Carry A. Nation

Carry A. Nation

by Fran Grace

"A needed and welcome account of Carry Nation’s story... deserves the highest praise." —Journal of American History

"Admirably interweaves early 20th-century religious culture, regional politics, the suffrage and temperance movements, and the woman who worked zealously to unite them all." —Library Journal (starred review)

In her well-received


"A needed and welcome account of Carry Nation’s story... deserves the highest praise." —Journal of American History

"Admirably interweaves early 20th-century religious culture, regional politics, the suffrage and temperance movements, and the woman who worked zealously to unite them all." —Library Journal (starred review)

In her well-received biography of Carry A. Nation, Fran Grace unfolds a story that often contrasts with the common public image of Nation as "Crazy Carry," a bellicose, blue-nosed, man-hating killjoy. Using newly available archival materials and placing Nation in her various historical and cultural contexts, Grace "retells" the crusader’s tumultuous life. This complexly woven and delightfully written biography begins the work of recovering Nation’s often fascinating, often disturbing life.

Religion in North America—Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, editors

Editorial Reviews


"... a biography that seeks to set Nation's record straight." —Choice

From the Publisher
"Carry Nation... a hatchet—wielding, pleasure—rejecting temperance fanatic... yet... Fran Grace finds in her protagonist a strength of purpose, a moral certitude and a feminist sensibility that humanizes this woman so often caricatured or demonized.... In her retelling of Nation's life, Fran Grace leads the way." —Women's Review of Book

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This landmark biography of a much maligned and misunderstood figure will be welcomed by those interested in the history of women, reform and religion in 19th- and 20th-century America. Early biographers dismissed the axe-wielding temperance reformer as crazy, fanatical, undersexed, oversexed or menopausal; University of Redlands religious studies professor Grace makes clear that the story was far more complicated, and much less Freudian, than that. The book is worth the price of admission simply because of Grace's admirable detective work; she draws on an immense body of primary sources that earlier scholars never bothered to tap. But the biography's most important contribution is Grace's insistence that Nation can't be understood without delving into her piety. Reared by Campbellite parents, Nation, who called herself a "bulldog of Jesus," also drew on Holiness religion, the Salvation Army, Catholicism and Methodism. The biography, however, is not flawless. Grace too often sets up historiographic straw men, and her self-conscious positioning of herself as a feminist historian who is recovering Nation from the condescension of male historians is tiring; she should have made this point once in the introduction and then let her work speak for itself. The flashes of polish in Grace's prose (Nation "carved her way into the twentieth century") balance out less felicitous academese (e.g., the term "genderalities"). In all, this is a worthy portrait of the notorious smasher. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When Carry Nation marched into saloons with her hatchet in the early 1900s, patrons barricaded themselves behind closed doors, beat her with a broom, and hurled raw eggs. Twice she was nearly carried away by a lynch mob. What drew this gritty woman to the temperance cause that she eventually personified? In this new biography, Grace (religious studies, Univ. of Redlands) retells the life of Nation from her upbringing in Kentucky and devastating first marriage to her ascendancy as a full-time smasher, preacher, lecturer, off-Broadway performer, and, from time to time, jailbird. Nation has often been lampooned for her obsession with "hatchetation," but Grace's biography lets readers see that, in her day, Nation was widely admired as a riveting speaker and offered a model of politically active womanhood at a time when states still legislated whether or not women could wear trousers. The book admirably interweaves early 20th-century religious culture, regional politics, the suffrage and temperance movements, and the woman who worked zealously to unite them all. Recommended for all libraries. Amy Strong, East Boothbay, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Religion in North America Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.01(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Carry Amelia Nation (1846-1911) carved her way into the twentieth century, and into the annals of American history, with her "little hatchet." Her noisy entrance into the twentieth century was momentarily eclipsed by the country's obsession with Queen Victoria's passing, but soon enough newspapers began blitzing the country with reports of the demolition exploits of the grandmotherly smasher from Kansas. No sooner was Victoria laid to rest than Carry Nation's hatchet was hacking to shreds the Victorian sensibilities that had governed social interaction for decades. Believing herself, and believed by others, to be a "New Deborah" raised up by God in an hour of national need, she endured mob attacks and prolonged imprisonments to preach the gospel of prohibition. Carry Nation was a national phenomenon, possibly "the most conspicuous woman" of her time.

