When Carry Nation stepped foot into the Kiowa, Kansas bar, nobody saw what was coming. The formidable woman, dressed in black, was on a mission from God. But as soon as she entered the saloon, all hell broke loose.
“I ran behind the bar, smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer,” she recalled. “I threw over the slot machine…and got from it a sharp piece of iron with which I opened the bungs of the beer kegs, and opened the faucets of the barrels, and then the beers flew in every direction and I was completely saturated.”
She was arrested soon after, but she didn’t mind. The bar had just gotten the Carry Nation treatment—and Carry Nation had just gotten even more attention for the cause of temperance.
During her years as an anti-alcohol advocate in the late 19th century, Nation built a reputation as a fearless, even unhinged reformer who would go to any length to save people from drunkenness.
With the help of a genius for spectacle and public relations, Nation helped turn a reform agenda into a scene, and herself into a reforming force to be reckoned with. While she died nine years before Prohibition began, Nation’s loud voice echoed in the United States’ prohibition of what she saw as a dangerous scourge.
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An alcoholic husband inspired Carry Nation to smash saloons.
Born in Kentucky in 1846, Carry’s childhood was haunted by her father’s financial problems and her mother’s mental illness. (Her name was also spelled as “Carrie.”) Her family moved from place to place, bouncing from Kentucky to Missouri to Texas. After the Civil War, her parents took in an intriguing boarder—Charles Gloyd, a Union Army doctor turned teacher.
Carry was intrigued by the dashing young man, who told her he had risked court-martial rather than punish Confederate soldiers in his care and who seemed educated and worldly. Her parents, who disapproved of his drinking, were appalled by the match. But she was fascinated by his seemingly glamorous backstory, and eager to leave her unstable parents’ care. They began to court in secret. “I tell you, Carrie Love,” he wrote to her in secret, “the time will come your parents will see they are wrong.” Eventually, her parents agreed to the match and they married in 1867.
But Carry immediately regretted her decision. Gloyd was drunk at the ceremony, and his new bride was hurt that he preferred to spend his time at the local Masonic lodge instead of with her. Eventually, she moved back home with her parents. By now, she was pregnant. “I knew time was near at hand,” she wrote, “when I would be helpless, with a drunken husband, and no means of support.” Her premonition was true: Six months after their daughter, Charlien, was born, Gloyd died from, as records show, "delirium tremens or from pneumonia compounded by excessive drinking."
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Now, she was a widow with a child to support. She became a teacher, but was fired for teaching children unconventional pronunciations of words. She began to pray for help, in the form of a new husband. Soon, she met David Nation, a lawyer and minister 19 years her senior. They married in 1874. But because of personal differences and financial troubles, their marriage was unhappy. Carry threw herself into managing hotels. As the years passed, she became increasingly religious, and had a variety of visions she interpreted as a call from God to fight drunkenness.
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Nation tried political organizing, but settled on public spectacles.
Despite being unable to vote, women were becoming more involved politics at the time, and a powerful lobby for temperance—the prohibition of alcohol—had begun to gain the support of women activists. Since it related to marriage, family and the home, it was seen as a safe way for women to participate politically. And Carry Nation had ambition and energy to spare.
After her family moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas, she founded a chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the most active temperance reform group. But where some of her fellow reformers used speeches, sermons and literature to convince people not to drink, she preferred a more dramatic approach. In 1900, she began to walk into saloons—areas deemed off-limits for any respectable woman—and cause a commotion. She would read Bible passages, sing hymns, and destroyed whatever she could.
Soon, Nation had earned a reputation as a saloon smasher—someone who felt no qualms about wrecking private property in the interest of what she felt might save some souls.
Nation’s actions may have been born of religious sentiment, but they were designed to be as shocking—and attention-getting—as possible. She began to carry a hatchet with her, then to sell hatchet pins as a way of financing her work. “The crowd seemed to go crazy for them,” she said.
She also found ways to recruit the public into her work. She recruited fellow “Home Defenders” to help her with what she called her “hatchetations,” and drew in supporters and gawkers alike to lectures in which she thundered about the evils of drink. In 1901, she founded a newspaper that capitalized on her image. In the pages of the Smasher’s Mail, she extended her audience with written sermons and other anti-alcohol content, like poetry and her own autobiography. She used the proceeds to fund her crusade.
Her work was watched—and ridiculed.
Her campaign wasn’t without its detractors. She was arrested more than 30 times. Though she wasn’t the first person to smash up a saloon in the name of temperance, the movement tried to distance itself from her. And her personal life was taken as fair game by those who mocked her mission. In 1901, she was parodied in Kansas Saloon Smashers, a short film that shows a group of black-clad women like Nation destroying a saloon. In 1901, after her husband divorced her, Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce portrayed Nation as a woman who had forgotten her proper gender role and abandoned her husband and humiliated her husband.
Carry Nation ignored her detractors, though, and kept pursuing the temperance cause. As the years passed, she became more and more famous. Bars began to hang signs that read “All nations welcome—Except Carrie.” Late in her life, Nation took her message to vaudeville theaters. In at least one case, she stormed the stage to smash a glass, supposedly containing liquor, that was held in an actress’s hand. She also starred in a 1903 vaudeville “playlet” that delighted audiences. “Mrs. Nation provided her own dialogue, wrecked the bar scene at every performance, passed through the audience selling miniature hatchets, and also talked back to the hecklers in the crowd,” writes vaudeville historian Anthony Slide.
Nation nearly died doing what she loved—lecturing against the evils of drink. In 1911, she collapsed during a speech. She died a few months later. Though she advocated for the rights of the poor and homeless and focused on other acts of charity during her life, Carry Nation is best remembered for her dramatic demonstrations against demon drink.
“I want to do what God tells me to do,” she remembered telling a judge after a “hatchetation” arrest. “God commands me to… ‘Lift up thy voice like a trumpet.’ You see here I am commanded to cry aloud about sin and not to whisper about it.”