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The Woman Who Would Carry A. Nation

Julienne Alexander



In the 19th century, the weak beer and cider that many Americans were drinking at every meal began to be replaced by distilled liquor: rums and whiskeys with a much higher alcohol content. This created a lot of problems, especially for women. Men began spending a lot of time and money in bars. Many weren't helping out at home, or even buying food. Women all over the country advocated for temperance, but the face of prohibition was a woman named Carrie Nation. Her story is the subject of this week's episode of the Criminal podcast.

Judge said Carrie Nation was born in 1846 in in Kentucky. Her father was a prosperous farmer, and her mother was was institutionalized. Carrie married a man named Charles Gloyd, who turned out to be an alcoholic. He died shortly after their wedding. Judge said Carrie Nation had been scarred by her marriage to Gloyd.  She'd been completely in love with him, and couldn't understand why he hadn't been home more.

Carrie moved back in with her parents, and remarried a man named David Nation. The couple moved to Kansas, where they both found work. In 1881, Kansas was one of the first states to ban alcohol, but everyone could see that prohibition was enforced loosely, if at all. 

Blair Tarr is curator for the Kansas Museum of History. He said you could go get a cocktail at a pharmacy legally, and there were tons of bars just in plain sight.

"The old joke is that there were signs out in western Kansas... Something like 'No beer here. Near-beer three miles,'" Tarr said. "So everybody knows where there is liquor being served. It's not a great secret."

Carrie Nation worked with the Women's Christian Temperance Union, but she found them to be too passive for her taste. She lobbied the governor. She staged big protests. But the culture didn't budge. So, Judge said, Nation decided that the only thing to do was to start throwing things. She brought bricks and rocks and hatchets into bars and literally smashed the places to bits. The damage had the desired effect.

Blair Tarr said Nation took advantage of the newfound attention and re-branded herself, putting her middle initial to good use. Carrie Amelia Nation began calling herself "Carry A. Nation."

"People are often wondering about the spelling of her first name, because sometimes she used I-E, sometimes it was Y," Tarr explained. "Well, up to the time she started smashing she tended to use I-E. But when she started smashing and began to get an audience it went over to Y, because of her name. And when she was lecturing, you could hear her talk it usually ended up something like, 'And with these efforts we can carry a nation.'"

Judge said it wasn't clear whether Nation's campaign won people over, or simply annoyed them. Nation became a household name, and myths about her spread across the country. People called her a giant, a man in woman's clothing, a werewolf. (Judge said she visited the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, where many of Nation's belongings are on display. Judge said one of Nation's dresses was very frilly and feminine, and quite petite.)

Tarr said Nation garnered a dubious pop culture cachet, especially in bars.

"This was a sign that actually showed up in a lot of saloons: 'All nations are welcome but except Carrie'," he said. "This was not meant to be a compliment."

Judge said Nation collapsed on a stage in Arkansas when she was 65. She died shortly after. Eight years later, prohibition was enacted nationally.

You can learn more about Carry A. Nation in this week's episode of Criminal.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.

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