    Nowadays, however, no one wants to claim Carry Nation. Although she fought for women's rights, feminists dismiss her because she was intensely religious and lambasted liquor. A puritanical killjoy, they say. One would think that the religious right would like her precisely for this reason, but they disparage her as a stereotypical domineering woman because she marched into the male sphere (with an axe!) and deserted her husband. Even the organization that helped to launch Nation's career—the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—no longer claims her as their own (if they ever did).

    The image of Carry Nation as a fanatical Amazon—by now axiomatic in popular cartoons and history textbooks—is not historically accurate. The only serious biography ever published about her, Herbert Asbury's Carry Nation (1929), was tainted by the author's northeastern bias and dismissive attitude toward women. Subsequent biographies exaggerated this skewed perspective. Carry Nation deserves a second chance. In the last decade alone, hundreds of new manuscript pieces have become available that demand a fresh look at Nation's life and her impact on the culture and politics of her time. She spent most of her life moving from place to place, making it difficult for direct descendants to gather her papers into a single collection. Thus, her letters and manuscripts are only now being discovered as third- and fourth-generation relatives peek into attics and pry open trunks. Since beginning this project in 1994, I have been perpetually surprised at the treasures that keep turning up: a very revealing correspondence with her two husbands, a diary that covers the traumas of her young adulthood and early middle age, a voluminous correspondence with relatives and co-workers, multiple photographs, a poignantly candid set of letters written by her eldest granddaughter to a friend, scrapbooks, and church records. A comprehensive biography that draws upon the wide variety of available sources is long overdue, especially given all of the legends about her that still pass as "fact" in textbooks and biographical dictionaries. I hope to have begun the work on recovering her often fascinating, often disturbing life.

* * *

    In June 1900, after her successful "smashing" of several saloons in dusty Kiowa, twenty miles south of her unremarkable residence in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, Carry's crusade hit the local Kansas newspapers. Six months after her Kiowa debut, Carry was off to Wichita's luxury-bedecked Carey Hotel bar. Three thousand dollars' worth of smashing damage later, she found herself in jail and a national celebrity. God, she explained to stunned Americans, had directed her to the biblically grounded career of "smashing." Once released from the Sedgwick County jail, Nation moved her base of operation to the state capital in Topeka, where she amassed a virtual army of followers, men and women, leaving a stream of mayhem in her cyclonic path. In all, she was jailed over thirty times in states from Maine to California; she was beaten with a broom, horsewhipped in the street, bombed with raw eggs, kicked into a gutter, beaten by a band of prostitutes hired specially for the purpose, knocked on the head with chairs, and hit so hard one time that she swallowed a false tooth. Twice she barely escaped a lynch mob's "necktie party." She was the founder and editor of two newspapers, Smasher's Mail and The Hatchet, and helped to found a third, The Home Defender. As with her smashing method, her publishing ventures sparked controversy. When she wrote an article in The Hatchet on "self-abuse" (i.e., masturbation) entitled "Mother Nation's Talk to Little Boys," the U.S. postmaster had her arrested for violating the 1873 obscenity laws created by the self-appointed culture sheriff Anthony Comstock. Ever the entrepreneur, she paid for her legal fines by selling miniature pewter hatchets and going on the lecture circuit, vaudeville, and off-Broadway. Her popular performances took her all the way to Canada and the British Isles.

    Early in Carry Nation's "hatchetation" career, her second husband David Nation filed for divorce after twenty-seven years of mutually unfulfilling marriage, winning the divorce on grounds of desertion. Despite the divorce, she kept his surname. In August 1903, at the outset of her career as a performer and agitator, she had her name legally changed from Carrie Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation to "Carry A. Nation." Nation said her father had spelled her name "Carry" in the family Bible at her birth in 1846; but until 1903, she and others had spelled it "Carrie," typical of the day. In 1903, she changed it back to "Carry" to mark her name's providential significance. She believed that God had chosen her to "carry a nation" to prohibition and she hoped to do just that. Some of her detractors cheekily suggested the Kansas state legislature should change her name to "Helen D. Nation" to underscore the "hell and damnation" she unleashed during her hatchet crusade. I will use "Carry Nation," "Nation," and "Carry" throughout the book unless context dictates otherwise.

    After her divorce and identity transformation, Carry Nation went on to achieve the temporary closure of saloons in Kansas. She then helped to secure a prohibition constitution for the new state of Oklahoma and to speak before several prestigious universities and state legislatures. Although an entire town voted to have "whatever she says" become "municipal law," she remained unable to see President Theodore Roosevelt for a private audience even after two efforts at trespassing in the White House and relocating to a Washington, D.C., apartment.

