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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 875

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This is the grave of Carrie Nation.

Born in 1846 in Garrard County, Kentucky, Carrie Moore (her name sometimes spelled Carry, but historians generally use the Carrie spelling despite the gravestone) initially grew up fairly well off, though in the little educated way of the upwardly mobile southern class of that era. Her father was a slaver and a farmer who had quite a bit of success, but with little interest in education. So Carrie was barely literate as a child. The family moved around quite a bit and ended up in Belton, Missouri, south of Kansas City. The family also started losing their money (also not uncommon). Her health was poor as well. Her mother had issues with mental illness on top of all of this. So this was a pretty unstable unit. The family moved to Texas in 1862 to escape those Americans, committed to treason in defense of slavery. But her father did poorly there and they ended up back in Missouri by the end of the war.

In 1865, Moore started seeing a man named Charles Gloyd. He was a Union soldier and also a heavy drinker. They soon married and it was a disaster. They had a child, but separated soon after. Gloyd drank himself to death in 1869. This experience made Nation passionately opposed to alcohol and she would later become the country’s most notorious fanatic on the issue. Meanwhile, she also had to create a way for her to survive. She got herself reasonably educated and became a schoolteacher in Missouri, which she did for about 4 years.

In 1874, she married a lawyer and preacher named David Nation. I always wondered if “Nation” was really her name given it seems like the kind of fake name one might give themselves. But no, it’s the real deal. He was nearly 20 years her senior. They moved to Texas to start a farm in Brazoria County. It didn’t do much though. The second marriage wasn’t super great either. She decided to run a hotel and he seems to have been in and out of the picture a bit during these years, at least the way I read it. Anyway, after he was involved in the losing side of the civil war between different factions of Democrats known as the Jaybird-Woodpecker War, part of the white supremacist takeover of politics in the post-Reconstruction South, they moved to Kansas in 1889. He got a job as a preacher. Carrie started a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. And this is where she moves from an average white woman of the era to someone famous today.

Kansas has already banned the sale of liquor at this time. But enforcement was a different matter. She started her activism with the kind of methods the WCTU had made standard–especially praying. But she didn’t find that particularly effective (shocking, I know). So she started harassing people. She’d walk into bars with a hand organ to annoy everyone into leaving. She would start telling bartenders they were responsible for sending people’s souls to Hell. She seems lovely….

Anyway, in 1900, Nation claimed she had a vision from God to engage in more direct action tactics. This is when she started smashing saloons. The first time she did this was in Kiowa, Kansas, where she took bags of rocks and broke everything. Obviously, all the men in there thought she was insane. Which was perhaps correct since she thought God was speaking through her and telling her to smash saloons. Her husband suggested, with some level of contempt it seems, that she use a hatchet instead. She agreed. And then she divorced him. She moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma and continued smashing saloons. She became a national celebrity. The reformer types loved her and paid for her to give speaking tours. She was arrested at least 30 times for smashing saloons, but was now rich, so it was not hard for her to pay her fines and keep on doing her thing, though sometimes she refused to pay to force the issue. She had her own newsletter and newspaper supporting violent action against saloons. She agreed to participate in vaudeville performances because people would come see her and listen to her message. She hated it, but it gets to the point that she was considered a sideshow act by much of the nation, for as serious as she and her fellow extremists took it. And she was really awful. When William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, she celebrated the fact because he liked a drink and so got what he deserved.

Now look, alcoholism was a serious problem in American society in the 19th century, though less so as time went on. It led to severe family problems–domestic violence, ruination, and so many other problems. But like many substance issues in society, complete bans turned out to be counterproductive. Moreover, people like Nation never figured out why it was that people drank. It was just Satan incarnate and needed to be eliminated. Like many reformers of her time period, she operated at a very superficial level on social problems. It was the same with the anti-prostitution activists, who simply assumed that if prostitution wasn’t quasi-legal, there would be no prostitution at all. Uh…..

Finally, Nation faced serious resistance in the perfect town to reject her: Butte, Montana, in 1910. Butte was an Irish town, it was a working-class town, and it was a union town. It had 275 saloons. It had a strong, independent culture. And it had no truck for this reformist anti-booze crap. She had her supporters there. But they were far from a majority. She took her hatchet into a brothel called Irish World (of course). The madam, a woman named May Maloy, got into a physical fight. Maloy kicked her ass and booted out the door, hurting Nation’s elbow. This led Nation to leave Butte. It was probably not the first time she had ever suffered any significant resistance to her craziness. There were stories for a long time that this was the last time Nation engaged in saloon-smashing, but this was not true. She continued until the end. It was just that the end wasn’t that far away. She was 63 years old when this happened and not in great health. By this time, she lived in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which was a health resort. She was giving a speech there in 1911 and she collapsed. She was transported to a better hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, but died there in June. She was 64 years old.

Carrie Nation is buried in Belton Cemetery, Belton, Missouri.

This is the first of the 64 graves I visited on my recent trip to the south central part of this weird land. 64 graves requires significant expenses. If you’d like to help defray the cost of the series, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. In the grand world of prohibitionists, I could visit Wayne Wheeler in Columbus, Ohio or Andrew Volstead in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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