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Friday, November 06, 2015

Review: Vessel of Wrath by Robert Taylor Lewis

Marvelous book.  I challenge anyone to read the page 14 without rolling in the aisles. It was written in 1966, so some of his amusing comments regarding women and the right to vote in Switzerland don’t apply, but they amuse, nevertheless.

Carry Nation, or Mrs. Nation as he  calls her, is “sharply remembered as the apostle of reform violence, prime dragoness on a field strewn with the bones of sinners.”  She opposed just about everything including “alcohol, tobacco, sex, politics, government (national, state, and local), the Masonic Lodge, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan.” Some of her methods were regarded as extreme even by her friends; it was one thing to threaten a man with a hatchet, it was something else to hit him with it. She regarded the distinction as overly subtle.

Insanity ran in her family.  Her aunt, during certain lunar phases, made repeated attempts to clamber up on the roof and convert herself  into a weather vane. A cousin, at the age of 40, unexpectedly returned to all fours, and was only restored to the vertical after heroic struggles by his minister. Mrs. Nation's mother suffered from  the illusion that she was Queen Victoria.  Carry often suffered visions involving snakes but those are no more suspect than those of Joan of Arc , both of whom showed an extraordinary interest in edged tools.  She wanted desperately to be shot so as to become a martyr to the cause and it's only probably due to the extraordinary western hospitality that she wasn't. Like Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who believe that all women should be stuffed into pants whether they like that or not, Carrie Nation believed that she alone knew what was best for everyone else.

Her father liked to move around a lot and following one move Carry came down quite ill. Assuming that the illness related to some petty thievery (the author doesn’t go into this much.) “It was thought necessary by the authorities that she get to a church as soon as possible, and after a few weeks more dead than alive, she was conveyed in a carriage to a nearby Sunday School, where the minister gave her a book was explaining that petty thieves are as monstrous as bank robbers in the eyes of the Lord. It did not explain the full cycle of larceny where in effect called tycoons work up to the level of stealing whole corporations, railroads, windows savings, gold reserves and even nations at which point the behavior became honorable, &, in fact, widely admired.”  :)

“History is replete with incidents to prove that a Baptist at full gallop is a fearsome engine of piety. It seems likely that no other religion extracts such a full measure of self-abasement from its practitioners. At various times and places, a Baptist could be arrested by a deacon, then find himself  in prison for riding a horse on Sunday; minor blasphemers could be administered 40 lashes; dancing and card playing where breaches of conduct were on a virtual par with murder.”

She had little luck with men. On the whole, Carry’s contacts with the male sex were enough to send the mildest of women smashing through the center of their recreation. “Many of the people with whom Carry tilted were as reliable as a grizzly with a toothache; she began to brace men on the streets - snatching pipes, cigars and Mexican cigarettes from the males that would have shot of fellow male for a careless slip of the tongue.”

Alcohol was a serious problem. Hard liquor was very prevalent and everyone drank  enormous quantities. There were also imitation alcoholic beverages. One was called “Blue Ruin” and it was regularly fed to slaves and servants;  those who survived consuming it over the years appeared to have a somewhat altered complexion, reminiscent of “a drowned corpse long in the water.”

“Crying babies were not a serious problem in colonial times; they were probably dosed with enough alcohol to shift them into a state of glassy eyed stupefaction, upon which the caterwauling dried up, to be replaced by pleasurable cooling or song, the intoxicated infants version of quote sweet Adeline.”

Interestingly Carrey's first foray into saloon destruction was in Kiowa, Kansas where she literally destroyed three different saloons. Ironically she couldn’t be charged with a crime since the sale of alcohol in saloons was prohibited by law so technically she was destroying something that was illegal. The novel solution of the town leaders was to simply ignore the damage as if nothing had happened.  From there she moved on to Wichita where she and her growing  acolytes of the WCTU adopted the famous icon forever attached to her name.

Was she crazy?  I’ll leave it up to you to decide. A fascinating tale, drolly told.
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