    Whether others agreed or not, Carry Nation believed herself to be "an instrument" in God's hands. Calling herself the "bulldog of Jesus," she did her barking at evil wherever she found it, in "woman's sphere" or not. She argued that the demands of social reform required women to see the world as their home, and she was an outspoken advocate for women's rights—both inside and outside the home. Although she had enemies, many highly respected people agreed that she was indeed God's chosen instrument. Topeka preacher Charles Sheldon (famous for his "W.W.J.D." question, "What would Jesus do?") knew her personally and praised her in his autobiography: "I shall always hold her in high esteem." During her Topeka crusade, he spoke at a large civic gathering about her smashing mission as a harbinger "of the great battle which is imminent" to be "brought about by women." Nation crossed paths with several other well-known people during the course of her turbulent life, including Populist Annie Diggs, faith healers John Alexander Dowie and Charles Parham, women's ordination advocate Madeline Southard, osteopathy founder Andrew Taylor Still, and suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony.

    Two years before her death, Nation bought several homes in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, naming one of them "Hatchet Hall." At Hatchet Hall, she created a unique woman-centered community for the victims of alcoholic husbands and fathers, opened a school for children, and established a home for the elderly. In January 1911, Carry collapsed while giving a prohibition address, allegedly gasping out the words, "I have done what I could," which were inscribed on her tombstone in Belton, Missouri.

    Clearly, Carry Nation was a highly influential and hotly controversial personality during the first decade of the twentieth century. The influence of her Topeka crusade of 1901 extended as far as Paris, France, where hundreds of temperance women physically blocked railway cars that served alcoholic beverages. Wherever she ventured, Nation drew out thousands of people who loved her and hated her, sometimes throwing raw eggs and buying her hatchet pins in the same evening. Opponents of her crusade may have gibed her with signs such as "All Nations Welcome But Carrie," but they did not want to miss her performances. Fans and critics alike bowed their heads for public moments of silent remembrance when she died.

    Carry Nation's sudden jump from obscurity to celebrity is fascinating. How did a sickly farm girl from backwoods Kentucky get to be so famous when she started throwing rocks and swinging a hatchet in her fifties? What does this tell us about American culture at the turn of the twentieth century? What was it, we ask, that drove her to destroy other people's property? Why did thousands of midwesterners join her?

* * *

    In order to understand the famous hatchet-wielding Carry Nation, we must understand the personal struggles, religious experiences, and cultural context that shaped her identity and her view of the world. Previous biographers have ignored her crusade's religious and cultural backgrounds, making her already severe "image problem" even worse. These male biographers built upon a well-entrenched negative image of Carry Nation created by her contemporaries in the northeastern pressrooms where she was caricatured as a crank, a virago, and possibly a lunatic. Her biographers then added their own Freudian interpretations of her as menopausal, sex-repressed, and megalomaniacal. Although people who met her in person commented in letters and diaries that they were shocked to find a keen, warm, and motherly woman—rather than the "Amazon" and "crank" described in newspapers—nonetheless it was the negative image that stuck.

    Threatened by her challenge to gender, religious, and economic status-quoism or baffled by her worldview, unsympathetic writers have generally characterized Carry Nation according to three stereotypes: the western crank, the menopausal virago, the hysterical and probably insane woman. As one New York paper opined on the crank theme, "As a producer of freaks and freakesses, Kansas deserves a place at the head of the list of States." The paper hypothesized that the state's hot winds ignited freakiness: "There is something in the air that sweeps over the prairies which makes the brain gear of Kansans worse over time.... A new crusade is born down there every time the wind blows hard enough to make the wheels go around. Today it's hatchets; next week it may be lingerie or lobsters." Critics dubbed her as the state's latest misfortune alongside Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, John Brown, Mary Lease, Sockless Jerry Simpson, the Dalton Gang, and the loco weed. A well-known painting by Edward Laning draws on this image. He placed her—with hatchet flailing through the air—right alongside abolitionist John Brown and a cast of western renegades. Some women who defied conventions may have been "charmers," but Carry Nation was viewed as a "crank."

