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Two days before Christmas 1873, in Hillsboro, Ohio—a town of 5,000 people and thirteen liquor shops—the temperance preacher Dr. Dioclesian Lewis gave a speech to several hundred townsfolk. At the end of his address Lewis called upon the women of Hillsboro to visit the local liquor stores and saloons and provide a demonstration of prayer, persuasion, and song to dissuade their patrons from drinking the intoxicating spirits on sale. The following morning, Mrs. Eliza J. Thompson, daughter of a former governor and the town's most prominent woman, was unanimously elected president of what would be called the Committee of Visitation, and the women of Hillsboro went to work.
Lewis had specifically instructed the women on the tactics to use. They must first attempt to ask sellers of liquor to sign pledges that they would cease to sell it; if they refused, the women would begin prayer and song services in the establishment selling liquor. Lewis recognized the virtuousness of the female sex and the emotional impact women would have. As a result, he decreed that only women should participate, although male support—both financial and moral— was important, the men were to remain in the background.
Quickly the women's efforts began to meet with success. In a relatively small rural community where most people knew each other, men were shamed into avoiding the saloon. For many, the prospect of clambering over a praying friend or neighbor in order to get a drink became too daunting and the bars soon emptied. In other cases, where saloons were operating without licenses or were known to serve minors, the crusaders threatened to invoke the law unless they closed.
"After calling at all drug stores," wrote Mrs. Thompson (wrongly inferring that the results were immediate), "the pledge being signed by all save one, when counted various saloons and hotels with varied success, until by continuous daily visitations with persuasion, prayer, song, and Scripture reading, the drinking places of the town were reduced from 13 to one drugstore, one hotel, and two saloons, and they sold very cautiously." In actuality, this partial victory had required almost two months of constant hounding and special prayer meetings staged every morning and mass meetings each evening.
Lewis was a veteran campaigner, not just on temperance, but on a wide range of feminist issues. However his greatest successes came as a temperance leader. He was an inspiring and charismatic speaker, captivating audiences with the harrowing tales of his boozy father and long suffering mother, who eventually fought back. Leading other wives with drunken husbands in a praying campaign against the saloon keeper who supplied the booze to her husband, Lewis's mother had prevailed upon the saloonkeeper to seek an alternative means of earning a living. "Ladies," Lewis would conclude his lecture, "You might do the same here if you had the faith."
Within months the prayer and visitation brigades of Hillsboro had exploded into a fully fledged temperance campaign—the Woman's Crusade—that spanned America's rural Midwest. Word spread quickly around Ohio about the women of Hillsboro and there was barely a community in the state not planning a crusade of its own or awaiting the arrival of Dr. Lewis. Not only did the religious press begin to report on the work of the Ohio women, but other newspapers, such as the New York Tribune which sent out a reporter to follow Dr. Lewis, began to pick up on his deeds. This ignited the crusade, spreading word far beyond the rural communities where it started and beyond the borders of Ohio. Within weeks of appearing at Hillsboro, Lewis was accepting invitations to lecture and organize praying bands as far away as Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, Lewis did not believe that the crusade could succeed in the large cities, where liquor traffic was strongly entrenched in the politics, business, and the culture of the metropolis, and he urged the women to confine their efforts to small towns and villages. As such, the depiction of temperance campaigners outside a New York saloon, shown below, is either an unusual event or springs from the imagination of the artist.
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While Lewis was unquestionably an inspirational and even incendiary presence, it was ultimately the women who organized their own protests and, as he had himself envisaged, had the greatest impact on those they visited. Many embarked on their crusades without ever hearing Lewis speak. Usually the women came from the upper classes of their towns. Mark Twain characterized them as women who were "not the inferior sorts, the very best in their village communities."
The women were highly vigilant in monitoring their local liquor dealers. They were informed of their prospective shipments, and learned when deliveries would be made to incompliant saloons. Invariably, when a delivery was made, the crusaders would be waiting outside the saloon ready to point the finger of scorn at those who continued to sell liquor.
As befits what was effectively a religious crusade, a number of so-called miracles were reported. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, a saloon keeper set fierce dogs upon a Mrs. Charles Wheeler as she knelt praying on the sidewalk. Apparently, without even ceasing her prayer, she invoked the power of God to tame the dogs. The dogs then crouched at her feet quietly and even meekly followed her home. Scores of such tales were spread by the press throughout the crusade.
Though the women accomplished a good deal less than they claimed, they were instrumental in obtaining indictments of about 1,000 liquor licensing offenders. At the height of the crusade, 17,000 small town Ohio saloons, drug stores, and other dispensers of drink by the glass went temporarily out of business, a further 1,000 closed in New York State, and throughout the country, almost 30,000 closed. Eight of Ohio's biggest distilleries suspended operations, as did 750 breweries elsewhere. There was a consequent decline in beer consumption estimated at 6,000,000 gallons, with a loss to government in liquor taxes exceeding $1 million.
The initial excitement created by the crusade began to subside by the summer of 1874 and the successes of the prayer and visitation brigades soon proved ephemeral. Within a year virtually every town that had witnessed a crusade had as many saloons and drinking establishments as before the movement.
There was, nevertheless, a significant legacy left by the temperance crusaders. The multitude of local organizations the crusade left behind united under the banner of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Within a decade the WCTU became the largest political organization of women in the world. Its inspirational leader, Miss Frances Willard, like many of its members had first become involved in temperance during the crusade. She united temperance with a wider agenda of feminist issues and the alliance of the WCTU with prohibition politics in the 1910s would be instrumental in gaining American women the vote.
The women's crusade also helped revitalize the American temperance movement. The country had previously been preoccupied with the Civil War and subsequent rebuilding. As a result, the prohibition statues of the 1850s—the so-called Maine Laws, when thirteen states and two territories adopted prohibition and several others came very close— had virtually been dismantled. Within a few years of the Woman's Crusade, Kansas readopted prohibition and anti-liquor agitation had become increasingly part of the national mainstream political agenda. As a third party, the Prohibition Party had a decisive role in the 1884 presidential election and a few years later the Anti-Saloon League was created. As a lobbying group, the Anti-Saloon League had a dramatic impact on Washington politics, leading the way to a political shift against liquor interests so seismic that the sale and manufacture of alcohol was prohibited in 1919 by a constitutional amendment.
Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion. New York: Doubleday, 1950.
Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1973.
Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. Boston: Little Brown, 1962.