Skip to main content

Carrie Nation

In 1846, a woman was born in Kentucky by the name of Carrie Amelia Moore.  Her father, George Moore, was a successful farmer who did well enough for himself to own several slaves.  Not long after her birth, though, did the Moore family fall on hard times, losing the farm and moving around the commonwealth until finally settling in the state of Missouri.  Due to Carrie’s family’s circumstances, she was not only poor in health but poorly educated, as well.  On top of that, mental illness seemed to run in the Moore family.  Mary Moore, Carrie’s mother, was institutionalized several times, allegedly believing that she was Queen Victoria.  The Moores moved to Texas in 1862, looking for better farming prospects and keeping in stride with George’s Confederate sympathies.  Texas didn’t work out well for the Moore family, either, so they moved north again, this time to Kansas City.

Carrie’s sickly childhood had ended, and by her late teenage years, she was a healthy young woman.  She had a large frame, and was six feet tall.  After the Civil War ended, she met a doctor by the name of Charles Gloyd who proposed marriage.  Her family didn’t like the man, perhaps because he had fought on the Union side during the Civil War, but certainly because they suspected he was an alcoholic.  Nevertheless Carrie married the young man in 1867, and soon their suspicions of alcohol addiction were confirmed.  One year into the marriage the young couple had a daughter, and were separated.  Two years into the marriage, Gloyd died of alcoholism.

This turn of events made an impression on Carrie.  For one, she decided to take the course of her life in her own hands, earning a degree in history and a teaching certificate.  She taught school for four years.  What really seems to have strengthened the impression from her first husband’s demise was her second marriage, five years after Gloyd’s death, in 1874.  This time she married a man nineteen years her senior, a widower named David A. Nation.  Nation was a minister and an attorney, so naturally the two of them decided… to take up farming.  Neither of them were very good at farming, so their Texas cotton farm failed, and Nation put his attorney training to work.  For Carrie’s part, she took a job running operations for a hotel.  

The couple was doing pretty well.  In 1889, David had bad luck in politics, winding up on the losing side of the Jaybird-Woodpecker War.  This was a conflict between two factions of the Democratic Party of Fort Bend, Texas.  One faction, the Jaybirds, wanted to exclude blacks from participating in local politics, while the other faction, the Woodpeckers, wanted to include them.  It goes without saying that any black person in Fort Bend County who was involved in politics was counted among the Woodpeckers, since the Republican Party had no presence in the state at the time.  Tensions between the factions grew violent, with members of both factions getting shot on a regular basis following the election of 1888, when the Woodpecker faction won nearly all the seats in the county.  In 1889, the Jaybird-Woodpecker War came to a head when four people, including the county sheriff (a Woodpecker), were shot dead in an armed conflict.  The governor placed Fort Bend County under martial law and ordered all members of the Woodpecker faction to leave.  This handed Fort Bend County over to the segregationist Jaybirds, who quickly passed a whites-only voting ordinance, keeping blacks from voting there until the Supreme Court declared this prohibition to be unconstitutional in 1953.

The Nations landed on their feet.  They moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where David Nation took up preaching to a Christian congregation.  Carrie was very busy, herself.  She found work managing another hotel, and also took care of her mother and her daughter, both of whom suffered from mental illness.  With all this on her plate, Carrie also found time to found and run the local branch of the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, which is where her public life and her celebrity began.

The Temperance movement in the United States believed that alcohol should be outlawed and unavailable.  Considering how Carrie’s first marriage ended, it’s not too surprising she felt that way.  And she really did feel strongly about Temperance.  She was quite happy about alcohol laws in Kansas, since it was the first state to adopt Prohibition statewide, banning all sale and consumption of intoxicating liquors as of January 1, 1881.  This was a full nine years before the Nations got to Kansas, but Carrie, unhappy with the actual enforcement of the Prohibition statutes in the state, campaigned for the police and the courts to crack down harder.  Her action took the form in organizing protests in the street, sometimes leading a choir to serenade bars with hymns.  She was known to greet bartenders with the words, “Hello, destroyer of men’s souls.”  Carrie meant business.  But she was just getting started.

