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Celebrities and Celebrations: An essay by Lisa Gutierrez

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If she’d been pretty, we might remember her face more fondly.

If she’d been rich, her name would have decorated a school or park.

But Carry Nation was not beautiful or beloved. Her name sadly conjures the most unflattering picture: A homely, crazed woman dressed in black, hacking up saloons with a hatchet in the early 1900s.

Or so history portrays her.

Yet this Sunday school teacher/jail evangelist/charity worker became a force in this region, her legacy posthumously raised by writers at this very newspaper. And as The Star reflects on 125 years of people and events that made Kansas City what it is today, Nation’s contributions in the name of women and children everywhere cry out for a second glance.

She took her anti-liquor-and-smoking crusade to 48 states and Europe, too. In a day when women had no name outside the home, everyone knew hers. “All Nations Welcome Except Carry!” read the sign on one New York bar during her heyday.

Though Kansas City lays little claim to her celebrity, America’s most infamous champion of temperance spent many of her childhood and adult years in these parts.

Here were sown seeds that grew the most recognizable woman in the world at the time, the surrogate mother of the 18th Amendment that prohibited alcohol.

Here, in Kansas City, Kan., she set up a shelter for wives and children of alcoholics, a supportive hand that was absent when she needed it herself.

Grief and anger propelled this 6-foot, 175-pound “cyclone in petticoats.” She was in-your-face before people knew what that meant. She strode through train cars snatching cigars and cigarettes out of men’s mouths. She chopped up paintings of nude women hanging in saloons. Think of your mother, she admonished one barkeep.

She went to jail at least 33 times during her decadelong crusade. People egged, stoned and beat her, even bashed her over the head with a chair.

Yet she persisted — violently passionate, unwavering in her convictions, fervent in her faith.

Like it or not, Carry Nation was us.

She was born in Kentucky in 1846 as Carrie Amelia Moore. Note how her parents spelled her first name; she would change it later in life.

Her mother battled mental illness and Carrie, a sickly child, spent a lot of time in the slave quarters when her mother couldn’t care for her. She went to church meetings with the slaves and loved the joy and fervor of their worship.

She developed a great fear of Judgment Day. “It would terrify me when hearing of Jesus coming to the earth,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I would often ask myself ‘Where can I hide?’

“If the public knew of the smashing God gave me the strength to do in my heart, they would not wonder at the courage in smashing the murdershops of our land.”

When she was 9, the family moved to a farm east of Peculiar in Cass County in 1855, just a year before trouble began brewing between Kansas and Missouri.

When the Civil War began, the family moved to Texas. Her father knew that this area, with Free Staters and Southern sympathizers staring each other down across the state line, there would be much bloodshed.

Carrie wanted to be like her father, a God-fearing man of whom she wrote: “If I ever had an angel on Earth, it was my father. He was not a saint, but a man — one of the noblest works of God.”

Returning to Missouri after the war, the Moores spent time in Independence and Liberty before resettling in Cass County, where Carrie fell in love with Charles Gloyd, a young doctor. They married in 1867 and moved to Holden in Missouri’s Johnson County.

But their love was doomed.

Gloyd was an alcoholic. To save herself and their baby daughter, Carrie left him, though he begged her not to. He died within months.

Next she wed David Nation, a lawyer, newspaper editor and minister. But bigger-than-life Carrie proved too much for her second husband in many ways, especially after he went back into the ministry, first in Medicine Lodge, Kan.

Carrie sat in the front row and directed his Sunday performances. She harassed him so much about his uninspired preaching that he went back to being a lawyer. They divorced just as Carrie was about to begin her crusades.

Kansas voters had outlawed saloons in 1880, yet bars continued to operate. That galled her. As the widow of an alcoholic, she’d felt the poison of overconsumption. It killed her family. Now she was determined to return the favor.

Her protests started simply enough, singing hymns and reciting prayers in front of saloons in Medicine Lodge. Then, in the summer of 1900, after a vision that she said gave her instructions from God, she put muscle into her efforts.

Since saloons were operating illegally, she figured she couldn’t be sued for damages if she destroyed them. First she pitched bricks and stones through windows. But then she had to find more bricks and stones. That’s how the hatchet became her reusable weapon of destruction.

Later on, to pay for bail and to finance lecture trips across the country, her followers sold pewter lapel pins shaped like tiny hatchets. She changed her name, too, from Carrie to Carry, liking the sly message of “Carry A. Nation” in a headline.

She grabbed those headlines when she roared into Kansas City on April 15, 1901. The arrest of Carry and her comrades, as reported by The Kansas City Star, “afforded a great deal of excitement and amusement ‘You are in Missouri now,’ shouted someone. ‘I know I am,’ was the reply. ‘It is full of hell holes.’ ”

She never saw the “hell holes” shuttered. As her body and mind failed, she retired to a farm in Boone County, Ark., where she collapsed one day while giving a speech. She was eventually taken to Evergreen Place Hospital in Leavenworth, where she died on June 9, 1911 — nine years before the beginning of Prohibition and two decades before its end in 1933.

In a horse-drawn hearse she came back to Belton, where she is buried in the town’s cemetery next to her parents.

“She Hath Done What She Could,” reads her tombstone.

In life, she was her worst enemy. Her behavior was too eccentric, too strident for her day. Though the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement that she helped organize still exists today, no national group ever embraced her. One church even kicked her out of its ranks.

She was like the sun. Big, bold, blinding, and way too hot to handle.

So history has not always recalled Carry A. Nation fondly.

But surely we can now.


Features reporter Lisa Gutierrez joined The Kansas City Star in 2000 after working for newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., Sioux Falls, S.D., and at the Independence (Mo.) Examiner. Gutierrez, a Topeka native and graduate of the University of Kansas, won a first-place award from the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors for her profile of filmmaker and Kansas native Gordon Parks. She is co-author of "The Making of Dr. Phil," a biography of TV personality Phil McGraw. To reach Lisa Gutierrez, features writer, call (816) 234-4987 or send e-mail to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.
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