First Draft Follies: The “Women’s Crusade” of the 1870s, Part One

Part One — Part Two — Part Three 

Welcome to First Draft Follies, an ongoing series at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification. When the material is lengthy, I break it into several parts; this is part one of three. The setting here is the early 1870s, when the American temperance movement, which had been derailed by the Civil War, regrouped and renewed its efforts to eliminate alcohol in the United States.

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The “Women’s Crusade” of the early 1870s was the inadvertent by-product of an otherwise ordinary evening of entertainment. In the 1870s, lectures and speeches were the most common forms of mass entertainment. Experts of all sorts toured the United States speaking to large audiences on everything from homeopathy to hydropathy; transmigration to trans-Atlantic travel.

Among them was Diocletian Lewis, a physician-reformer with interests in abolition, women’s rights, and temperance. In late 1873, he took the platform in front of a crowd of about a thousand at a hall in Fredonia, New York. There, he touted the virtues of temperance, denounced the evils of liquor, and regaled his listeners with tales of drink-induced woe and degeneracy.

Lewis capped his discourse with an anecdote about how, some forty years earlier, his own mother, married to a drunk, had led a group of her friends into a saloon where they prayed until the bar owner was persuaded to shut his doors and find other employment.

The following morning, a hundred or so women who had attended Lewis’s lecture gathered at a Baptist church to discuss what they had heard. Shortly after noon, the women began marching, first to the bar at the Taylor House Hotel, and from there to the city’s eight liquor retail outlets.

At each stop, the women demanded that the male owners of the establishments abandon their devilish business and then prayed for their redemption. Only one of the men so targeted agreed to find another line of trade.

Over the next few weeks, the Women’s Crusade spread across New York and the midwest. It arrived in Milwaukee in late February when the city’s “gentle raiders” mailed postcards to hundreds of saloons. “Sir,” the cards read, “believing your own conscience must smite you for your criminality in dealing out liquid damnation to our husbands, sons and brothers, we propose to aid that conscience by praying in your gilded hall of vice, next Monday March 2.” (*1)

On the appointed day, the women’s efforts provided plenty of entertainment for the throngs who pushed past them on Milwaukee’s sidewalks, but not much else. No saloonkeepers repented; none shut their doors.

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*1: “The Gentle Raiders,” Milwaukee Sentinel March 2, 1874, p. 1.

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