The Use and Need of the Life of Carry A. Nation

Despite being deemed “as lucid as a swamp” by an amateur historian writing about Prohibition, I enjoyed this primary source material about Carry Nation’s vivid contribution to the prohibition movement. Okrent tries to discredit her by disparaging her appearance and mentioning the state of her mother’s mental health, but Nation’s own words are worthy of reading. Her preface defends her writing, “I do not send this book into the hands of the public as a literary production. I am neither an experienced or proper writer when it comes to diction. There are higher merits than these.” Contrary to her warning, I found her writing to include surprising sparklers, like, “I settled with the court at Topeka for the ‘Malicious destruction of property,’ when in fact, it was the ‘Destruction of malicious property,'” and calling the Bible “the Hatchet of Truth.”

The account includes way too much Biblical quoting for my taste, but if you can push past that, you get a clearer picture of this anti-alcohol warrior who took it into her own hands to begin smashing saloons, first in Kansas, then around the country. The Kansas saloons were illegally selling alcohol, and Nation was tired of lack of police action, actual complicity in the continuance of the dive bars. But before we get to the action shots, we get a long wind-up of religiosity. She was banned from teaching Sunday school in a few places because she insisted on teaching the Bible, not the catechism. Fellow church goers complained that she made too much noise praising God in church, that it disturbed them.

At the beginning, she takes us all the way back to her old Kentucky home, pre Civil War, and thus some terribly patronizing words about racial differences. “The race question is a serious one. The kindly feeling between black and white is giving place to bitterness with the rising generations. One reason of this seems to be a jealousy of the whites for fear the negroes will presume to be socially equal with them. The negro race should avoid this, should not desire it, it would be of no real value to them.” Yikes.

Nation is nothing if not unexpected. “I shall not in this book speak much of my love affairs, but they were, nevertheless, an important part of my life. I was a great lover. I used to think a person could love but once in this life, but I often now say, I would not want a heart that could hold but one love.” Her first husband is a drunk and dies of the disease. Nation then takes care of his mother Mrs. Gloyd for the rest of her life; the two live as companions for over twenty years, Gloyd helping to raise Nation’s daughter and keeping house while Nation found work then eventually married Mr. Nation.

She enjoys the wordplay of her name. “I do not belong in the ‘can’t family… C.A.N are the initials of my name, then C. (see) A. Nation! And all together Carry A. Nation. This is no accident but Providence.”
A voice comes to her, telling her to go to Kiowa, KS to smash up a saloon. “Note this reader, that I did not think of smashing, God told me to do it.” So she starts picking up brick bats and rocks, hiding them under her apron, wrapping them in newspapers, collecting an arsenal. She hits the road, going straight to a saloon operated by the brother of a sheriff, announced her intention, and began her campaign: “I threw as hard, and as fast as I could, smashing mirrors and bottles and glasses and it was astonishing how quickly this was done. These men seemed terrified, threw up their hands and backed up in the corner. My strength was that of a giant. I felt invincible. God was certainly standing by me.” She attacks five bars with rocks before she starts using her signature hatchet, realizing that stones can only be thrown once, but a hatchet can be wielded over and over.

She begins spending a lot of time in various jails, paying fines by selling off miniature hatchets and giving lectures. “I never explained to people that God told me to do this for some months, for I tried to shield myself from the almost universal opinion that I was partially insane.” Upon release from jail, she’s pelted with eggs: “In going to the train that night there seemed to have been some one hiding on every corner throwing eggs. My dress was covered with them.”
Nation started up a magazine, Smasher’s Mail, wonderfully digitized here. Her second attempt at magazine publication was called The Hatchet.

Her list of arrests: Wichita – 3 times, serving 53 days; Topeka – 7 times, 103 days; Kansas City – 1 time, partial day; Coney Island – 1 time, partial day; Los Angeles – 1 time, San Francisco – 1 time, Scranton – 2 times, Pittsburg – 3 times; Philadelphia 1 time; Bayonne NJ – 1 time; Nova Scotia – 1 time. Her San Francisco arrest was for destroying a bottle of whiskey at a saloon where she’d been invited by the owner as a way of drumming up business. “This was done to advertise this man but the way that I advertise has never done the whiskey business any good.”

Why smash? “The effect of smashing has always been to cause the people to arouse themselves… The smashing in Kansas was to arouse the people. If some ordinary means had been used, people would have heard and forgotten, but the ‘strange act’ demanded an explanation and the people wanted that, and they will never stop talking about this until the question is settled.”

Random note: she mentions that Teddy Roosevelt went on a tour around the country while president exhorting women to bear more children??