History

Hatchet Nation

It’s time to reconsider one of the most ridiculed women in American history.

Carrie Nation's official portrait, with angel wings.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Library of Congress and SpicyTruffel/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Adapted from Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition by Mark Lawrence Schrad. © Oxford University Press 2021 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Kiowa, Kansas, Thursday, June 7, 1900, 8:30 a.m.

For weeks before the vigilante rampage that would make her a household name, 53-year-old Carrie Amelia Nation quietly walked the roadsides near the successful hotel she owned and operated in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Deep in contemplation, she scoured the ground, picking up palm-sized rocks and brickbats. Purposeful and deliberative, she smuggled home those that had the right feel and heft, wrapping each one in old newsprint to look like innocent parcels.

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“I did this until I got quite a pile,” she recalled.

Carrie (later “Carry”) A. Nation was a God-fearing Christian of the purest sort—which brought her into frequent conflict with the organized church. For her, justice, love, and benevolence were not things to be talked about on Sunday and forgotten the rest of the week. At her upscale hotel, she fed, clothed, and lodged the downtrodden and destitute—both white folks and Black—in some cases for years at a time. Harboring and defending the undesirables and castoffs of the community irked her more “respectable” fellow parishioners. First, she was expelled from the local Methodist church; then the Episcopal church. When the preacher in the pulpit of the Medicine Lodge Christian Church denounced her neighbor as an “adultress” in the middle of services—based on nothing but the word of the woman’s alcoholic husband—Carrie could not keep quiet. She shouted down the unjust allegation, and the preacher himself, in front of the entire congregation.

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Imagine the scene as church elders tried—and failed!—to drag her bodily from the pews. And while they couldn’t physically throw her out of the sanctuary that day, they did later expel her from the parish.

No matter. Carrie still rode the width and breadth of Barber County, Kansas, collecting donations of food and clothing. She pressured storekeepers to donate additional groceries for the needy, lest she step onto the street and publicly denounce them as “thieving gougers of widows and orphans.” They usually complied.

As a volunteer jail evangelist, Carrie also served the penitent—bringing comfort, consolation, and the promise of heavenly salvation. To each inmate, she’d ask, what was the cause of your misery and woe? To a man, the answer came back: “drink.”

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This was strange. “Dry” Kansas had been under statewide prohibition for 20 years. If there were no legal saloons anywhere in the state, where did they get their booze? A contrite inmate explained that anyone could get whiskey in the town of Kiowa, on the border with the Oklahoma Territory.

Moved, Carrie pleaded the remorseful man’s case to the bailiff, but the bailiff wasn’t listening. She then went to the county attorney to argue that the ones who should be behind bars are the unscrupulous men in Kiowa, running illegal saloons in open defiance of the law. The attorney “seemed very much annoyed because I asked him to do what he swore he would do,” she recalled: He was oath-bound to arrest these illegal “jointers” and “dive-keepers.” But he refused, even after Carrie filled his desktop with samples of the contraband whiskey she’d procured from Kiowa herself.

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Determined, she took the train to Topeka and besought the state attorney general, also to no avail. The governor too “would not do his duty.” Having exhausted every legal remedy, Nation rightly concluded that the government of “Kansas was in the power of the bitter foe to the constitution”—the liquor business—that paid bribes and kickbacks at all levels of local, state, and federal government to keep its illicit profits flowing.

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As president of the county Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, Nation had already exhausted every nonviolent means of moral suasion against the liquor men: pleading with tavern-keepers, writing letters, signing petitions, organizing temperance marches, and praying in front of illegal saloons. Nothing worked. And since women couldn’t vote, she had no electoral recourse either. Women were legally powerless.

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So, on the night of June 6, 1900, Carrie hitched up her buggy and rode the 20 miles south to Kiowa. Early the next morning, she visited the unlicensed, illegal bar of Mr. Dobson, whose own brother was the county sheriff.

“Mr. Dobson, I told you last spring to close this place, you did not do it, now I have come down with another remonstrance,” Carrie said. “Get out of the way, I do not want to strike you, but I am going to break this place up.”

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Hard and fast, she hurled bricks and stones at the whiskey bottles, glass mugs and tumblers, and the giant mirror behind the bar. The men—confused and terrified—huddled in the corner. When she ran out of her own projectiles, she grabbed pool balls and billiard cues to smash up the room.

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Then she did the same to the saloon across the street.

And then a third.

Carrie was always clear that her attack was not against the booze in those bottles, nor the pitiable addicts getting drunk at 8:30 that Thursday morning, but against the predatory liquor traffic and the government that abetted it. “The smashing in Kansas was intended to strike the head of this nation the hardest blow, for every saloon I smashed in Kansas had a license from the head of this government which made the head of the government more responsible than the dive-keeper,” she wrote. “I broke up three of these dives that day, broke the windows on the outside to prove that the man who rents his house is a partner also with the man who sells.”

