Visitors entering the Hillsboro city limits are greeted with a prominently displayed sign commemorating Eliza Jane Thompson, an early temperance crusader. However, the road to temperance for which Thompson and others vociferously advocated in the latter part of the nineteenth century was replete with many twists and turns that eventually culminated in the long since repealed Eighteenth Amendment, which barred, “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”, at the Federal level, to be enforced one year following its initial ratification on Jan. 16, 1919.
Citing the devastating effects on men who frequented saloons, and the resultant secondary effects on their respective wives, children and households, the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, or WCTU, is a national social protest movement of which Thompson, whose father was a former governor of Ohio, became a revered local leader. Having lost her son to the deleterious effects of alcoholism, the Crusade was personal to her.
In a campaign encompassing 1873-1874, Thompson and like-minded followers congregated and organized, often at the First Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro, to enact organized protests imploring local druggists and saloon owners to stop selling alcohol.
Their efforts have been described in the popular Ken Burns directed PBS documentary “Prohibition”, which narrated the origins of the temperance movement as it spurred political and social action throughout the country. The information that describes the pivotal role of Hillsboro citizens in kick-starting the temperance movement is contained in the first episode of the documentary series entitled “A Nation of Drunkards”.
The documentary, narrated in by Peter Coyote, described the influence of Thompson on the burgeoning temperance movement, which is estimated to have had its documented start as early as 1826 with the orations of the Rev. Lyman Beecher and his, “impassioned sermons” as a “whirlwind.”
“Every whirlwind has its first leaf, for the laws of motion oblige it to begin somewhere in particular. The whirlwind began in the little town of Hillsboro in 1873,” according to the documentary.
That winter, Thompson was suddenly spurred to protest the ravages of alcohol addiction as she and others took to the streets of Hillsboro. On Christmas Eve 1873, she and hundreds of other women, dressed all in black, congregated at the First Presbyterian Church to sing in unison, then continued on to make several stops throughout the town, imploring local druggists to curtail their alcohol sales.
Their first stop, according to the documentary, “was William Smith’s drugstore on East Main Street. He was a licensed physician, so they asked him to sign a pledge, promising never again to fulfill any other doctor’s prescription for alcohol. He signed.”
Their local campaign continued that night and, “two other druggists assured the ladies of their good wishes and agreed to stop selling alcohol entirely.”
A noted quote, attributed to the writings of Eliza Jane Thompson, reflected upon her courageous ability to have stood up against the predominant culture and rally others to do the same, particularly at a time when women were not afforded such opportunities for participation in public affairs.
When a “visiting temperance lecturer” visited Thompson and encouraged her to “take to the streets in protest” in an effort to enact real social change, her husband scoffed at the idea.
“Thompson’s husband, a local judge, thought the idea of women marching in public sheer tomfoolery,” according to the documentary.
Thompson, however, was far from dissuaded.
“I ventured to remind him that the men had been in the tomfoolery business for a long time, and suggested that the women should now take part,” she wrote.
The documentary further described the historical actions of the women in Hillsboro.
“They go out and they gather in front of a saloon and they go down on their knees and they start praying, blocking the entrance, which is this act of radical civil disobedience, but that is also completely acceptable female behavior. And the movement takes off like wildfire,” eventually making the cover of The New York Times.
From Hillsboro, similar protests started happening all over the state and nation, albeit not always with as much benevolent voluntary cooperation from accosted saloon proprietors, some of whom were vehemently unwilling to acquiesce to their demands.
“In Cincinnati, fire companies sprayed the praying women with freezing water. Bartenders pretended to welcome them inside, drenched them with buckets of beer, then drove them back out into the snow. The owner of a German beer garden hauled a cannon up to the entrance and threatened to blow away the first crusader who tried to get past him,” said the documentary.
Undeterred, “one woman climbed onto the cannon and led her sisters in song. After an hour or so, the owner surrendered,” the documentary said.
The documentary emphasized the fact that the temperance movement was seeking voluntary compliance.
Despite all of the efforts, no substantive legal statutes or sociocultural changes resulted and the gains that had been made had slowly been compromised.
“No laws had been changed. Men still wanted a drink. Within a year or two most liquor stores were back in business. Everything that they had worked so hard for sort of falls apart. And it becomes increasingly clear to them that this model of moral persuasion, of setting a good example, isn’t going to cut it,” the documentary said.
Frances Willard, who became the first national president of the WCTU in 1879, said, “It has come and gone, the whirlwind, but it has set forth in motion forces which each day become more potent, and will sweep up on until the rum power in America is overthrown.”
Willard, described as a master strategist and a bit of a whirlwind herself would then, “command a nonviolent national army 250,000 strong against alcohol with the WCTU.”
The WCTU still exists as an active organization, “preserving the past and transforming the future,” and is planning its 150th national convention later this year.
While the WCTU is a religious organization, secular opposition to the affects of alcohol consumption also started to crop up during the nineteenth century.
“The Washingtonian Temperance Society was a leading nineteenth-century American temperance organization,” according to the digitized Papers of Abraham Lincoln Library.
“In 1840, six hard-drinking friends met in a tavern in Baltimore, Maryland and pledged to one another that they would never take another drink.” They established what they proudly called a “society of reformed drunkards” and named it after the first president of the Republic,” according to the documentary.
