In 1902 there was one woman in America who had the attention of the whole country in the palm of her hand, and she wielded it like a weapon to drive home her point. Her name was Carry Nation and she made it her mission in life was to wreak havoc on every saloon in the nation.
In August she got off the train in Mansfield, Ohio. In 1902 Mansfield had a population of 17,640 people, and it had 51 saloons.
She arrived in town unnoticed on the 8:07 from Galion. It is not odd that no one noticed her—the Union Depot was a busy place. It was the juncture in town where all the railroads crossed paths, and these were major lines that ran coast to coast. In 1902 there were 125 trains a day coming through Mansfield and 33 of them were dropping passengers, so it was not unusual for anyone from anywhere to step off the train in Mansfield.
That’s why the saloons and the bookie joints and the brothels were all within easy walking distance of the station, and that’s why vice flourished and bloomed in Mansfield, and that’s why the city acquired the nickname “Little Chicago.” It was a ‘wide-open’ town when Carry Nation stepped off the 8:07, just exactly the kind of place where she earned her reputation for flying in the face of sin.
Few people paid any attention as she strode to the foot of Main Street, and the place where she really burst onto the scene was at the first saloon she came to, on the corner in the flats by the tracks. The joint was called Boos Saloon and it sounds like a joke because it rhymes with ‘booze,’ but it was the establishment of W.H. Boos.
Believe it or not the place was not only open for business at 8:15 AM, but already busy with a dozen men having their morning eye-opener. Their mouths, as well, were gaping in astonishment when suddenly this old woman was vehemently scolding them. They all knew immediately who she was… there wasn’t anyone who hadn’t heard about her.
Carry Nation had been front page news since 1900 when one day in Kansas she was in prayer and God told her He would accompany her to the local gin joint if she would just take the place apart. She marched into Dobson’s Saloon with a handful of rocks and promptly destroyed everything she could hit behind the bar: bottles, mirror, painting of immodest harridan.
Before anyone had time to catch their breath she had moved on to smash three more bars down the street. When she got out of jail she bought herself a sturdy hatchet and pursued her career in earnest, taking on the State Capital and various other towns in the region.
Carry Nation was an instant celebrity. By the time she arrived in Mansfield she had been jailed seven times and had already begun writing memoirs of her life of martyrdom.
When the men in Boos Saloon heard her voice they already knew what to expect. It was a shock, though, to witness her in the flesh—she looked like your sweet old grandma who might teach the children’s Sunday School. As soon as they recovered from their astonishment, however, the men swung into action without debate or hesitation.
One of the newspapers in town said that she was escorted out the door—making it sound like some elderly aunt leaving the opera. The other paper, no doubt as indignant as the Boos Saloon patrons, described her exodus to the sidewalk as something more like a ‘bum’s rush.’ Later on, when she had witnesses, she tried to show the bruises left on her arm from the encounter.
Once she was back on the street again she wasted no time in attracting a crowd to herself by hurling loud insults that echoed between the buildings. Anything that looked like a bar was a fair target, and of the 51 drinking establishments in Mansfield in 1902, 24 of them were located on Main Street in the stretch between the tracks and the Square where she was headed.
Block by block going up the hill her following increased as people recognized who was making all the noise. Men were curious, mostly amused. The women flatly adored her. To them, she was the first breakthrough in American society in the cause of empowering women.
With no vote in elections, and hardly a voice outside the home, women had struggled to make headway against the mighty male current that brushed off their earnest appeals for laws to control the liquor trade. In 1902 alcohol was seen as a major factor contributing to the abuse of women and the dissolution of American families.
For generations there had been Temperance associations and anti-drinking/anti-saloon organizations, but they all seemed to rise and fall like waves crashing upon the rocks without any significant resonance in the media or daily life. Then came Carry Nation, and like a lightning rod she channeled all that frustration and hurt into a calculable blow.
Every woman wanted to be Carry Nation. Every man mocked her at his own peril if he had wives, sisters, mothers.
It was a crowd mixed of both genders that assembled at the Square to hear her speak, and that is, no doubt, why the audience was so polite and mannerly, considering her headlong attack against the city’s most thriving business concerns like Breweries and Cigar makers.
A City Known For its Beer & Cigars
Like a substantial portion of the Midwest, Mansfield’s population was made largely from descendants of Germany, and consequently there developed here, transplanted from the old country, manufactories catering to two mainstays of German culture: Beer and Cigars.
The two main breweries in town, between them, put out 244 barrels of beer a day. To any civic-minded promoter of Mansfield this was simply good business. To Carry Nation, whose first husband died of alcoholism, the idea of 244 barrels a day made Mansfield look like the very gates of hell spewing evil to the world.
At the Square
Standing on the steps of the bandstand in the Public Square in Mansfield, Carry Nation wholeheartedly embraced her First Amendment rights and freely spoke her concerns to an attentive cluster of 300-400 people.
Her speech was reported in both Mansfield newspapers that day, and, according to which version you read it was either “harmless business,” or a “harangue in Central Park.” The Mansfield Daily Shield, taking a perspective from the Democratic party, found her lighthearted and entertaining, no doubt because she often scolded the Republican party. The News, printing the Republicans view, was much less amused, saying “she raved like (she was) mad.”
When her speech concluded, Carry Nation was pressed for time to make it to the railroad station to catch the next B&O southbound to Mt. Vernon. Before she left the Square, however, she exercised the right of Free Trade while she still had an audience. She never traveled anywhere without a carpetbag full of souvenirs for sale, and she never lacked for clientele with ready cash who all wanted a piece of her. She sold autographed pictures for ten cents, but more popular was the little mother-of-pearl hatchet pin with an inlaid (glass) diamond that went for a quarter.
Between the Square and the B&O depot on North Mulberry Street she managed to unload nearly thirty dollars of merch.
A considerable portion of her audience accompanied Carry nation to the train, not wanting to say goodbye, and they all stood back respectfully whenever she stopped along the route to shout threats of hell, at Zoller’s Saloon and the The Bank Cafe.
Once she reached the platform at the depot with ticket in hand, she had a few moments to indulge her fans with another abbreviated spiel, and with the smoothness of any practiced snake-oil salesman she deftly imparted another $10 worth of point-of-departure purchases.
Her detractors, though never audibly vocal during her sojourn in town, couldn’t let her get away with the last word. While she was distracted by her admirers, the station’s assistant Agent sidled unnoticed over to her unattended traveling bag and slipped into it a little souvenir of Mansfield—a freshly bottled quart of Grossvater beer from the Renner & Weber Brewery on Diamond Street.
The Last Word
Historically speaking, though she didn’t live to see it, Carry Nation’s dream of an America where alcohol was outlawed did come to pass nearly a generation after her pitstop in Mansfield. It was called Prohibition and it lasted 13 years.
Through the decades since she was here, thoughts about the wisdom of telling people how to behave themselves have been volleyed back and forth over the net with inconclusive results. There is a different element of her legend, however, that she still compellingly embodies to this day, and that is: the power of one person to make her voice heard.