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The man who sells.

Carrie Nation’s foe was not the drink or the drinker, but “the man who sells.” This is important.

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By the time she was done with the third saloon, a sizable crowd had grown in the streets, watching in bewilderment and amusement. The authorities did not know what to do. “I have destroyed three of your places of business,” she declared to the onlookers, “and if I have broken a statute of Kansas, put me in jail; if I am not a lawbreaker your mayor and your councilmen are. You must arrest one of us, for if I am not a criminal, they are.”

The town marshal, mayor, and city attorney huddled up, and ultimately decided against pressing charges. Carrie returned home triumphant. Papers across the nation carried the sensational news, making Carrie Nation an instant celebrity. Back home, the political community was stirred to action. One by one, the unlicensed dives of Barber County, Kansas, were shuttered, their proprietors convicted. Carrie didn’t have to say a word.

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Mrs. Nation then set her sights on the illegal saloons of Wichita. At 8 sharp on the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 28, she sauntered into the bar at the Carey Hotel, the most luxurious lodging in the city. “I decided to go to the Carey for several reasons,” she said. “It was the most dangerous, being the finest. The low doggery will take the low and keep them low, but these so-called respectable ones will take the respectable, make them low, then kick them out.”

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The drunks fled when Carrie started hurling rocks at the opulent glass mirror, and through a life-size oil painting of a buck-naked Cleopatra across from it. The shellshocked bartender didn’t even move as she brandished an iron rod and smashed all the bottles in the mahogany sideboards. She then set the barflies at the saloon across the street to flight in a similar fashion. By 8:30 a.m., she was behind bars, having done some $3,000 in damage.

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Carrie was jailed for three weeks—forced to sleep without a pillow on the concrete floor, as the winter drafts poured in—without ever being charged for a crime. After springing her on a writ of habeas corpus, her cold and loveless second husband of 25 years, David Nation, joked that she could do far more damage with a hatchet than with a rock.

“That is the most sensible thing you have said since I married you,” she laughed. Within a year, David filed for divorce. Carrie donated her entire alimony to found a home for drunkards’ wives in Kansas City—the first domestic violence shelter in the state.

Carrie Nation had no need for wealth, luxury, and status, and no patience for those who pursued them. She lived “as harshly and simply and self-denyingly as Leo Tolstoy,” she said in admiration of the world-famous writer, who was likewise excommunicated for decrying the man who sells liquor.

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Now armed with a hatchet that would become her iconic trademark, Nation made her way to Enterprise, Kansas, at the request of women’s groups there. Enterprise saloon-keeper John Schilling knew that chivalry and decorum prevented a man from laying a finger on Mrs. Nation, even as she wrecked his illegal bar, loudly berated him, and shamed his trade from the street corner.

But that didn’t stop his wife, Belle Schilling, from walking up and punching Carrie square in the face. Saying nothing, Carrie staggered to a nearby butcher. She emerged, holding a chunk of raw beef over her swollen black eye, and kept right on preaching. Four prostitutes paid by the Schillings then kicked Nation to the gutter, pulled out her hair, and beat her bloody with sticks and whips.

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Nevertheless, she persisted: Over the next 10 years until her death in 1911, Carrie Nation was arrested 32 separate times. Once she was apprehended under the dome of the U.S. Capitol, after haranguing senators for “representing the interests of the brewers and distillers” over their own constituents. At least her Capitol arrest was orderly.

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In Kentucky, a barkeeper smashed the 58-year-old grandmother over the head with a chair. In London, she was pelted with rotten eggs. At Coney Island, a hail of peanuts and hot dogs preceded an angry New York lynch mob. It was hardly the only attempt to hang Carrie Nation from the nearest tree. Despite persistent death threats, she fought on, secure in her faith, fully embracing the dangers of her activism. She was ready to die for the cause, and many men wished she would. When a barkeeper sweating red with rage once pushed his pistol into her temple, she brushed him aside: “I am not afraid of your gun. Maybe it would be a good thing for a saloon-keeper to kill Carry Nation.” Much like the abolitionist martyr John Brown, she was certain her murder would prompt the entire nation to rise up and “smash the dives.”

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Why Carrie Nation undertook her violent “hatchetations,” as she called them, has been the subject of endless speculation by generations of historians and amateur psychiatrists. She was easy to mock as a Bible-thumping “crank,” “a freak,” “a lunatic,” or a “puritanical killjoy,” with all the baggage each of those terms carries.

