Carry Nation died 101 years ago today. Joyce Gemperlein explores her anti-alcohol rampages. Originally published June 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
Carry Nation, who was famously pissed off and showed it by smashing bars with a hatchet in pre-Prohibition America, was an exceptional piece of work.
It is tempting to say that the tall, burly, square-faced and bonneted fireball lives among us, reincarnated as the star of a television reality show, an angry talk show host or an insufferably strident family-values candidate for the U.S. presidency.
Add her background -- her mother imagined herself to be the English monarch and an aunt often posed as a weather vane, among other things -- and Nation would fit nicely into 2011, being that we encourage people to become wealthy and famous for acting crazy, quaking with indignation or penning books about their dismal childhoods.
But Nation, who died 100 years ago on June 2, 1911, at the age of 64, was much more complex and worthy of attention than any of today’s exhibitionists.
She had a cause that was borne of pain and went beyond greed. We don’t see many loud people like that anymore.
She conducted her overwrought, comical and attention-grabbing “hatchetations,” as she called them, in the last decades of the 1800s, when rampant alcoholism fueled domestic abuse and women for the most part absorbed injustice and rarely spoke up, much less creating a scene, to protest it.
In a 1966 biography of Nation, Robert Lewis Taylor wrote that her constant “humming with anger” and “deep reservoir of withering and improper rhetoric” contributed to making her American women’s “first real catalyst” in the quest for recognition of their rights and potential. (She eventually opened several havens for women who fled alcoholic husbands.)
She was never fully accepted by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Even that reform-minded, anti-liquor organization alternately embraced and shunned her for what, even for it, was decidedly over-the-edge, unladylike behavior.
Nation hit the road yelling, charging, threating, intriguing, scaring and preaching the evils of alcohol (and smoking and the Masons and sex and politics and all sorts of male-centric pursuits) to the point that barkeeps and rowdy, drunken men locked themselves in basements as she chopped up their drinking holes with her hatchet. She picked up cash registers and threw them into the street and with demonic force once reportedly ripped a heavy steel door off a refrigerator.
In her newspaper, “The Smasher,” she labeled President Roosevelt a “blood-thirsty, reckless, cigarette-smoking rummy.” After President McKinley’s assassination, she said he had deserved his end because he was a smoker. She addressed judges deciding whether to jail her as: “Your Dishonor.”
Carry A Nation: Your Loving Home Defender (Wikimedia Commons)
Nation had total “indifference to censure. At one point she was probably the most discussed woman in the world,” Taylor noted in his biography, the aptly named Vessel of Wrath.
She held little back about the seeds of her discontent.
In her biography, The Use and Need for Carry A. Nation, she revealed her disappointment and anger over the alcoholism of her first husband, Charles Gloyd.
At age 21, she married the doctor/schoolteacher, who hid his alcoholism until his wedding day, when he was sloshed. Like so many men at the time, he was a member of the Masonic Lodge, where he acquired much of his booze and soused companionship.
In her autobiography Nation reveals that, wearing a grimy shawl, she spent much of her marriage of about a year roaming Holden, Mo., where the family lived, searching for her drunken spouse. She lamented that his alcoholism deprived her of support and love, and she believed that his condition was a genetic factor in their only daughter’s illness.
Charlien was afflicted with some sort of problem that caused her right cheek to fall out. And her jaws clamped shut for eight years. She went through more than half-dozen horrific operations that involved sawing out sections of her jawbone. (Unsurprisingly, she ended up in an insane asylum.)
Gloyd died not long after he and Nation were married in 1877.
Despite that experience, she felt she could not care for their daughter without the help of a husband so, she wrote in her autobiography, she prayed for one. Heaven sent the widower, Civil War veteran and sometime journalist David A. Nation.
He became a preacher, delivering speeches she wrote against booze and other contemporary evils. In between traveling America with her hatchet, Nation sat in the front row chiding and interrupting him continually, according to Taylor.
She was arrested more than 30 times and paid for her fines by selling tiny hatchets to supporters.
There’s more that would yield excellent fodder for a movie, reality or comedic television series, more that makes one wish Nation were alive today to see what she would think of same-sex marriage, gays in the military or even Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose alleged treatment of a New York City housekeeper has unveiled chauvinism aplenty.
“From her birth to her grave, nothing uncomplicated happened” to Nation, wrote Taylor.
She was born Carry Amelia Moore on Nov. 25, 1846, on the Kentucky frontier where religions came in the form of the camp meeting or revival that included spastic seizures. Her family, although middle-class, was partial to brandy and gave her “little chance to be normal,” wrote Taylor.
Victoria, Nation’s mother, believed that she was the Queen of England. She wore gowns and a train and a crown of crystal and glass. She saw her family members only by appointment. Her husband, George, a gentleman farmer, played along. He assembled a carriage upholstered in red, a silk-hatted coachman and a slave to open gates and blow on a horn as his wife approached.
One of Nation’s aunts made repeated attempts to climb on the roof and convert herself into a weather vane. A cousin, at age 40, decided to walk on all fours and was returned to the upright position only after a minister intervened.
At the age of 64, Nation collapsed on a stage, reportedly from a stroke. She died a few months later. Her life is memorialized at two little-visited house museums.
But long after her burial, Nation continued to entertain.
A water fountain the WCTU dedicated to her in Wichita, Kansas, was hit and badly damaged in 1945 by a wayward beer truck. The fountain was later moved to a small park that, at least for a while, was a hangout for local drunks.
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