Shelf Life

Drunks: An American History

Read an excerpt from Christopher Finan’s look at the booze-soaked history of America

By Charlotte Salley | August 7, 2017

Blitzed, bombed, and blotto. Toasted, tanked, and tight. Smashed, sloshed, soused, plastered, pie-eyed—the many waggish nicknames we have for being drunk would seem to gloss over the dangers of overindulgence, as Christopher Finan shows in his new book, Drunks: An American History. Finan looks thoughtfully into the ramifications of 300 years of alcohol abuse, working through America’s pendulum shifts from the age of cheap whiskey to temperance societies, Prohibition, and the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Along the way, we get a glimpse at heart-hardened hospitals, religious revivals, and a dubious “gold cure” for alcoholism. In the excerpt below, a woman’s hatred of the evils of alcohol leads to aggravated assault and the destruction of property.


The men in the saloon looked fearfully through the makeshift barricade protecting them from the tall woman at the door. In Topeka, Kansas, in 1901, saloons were called “joints” and their owners were “jointists.” The woman was Carry Nation. Six feet tall and weighing 175 pounds, “the Kansas cyclone” had been terrorizing jointists for months by smashing their fixtures, first with bricks and stones, then an iron rod, and finally a seven-pound hatchet that had once belonged to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Her enemies considered her a crank. She believed God had sent her on this mission, but she was not without a sense of humor. “Boys, boys, come and let me in,” she urged as she stood outside the Topeka saloon in late January. “Your mother would like to talk to you …. I’m not mad at you, boys. I’m not hating you a bit, even when I come around with my hatchet.” But Mother Nation was also emphatic. “I give you fair warning,” she said. “Just you close up and get out of this business …. If you don’t get out of this, boys, I’ll be around in a few days and just break up your wicked little shops for you.”

Carry Nation hated alcohol for what it had done to her. At nineteen, while living with her parents in Missouri, she had fallen in love with an alcoholic, Charles Gloyd, a veteran of the Union army who boarded with her family at the end of the Civil War. Her parents warned Carry that Gloyd was a drinker, but the couple carried on a clandestine correspondence and finally married. She realized her mistake almost immediately and left Gloyd, who died two years later. Carry blamed alcohol for the destruction of her marriage, for the ill health of a daughter who was born soon after her separation from Gloyd, and for the seven years of economic hardship that finally forced her to find a new husband, David Nation. She naturally sympathized with the goals of the WCTU and organized a chapter in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. She also became a jail evangelist. Her work with the inmates convinced her “that almost everyone who was in jail was directly or indirectly there from the influence of intoxicating drinks.”

Excerpted from Drunks: An American History by Christopher M. Finan (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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