In his 1959 article “Crazy Carry the Party Pooper,” David Shaw claimed (allegedly with the full weight of midcentury science to back him) that Nation’s activism stemmed from the “glandular difficulties of the menopause that allowed suppressed forces to erupt violently.” Vaginas and hormones have long been men’s favorite excuses for women who step out of line and defy patriarchal norms. It has the added effect of belittling women’s actual motivations along the way. But it wasn’t just armchair Freuds dropping such misogynist and degrading accusations; the two most influential and widely read biographies blame menopause for Nation’s supposedly “warped” focus on “the dangers of sexual irregularity.” Bestselling author Andrew Sinclair’s Prohibition: The Era of Excess (1962) faulted Nation’s “suppressed sexual desire,” which was “perverted into an itching curiosity about vice, an aggressive prurience which found its outlet in violence, exhibitionism, and self-imposed martyrdom.”

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Generations of writers and historians—almost all men—dismissed her as just plain insane: a “demented woman,” “psychotic from an early age,” suffering from a “personal history of disease and convulsion,” and a “well-defined strain of madness.” Unsurprisingly, the chauvinist equation outspoken woman = crazy woman has a long history.

Cartoon mocking marching suffragists
Cover of Puck, illustration by L.M. Glackens, 1908. The comically drawn marching activists include the “Carrie Nation Cadets.” Library of Congress
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Even Daniel Okrent’s masterful Last Call (2011)—winner of the American Historical Association’s prize for the best book on American history, and basis for the influential Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Prohibition documentary series—trivializes Nation as an ugly, incoherent lunatic. “Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation was 6 feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache. Her mother believed herself to be Queen Victoria,” Okrent writes. “Her religious passions led her to sit on her organ bench and talk to Christ.”

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By playing up her eccentricities, mocking her femininity, fundamentally misconstruing her religious beliefs, and laughing off her convictions, historians have made Carrie Nation a paper cutout of the temperance movement: easily crumpled up and thrown away, without ever needing to consider that her grievances actually had merit. Saloon-keepers were acting illegally. Politicians and law enforcement were corrupted by taking bribes to look the other way. Women were marginalized, disenfranchised, and powerless to stop it. A predatory liquor traffic was making money hand over fist by getting men addicted, and then bleeding them and their families to death.

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Carrie had experienced all of this firsthand. Her first husband, Dr. Charles Gloyd, was a handsome and decorated Union Army physician. She idolized him. He adored her. They wrote romantic—even salacious—love letters to each other. But it wasn’t to last. Even as a newlywed, Gloyd locked himself up at the tavern or Masonic lodge, drinking till dawn, leaving his forlorn bride “hungry for his caresses and love.” In 1869, after just 16 months of marriage, her beloved died from alcoholism, leaving Carrie with only her sorrow, a new baby, and a disapproving mother-in-law to care for. A widow at the age of 22, she was penniless, hopeless, and powerless before the law. But from those depths of poverty and despair, she became self-reliant, strong, and willing to fight against unjust subjugation on behalf of the subjugated.

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So when it came to her motivations, Carrie Nation always declared them clearly and consistently: “You wouldn’t give me the vote, so I had to use a rock!

What’s strange is that we still refuse to hear her, believe her, or take her seriously.

“She did not pick up her hatchet because she had suddenly gone to some psychological deep end,” writes professor Fran Grace in her Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life (2001)—the most thorough Nation biography, and notably the only one written by a woman. She was not a “cranky, insane woman traumatized by menopausal changes.” Rather than a rampaging fundamentalist, she gave everything of herself to those who had none, and worked tirelessly to defend those who could not defend themselves.

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When Nation toured the United Kingdom in 1908 to 1909, many Brits were shocked that the woman they met “was not like any preconceived ideas of the violent and notorious saloon smasher” portrayed in the newspapers. They lauded her “remarkable wit,” her “strenuous vigor,” her “good sense of humor, a wise, general outlook upon life, a kindly, even modest, and unassuming manner,” with “the light of a visionary in her eyes.”

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Carry Nation holding a hatchet in one hand and a Bible in the other
Nation on the cover of the Smasher’s Mail, her pro-temperance newsletter, with her hatchet and Bible. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
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Nor was she some uncompromising puritan, even when it came to booze. Once, when a contrarian physician tried to convince her that alcohol was harmless—maybe even healthful—the prohibitionist Nation took it as a challenge. She began chugging down one bottle of Schlitz Malt after another. Horrified, the doctor begged her to stop, before this supposedly “healthful” drink gave her alcohol poisoning. She made her point. She had no time for apologists and equivocators.

She did make time, however, for empathy and persuasion. Once, following a lecture in Chicago, she headed to the red-light district, itching for a fight. There she was surprised to find her own grandson, Riley White, tending bar.

“Go in and smash it if you want to,” he sheepishly told her.