For about a decade, Carrie Nation and her fellow travelers protested the consumption and the very existence of alcohol, but she didn’t feel she was making enough progress.  On June 5, 1900, she turned to a higher power—God, specifically—and asked for guidance.  According to Carrie, He gave it to her.  As Carrie Nation wrote in her 1908 autobiography, “The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation”:

When I found I could effect nothing through the officials, I was sad, indeed. I saw that Kansas homes, hearts and souls were to be sacrificed. I had lost all the hopes of my young life through drink, I saw the terrible results that would befall others. I felt that I had rather die than see the saloons come back to Kansas. I felt desperate. I took this to God daily, feeling He only, could rescue. On the 5th of June [1900], before retiring, I threw myself face downward at the foot of my bed in my home in Medicine Lodge. I poured out my grief in agony to God, in about this strain: "Oh Lord you see the treason in Kansas, they are going to break the mothers' hearts, they are going to send the boys to drunkards' graves and a drunkard's hell. I have exhausted my means, Oh Lord, you have plenty of ways. You have used the base things and the weak things, use me to save Kansas. I have but one life to give you, if I had a thousand, I would give them all, please show me something to do." The next morning I was awakened by a voice which seemed to me speaking in my heart, these words, "GO TO KIOWA," and my hands were lifted and thrown down and the words, "I'LL STAND BY YOU." The words, "Go to Kiowa," were spoken in a murmuring, musical tone, low and soft, but "I'll stand by you," was very clear, positive and emphatic. I was impressed with a great inspiration, the interpretation was very plain, it was this: "Take something in your hands, and throw at these places in Kiowa and smash them." I was very much relieved and overjoyed and was determined to be, "obedient to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19).

When The Lord speaks, Carrie Nation listens, and she wastes no time.  She gathered up a group of like-minded prohibitionists and headed to Kiowa, Kansas.  She also gathered up a number of large rocks, which she dubbed “smashers”, and proceeded to smash.  Two days after this divine revelation, she and her group were at Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa.  Standing outside, she announced, “Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard’s fate!” and proceeded to destroy Dobson’s with the “smashers”.  They went on to two other saloons in Kiowa and did the same thing.  After the three saloons were smashed, a tornado hit eastern Kansas.  Carrie Nation took this as a sign of divine approval of her actions, and went on to smash more saloons.

Hatchet in one hand and Bible in another, Carrie’s ready for business.  She also opposed tight-fitting clothes and corsets, which she felt were immoral.

Nation’s reputation grew as she and her activists continued to smash up saloons throughout the state.  After a raid on a saloon in Wichita, her husband suggested that the next time, instead of rocks, she should use a hatchet, to ensure maximum damage.  “That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said since I married you,” she claims to have told him, and so she did.  The couple divorced in 1901, but Carrie carried on, getting arrested in other states, and racking up fines, none of which she ever paid.  She was supported by people with money who supported prohibition.  She also published a biweekly newsletter called “The Smasher’s Mail” and a newspaper called “The Hatchet”.  She was famous, and an inspiration to those of a like mind.

Naturally, she had her detractors.  Bars and saloons often featured a plaque that announced “All Nations Welcome Except Carrie.”  She went on the lecture circuit in the United States and in Great Britain, giving her anti-alcohol sermons, which were not exceptionally entertaining but to those who were already converted.  After getting pelted by an egg during one of these sermons in a music hall in England, she went home to America, despite having signed a contract to make more English appearances.

A very popular bar decoration at one time.

She kept going in America until she collapsed while giving a sermon in Arkansas in 1911.  She was taken to a hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, for recovery, where she was examined by Dr. Charles Goddard, an expert on nervous and mental disorders, as well as alcohol and drug addiction.  She died there on June 9, 1911, never living to see the eventual nationwide prohibition of alcohol in 1920.

Note above where I gave the name of Carrie Nation’s autobiography as “The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation”.  This is not a typo.  Her name was sometimes written as Carrie, and sometimes as Carry.  Official birth records list her name as Carrie, though her father wrote her name in the family Bible as Carry.  Later in life, she legally changed her name to Carry A. Nation, saying it stood for “Carry A. Nation for Prohibition”.  She even trademarked the name “Carry”.  She was a social and political activist, one who claimed to be operating under orders from God Himself, but she also understood the value of branding.  She’s often viewed as something of a retrograde, due to her views on prohibition, but when it came to marketing, she was very modern.

Prohibition was passed by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, and it was repealed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in 1933.  Some states continued to have prohibition, including Kansas, which was not only the first to adopt statewide prohibition, in 1881, but the last to abandon statewide prohibition, in 1948.  Alcohol remains strictly controlled in Kansas today, which has thirteen dry counties, and most counties are difficult to get a drink in.  She might be pleased to know that Kansas remains so hostile to alcohol today.  She would not be happy to learn of Carrie Nation’s Restaurant and Cocktail Club on Beacon Hill in Boston, a Prohibition Era-themed bar and restaurant that uses a hatchet as part of its logo, mocking this enemy of their industry.  If alcohol really does destroy men’s souls, this isn’t a bad way to go about it.