The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Attacking saloons with a hatchet, Carry Nation helped get America into rehab 100 years ago

But the temperance movement’s fiery leader didn’t live to see the 18th Amendment’s ratification and Prohibition.

Temperance leader Carry Nation wields her hatchet and bible in 1910. Nation destroyed more than a few saloons with her hatchet. (AP Photo) (Uncredited/AP)

It was a divorcee wielding a hatchet – an ultimate revenge scenario – who largely got America into rehab 100 years ago ago.

Carrie Amelia Nation, who also liked to be known as Carry A. Nation, didn’t live to see the ratification of the Constitution’s 18th Amendment – better known as Prohibition – a century ago on Jan. 16, 1919. And history has been rather unkind to the passionate and often shunned leader of the temperance movement.

Nation’s campaign wasn’t subtle.

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:
For more forgotten stories from history, listen online or subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | More options

She operated more like today’s Code Pink protesters, rather than the Bible-carrying prude most people remember. She staged protests, stormed the Capitol, demanded to see the president, sold a cute line of protest jewelry and got arrested more than 30 times.

“Carrie Nation was thrown from the White House lawn yesterday,” the Daily Alaskan reported on Jan. 31, 1907. “It was her announced intention to upbraid the president for permitting the use of wine on the White House table and to urge him to use his influence in behalf of temperance everwhere. When she was denied admission to the White House, Mrs. Nation began delivering an address on the lawn. The special policemen forceably (sic) ejected her from the grounds.”

That was nothing.

Nation is best known for a Pulp Fiction-style storming into bars and pharmacies dressed in stark black-and-white outfits, often surrounded by a phalanx of women also dressed in the temperance uniform, all of them chanting Biblical-sounding slogans expounding on the evils of liquor while Nation bashed the place to smithereens with a hatchet. Sometimes, she used rocks and a hammer, too, glass and wood flying everywhere as stunned drinkers watched and cowered.

She was not embraced by politicians who found less extreme ways of advocating for what became the 18th Amendment. But her theatrical displays – against the backdrop of her own history with an alcoholic husband – fueled the temperance movement that led to America’s famously failed attempt at legislating morality: Prohibition.

Nation hated saloons. It was personal.

“A woman is stripped of everything by (saloons),” she wrote in her 1908 autobiography, “The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation.” “Her husband is torn from her; she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food, and her virtue...Truly does the saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

She’s famously remembered as priggish, a woman with a Churchillian scowl of a face, framed by a black veil and those dowdy, dark dresses. The hatchet. The Bible. “I never want a picture of myself taken without my Bible,” she once said.

But there was much to her than the theatrical “hatchetations,” as she called them, and the fight against booze.

Nation was a six-foot-tall, fierce and radical feminist, her temperance campaign founded in a fight for women to escape the domestic violence and poverty that usually accompanied a man’s alcohol addiction.

She was a suffragist (Susan B. Anthony was also prominent in the temperance movement.) She also urged women to stop wearing restrictive corsets, which she said affected vital organs (they did). She also told women to stop wearing tight clothing. And she bought a huge house and sheltered women who had been battered and abandoned by alcoholic men.

‘Night of terror’: The suffragists who were beaten and tortured for seeking the vote

An enigma that no one – not the feminists, the conservatives nor the religious community – really wants to claim.

Where did all this come from?

That’s easy. She was 21 when she married a dashing and well-educated young physician, a man fresh off the Civil War battlefield, where he saved countless lives of Union soldiers and decided to search for a quieter life as a teacher in Missouri.

But the Puritan way of courtship meant she spent little time with him before the wedding and didn’t know that Charles Gloyd drank heavily to try and forget the lives he couldn’t save.

He showed up drunk at the wedding ceremony in front of her parents’ fireplace in their Missouri living room.

And nearly every night after they wed, she stayed up late, often crying and alone, while her new husband drank at the local Masonic Hall, often until dawn, according to the biography by Fran Grace, “Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life.”

Gloyd died of alcohol-related causes only 16 months after their wedding, leaving her with a baby daughter and a hatred of booze.

She spoke for a nation of women like her, battling the demons of addiction. In the early half of the 19th century, Americans drank an average of six to seven gallons of pure spirits every year. But the spiral of addiction, unemployment and domestic violence increased as the nation urbanized, and bars were usually the first business in town was largely kept behind closed doors.

It was in England in 1847 that the connection between alcohol addiction and domestic violence was starkly drawn in a series of drawings – The Bottle – by artist George Cruikshank. The series made a huge furor as it showed a family from the day dad brought a bottle home, through his addiction, his unemployment, their descent into poverty and his eventual killing of his wife. With a bottle.

That was the pattern Nation was talking about when she launched her hatchetations. Her fellow hatcheters called themselves “Home Defenders” and they sold little, pewter and mother-of-pearl hatchet pins or buttons that said “Home Defender” to fund their campaign.

She had remarried, a stable lawyer named David Nation, who eventually divorced her for “desertion” when she went on her nationwide temperance campaign. The campaign, she said, was encouraged by God, and she reclaimed the way her father used to spell her name, “Carry”, so she could say she was there to “Carry A. Nation” to Prohibition. She traveled across the country and even across the Atlantic, where she brought her fiery speeches to the British Isles.

She collapsed on a stage during a speech in Eureka Springs, Ark. in 1911. Her final words were “I have done what I could.”

The 18th Amendment was ratified nine years later.

Read more Retropolis:

The first woman Marine: In 1918, she couldn’t vote but rushed to serve

The first woman to start a bank — a black woman — finally gets her due in the Confederacy’s capital

Sex and power: Stormy Daniels and the female pioneers of the porn industry

She coined the term ‘glass ceiling.’ She fears it will outlive her.