At the turn of the 20th century a short, stout, bespectacled women carrying a hatchet in one hand and a bible in the other struck terror into American taverns and saloons. Together with her band of female warriors against alcohol – she smashed up drinking venues in a violent crusade against the demon drink. Her campaign would lead directly to the national ban on alcohol – known as Prohibition – between 1920 and 1933.
Carrie Nation begins her violent crusade
Carrie Nation came to national prominence on December 26, 1900 when she burst into the Mahan Brothers Bar in Wichita armed with rocks and a length of metal piping. This was an elegant saloon with lots of ornate mirrors and crystal. Carrie marched up to the hand-carved cherry wood bar and let rip with a salvo of rocks smashing an enormous mirror. Then turned her violent attention to an oil painting entitled Cleopatra at the Bath, before running her pipe along a long row of rum bottles.
She must have been a fearsome sight. Because none of the men present were prepared or seemed able to stop her. Having been married to a drunk doctor and still nursing the emotional scars – Carrie was in no mood to discuss her actions. Or to be dissuaded. She crossed the road after leaving a trail of destruction at the Mahan Brothers Bar, hoping to repeat the same at the Jack Eccles’ bar.
Only the barman at that less genteel establishment, produced a cocked .45 pistol from under the bar inviting Carrie to “chop away if you can digest bullets”. Nevertheless, Carrie had found a winning formula in her campaign for prohibition. The list of further “hatchetations” as they became known – with the hatchet becoming the favoured weapon – was impressive and involved both Carrie and a growing band of women.
- January 21 1900 – two more bars in Wichita smashed up
- January 23 1900 – a gang of saloon owners’ wives stop one of her attacks
- January 26 1900 – Carrie hit over the head during a hatchetation
- February 5 1900 – Senate Saloon in Topeka wrecked
- February 7 1900 – Bars smashed in Holton imitating Carrie’s tactics
- February 17 1900 – Carrie and 500 followers destroy bars and a cold storage facility
- February 19 1900 – Wife of a bartender killed in an incident not involving Carrie directly
And that was just the beginning of 1900!
By 1901, the violent crusade against alcohol was extended to “the pernicious weed” when Carrie Nation laid into Joseph Wallenstein’s cigar store at Coney Island, New York.
Reactions to the use of violence in the anti-alcohol crusade
Reports in the papers on Carrie’s activities including quotes from furious tipplers. One drinker in 1901 suggested she should be examined by a team of psychiatrists “as I am certain no respectable woman would act as you do, unless demented”. Another declared her violence would make no difference: “Mrs Nation and her hatchet can not make a single man less desirous of drinking”. Another asked whether she should be at home “attending to your family”. One saloon owner created a cocktail called the Carrie Nation for his customers.
I found a newspaper column for children back in the year 1910 where a riddle was set for the young readers to solve: What nation uses a hatchet more than any other? A nine-year-old reader wrote in with the correct answer, as did some other kids. Carrie Nation! This tells us that Carrie’s hatchetations had not only angered saloon owners but captured the imagination of youngsters.
This example of bile directed at Carrie is very typical…and a curious insult suggesting she had support from gay men – because of course no real man was opposed to alcohol. Clearly this abuser had never been to a Victorian gay bar, and such places existed (article continues below).
DISCOVER: The History of Exorcism
Insulting an assassinated President
In 1901, President William McKinley was shot and mortally wounded by an anarchist – the third President of the United States to be assassinated. He lingered for several days garnering heaps of sympathy as he struggled to live. But one person was having none of this. Carrie Nation welcomed the President’s death at a raucous rally at Coney Island. She shouted to the crowd:
“Bill McKinley deserves to die! He is the friend of the brewer and the drinking man. I have no care for him. He deserves just what he got!”
She went on to make some other choice comments I won’t repeat here. But her violent crusade against alcohol was ultimately successful – for a while anyway. America bowed to Prohibition. Barrels of booze were impounded or broken up, in a style to which she would have approved. Carrie Nation didn’t live to see Prohibition, however. She died in 1911 – nine years before its enactment.
In 1964, one of Carrie Nation’s hatcheteers appeared on a panel game show I’ve Got A Secret – it’s a great watch – see below…