Carrie Nation, Temperance and Kansas

When Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he foolishly asks a stranger at the train station where he can find a drink. That stranger turns out to be someone Glen should not be speaking with, but this character does share the helpful fact that Kansas was a dry state in that year of 1907, perhaps in no small way due to the ferocious temperance movement alive in the state at the time, especially as embodied in the infamous personage of Carrie Nation.

Carrie Nation with her Hatchet

Temperance Advocate Carrie Nation with her hatchet in 1910. (; {{PD-US}}).

Carrie Nation: Radical Temperance Advocate 

Still something of a household name (or at least a name people have heard of) in the early 21st century, Carrie (or Carry) Nation is the most well-known, infamous figure associated with the temperance movement that thundered throughout parts of the country in the late 19th and early 20th century. As detailed below, temperance was a radical movement, calling for prohibition rather than moderation in the indulgence of alcohol. Above and beyond the movement was Ms. Nation who was most well-known for vandalizing and destroying saloons throughout Kansas. She was arrested for her methods no less than 30 times.

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The story of how she started destroying saloons in 1900 ties well with the Christian platform that helped temperance groups emerge throughout the country. That year, shortly after she and her second husband, David Nation, moved to Kansas, Carrie claimed she had a vision from God that told her to GO TO KIOWA. The following day, she smashed the window of Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, a tornado struck eastern Kansas, which Carrie claimed represented divine approval of her actions.

Carrie Nation continued to vandalize saloons and, in 1901, her oppressed husband half-jokingly suggested that using a hatchet would allow her to maximize the damage. She soon took advantage of that suggestion and began “hatchetations” where, either on her own, or with other hymn-singing women of the temperance movement in tow, Carrie would enter taverns and destroy the equipment.

Carrie Nation and Justice divorced in 1901 though Carrie kept the surname “Nation” believing, as she believed other so-called signs from above, that she had been chosen to save the nation from vice. She also liked to spell her name “Carry” so that, with the middle initial “A” indicating Amelia, her name prophetically read: “Carry A. Nation”.

Temperance in the Late 19th Century

The prohibition of alcohol in the United States eventually succeeded through passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. But success was not an easy road and organized efforts to oppose the consumption of alcohol began as far back as the early 1870s when what would become one of the largest, national temperance organizations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, was founded in 1874, in Hillsboro, Ohio.

The female members of the WCTU had a flair for the dramatic in their pursuit of prohibition in the late 1800s; they actively picketed saloons, blocked the entrances to saloons and prayed for the souls of bar patrons.

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The WCTU didn’t merely oppose alcohol as a vice; they believed it was both a cause and a consequence of a number of other social and family problems. The group took an interest in such concerns, including poverty, public health and sanitation, though each of the first few presidents had a different view on the overall goal of the organization. The WCTU was successful despite its changing and evolving needs, and continues to exist to this day.

Carrie Nation: WCTU, Hatchetations and Personal History

As a founder to the Kansas chapter of the WCTU, Carrie Nation had many of the same qualities and beliefs of the other members, though her so-called religious calling to fight alcohol might also relate to a history of mental illness in her family. Her mother believed she was Queen Victoria of England and Carrie’s daughter also struggled with mental health problems.

And as  a notorious crusader, Carrie cut an imposing figure–a six-foot-tall zealout carrying a Bible as well as a hatchet, and wearing a black dress and bonnet. Her “hatchetations” became legendary even beyond the immense damage created to private establishments. Bars and saloons used to quip during the first decade of the 20th century that “all Nations were welcome except Carrie”.

And while other individuals arrested as often as she may have struggled to keep up with court fines, Carrie Nation lectured and sold souvenir hatchets to help keep herself afloat.

David Nation, who gave Carrie her memorable surname, was actually her second husband. Her first husband, Charles Gloyd, was a physician during the Civil War and also a terrible alcoholic. One year after they divorced, he drank himself to death–lending some credence perhaps, then, to the WCTU mission–and to Carrie’s own pursuit for prohibition.

Extremism of All Kinds

Old Smokey, a committee representative of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce when Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita Snake, alludes to the mission of Carrie Nation and the prohibitionists. In particular, he points out how zeal of any kind–prohibition rather than moderation–would likely lead to other extreme vices and hidden activities.

Old Smokey has a few secrets of his own, as Glen finds out. But he does have a point. After the 18th amendment passed in 1919, an era of speakeasies, contraband and violence emerged. Al Capone and other gangsters came to symbolize the unflagging desire and need for Americans to tip the bottle despite the nation’s best efforts.Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933.

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Extremism of all kinds will have their personalities. Glen Marshall stumbles into Wichita during the popularity of the temperance movement. But ultimately society self-corrects to some safer middle ground. Between temperance and organized crime, Glen may or may not get out of Wichita alive. It’s not always easy to navigate through the interests of individuals who believe what they believe, and will do anything to show it.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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One Response to Carrie Nation, Temperance and Kansas

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