It is among the most treasured quotes in Cincinnati history, right up there with Mark Twain’s alleged remark about our town and the end of the world. Almost every book of Cincinnati history features saloon-smasher Carrie Nation’s famous quote somewhere, including the revered WPA Guide to Cincinnati:
“But Carrie did not lift her hatchet arm as she marched up Vine Street; she seemed awed by the formidable array of saloons, beer gardens and concert halls. Asked why she had not broken any windows, she replied: ‘I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block.’ ”
There it is. One pithy sentence that summed up the utter depravity of the Queen City’s saloon culture: “‘I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block.”
But did she really say it?
It sounds like Carrie. It really does. Mrs. Nation was a radical temperance advocate, jailed repeatedly for grabbing a hatchet and smashing saloons throughout legally “dry” Kansas.
As much as that quote sounds like her, it is interesting that none of Cincinnati’s newspapers in 1901 reported a quote anything like that from Mrs. Nation. This was a time when newspapers loved a good quote, and loved a good quote that they made up even better.
Carrie Nation’s longest visit to Cincinnati occurred toward the end of March 1901. She had been in and out of jail in Topeka for demolition of property. Her lecture tours raised the funds to pay her fines and damage awards. (She also made money selling souvenir hatchets.)
The Cincinnati visit was arranged by Marie C. Morse and Margaret K. Porter who, together, created a company called the Popular Lecture Bureau to book Carrie Nation in Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, Dayton, Columbus, and Cincinnati.
Captain William F. Norton, owner of the Louisville Auditorium and noted comedian under the Dickensian pen name of “Daniel Quilp,” refused to rent his theater on the grounds that it was “not a freak museum.” Miss Morse was outraged:
“This Quilp is a smart Aleck! Quilp is laboring under the delusion that he is cute, and I don’t want Mrs. Nation to hear what he said in this telegram. It would make her awfully angry, and she might bring her hatchet with her. That would be disastrous.”
In Cincinnati, Police Superintendent Philip P. Deitsch assigned two detectives to escort Mrs. Nation. Since she had announced her intention to visit some unsavory districts, the detectives offered protection not only for the infamous tourist, but for the properties on her itinerary. It was the “ragtime resorts” that caught the attention of the newspapers. She popped into saloons on Longworth as well as Vine and preached sermons in all of them.
But what did she say?
Here are some quotes from newspapers of the day:
Commercial Tribune, March 27, 1901: “I can’t smash the saloons here because I’ve not got the protection, but if I ever get those of Kansas wiped out, I’ll come here and wipe them out.”
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 27, 1901: “I’m sorry I promised those girls who have me in charge to stay out of these saloons. I shall never put myself under restraint again! I don’t like it! I should have gone into those hell-holes today! I might have done some good, and I may never get back here again!”
The Cincinnati Times-Star, March 27, 1901: “When Mrs. Nation entered the place [Proprietor Ed] Branigan was standing at the bar with a friend drinking beer. She immediately walked up to him and, grasping him by the hand, said she was glad to meet him. She assured him that she would not demolish his fixtures and then repaired to the rear of the hall.”
Cincinnati Post, March 29, 1901: “Mrs. Nation declared that she would have smashed saloons in Cincinnati and Lexington, Ky., had she not been under $2,000 bond.”
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 29, 1901: “Nothing would have kept me from doing some smashing here and in Lexington but the fact that I would have been out in jail, and I am under $2,000 bond to appear for trial in Kansas.”
It appears that it was not self-control or exhaustion that stayed Carrie Nation’s smashing on Vine Street. It was her speaking contract and the danger of forfeiting her bond back in Kansas.
Carrie Nation returned briefly to Cincinnati in 1908 to campaign for Prohibition candidates. She met with (and scolded) William Howard Taft, popped into Police Court, and visited a few more saloons and brothels, but appears to have said nothing about Vine Street or exhaustion.
That famous quote? I can’t find a report of it from Carrie Nation’s lifetime. It only appears in print after she was dead.
If you have a source, I would love to see it.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities