohibition passed nationally. But she had done more than any other single person to spotlight the social cost of alcohol abuse, and to win support for temperance in the Midwest.
Other groups, notably the Anti-Saloon League, picked up the fight. Congress passed the 18th Amendment in late 1917 and states quickly ratified it, with the hope that banning alcohol would create a safer and more moral nation.
Prohibition took effect on Jan. 17, 1920. Consumption of alcohol and alcohol-related deaths plunged, and saloons disappeared. But illegal bars and speakeasies soon sprang up and began to attract both young men and young women, who would have never entered a saloon. In some cities, gangs fought over sales territories.
While concerned, engaged mothers had once worried about alcohol ruining their families, now concerned, engaged mothers fretted that their children were learning to ignore the law. Amid the Great Depression, Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
Although Prohibition is often considered a failure, the consumption of alcohol remained relatively low for decades after. In this century, however, alcohol use has climbed, and women, in particular, are drinking and binge-drinking more. A recent study of death certificates from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found an especially sharp increase in alcohol related deaths among women. That’s in part influenced by changing cultural attitudes toward women drinking, which weren’t afforded to the women of Nation’s era.
Nation — the woman, not the scold — would certainly have something to say about that.
Karen Blumenthal is the author of “Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition.”