Monday, February 15, 2016

Carry Nation and a plump Unitarian fairy

The headline is unnecessarily provocative but too good to pass up, although Mrs. Nation and the aforementioned Unitarian, William Howard Taft --- who weighed in at 354 points when inaugurated president in 1909 ---  are related only indirectly.

It's just the I came across a report of Carry Nation's 1909 visit to Chariton while exploring the incendiary language used historically in U.S. presidential campaigns, including those of Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1908.

Taft was running against Bryan, a noted Christian, that year and the nature of the portly Republican's religion became an issue. At first, his opponents maintained that Taft was godless, then discovered that he was merely Unitarian or --- as some protestant preachers of the day put it --- an "infidel." As had been John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Millard Filmore before him.

Sleuthing into the nature of Taft's faith had involved tracking down his childhood pastor, the Rev. George A. Thayer, of First Congregational Church (Unitarian), Cincinnati. The resulting report generated one of my favorite headlines ever in The Chariton Patriot --- of Aug. 13, 1908: "Taft Once Unitarian Fairy: Presidential Candidate's Old Pastor Admits He was a Plump One."

The Rev. Mr. Thayer was referring to the future president's involvement as a young man in a Unitarian youth group:

"Will was a very enthusiastic member of the Unity club as a young man," the Rev. Mr. Thayer recalled, "and once took the part of a fairy in a fairy play. Will must have weighed about 175 pounds then, and he made a very plump fairy, to be sure."


As it turned out, Carry Nation also considered Taft to be an infidel, although she castigated both the  Republican and Democrat candidates of 1908 for their failures to endorse a prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That became evident during her visit to the Methodist Church in Chariton nearly a year after the election, on October 4, 1909, at the invitation of the women of the church.

By the time Mrs. Nation arrived in Chariton that fall she was almost 63 and nearing the end of her career. A formidable person, she stood nearly six feet tall and weighed some 175 pounds. The stern portrait of her wielding a hatchet was taken during 1910 --- so this is close to how she looked (less the hatchet) when she disembarked at the C.B.&.Q. Depot northwest of the square.

By 1909, Carrie had divorced two husbands, Charles Gloyd, a physician and an alcoholic; and David Nation, who had become the Disciples of Christ preacher in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, where the couple had settled after living in Missouri and Texas.

Kansas already had passed a state constitutional amendment outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages by the time the Nations arrived --- but the new law was rarely enforced. Mrs. Nation, an ardent prohibitionist,  began her career as a smasher of saloons in Kiowa, Kansas, on June 7, 1900, after being directed in a vision from God to do so, she maintained. She took out at least three Kiowa saloons with rocks and brickbats, smashing their stock and fixtures. Shortly thereafter, a tornado struck eastern Kansas, affirming divine approval --- and she was off and running.

Initially, Mrs. Nation had supplemented brickbats with an iron rod strapped to her cane, then adopted her trademark hatchet. Backed by women across Kansas who organized themselves as "Home Defenders," the assault on saloons went statewide and Carry became a hero to prohibitionists everywhere.

Her work in Kansas was done by 1909, but she had gained nationwide fame, published prohibitionist journals and was supporting herself and her cause by working lecture circuits, like the one that brought her to Chariton, selling her books and pewter replica hatchets as souvenirs as she toured. Much of her considerable income went to charity.

Mrs. Nation certainly was a fanatic to the point of mental instability when alcoholic beverages were involved and she had a few other quirks, too --- a loathing of corsets, women in short skirts and Masonic lodges, for example. But she also was highly intelligent, generous and a tireless campaigner for women's suffrage, too.

Apparently, First Methodist Church was packed when Mrs. Nation arrived to speak and a reporter for The Herald-Patriot was in the crowd. The report appeared in the Oct. 7, 1909, edition of the Herald-Patriot --- the first edition to be published after the merger of two formerly independent newspapers, The Herald and The Patriot. Here's the text of the report:


The ladies of the M.E. Church did not know just what they were bringing on when the agreed to have Mrs. Carry A. Nation lecture in the church under their auspices, but they risked it anyway, and the crowd that greeted the noted lecturer last Monday night showed that they had secured a real attraction, at least, and the way she tore into things right and left should satisfy anyone who wants everybody else roasted, for if Carry missed roasting any personage of note or any organization, except the prohibition party and its auxiliaries, it was only because she lacked the time to do it.

Carry is a holy wonder, and no mistake. She gives a rambling talk that has many snappy and witty points in it, and as the American people like to be roasted, her talks are always applauded. She makes use of her own queerness to make more fun, and takes pride in the fact that she is accused of being insane to roast her accusers all the harder and emphasize her arguments against the liquor traffic. Most of those who heard her already had a fair idea of her appearance and her work. She is short (actually, she was quite tall) and chunky, with a little round bulldog face, just the sort of a face that a fanatic in a good cause might be expected to have, and she shows in all her talk that she has grown wise in the ways of the world and is dead set against the liquor traffic and all other shams as she sees them.

