Convinced that her righteous campaign against alcohol justified her aggressive tactics, Carry Nation attacks a saloon in Wichita, Kansas, shattering a large mirror behind the bar and throwing rocks at a titillating painting of Cleopatra bathing.
Carry Nation’s lifelong battle against alcohol reflected a larger reformist spirit that swept through the nation in the early 20th century and led to laws against everything from child labor to impure food and drugs. But Nation’s hatred of alcohol was also a deeply personal struggle–in 1867, she married an Ohio physician who had a serious alcohol problem. Despite Nation’s efforts to reform him, her husband’s drinking problem eventually destroyed their marriage and he died shortly after they split.
Nation remarried, this time to a Texas minister. She and her new husband moved in 1889 to Medicine Lodge, Kansas, at a time when much of the state was emerging from its wild frontier days. Convinced that drinking was the root cause of all social evil, Nation decided to close down the saloons in Medicine Lodge and other Kansas cities by traveling throughout the state and preaching her temperance message. Nation soon found that her inspiring speeches against “demon rum” had little effect on the wilder citizens of Kansas, though, so she decided to take more aggressive action. Claiming she was inspired by powerful “visions,” in 1900 she began a series of well-publicized attacks on Kansas saloons using her favorite weapon of moral righteousness–her trusty hatchet.
At six feet tall and 175 pounds, the hatchet-wielding Nation was an intimidating sight. She relished chopping up barrels of whiskey, destroying expensive bar fixtures, and berating the stunned bar owners and patrons for their evil habits. The sale of alcohol was already illegal in Kansas but the law was largely ignored, so Nation reasoned that it was the responsibility of law-abiding citizens to destroy not only the alcohol but also the saloons that sold it. Local law enforcement, however, did not usually agree, and Nation was frequently jailed for her disturbances.
Although Nation’s campaign of saloon vandalism won her national fame, the immediate results were disappointing. She managed to pressure Kansas into enforcing its prohibition laws more aggressively, but when she died in 1911, most of the country still sanctioned the sale of alcohol. Ironically, by the time the U.S. adopted prohibition in 1920, Nation was largely forgotten–but the hatchet-wielding Kansas reformer unquestionably helped lay the foundation for America’s “noble experiment.”