On This Day

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Carrie Nation poses with her hatchet and
Bible, 1910.

On This Day: Temperance Leader Carrie Nation Attacks Bar

December 27, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 27, 1900, prohibitionist Carrie Nation smashed $400 of property in the Carey Hotel bar in Witchita, Kan.; she dubbed her militant campaign against drinking “hatchetation.”

Nation Takes Prohibition into Her Own Hands

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Kansas passed prohibition laws in 1880, though bars continued to sell alcohol illegally. Passionate prohibitionist Carrie Nation, later Carry A. Nation, decided to take the law into her own hands—along with helpful tools like axes and stones.

Nation was “a hatchet-wielding, 6-foot tall, 175-pound weapon of mass destruction who left the dust and rubble of early 20th-century saloons in her wake,” writes the Library of Congress.

Proud of her physical formidability and the cause of her crusade, Nation once described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn't like.” She became passionate about prohibition after the death of her first husband from alcohol-related illness, calling those who drank, “Rum-soaked, whiskey-swilled, saturn-faced rummies.”

Nation worked in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, though she abandoned its commitment to non-violent protest. Personally determined to halt the trade of illegal liquor, Nation burst into the bar of the Carry Hotel in Wichita, Kan., on Dec. 27, 1900, smashing a painting worth $300 and a mirror valued at $100, according to a report by The New York Times. Nation was taken to the county jail and charged with malicious destruction of property.

Nation’s crusade was largely ineffective, as the state did not begin cracking down on illegal liquor sales until 1907. “Although Kansas was officially ‘dry,’ the state was quite ‘wet’ as the illegal trade of alcoholic beverages continued unabated,” writes the Kansas Department of Revenue. “Enforcement was lacking and literally hundreds if not thousands of illegal liquor establishments flourished.”

Fortunately, Nation had other causes to keep her busy. The Library of Congress explains that in addition to protesting liquor sales, “Nation stood on her soapbox against foreign goods, corsets, tobacco, fraternal orders and, most importantly, short skirts.”

Background: Temperance Movements

The American temperance movement took hold in the early 19th century, attracting mainly Christian evangelicals. The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, led the early campaigns against alcohol.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 by women who believed that alcohol destroyed marriages and families. It was joined in 1893 by the Anti-Saloon League, which gained enormous political clout. In the early 20th century, the temperance movement was successful in persuading many state and local governments to pass prohibition laws.

The temperance movement achieved its ultimate goal in 1919, when the 18th Amendment, banning the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” was ratified. Between January 1920 and December 1933, when the passage of the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, America was officially dry country.

While Prohibition was intended to reduce violence and crime, but it had the opposite effect. Drinking continued in secret bars and clubs, and bootleggers and organized crime organizations made lucrative profits smuggling alcohol.

Biography: Carrie A. Nation

Carrie Nation was born Carrie Moore on Nov. 25, 1846, in Kentucky, and raised in Missouri, where she developed a strong Christian faith. Her religious convictions and a marriage to an alcoholic shaped her passionate stance against alcohol, motivating her to join temperance organizations.

Nation was also involved in other causes, campaigning for women’s right to vote and against corsets, smoking and the Masons. Her hatchet-wielding crusades against bars earned her national fame in the early 20th century, and she began to make speaking tours. It is at this time that she changed the spelling of his first name and used her middle initial to give herself the name “Carry A. Nation.”

Nation died June 9, 1911, six months after she collapsed on stage while declaring, “I have done what I could.”

“She has become an American icon,” writes the Kansas State Historical Society. “Unfortunately, most people today know her only as an oversimplified stereotype. Her actions made her an easy target for opponents, leading to a caricature that survives today. … Her methods may have been extreme, but there was no doubt that she sincerely wanted to improve the lives of others. In doing so she focused on problems that had created turmoil in her own life.”

Related Topic: Maude Wilson

Twenty-eight years after the Carey Hotel bar incident, another impassioned prohibitionist took up arms against a drinking establishment. When Mrs. Maude Wilson found out that her daughter had been drinking gin, she grabbed a hatchet, ran to the speakeasy in question and began smashing gin glasses, windows and mirrors.

The incident caused W. Harold Lane, Kansas City chief of Federal Prohibition agents, to announce that there were more speakeasies in Kansas City than there had been bars before prohibition.

Reference: The Women's Christian Temperance Union

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