Her voice is good for lecturing, and her manner is so simple and straight-forward that her remarks have the greatest possible effect. To think of a little old woman stirring up all the muss against the liquor traffic that Carry Nation did in Kansas, and aiding as she undoubtedly did in holding the state for prohibition by her smashing exposures of the protection that the law and its machinery gave to the saloon business, makes her truly a national character. As she said in her lecture, she has been imprisoned thirty-three times for breaking saloons, and her sufferings in jail were truly pathetic and partook largely of real persecution. So if her hardest experiences are now over, and if after her rough life she is now enjoying prosperity through her lectures and her sale of souvenir hatchets and books telling of her life, no one will begrudge her the prosperity, especially as she is reputed to spend much of her earnings in supporting charitable institutions.

Mrs. Nation's lecture was truly a whirlwind, after she got warmed up. Her preliminary talk was of her name, typifying her work, "Carry a nation," and of the visions she got from heaven telling her to go and smash with her hands the evil that she saw in Kansas. It was religion that impelled her to her work, and her story of how she gathered rocks and bricks in her Kansas home, and how she threw them at the mirrors and glass fronts and oil paintings in the saloons, in order to attract the attention of the state to the open violations of the liquor laws, shows conclusively that she was not as crazy as many people tried to prove her, for the line of argument that she followed in her work for prohibition was as shrewd as if designed by the most clever lawyer.

Mrs. Nation had particularly bitter words for the Republican party, which, because it is the one in power, she accuses of being responsible for the liquor traffic in America. She said the only difference between the Republican party and the Democratic party was the difference between two thieves, one of which was caught with the goods on, and the other trying to get them but unable to do so. "Old Bill Taft" she caricatured as "the big chunk of meat down at Washington" who is an infidel, being a Unitarian, and a hypocrite posing in favor of good government. Bryan is no better, with his refusal to endorse a prohibition plank for the Democratic platform, yet lecturing on "The Prince of Peace" and "the Price of a Soul." She said when Joe Cannon (Speaker of the U.S. House and leader of the Republican party) comes into Iowa this week every decent citizen ought to throw rotten eggs at him. He is an enemy of decency and the American home. She also had a slam or two for (Theodore) Roosevelt, but seemed to think much more of him than of Taft.

She lauded the mission of women, in being an equal and a helper to man. "Men were made out of mud," she said to the women. "You were made from man's side, to stand beside him and help him to be good."

The voter who did not cast his ballot for prohibition, but wasted it on either of the old parties, was roasted and called even more guilty than the saloon keeper, who was merely the result, while the voter was the cause of the traffic.

Tobacco users were brought in for their share of criticism, and they got rough handling. They were called stinking old pots, with no excuse for their filth, and women who encouraged or permitted men to smoke in their presence were denounced most unmercifully.

The closing denunciation of her lecture was against the Masonic lodge, which she called a relic of the worship of idols, in which all such diabolical oaths as she said Masons were bound by, concerning bodily torture in case they revealed any secrets of their order, were detailed by her, from affidavits she claims to have from members of the order. The Eagles Lodge was also named as a hot bed of liquor interests, and the pool halls of Chariton came in for a dig as breeding places for crime, and the hotel for the encouragement it gave to card playing.

If Mrs. Nation had had more time she would probably have criticized everything else that she could think of, but she said enough to cause people to talk and think for many a day. And she says if she can only get them to talk and think of the right, they will eventually act for the right. Time has proved that her theories are correct, at least as to her work in Kansas, and though she is now largely a laughing stock as she goes up and down the land lecturing in her queer, disjointed way, many of the things she says are the truest of truths, only said in a new and homely way. And we do not doubt that the time will come, after her queer ways and her rabid methods of criticism are forgotten, when the poor, lonely-looking little old woman from Kansas with the hatchet emblem, will be placed alongside old John Brown of Osawatomie in the memory of the forgiving American people, who now believe her a fanatic, but who will find in 40 or 50 years that her soul still goes marching on.


Mrs. Nation, who by this time was living in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where in 1908 she had founded Hatchet Hall --- a boarding house for homeless women and children with a girls' school next-door --- had only one more year and a few months to labor after leaving Chariton.

She collapsed while delivering a lecture in Eureka Springs during January of 1911 and when it became clear she would recover neither physically nor mentally, was taken by a nephew to a sanitarium in Leavenworth, Kansas, where she died on June 11, 1911. She was buried beside her mother in Belton, Missouri.

During 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposing prohibition nationwide became law and in 1920, the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote nationwide for the first time. Two of Carry's dreams had come true.  But Prohibition was rescinded during 1933 and in 1948, Kansas voided its own prohibition amendment.

Carrie's grave in Belton was unmarked, but eventually the Womens Christian Temperance Union placed a marker there with an inscription that reads, "Faithful to the cause of Prohibition, she hath done what she could."

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