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No. She would not.

Instead, she held a closed-door meeting inside: just Carrie, the saloon-keepers, and a few girls who’d been ensnared into a prostitution ring. “They treated me well and the women called me grandma. Poor women, they are dragged down by devils,” she said. “It was the most remarkable meeting I ever had. Saloon-keepers and harlots have a much better chance of heaven than hypocrites who are in the church. I have no use for women who are afraid they will soil their skirts in trying to lift up their fallen sisters.”

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Her fearlessness in leaving the privileged confines of the church to go slumming in the gutters, saloons, theaters, burlesque houses, and other bastions of misogyny certainly invited men’s scorn.

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“You poor, deluded, hysterical, half-crazed, religious maniac,” one guy said to her. “I do not believe you are so much to blame for your present state of raving imbecility as the unsexed men [and their] so-called temperance crusades seem to have completely upset the molecules of your brains, that is of course, providing you have any.” This was hardly an isolated incident: Hecklers and newsmen alike portrayed her as old, unattractive, mannish, and “unsexed.” While in reality she stood just over 5 feet tall, even today, she’s frequently depicted “as a hyperthyroid Amazon of nearly six feet, who required ‘policemen seven feet high’ to handle her.” Still, she took every withering slight with remarkable grace.

Carrie was not some Bible-thumping “holy crone on a broomstick” seeking to legislate morality or “discipline” individual behavior. If anything, she was a populist progressive. Rooted in communal consciousness and agrarian self-help, she fought tirelessly for good governance, women’s rights, civil rights, and cleaning the corruption out of the body politic. She matched her words with deeds time and again. In addition to her battered women’s shelter in Kansas City, when she retired to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, she established “Hatchet Hall.” Part rest home for the impoverished elderly, part safe haven for women fleeing abusive husbands, and part home school for their children, Nation built an intergenerational, self-reliant, sister-based commune that was ages ahead of its time.

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Cartoon depicting female suffragists and activists as exhibits at the Buffalo Exposition of 1901
Spread in Puck, a New York humor magazine, mocking suffragists and female activists, including Nation (far right). By artist Lewis Dalrymple, from the April 1, 1903, issue. Library of Congress
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She did not view drinking as a sin or the drinker as a sinner. Instead, like the prostitute, the prisoner, and the slave, the drinker was the victim, to be forgiven, loved, and nurtured. The true sinner was the enslaver of men: the drink seller. And she would use all means at her disposal from prayer and persuasion to hatchetation to get the man who sells to change his ways.

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Nor was her activism some crazy aberration: Disenfranchised and disempowered women had been smashing saloons across the country for decades. In 1855, 15 women were jailed for smashing a saloon in Illinois. The young lawyer who secured their acquittal went by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

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Carrie Nation was a devout Christian, but she was not inflexible or dogmatic. A strict sectarian would never be caught exploring the mysteries of rival faiths; Carrie, however, thoughtfully invited the sage counsels of Catholic priests. Around the dinner table, she and the Jewish guests who frequented her hotel grappled with ethical and theological questions late into the night. She came away from such encounters professing a deep admiration for Jewish self-sacrifice, which would have further horrified the evangelicals who’d already thrown her out of every Protestant church in town. From a young age, she scoffed at the self-righteous exclusivism of those claiming to be the one true church, and repeatedly expressed her “contempt for popular preaching.”

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Nor was she some racist. As a child in antebellum Kentucky, Carrie’s hardscrabble mother insisted that she live in the slaves’ quarters, where she attended subversive slave meetings about white tyranny and worshipped with them in secret. She “imbibed some of their superstitions,” Nation remembered, as well as their loud expressiveness in church, which further irritated her prairie white churchgoers. She did not discriminate in employing Black people, housing them, or serving them through her charity work, often donating her lecture proceeds to the Black African Methodist Episcopal Church. When she did speak at churches that denied Blacks, she demanded that all be admitted entry. If that made racists uncomfortable, well, then they could leave. And they usually did—just before they’d return with more numbers to run Carrie and her Black acolytes out of town.

And yes, Carrie Nation claimed that God spoke to her and told her to “go to Kiowa” and make war on the saloons, though that does not invalidate her activism. After all, two years prior, in 1898, President William McKinley claimed that God spoke to him and commanded him to make war on Spain, take their colonial possessions, “and civilize and Christianize them,” but we don’t teach that the Spanish-American War was due to McKinley’s supposed insanity or menopausal hot flashes.

Carrie Nation wasn’t “crazy.” She was a fierce and impassioned warrior-mother, who saw no inconsistency between those roles. She was Wonder Woman in a frock. A trailblazing social activist, she was the embodiment of the feminist empowerment mantra that “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Perhaps we should start recognizing her as such.

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