    Writers have also portrayed the smasher as a prim Puritan whose saloon-wrecking escapades were induced by congenital insanity and midlife hot flashes. "Certain menopausic influences" were allegedly at work in Nation that sublimated her sex drive into a climactic orgy of good works. This interpretation was caricatured in a widely printed cartoon titled "Mrs. Nation's climax." She is pictured waving a battle-axe in a cyclonic heat of demolitional gyrations. As one male writer summed it up, with the full weight of scientific medicine allegedly behind him: "By the crucial year 1900, Carry Nation had reached her mid-forties [actually, her mid-fifties], a fact which medical authorities agree will produce glandular difficulties of the menopause that allow suppressed forces to erupt violently." Another male writer speculated that "the drive behind her crusade" was "sexual": "Her suppressed sexual desire was perverted into an itching curiosity about vice, an aggressive prurience which found its outlet in violence, exhibitionism, and self-imposed martyrdom."

    Finally, some interpreters decided, she was just plain crazy. They described her as a "demented woman," "psychotic from an early age," dominated by a "well-defined strain of madness," and suffering from a "personal history of disease and convulsion." Was she insane? The question is difficult, perhaps impossible, to answer from a distance of 100 years. Whether for Carry Nation or the rest of us, insanity and sanity are points on a continuum of psychological health and dysfunction—not easily "proven." Moreover, as we will see in the chapters to follow, accusations of insanity were all too frequently thrown at women such as Carry Nation simply because they were strongly religious or self-assertive. The people who knew Carry Nation best were shocked at the suggestion that she might be insane. Over the course of decades, they had trusted her to preside over the births of their children, to nurture their families in church and school settings, and to lead their communities in various activities of reform and benevolence. Nation's contemporary in Topeka, famous psychologist Karl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic, viewed her rowdy escapades as a rational, authentic response to a serious social problem.

    Carry Nation's critics seem to have discounted her activities with what I call polarized "genderalities": either they complained she was "masculinized," "unfemale," or "unwomanly," that is, more of a man than a woman; or they assumed she was endemically female and that all of her quirks and extremisms (especially her religious "fanaticism") were explicable precisely because she was a woman. For example, writers have couched her religious life in cynical and hyperbolic terms, calling her a "virago in a fit of moral hysteria" who had "mystic seizures," "outlandish theological revelations," and a "deep-rooted persecution mania." One male writer likened her to the "drunkards" she sought to reform, claiming she was as drunk on religion as they were on rum: "She was a life-long inebriate. Her ungovernable lust for righteousness led her to deplorable excess; the murderous broth distilled by theological moonshiners in the backwoods maddened her brain. She never knew when to stop."

    After several years of studying her life, I do not think that Carry Nation was a cranky, insane woman traumatized by menopausal changes and hypnotized by "theological moonshiners." She did not pick up her hatchet because she had suddenly gone off some psychological deep end. Yes, she was often steel-willed, authoritarian, self-promotional, mystical, self-comedic, and defiant of gender conventions. However, writers have erred when they have translated this set of characteristics into insanity. Carry Nation was a religious woman whose crusading commitments came out of the personal hardships that she faced and the regional culture where she lived.

* * *

    Religion is central to this biography because Carry Nation was a very religious woman. She was born to parents who were staunch "Campbellites," followers of sectarian leader Alexander Campbell whose movement birthed a handful of Protestant denominations such as the Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, and the Churches of Christ. The Campbellites had no creed but the Christian Testament, and they considered themselves its most correct interpreters. They sought to reduce Christianity to its "essentials" and threw out all of the "man-made" extras such as musical instruments, emotional revivals, women preachers, clergy vestments, seminary educations, liturgical creeds, crucifixion symbols, inter-church cooperation, and stained glass. Carry retained certain aspects of her parents' Campbellite faith, but various personal struggles such as the tragic death of her first husband caused her to embrace the ideas and practices of other religious expressions—slave religion, Holiness, Free Methodism, the Salvation Army, Roman Catholic devotional piety, and osteopathic medicine (a movement that began with substantial metaphysical content). At the height of her public career, she also experimented briefly with the utopian healing movement of John Alexander Dowie based in Zion City outside of Chicago. Her eclectic spirituality illumines our picture of various religious movements from the time. Her popularity suggests that some turn-of-the-century Americans were interested in religious ideas and responded to religious language.

