Carrie A. Nation, the Woman Who Attacked Alcoholism With a Hatchet

A shelf full of booze was no match for Carrie A. Nation's hatchet.
A shelf full of booze was no match for Carrie A. Nation's hatchet. / Heritage Images/Getty Images

On June 5, 1900, a woman dressed in black stepped into a saloon in Kiowa, Kansas. The towering figure, standing over 6 feet tall, carried an armload of heavy packages wrapped in brown paper. “I don’t want to strike you, but I am going to break up this den of vice,” she told the owner, just before chucking one of her packages behind the bar, shattering the large mirror and toppling liquor bottles. The men fled, leaving the woman to meticulously smash every bottle of alcohol in the saloon.

This was no spur-of-the-moment bout of bar vandalism. It was just the start of Carrie A. Nation's crusade against alcohol.

A Taste for Temperance

Carrie (sometimes "Carry") A. Nation in 1874.
Carrie (sometimes "Carry") A. Nation in 1874. / Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

Caroline “Carry” or “Carrie” Amelia Moore was born in 1846 to George Moore, a plantation owner, and his wife Mary, who occasionally believed she was Queen Victoria. At the end of the Civil War, 25-year-old Union Army veteran Charles Gloyd arrived at the Moore family farm in Missouri to rent a room. It wasn’t long before he and 19-year-old Carrie were sneaking love letters to each other with Gloyd’s large book of Shakespeare plays. “My father and mother warned me that the doctor was addicted to drink, but I had no idea of the curse of rum,” she wrote later. “I did not fear anything, for I was in love.”

Against her family’s wishes, they married in 1867. Gloyd was drunk at the ceremony. Less than a year later, Carrie fled her husband’s alcoholism and returned to her parents' house to give birth to a daughter, Charlien. Goyd died soon after of “pneumonia compounded by excessive drinking,” as recorded on his death certificate.

In 1874, Carrie married lawyer and preacher David A. Nation, a man 19 years her senior. In 1889, they moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where she started a local chapter of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The organization lobbied for the prohibition of alcohol (a moral issue and therefore appropriate for women) but it also fought for public health, labor laws, and women’s suffrage.

"I am Destroying"

Carry A. Nation addressing a crowd of college students on May 3, 1902.
Carry A. Nation addressing a crowd of college students on May 3, 1902. / Wystan, Wikipedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Kansas had banned alcohol statewide in 1880, but the law was barely enforced. Nation and other women in the WCTU loudly sang hymns outside Medicine Lodge saloons for hours, hashing the buzz of all inside and making the illegal activity too obvious for law enforcement to ignore.

For Nation, this was not enough. Frustrated by her limited success, she prayed for guidance. When she awoke the morning of June 5, 1900, she heard a voice say, “Go to Kiowa, and I will stand by you.” Believing this to be a sign from God, Nation dressed in black and wrapped rocks and bottles in brown paper to look like packages in preparation for her first “smashing.”

Six months later, Nation pulled a similar stunt in Wichita. “I am defacing nothing,” she told the police officers who arrested her. “I am destroying.” After she left jail, her husband jokingly suggested that she use a hatchet next time. Nation responded that it was the most sensible thing he’d said in their whole marriage. David filed for divorced soon after on grounds that his wife’s commitment to political activity amounted to “desertion.”

In January 1901, Nation crashed the annual meeting of the Kansas State Temperance Union—which she’d been labeled too extreme to attend—to thunderous applause. She then went on to lobby for prohibition at the state legislature. “If you don't do it, then the women of this state will do it,” she told the Senate. “You refused me the vote and I had to use a rock.”

A Smashing Success

A postcard from the 1910s referencing Nation.
A postcard from the 1910s referencing Nation. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite being condemned in the newspapers, Nation received admiring letters from all over the country and amassed hundreds of followers. This “Home Defenders Army,” comprised of mostly women, accompanied Nation on her “hatchetations,” which included the Senate Saloon, a favorite watering hole of the supposedly sober state lawmakers. “Oh, I tell you, ladies,” Nation said, “you never know what joy it gives you to start out to smash a rumshop.”

To pay her bail and legal fees, she had the name “Carry A. Nation” trademarked and began selling silver hatchet pins with her name. She also peddled photographs of her holding a hatchet and bible, as well as started a biweekly newsletter called The Smashers Mail.

The “hatchetations” brought Kansas’s failure to enforce its liquor laws to a national stage, and saloon doors were finally closed for good. The state continued to be “dry” until 1948. After her divorce from David, Nation turned their home into a shelter for wives and children of alcoholics. She eventually settled in Arkansas, where she published an autobiography and spoke at local events.

Nation died in 1911, nine years before national prohibition. Her gravestone, paid for by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, states, “Faithful to the Cause, She Hath Done What She Could.”