The Lady Who Made a Living By Smashing Booze

Carrie Moore was born in 1846, the daughter of a Kentucky farmer. Her family moved around a lot during the Civil War and, as a result, grew up mostly in poverty. In 1865, at the age of 21, she met a doctor named Charles Gloyd, and two years later, he proposed marriage. Moore’s parents objected because Gloyd had a long history of severe alcoholism, and feared that his struggles with drinking would cause her nothing but pain. In November of 1867, just days before her 23rd birthday, Moore married Gloyd nonetheless. The marriage did not last long; they were separated within a year and Gloyd died from alcohol-related causes in 1869.

From that point on, Moore became increasingly opposed to drinking, which shouldn’t have been an issue. By 1889, Moore, then remarried and named Carrie Nation (having taken her second husband’s last name), was living in Kansas, and in 1882, Kansas had outlawed the sale and manufacture of alcohol. As a believer in the temperance movement living in a dry state, Nation should have been quite happy — but, for better or for worse, Kansas rarely enforced this prohibition. 

So she took matters into her own hands. And she also grabbed some rocks and ultimately, as seen below, a hatchet.

Nation’s efforts as a prohibitionist began in the 1890s in a typical, peaceful way: she attended lectures about the evils of drinking, participated in protests, tossed slurs at barkeepers, and in 1899, organized a chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in her hometown of Medicine Lodge, Kansas. But the results from those efforts weren’t very impressive. She had exhausted every legal remedy and, per Slate, even” took the train to Topeka and [asked] the state attorney general” to enforce the laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol, but no one in government cared to act. She concluded, likely correctly, that “the liquor business [ . . . ] paid bribes and kickbacks at all levels of local, state, and federal government to keep its illicit profits flowing,” per Slate. A woman, she didn’t even have the right to vote the bums out. So, as she recounted in her autobiography, before going to bed on June 5, 1900, she asked the lord for guidance — and guidance came the next morning.

I was awakened by a voice which seemed to me speaking in my heart, these words, “GO TO KIOWA,” and my hands were lifted and thrown down and the words, “I’LL STAND BY YOU.” The words, “Go to Kiowa,” were spoken in a murmuring, musical tone, low and soft, but “I’ll stand by you,” was very clear, positive and emphatic. I was impressed with a great inspiration, the interpretation was very plain, it was this: “Take something in your hands, and throw at these places in Kiowa and smash them.”

She went into immediate action. On June 7, 1900, she went about 25 miles south of her home to the town of Kiowa. She brought with her a bunch of rocks, went to a bar, and started smashing, as she detailed in the same book:

I ran behind the bar, smashed the mirror and all the bottles under it; picked up the cash register, threw it down; then broke the faucets of the refrigerator, opened the door and cut the rubber tubes that conducted the beer. I threw over the slot machine…and got from it a sharp piece of iron with which I opened the bungs of the beer kegs, and opened the faucets of the barrels, and then the beers flew in every direction and I was completely saturated.

And then she made her way to a few other bars in Kiowa as well, destroying as many as six of them. She was, of course, arrested — but apparently, not charged with a crime. According to the above-linked Slate article, she told the gathering crowds that she hadn’t broken any laws; rather, the saloons were illegal. And, per Slate, “the town marshal, mayor, and city attorney huddled up, and ultimately decided against pressing charges.” 

Nation was instantly famous. News of the great amount of destruction she had caused spread, and other women in the temperance movement wanted to help her out. In December, she and a few others made their way to Wichita, then the largest city in Kansas, wrecking the bar at one of the city’s most famous hotels. She spent about three weeks in jail without any charges brought until her husband sued to have her released, and upon securing her freedom, he joked that rocks weren’t the best way to destroy stuff — she should use a hatchet instead. Nation thought that was a great idea, and from that point on, the hatchet became her trademark weapon of choice on her bar-smashing escapades, earning her the nickname “Granny Hatchet.”

She and her husband divorced shortly thereafter as Nation became a full-time prohibitionist and saloon smasher. Over the next decade or so, she traveled across the country and kept on breaking bars. Nation was arrested at least two dozen times (and likely more) and caused the modern-day equivalent of tens if not hundreds of thousands of damage. Her fame became so great that some bars put up signs reading “All Nations Are Welcome, Except Carrie,” as seen here. And as a result of her fame, she was also able to make a living for herself and pay her legal bills. She published a newsletter advocating for prohibition, sold swag like hatchet-shaped pins (see here) and buttons proclaiming the wearer to be part of her “Home Defender” movement, and charged people to attend her lectures on the evils of alcoholism. She also sold photographs of herself, always showing her holding her hatchet and a copy of the Bible. 

Nation died n 1911 at the age of 64, and with her, the hatchet was buried (albeit not literally). The trend of destroying bars waned quickly as the national Prohibition movement became an increasingly common political theme. Today, of course, Prohibition has come and gone, but Carry Nation’s legacy remains — although not in a way she’d approve: there are multiple bars (for example, this one in Boston) named for her across the country.

Bonus fact: Prohibition was a great time period for one now-common American business: Walgreens. As the New York Times explains, “During America’s dry age, the federal alcohol ban carved out an exemption for medicinal use, and doctors nationwide suddenly discovered they could bolster their incomes by writing liquor prescriptions. Pharmacies, which filled those prescriptions, and were one of the few places whiskey could be bought legally, raked it in. Through the 1920s, the number of Walgreens stores soared from 20 to nearly 400.”

From the Archives: Hoofing It: The special shoes that helped bootleggers sell booze during Prohibition.