Speaking of chopping down apple trees, meet Carrie A. Nation. Nation was the most well-known of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s, er…activists. A real-life hatchet man is what she was. And if you think that’s an uncharitable thing to call a woman, what would you call a 6-foot, 180-pound, ax-wielding bull, all dressed in black? Even the Boston Strong Boy, prize fighter John L. Sullivan is said to have dashed for the exits when Nation burst through the doors of his Manhattan bar round about 1905. They say he screamed like a girl all the while…wouldn’t you?
But that was Nation’s style. Never shy when it came to speaking her mind, she nevertheless believed that actions — especially those that involved hatchets, rocks, bricks, clubs and lots of smashing glass — spoke much louder than words. No question she had a point there. You might say she was a pioneer of the if-persuasion-fails-there’s-always-violence school of political activism.
It wasn’t always so. Nation, or rather Carrie A. Moore, was born in 1846 right here in the great state of Kentucky. You could say she came from an eccentric family. Her father, who believed that slaves were better at raising children than parents, forbade her to sit at the family table until she was an adolescent. Her mentally ill mother believed she was the Queen of England. So Carrie was off to an unconventional start.
The family moved to Texas at the start of the Civil War and Carrie married one Dr. Charles Gloyd in 1867. Gloyd turned out to be a raging alcoholic and the couple divorced about a year later, though not before Carrie had given birth to a little girl, Charlien. Carrie took a teaching job which she was eventually fired from, and soon afterward entered into a marriage of convenience with Dr. David A. Nation, a preacher, newspaper editor and attorney. After failed attempts at farming and hotel management, the couple eventually landed in Medicine Lodge, Missouri where Carrie’s career in harassment, and eventually vandalism, began.
Carrie started a local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, began preaching to inmates of the town jail and ministered to the poor. By 1890 Carrie was becoming increasingly radical in her views on morals in general and alcohol in particular. She began holding vigils outside local saloons where she and other members of the WTCU would sing loudly, pray, evangelize and offer sarcastic greetings to arriving bartenders (see above headline).
In 1893 the State of Kansas outlawed alcohol except for medicinal purposes. Predictably, a plague of odd, generalized symptoms shortly swept through Kansas’ male population, who flocked to bars in a desperate search of relief. Nation was not amused. Finally, in 1900, she received a holy vision. She was to travel to Kiowa, Kansas where the Lord instructed her to pick up rocks and throw them at local taverns. This she promptly did, but soon discovered she could do more damage with bricks, bottles and billiard balls. She trashed three bars on the trip.
Since alcohol was technically illegal, Nation wasn’t arrested or jailed in Kiowa. That of course only encouraged her, and she increasingly saw herself as divinely protected. She stepped up her attacks all around Kansas invading bars with other black-clothed Temperance Union members, egging them on with battles cries of “Smash, sisters, smash!!” Bar patrons ran screaming. And while she was occasionally arrested and jailed for disturbing the peace, she was invariably bailed out by her (mostly female) supporters.
After one particularly successful raid in Wichita she returned home to Medicine Lodge where Nation’s husband asked her sarcastically why she bothered throwing rocks. If she really meant business, he reasoned, why didn’t she just use an axe? Nation replied that those were first sensible words he’d ever uttered. She seized a nearby chopper and embarked on a 3-state “hatchetation” tour. David divorced her a few months later.
Over the next decade Nation would bring a rain of ruin down upon every bar she encountered, dishing out liberal doses of physical abuse and, quite often, taking it. She came to believe that her name — Carry A Nation — was divinely ordained. She traveled around the Midwest, South and East Coast where she was arrested some 30 times. Signs popped up in bars around the country: “All Nations Welcome But Carrie.” She published a newsletter The Smasher’s Mail, and her own newspaper The Hatchet. To finance her hatchetation trips she spoke publicly and sold autographed photos of herself (as well as souvenir pewter axes).
Eventually it was all too much for the American public, which grew tired of Nation’s vandalism and wild rantings (she once hailed the assassination of William McKinley, claiming he’d been a closet drinker). Her celebrity faded as she became increasingly ill both mentally and physically. She collapsed during a public speaking engagement in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and died shortly afterward. Almost completely broke, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Belton, Missouri. Later the WCTU would erect a stone over it, inscribed with the words: “Faithful to the Cause of Prohibition, She Hath Done What She Could.”
And then some. Amen!