    In general terms, her life story illustrates a vital "spiritual entrepreneurship." She used whatever religious venues were available in order to fulfill what she viewed as her divine calling. Writers have disparaged her as fickle because she was not loyal to any particular denomination. To the contrary, Carry Nation's "spiritual entrepreneurship" may have been her personal and vocational salvation. Her nonsectarian approach gave her the flexibility to search out different religious systems to fit with her needs and experiences at any given time. Her childhood embrace of slave religion provided her with a needed outlet for emotional expression, her parents' Campbellite legalism carried her through puberty and was a lifelong anchor, her Holiness experience of spirit baptism empowered her to believe in herself, her adoption of Catholic practices gave her life a sacred rhythm and disciplined her tendency toward intense self-denial, and her exposure to faith healing caused her to link physical and spiritual well-being. Nation's spiritual entrepreneurship reveals that religious individualism was not unique to the late twentieth century. When "Sheila" explained to sociologists in the 1980s that she had created her own religion from a variety of ideas and practices, they suggested "Sheilaism" was a late-twentieth-century occurrence, a departure from an earlier (better) communitarian religious ethos. But Carry Nation's experience of religion in America suggests that religious mixing of all sorts went on before the late twentieth century, and her popularity indicates she was not alone in her creative, opportunistic eclecticism.

    If Carry's eclecticism illustrates a certain religious individualism, her spirituality also tells us a lot about the regional contexts for religious experience and values. I hope this book illumines a late Victorian "spiritual geography," "geopiety," "geotheology," and "religious geography"—though, clearly, there is no exact language for the idea that religious expression and regional characteristics combine. "Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are" comes close. Region is the "womb of existence"—maybe "the beginning and the end of American religion"—yet historians of American religion frequently ignore geography. More often than not, they use sources from one part of the country (the Northeast) and make generalizations about a single "Victorian America." The lesson of Carry Nation's life is that we cannot make such generalizations. History books have relied on the northeastern portrayal of Carry Nation and her movement as idiosyncratic and demented in their fanaticism, thereby misconstruing one of the most widely beloved figures of her time. Perhaps it is banal to suggest that there were differences between eastern and midwestern notions of spirituality and religiosity, but it is an important point to underscore.

    These regional differences, I suggest, translated into or derived from larger conflicts over what defined an ideal woman. Why was it that midwesterners lifted Carry Nation up as their heroine while northeasterners lambasted her as a danger to the civilized world? The divergent regional responses point to different models of womanhood that flowered from different religious values and geographical needs. In the Midwest, an ecumenical and morality-based religious culture had opened the doors for women (who were viewed as morally superior to men) to fill pulpits, cast ballots, and pursue careers. Harsh weather and rural conditions also helped to uncorset midwestern women from the ideal image of the true woman in the urban Northeast—punctiliously reserved, pale-facedly accessorized, and properly domestic. Clad in her plain black dress and steel-willed in her grit, Carry Nation embodied a different sort of ideal woman. She epitomized the midwestern ideal of "good womanhood," but she violated the northeastern ideal of "true womanhood." She was a righteous Deborah to midwesterners but a wicked Jezebel to easterners.

    In addition to whatever light it sheds on regional and gender issues, Carry Nation's life story helps to round out our picture of social reformers, a picture that increasingly ignores temperance workers. In general, her story challenges the composite picture of the nineteenth-century woman engaged in social reform, normally presented as white, leisurely middle class, spared from personal experience with the evils she was fighting, and a mainstream Protestant. As a divorced, itinerant burlesque performer with connections to some of the most despised religious groups in the country, Nation was not a typical "temperance lady." Her western vigilantism, rowdy antics, unconventional marital status, and seedy performance platforms provide an important counterbalance to the "cleaned-up" history of women's temperance activism. In sum, Carry's life story is sorely needed to flesh out the still-skeletal narratives of women's history which until recently have featured economically privileged, educated, northeastern, mainstream Protestant, Anglo American women as the stars.

    Some people view Carry Nation as an accident—a bizarre blip on the historical screen. But her religious and political commitments came from distinct historical and geographical contexts. Her crusade grew out of, rather than departed from, particular cultural impulses. The image of her as a blue-nosed Puritan and party pooper has some truth to it—she did seek to suppress other people's pleasure—but it is not true that she was the only blue-nosed Puritan. As it turns out, Carry Nation was not significantly different from other midwesterners; rather, she drew on a complex variety of existing cultural traditions, a tumultuous political milieu, and a particular religious ethos and used them to interpret her own religious experiences and political goals. Even her use of the hatchet, which has defined her as a unique extremist in cultural mythology, had important antecedents in previous abolition and temperance protests. Many people marched into saloons with hatchets, sledgehammers, and crowbars. Her method and message were rooted not only in previous moral crusades in the Midwest but also in traditions of agrarian protest, especially Kansas Populism.

Excerpted from Carry A. Nation by Fran Grace. Copyright © 2001 by FRAN GRACE. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Fran Grace is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. She lives in Redlands, California.

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