When the majority of Americans think about the era of Prohibition, we think of the roaring 20s, with flappers, speakeasies, and flowing illegal hooch. However, the push for outlawing alcohol started before the arrival of the 20th century, and part of it was spearheaded by a formidable woman, towering at six feet tall, dressed in black, and carrying a hatchet. A hatchet that became so iconic she sold miniature brooch versions to fans, this woman was Carrie Amelia Nation.
Born in Garrard County, Kentucky on November 25, 1846, Carrie Amelia Nation had a childhood of frequent moving with a finically challenged father and a mentally ill mother. Eventually the family settled in Kansas City, Missouri, and Nation helped nurse wounded Civil War soldiers in Independence, Missouri. As family financial struggles continued, they took in a lodger, a former Civil War doctor named Charles Gloyd. Carrie soon fell in love with Charles, and was so enamored that she ignored her father’s warnings of Charles being “addicted to the drink” and she even admitted she had “no idea of the curse of the rum.” The two married on November 21, 1867, but it wasn’t a match made in heaven. Charles showed up drunk to their wedding, and, like her father, Charles had difficulty providing for Nation, as he couldn’t hold down a job, and frequently spent evenings at the local Masonic Lodge drinking. When Nation became pregnant she returned to her parents’ home to give birth and stay away from Charles’ alcoholism. Just six months after her daughter was born, Charles died from “delirium tremens or from pneumonia compounded by excessive drinking.”
Carrie attempted to provide for her daughter by teaching, but she lost her job, and sought solace in prayer, asking to meet a man to marry. Soon she met David Nation, a lawyer 19 years older than her. Within six weeks, on December 27, 1874 they were married and they moved to Brazoria County, Texas to run a cotton plantation, but things did not go smoothly. A neighbor threw their plows in the river, eight of their horses died one spring, and there was no money to pay the laborers, so she was forced to give them items from the house. They soon abandoned the cotton plantation and moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas. David became a minister and Carrie attempted teaching again, and working in hotels. While both David and Carrie were deeply religious they could not see eye to eye, as his views were not her views.
Meanwhile, Kansas outlawed alcohol in 1881, yet many found ways around the law, and there was little enforcement. Carrie became more religious and interested in civic reform, forming the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who advocated against the flow of illegal booze. And who could blame her? As alcohol was the cause for the failure of her first marriage. She would later go on to describe herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he didn’t like.”
Much of the temperance movement came from women who were fed up with drunken husbands who squandered money on booze, abusing their wives and children and leaving them in terrible debt and poverty. While modern day solutions would be seeking more rights for women, and therapy for alcoholism, their anger was justified and one can see how they were attracted to attack alcohol as the source of family problems. Carrie’s crusade against alcohol wasn’t her only interest, she was against tobacco as well, and she was an advocate of women’s rights, including suffrage and rallied against corsets.
Carrie and like-minded women first attempted to talk to saloon owners, but their words went unheard, one time she was even hauled out with one bar patrion saying “Get out of here you crazy woman.” Carrie dubbed her followers “Home Defenders” and in December of 1894 she and her supporters raided a pharmacy, where she hauled out a hidden ten gallon keg, rolled it into the street, where she attempted to get a hatchet from the hardware store, but was denied by the owner. One of her Home Defenders went to the blacksmith across the street and returned with a hammer. Carrie smashed the keg, releasing its contents into the street where she set it ablaze.
Soon, Carrie claimed Jesus was a “constant companion” for three days and later had a vision with distinct words from God of “Go to Kiowa.” In Kiowa she arrived at a saloon with bricks wrapped in newspaper that she threw at the bar in an attempt to destroy the alcohol. She would go on to attack other saloons with rocks hidden under her cape. While these acts drew attention, and even caused her jail time, she soon would arrive with something that had a little more edge.
On December 27, 1900, Carried arrived at a bar at the Hotel Carey in Wichita, Kansas (a building that still stands to this day) with a hatchet. Dressed in black, Carrie brandished the hatchet, only to have it be yanked from her grasp. She acquired another from a fellow Home Defender and used it on the wooden barrels of booze, beer taps, mirrors, and glass bottles behind the bar. She also threw the cash register and a slot machine to the ground. So successful, she took up the hatchet as her trademark and continued attacking other establishments.
A celebrity in her own right, Carrie began lecturing across the country. At one lecture in Topeka she was given an idea from a stranger to create tiny hatchet pins to sell, baring her name. She sold them along side photographs of herself and “Home Defender” buttons. Carried used the money from these souvenir sales to pay for her expenses and legal fees and fines that resulted from her behavior, as she was arrested around 30 times between 1900 and 1910. The pins were so successful that she mentioned them in a letter to a friend, noting that “people are eager to get the little hatchet as a souvenir.” In her autobiography, she said that people had even purchased them from her cell window when she was in jail.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon what I believe to be an early version (based on its simplicity and spelling of her name) of one of her souvenir hatchet brooches at a local antique mall, and knew I had to snatch it up. I then wore it, along with a black dress, for a little night out to The Blind Rabbit, a local speakeasy.
Later, Carrie would take advantage of her name, and middle initial, and alter her first name’s spelling, going by Carry A. Nation, which she believed was part of her mission, that she was going to carry the nation of United States to Prohibition. This version of her name would also be emblazoned on fancier versions of her hatchet brooch. Saloon owners also used the hatchet icon, with cast iron hatchet shaped signs being produced featuring Carry’s likeness, reading “All Nations Welcome But Carrie” and hung above the bar.
It is during one of her stints in jail that her second husband sought divorce, citing “extreme cruelty and desertion.” After the divorce, Carry continued to tour, no longer just the midwest, but the entire country, from Coney Island to Los Angeles, and later Canada and Australia. She also sought to aid other women who had suffered at the hands of alcoholic husbands. As her success grew, she used the funds from her lectures and souvenirs to buy real estate, where she would establish “Mrs. Carry Nation’s ‘Home for Drunkards’ Wives and Children'” of which she had two locations by 1904.
Eventually Carry took to the capitol, and in February of 1904 attempted to see President Theodore Roosevelt, but was denied entry. She then went to the House of Representatives, and upon crying out “Treason, anarchy and conspiracy! Discuss these!” she was thrown out of the Senate Chamber.
In 1911, Carry collapsed on stage while delivering a talk, dying a short while later on June 9, just eight years before the Volstead Act would be passed, creating prohibition nation wide. Carry was laid to rest in the Belton Cemetery of Belton, Missouri, with a tombstone reading “Faithful to the Cause of Prohibition ‘She hath done what she could.'”
While not a fan of prohibition, I can understand where Carry was coming from, and commend her non-traditional and radical attempts and social changes, finding her an interesting folk icon of Americana, and I love that remnants of her, such as this brooch, can still be found today. Want your very own Carry A. Nation hatchet brooch? Check ebay!