Parochial opposition to this early temperance group highlighted conflicts concerning the intersectionality of substance abuse, addiction treatment and religion. But clergymen denounced the Washingtonians as ungodly because they dared claim that drunkards could be reformed by their fellow sufferers without joining any church.
Of all the protest movements seeking social, political and statutory reform toward the goal of alcohol prohibition during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the documentary posited that none was more successful than the Anti-Saloon League.
Rather than appealing to Christian morality and invoking prayer and gendered solidarity like the WCTU, or offering peer support and self-disclosure like the Washingtonians, the documentary said that the Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, was run much like a modern corporation and its appeals were not to saloon owners, at the ground level, but to the politicians who made laws that governed the sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol throughout the country. They sought to dismantle alcohol on a widespread, statutory level through political action and lobbying, employing thousands to do so.
In part due to the concerted political approach taken by the Anti-Saloon League, as well its ardent predecessor, the WCTU, by 1902 the Beal Municipal Local Option Law in Ohio, was secured after a 10 years struggle, according to historical writings attributed to Mrs. Annie W. Clark, a former Ohio WCTU president.
One of the definitive goals of the Anti-Saloon League was to allow local municipalities to prohibit alcohol. To this end, the Beal’s local option election law afforded just that for Ohio.
“Under this law, 40 percent of the electors in any municipal corporation, by petition, can require a special election to be called to determine whether the liquor traffic shall be excluded from such municipality, a majority vote at the election deciding the question,” Clark said.
The Beal’s local option law was passed in 1902 and very shortly thereafter, Hillsboro became one of the first to take advantage of it as a petition was filed and approved with a special election to be held on Dec. 1, 1902.
In the weeks leading up to the special election the local newspaper, The Hillsborough Gazette, a forerunner of what is now The Times-Gazette, published copious letters to the editor publishing the public’s opinions about the upcoming election, itself taking an editorial policy of tempered neutrality.
The citizens of Hillsboro at that time voted to exclude liquor traffic from the town.
In month before the law went into effect, the newspaper was inundated with advertising from retailers selling surplus alcohol and encouraging customers to “stock up” before the imminently enacted ban.
Dr. Tara Beery of the Highland County Historical Society, said that the provenance of the ladies whose efforts comprised the Temperance Crusades protests was notable in that, “They were the richest ladies in town,” part of “Hillsboro high society.”
Beery described the protesters’ itinerary as they relentlessly pursued their quest for temperance in local society.
“They stopped at W.R. Smith’s drugstore first (Ayres Drugs). He argued for an hour before signing. They next went to the drugstore of Seybert and Iseman (on East Main Street two doors east of today’s Merchant’s Bank) and they signed immediately. They went to the Palace Drugstore (today the southern half of the old First Security/Fifth Third Bank building on South High Street), which was owned by William Henry Harrison Dunn.
Beery said that unlike the other druggists, Dunn was steadfast and reluctant to capitulate to the protesters’ demands. “He refused to sign and the marchers threatened his business with a boycott, but he still would not sign,” she said.
The marchers proceeded to The West Main Street drugstore of James J, Brown, who signed the petition quickly. The ladies then retired for the day, which was also Christmas Eve, according to reports.
“The next day, Christmas, was spent at home and church, then they went out again the next day, this time visiting saloons and hotels,” Berry said. These establishments, in addition to pharmacies and retailers of medicinal drugs, were the other places where alcohol was commonly acquired by the citizens of the town.
The proprietors of the establishments proved to be unyielding and contrary to the ladies’ collective social reform efforts.
Beery said, “These men were much more resistant to signing the pledge. The marchers stopped at the saloons of Jake Uhrig (somewhere on East Main Street), John Bales and Robert Ward (on North High Street). The marchers also stopped at the Kramer House on West Main Strett, The Elliott House (the former Parker House that is now demolished) and The Woodrow House (on the northeast corner of Beech and High streets where former Armory is located.).” Regarding the chronology, Beery concluded that, “other saloon owners were confronted later.”
The social movement that had much of its start in Ohio eventually resulted in widespread political support for, and the ratification of, The Eighteenth Amendment, ushering in the infamous era of Prohibition, during which the selling of alcohol was banned all over the country, in addition to and superseding local option laws that had effectively and incrementally banned alcohol in the preceding years.
This era, rather than achieving the objective of compliant tee totaling, instead resulted in rampant lack of compliance and enforcement, giving rise to still-used terminology like “bootleg” for the opportunistic entrepreneurs who furtively sold alcohol from flasks concealed in their boots, and speakeasies, or underground metropolitan clubs that experienced their heyday in the 1920s amidst growing economic prosperity, rapid changing of social norms, including women’s suffrage, and the proliferation and increasing popularity of jazz music. Alcohol consumption, though technically illegal, had simply moved from the male frequented saloons to the lively speakeasies, frequented by the metropolitan societal elite in places like New York and whose lurid exploits were recounted in publications including The New Yorker, according to the documentary.
The public flouting of the laws prohibiting alcohol, the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression, as well as changing public sentiments, were but a few causative factors that spurred American legislators to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty First Amendment,
What had began as a burgeoning local movement and flowered into a national one, was now again the purview of state governments and local municipalities which continue to have a diverse array of statutes pertaining to alcohol sales in their respective jurisdictions.
The power of persistence and protest, though, will not be forgotten.
Juliane Cartaino is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.