Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Carry A. Nation, Medicine Lodge and the world

Honestly, you got to love Carry A. Nation, a woman who listened when the Lord God almighty told her to uphold the law in Kansas and bring to an end the miserable indecency of those who pedaled booze in utter disregard. She did her calling with a burning passion she got directly from Creator of heaven and earth, or so she claimed.

Of course, her own Medicine Lodge, Kansas, was, back then, right down the dirt road from Dodge City, a place whose name will be forever associated with what we used to call "the wild west," which it was.  And she wasn't in the wrong about the law. In 1880, the state of Kansas had passed a bill banning the sale of liquor, a law that was rather prodigiously broken when small-town constables simply looked the other way or slammed down a drink or two themselves, smiling.

Her own story has more than its share of horrors.  Her first marriage ended in disaster when her husband, a young doctor named Charles Gloyd, lost her, his standing, his profession, and eventually his life, to the bottle.  The two of them had a child, who had severe health problems her mother forever blamed on drink.  About that she may not have been wrong.

She and God almighty weren't wrong about the evils of drink either, and it might be more than telling for enlightened progressives to travel back in time to the wooden sidewalks of the small towns of rural Kansas--or the rural west anywhere--and see for ourselves what burdens booze laid on frontier families. One by one, Carry Nation picked off the seven local dispensaries in Medicine Lodge by gathering a mob of righteous protesters and, one way or another, forcing the bar owners out of business.

After setting Mort Strong on the road by walking into his saloon with a bevy of her blessed crusaders, all of them in black and bonneted, then filling the place with hymns and prayers and curses that invoked the fires of hell, she turned her attention on a second saloon, the one belonging to Henry Durst. 

At Durst's tavern she altered her game plan. Rather than walk in, she thought to smoke him out (not a good metaphor) by gathering her ladies just outside the swinging doors and closing the place down with a tumult of prayer and singing--and now a then a good strong curse or two or three.  Twice a day, she and her crusaders would hold prayer vigils so charged with righteous indignation the streets would glow with praise.  

Durst should have never gone out into the street, but he did when he went after her.  Carry A. Nation grabbed his lapels and screamed in his ears that he was bound to hell if he kept selling booze. Still, their protest was for the most part, non-violent.  But Durst, under their assault, eventually threw in the bar rag and left town, and soon enough so had the other local watering holes, all gone. Carry A. Nation had cleaned up Medicine Lodge, and the law had triumphed.

Flush with the blessings of her savored victory, she and her team of tee-totalers went down the road to Kiowa, Kansas, where she walked into a saloon brandishing a hatchet and busted up the place as if making a wild west movie. With that hatchet, her notoriety grew like a prairie fire, and she became a true American celebrity, gathering an immense following around the world among those who'd come to understand the perils of booze by the drink or by the bottle.  Soon enough, she became her own side show, selling little brass tomahawks as souvenirs of her hot-blooded moral rectitude.

She was so immensely sure of herself and her cause that she told folks from Medicine Lodge that the man she'd taken as her second husband, Rev. David Nation, wasn't even a Christian, despite the fact that he was a preacher in a local Christian church. Often, she made a circus out of worship when she interrupted his sermons to let him know what he should be saying, thereby making such a nuisance of herself that the church eventually tossed her out.  No matter.  Carry A. Nation knew what was Christian and what wasn't, and if she didn't know, she prayed until she did.  It was that easy.

There she is, yet today, in history, the ignition, in some ways, of the Prohibition era, a moment in the American story when good Christian people banded together to fight the ravages of liquor, which were, back then, very real.

She never quit really.  In her dotage, she still grabbed cigars out of men's chops, made fun of the well-upholstered rich, argued strenuously for women's suffrage, and battled the interests of those who pedaled booze. She'd spent a good deal of her adult life beating on others and being beaten in return. She knew very well what the inside of jails looked like, from both visiting prisoners and being one herself when constables stuck her away off the streets.

She was, I'm sure she'd be happy to tell you, a praying woman, wild as a prairie sky, as great a saint and sinner as any of us will ever be.  


Anonymous said...

Ms. Nation's approach to initiating change reminds me of the behavior of the left-wing demonstrators during the recall Scott Walker debacle in Wisconsin capitol building.

They even crapped on the lawn....

Anonymous said...

Carry A. Nation looks and sounds like a poster child for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Anonymous said...

Being a 'right winger', today she'd be thrown in jail.