praying the saloon shut -- 4/27/15

Today's selection -- from 1920 The Year that Made the Decade Roar by Eric Burns. Prohibition, the legislative act that banned alcohol in the United States, began in 1920. But the groundwork for Prohibition was laid in hundreds of protests and demonstrations over the many decades preceding 1920, and also in the staggeringly high alcohol consumption of Americans dating back to the very foundation of the country. One such protest happened in Hillsboro, Ohio in 1873:

"The groundwork for Prohibition [was] laid forty years before [World War I], with the prim, pious, but ultimately untiring membership of the so-called Women's Crusade, whose tactic, ingenious in its way, was to pray saloons shut. A cleric from Boston who found himself in the small southeastern Ohio town of Hillsboro as the Crusade was getting started in late December 1873 could not believe what he saw.

I came unexpectedly upon some fifty women kneeling on the pavement and stone steps before a [saloon] .... There were gathered here representatives from every household of the town. The day was ... cold; a cutting north wind swept the streets, piercing us all to the bones. The plaintive, tender, earnest tones of that wife and mother who was pleading in prayer, arose on the blast, and were carried to every heart within reach. Passers-by uncovered their heads, for the place whereon they trod was 'holy ground.' The eyes of hardened men filled with tears, and many turned away, saying that they could not bear to look upon such a sight. Then the voice of prayer was hushed; the women began to sing, softly, a sweet hymn with some old familiar words and tunes, such as our mothers sang to us in childhood days. We thought, Can mortal man resist such efforts?

"The answer, in the short term, was no. As men approached their favorite saloon and saw the women, among them their wives and daughters, kneeling not only on planked sidewalks but often in the dust that paved the streets, praying for abstinence, they were too embarrassed to enter the beverage emporium. They turned, feeling ashamed of themselves for what they had been about to do. They skulked away, hoping that loved ones had not seen them.

"The result was the 'Miracle of Hillsboro.' In two weeks, all twenty-one saloons in town had been prayed out of business. For a while.

The Crusade spread: 'east to Wheeling, West Virginia; northwest to Ripon, Wisconsin; southwest to Carthage, Missouri; and north to Minnesota.' The results, however, were not always similar to those in Hillsboro.

Sometimes bartenders 'baptized' the women with buckets of warm, sudsy beer, dumping the liquid over their heads so that they would return home from their labors smelling not of triumph but of conversion to the other side. On one occasion, and a bitterly cold one at that, a saloonkeeper turned a powerful spray of water on the crusaders, causing [historian Herbert] Asbury to remark that the 'line of praying crusaders resembled a row of icicles.' And in yet another town, a gang of thugs who had been deputized by the mayor to enforce a spur-of-the-moment decree against public praying threw a seventy-year-old woman down a flight of stairs and, after she landed, struck her on the arms a number of times with wooden clubs.

"The problem with the Women's Crusade was that its effects could not last. There were almost always more saloons in a town than there were groups of women to pray before them. The Crusaders might close one establishment with their piety, but the next remained open. When the women moved on to the next, the imbibers simply sneaked out the back door of that joint and returned to the first. Their shame had been brief; their thirst endured. In the long term, especially when viewed from a distance, the Women's Crusade was little more than a game. Musical saloons. The habitués always won. Nonetheless, a start toward a dry America, futile though it turned out to be, had been made."


Eric Burns


1920: The Year that Made the Decade Roar


Pegasus Books


Copyright 2015 by Eric Burns


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