Carry A. Nation Bar Smashing Site
The Carey Hotel was located pretty much right in the middle of Wichita, Kansas. East Douglas Avenue used to be the site of a fancy hotel that was complete with one of the finest bars in the state. The site became historically significant on December 27, 1900 when Carry Amelia Nation ransacked it as a part of her campaign for temperance. Carry A. Nation’s crusade was not only important to understand the prohibition sentiment of the time, but it also serves as the subject of an ongoing debate over what Nation’s true motivations were. Some say she smashed up bars to get back at her ex-husband who ended up dead of alcoholism. Others claim that she was an honest religious crusader for temperance who also supported the women’s rights aspect of the movement. Still others claim that she was simply a crazy person going around vandalizing honest businesses in a mad rage. This historic site is no longer open to the public because it has been turned into an apartment complex. However, it has been registered on the National Register of Historic Places and features a life-size Carry A. Nation statue out front.
Backstory and Context
On December 27, 1900 Carry A. Nation arrived in Wichita, Kansas intent on leaving the city with fewer bars than she found it. That night she scouted the local bar scene until the Carey Hotel in particular caught her eye, perhaps due to the provocative painting on its wall entitled, “Cleopatra at the Bath”. Nation went back to sleep and awoke early the next morning to go about her business. She walked out of her room and exclaimed, “Men of Wichita, this is the right arm of God and is destined to wreck every saloon in your city.” This bold proclamation was then followed by her doing several thousands of dollars in damage to the Carey Hotel including destroying the painting that initially drew her ire. Nation was promptly thrown in jail, but the story of this event spread quickly across the state. Carry A. Nation had destroyed perhaps the finest bar in all of Kansas as a step on her violent campaign to enforce prohibition1.
Carry A. Nation is a complicated figure whose motivations are not easily understood by everyone. Her critics simply dismiss her as either crazy, hysterical or overly religious, but her motivations are not so easily dismissed. Nation did have a history of mental illness in her family, and she was an incredibly devout Christian, but some of her motivation was unquestionably driven by her experience with her first husband who was a chronic drunk and drove her to get out of that relationship. Herbert Asbury characterizes this relationship as poisoning her towards men and leading to her seek revenge on all men2. However, a more charitable assessment of her motives would be to spare other women from going through the things that she went through with her first husband.
While the motivations behind Nation’s actions can be debated, her actions cannot be. In June of 1900 Carry Nation claimed to be lead by a vision from God went to Kiowa, Kansas to smash up her first bar. Carry Nation from there went on to bust up bars throughout the state of Kansas. Carry went from using bats and rocks to using her trademark hatchet. As her exploits gained notoriety, Nation became better at promoting herself. Carry Nation styled herself as a religious crusader fighting for women against the scourge of alcoholism. She used a backstory that was built around her ex-husband’s alcoholism and visions sent from God to craft a mythology that surrounded her. This was a part of the reason that her exploits gained national attention1.
When Carry A. Nation walked into the glitziest bar in the biggest city in Kansas, she had already gained national attention even without the hatchet that she would come to be known for. Nation had already crafted much of the myth that she would rely on for the rest of her career. The proof of the lasting legacy of Nation’s acts of righteous vandalism is that people continued debating what she should mean to the country. Some argued that she could be considered insane3, while some argued that she was fighting for women’s rights4. But one thing is for sure is that when kids growing up in Kansas learn Kansas History they definitely learn about Carry A. Nation trying to enforce prohibition in their Kansas history class. Whatever her methods, Carry A. Nation got her point across.
2 Asbury, Herbert. Carry Nation. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1929.
3 Darling, Arthur Burr. “Glimpses of a Prairie City.” Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 67, Oct. 1941, pp. 490–499. Third.
4 Stanley, Judith M. “A Sound Rendering of Women's History.” The History Teacher, vol. 6, no. 4, 1973, pp. 511–522., doi:10.2307/492448.