Carrie Nation – Saintly or Insane?

“When I first started out in this crusade, I was called crazy and a ‘freak’ by my enemies, but now they say: ’No, Carry Nation, you are not crazy, but you are sharp. You started out to accomplish something and you did. You are a grafter. It is the money you are after.”

Carry A. Nation

Carrie Nation (also spelled Carry) is usually portrayed with a hatchet in her hand. She is best known for marching into saloons, declaring that she was there to save people from the evil of drink, and proceeding to smash anything breakable in the establishment. She never showed any remorse for this destruction of property, although she did pay the fines that were a result of her arrests. In fact, when she was initially charged with “defacing public property”, she stated that she had not defaced it, but destroyed it. Carrie believed that she was doing God’s work and she was good at it.

Born Carrie Amelia Moore in Kentucky on November, 25 1846, she had an inconsistent childhood. At the beginning of her autobiography she describes what seems like a happy childhood, but her memories are not all happy. She suffered from poor health and the family had financial setbacks. At least one source says that Carrie’s mother suffered from delusions. She doesn’t discuss this in her book. In fact, she doesn’t say much about her mother at all. She was often left in the care of Betsy, one of the family’s slaves or would stay with the other slaves watching them spin the flax that was grown on the farm.

Carrie was a serious child and interested in religion from an early age. When she was 10 years old, she attended a church meeting with her father. Afterward during the invitation she “began to weep bitterly” and felt compelled to go forward. “I could not have told anyone what I wept for, except it was a longing to be better.”  The next day she was baptized and emerged from the water without saying a word. “I felt that I couldn’t speak, for fear of disturbing the peace that passeth understanding.”

Although Carrie was young when she was baptized, she didn’t simply take on the theology of others. As an avid reader of many different things (poetry, history, Josephus, mythology, etc.), she devoted herself to reading and understanding the Bible as well. She had “doubts as to whether the Bible was the work of God or man” and thought “It often seemed to be a contradiction.” In spite of this she studied it diligently and ultimately used the Bible as the justification for her actions against the sale of alcohol.

In 1855, the family moved from Kentucky to Missouri just before the breakout of hostilities between Kansas and Missouri over slavery. When the Civil War broke out, they moved to Texas with their slaves, but left them there and returned to Missouri. Carrie spent time nursing soldiers and felt that the experience was something that all young women should do. The thought of not being useful was anathema to her. Throughout her life she would look for ways to help those less fortunate than she.

One group of people that Carrie would work to help and which she related to strongly were wives and children of alcoholics. She didn’t just oppose alcohol based on theological reasons. She was intimately acquainted with the damage it could do to a family. In the 1860s, Carrie fell in love with Dr. Charles Gloyd. Charles was teaching school, saving money to begin his medical practice, and boarded with the Moore family. Carrie’s parents disapproved of the match because of Gloyd’s drinking so Carrie and Charles would communicate by leaving notes in his copy of Shakespeare. Eventually they went ahead and were married in November of 1867.

It wasn’t long before Charles’ drinking became a problem, so when Carrie became pregnant she moved back to her parent’s home. She had strong feelings about children inheriting alcoholism or other negative traits, but it’s not clear in her autobiography whether or not she really means traits that are passed on or just exposure to a negative atmosphere and negative thoughts from the mother. She gave birth to a daughter, Charlien, in September of 1868 just six months before Charles died.

Throughout her life Carrie would give much of her money to those less fortunate than she, but at this time her focus had to be on supporting herself, Charlien, and her mother-in-law. Although she taught school until she was dismissed over a disagreement with the board, it was difficult for a woman to support herself alone during this time and Carrie finally decided to pray for a husband. She soon met David Nation and they married in 1874. From the time they were married until 1889 they did a variety of things to support themselves without success including the purchase of a cotton plantation in Texas. David worked as an attorney, minister, and newspaper editor. In 1889, the family moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas where Carrie ran a hotel. This is where she began her work against the sale of alcohol.

Although prohibition would not become the law of the land until 1919, some states already had such laws on the books, including Kansas. Just as the national ban on the sale of alcohol gave rise to widespread corruption, so did the ban in Kansas. This was particularly egregious to Carrie. She saw alcoholics, the families of alcoholics, and prostitutes associated with saloons, as victims. The real offenders in her mind were those who would take advantage of the weakness for drink. This included not only those who sold alcohol, but those in politics and law enforcement who turned a blind eye and of course received payment for this service.

Carrie began her work by campaigning for the enforcement of the Kansas laws. She petitioned politicians and law enforcement. She organized a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she would kneel outside saloons singing hymns and praying, often with other women. This proved largely ineffective and I’m sure was very frustrating. On June 5, 1899, Carrie was praying for guidance when she heard God speak to her saying “Go to Kiowa. I’ll stand by you.” Over the next couple of days she gathered large rocks and wrapped them in paper. On June 7, she went to Kiowa and beginning with Dobson’s saloon, began “smashing.” Before long she began using a hatchet and calling these events “hatchetations.”

Carrie had seen visions before so the idea that God would appear to her and give her direction didn’t surprise her and neither did the “demons” she saw on the road barring her way when she set out for Kiowa. She found support for the idea of smashing from the story of Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple as well as other biblical stories of destruction in the name of God. She believed that she had a mission from God. At some point she began spelling her name Carry A. Nation and saw her mission as one to “carry a nation.”

Much of Carrie’s autobiography is spent using the Bible to justify her actions. She didn’t avoid the consequences and was jailed as many as 30 times, but she was certainly not remorseful. She would do her time and pay her fine. She raised money through speaking fees and the sale of souvenir hatchets. There were people who thought she was crazy and more than once she believed she was being held in jail while people tried to find evidence to support this claim.

Both the term saint and insane, at least in the colloquial sense, are subjective. Among other religious people of the day, opinions ran the gamut from those who wholeheartedly agreed and even participated with her, to those who were against prohibition. Some must have seen her as a “martyr” for the cause, willing to endure the humiliation of ridicule and imprisonment in order to get the message out, but this was hardly a universal view even among the religious. On the other hand, religious delusions are certainly not unheard of among the mentally ill. And while many people consider anyone who believes God speaks to them as mentally unstable, much of what Carrie describes and the way she uses the Bible can be seen and heard in churches today.

Reading Carrie’s account and justification of her actions it sounds reasonable, if you start from her assumptions. If you don’t believe that God speaks to people or intervenes in the events of the day it is difficult to see her as rational, but then you must include a lot of other people (even today) in the same category. This is certainly a question that is much bigger than any one person and will endure for generations to come if not as long as we inhabit the planet.

As far as Carry A. Nation is concerned, I don’t see her as “insane” or “crazy” in any real clinical sense nor would I call her a saint. In fact, I’m not sure the question is fair framed in such black and white terms. Given her religious experiences as a child and young adult and her experiences with alcoholism in her first marriage, I think in many ways her response is very rational. Although, many people with similar backgrounds would never take it to that extreme. Admittedly, this is based on a very one-sided account, her own. I would love to hear your opinions on this or other information that you may have. Please comment.

Resource: The Use and the Need of Carry A. Nation by Carry A. Nation (in the public domain)

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2 thoughts on “Carrie Nation – Saintly or Insane?

  1. As the daughter and grandaughter of alcoholics, Sister Carrie might have been on to something although I’m sure she would not have approved of my pineapple martini at dinner. :-) Awesome as always Susan!

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