Alcohol and drug addiction have been problems that have long plagued American society. It wrecks families and can drag honest men and women of integrity into lives of theft, lies, and illness in the pursuit of the next high. Recovery can be long and difficult, but not impossible. As the alcohol debate reached its height in the late 1800s, one woman proposed a more direct approach, one that made her a legend. Carrie Nation, the small woman armed with a hatchet and occasional Texas resident, became a nightmare for bar patrons across the country.
She was born Carrie Amelia Moore in Central Kentucky in 1846. Her father was a successful planter. However, her mother had a mental illness. There were no treatments available then, and she was eventually institutionalized. The family, often embarrassed, moved often, eventually coming to Missouri. These moves increasingly eroded the family’s finances. When the Civil War erupted, the family moved to Grayson County and its perceived safety far from the fighting but had to return to Missouri by 1862 because of finances.
In 1867, she married a physician, Dr. Charles Gloyd. Her family, however, objected to him because Gloyd was clearly an alcoholic. But it was a stormy relationship, as his drinking steadily destroyed the marriage. Within months, the two separated. The couple had a daughter shortly afterward, and Gloyd drank himself to death in 1869.
Now a widow and single mother because of alcohol, she went to college and earned a teaching certificate by 1872. She taught school for several years. In 1874, she met David Nation, a preacher, lawyer, and writer. The two married and moved to Brazoria County, near Houston, in 1877. The couple soon opened a hotel in nearby Richmond, and her husband briefly wrote for the Houston Post. In 1889, the family moved to Kansas, where the two operated a hotel while David Nation also worked as a preacher.
Carrie Nation’s rage against alcohol only grew. She soon opened a local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and began protests outside saloons.
Alcoholism is not a matter of upbringing. It is not a matter of intelligence or how often they go to church. Addicts encounter their drug of choice, and like a switch, start their descent. Addicts make a choice, but they do not understand their choice. They choose to give control to their addiction, assuring themselves and everyone around them that they can control it or they are different.
The people around them will notice changes, a few at a time, and then getting steadily worse. They do not even have to be full-blown addicts for the problems to start. Loved ones may never see them drink or take a drug, and may never even fully be certain of what they are on, but they see the effects. They see the person they love drift away, their personalities and interests warped by their addiction.
Friends and even other family, not understanding at all what is going on and reassured by the false promises of the addict, will often defend the addict. At first, they will often believe the accuser is the real problem and not the addict. And so lifted by their enablers, the addicts will drift further into their addiction.
An addict can only recover when they decide they want to do so. Tragically, that is often after serious damage is done. All that their horrified loved ones can do in the meantime is cut ties to save themselves, or if the situation is bad enough, press charges for their thefts or assaults or possession.
Carrie Nation’s answer to this was to remove the temptation entirely. By 1900, she began to destroy the source by hurling rocks inside saloons. She was arrested, and the arrests only encouraged her further. She began using hatchets to tear apart bars and destroy bottles. In 1901, she opened a home in Kansas City for women and children fleeing from the violence of alcoholic husbands, which served as one of the country’s earliest battered women’s shelter.
Ultimately, she was arrested 35 times for her attacks on saloons. The fines were usually modest, but she paid for them through donations. She had a large following of women who saw the violent personality changes associated with alcohol abuse and who saw men drink away their careers, marriages, and even lives. Groups of praying women often accompanied her on what she called her “hatchetations.” They wanted the trail of destruction stopped as well. She enjoyed the attention and started a Prohibitionist newspaper, The Hatchet, and made money giving lectures and selling souvenir hatchets. In the meantime, her daughter began having mental problems and was briefly committed to a hospital in Texas before Nation brought her to Arkansas.
In 1906, Nation and her daughter moved to Northwest Arkansas. Here, she opened a school and “Hatchet Hall,” a boarding house where she offered Bible studies and continued her crusade against alcohol. She continued to travel, but her health began to decline. In January 1911, she gave her last public address. “I have done all I could,” she declared and collapsed into a coma, dying at a hospital in Kansas five months later.
The problems of alcoholism continued. The problems that alcoholics and their families face a century later are still the same, but more avenues of help are available for those willing to take the first step.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org