On December 27, 1900, six men in the Hotel Carey bar looked up from their drinks, surprised to see a big woman dressed in black striding purposefully into the room. Women weren’t allowed in respectable bars in those days, and the Carey bar had the best claim to respectability of any saloon in Wichita, Kansas.
The men’s surprise turned to alarm as the six-foot-tall woman reached into her valise, drew out a rock, and threw it at the mirror behind the bar. More rocks followed, and more mirrors shattered. Carry Nation was a woman who knew how to throw. She even sent several rocks through a large painted nude above the bar.
The men, along with the bartender, scurried from the room as Nation drew out an iron bar and began smashing bottles. “Glory be to God!” she cried. “Peace on earth, good will to men!” When a police detective entered the room moments later, he found Carry beating the beautiful cherrywood bar with a large brass spittoon.
Carry (aka Carrie) Nation had wanted to strike a blow for the Temperance Movement since joining the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in her 50s. As president of the chapter in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, she’d knelt outside saloons and prayed for drinkers to give up drinking. When this failed to slow the traffic, she stood by the saloon doors with her accordion and sang hymns. Still men walked into and staggered out of saloons. So one day she entered a saloon with an armload of rocks and let fly. By day’s end, she’d damaged three bars in Kiowa, Kansas.
On December 27, 1900, her assault on the Hotel Carey gained national attention. It was just the sort of story news editors love, and accounts of the attack made front-page headlines as far away as New York and Boston.
Though jailed, Nation was soon released. The Wichita prosecutor dropped charges out of concern for her mental health. But hundreds of telegrams and letters of praise and support for Nation may have helped sway his decision.
Heartened by the notoriety and encouragement, Nation moved on to the state capitol. Along with two other women, she marched through a snow storm into Topeka’s Senate Bar at 6:00 a.m. There she smashed bottles and mirrors with a hatchet—which became her signature weapon.
Jailed and released again, Nation moved on, taking her message to Des Moines, St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit. Unlike the bars in Kansas, bars were legal in these states, so, while she brandished her hatchet, she refrained from smashing. Continuing eastward and drawing crowds in her wake, she confronted drinkers and bar owners in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York City. In New York she marched into the establishment owned by heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan. The champ had threatened to throw her down a sewer if she entered his saloon. But when she appeared, Sullivan, who lived above the bar, sent down a message that he was sick in bed. He remained in hiding until Nation left.
Making the Case for Carry
A year later, Nation’s exploits were still making news, prompting the famous Kansas journalist William Allen White to consider the Carry Nation phenomenon. In the April 4, 1901, issue of the Post, he wondered why was this woman allowed to get away with destruction. How was she able to attract supporters?
White questioned Nation’s intelligence, judgment, and character. “She is argumentative,” he wrote, “and given to much wrangling. Like many persons of limited mental capacity she is sure of her distinctions between right and wrong.”
But White was, in fact, writing to defend Nation, and he offered several arguments justifying her action.
The first was Kansas law. Making and selling alcohol had been illegal in the state since 1881. Yet half-hearted enforcement allowed many of the state’s taverns to stay in business. Every Kansas bar defied the law and the public will.
“The saloonkeeper who enters Kansas to ply his trade does so upon terms of exact equality with the pickpocket and the chicken thief,” White wrote.
Now the bars of Kansas were starting to take on an air of permanence and prosperity. “The joint was growing bolder and bolder,” White wrote. “It was coming nearer and nearer to the main street. The saloon infection was spreading. Saloonkeepers became more and more insolent.”
Kansans grew impatient for someone to challenge the alcohol industry. Carry Nation was doing what law enforcement wouldn’t.
White’s second argument in Nation’s favor was the cause of temperance. Like many Americans of the time, he believed alcohol a great social evil. The supporters of temperance believed drinking led to poverty, immorality, crime, and death. “The saloon is an evil,” wrote White. “It is in business to promote violence and crime; to injure the public health. … It kills and maims men and tortures women like a malicious spirit.”
At least Carry Nation was doing something to fight “demon rum.”
White briefly mentioned a third justification for Carry Nation. “It is well to note in passing that her first husband, whom she probably married for love and whose wrongs she has never forgotten, died a drunkard.” White didn’t know the full extent of Carry Nation’s troubles. Her grandfather was also a heavy drinker and her mother was a psychotic who believed herself to be Queen Victoria of England.
Nation married her first husband against her delusional mother’s objections, but soon realized her husband was drinking himself to death. Within six months, he died, and three months later, Nation gave birth to a daughter. The girl suffered from a disfiguring illness and a psychosis that eventually required hospitalization.
White couldn’t have known that Carry Nation would enjoy little of her fame. She saw herself mercilessly mocked by newspaper editors and cartoonists. When she delivered temperance lectures across the U.S. and Great Britain, she was sometimes received with rotten eggs and vegetables. As celebrity faded, she was reduced to lecturing as a carnival sideshow attraction.
While she didn’t close America’s saloons (most of the bars she destroyed actually enjoyed a boost in business afterward) she achieved some success in righting the damage done by alcohol abuse. She bought a house in Kansas City with the money she’d earned lecturing. For years, until she ran out of money, she used it as a shelter home for the wives and widows of alcoholics. She might have indulged her anger and sense of outrage in smashing bars, but she ultimately realized some good from her temperance work.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now