...in 1856, 200 women, some of them wielding hatchets and ranging in age from 37 to 75, rampaged through the town of Rockport destroying every container of alcohol they could find. One eyewitness recorded in his journal: "There has been exciting times a-going on here today." Weeks of planning preceded the five-hour raid. When it was over, the women had spilled hundreds of gallons of liquor. Over the next decade, alcohol sales in the town steadily declined. Rockport became one of several dozen Massachusetts towns where one could not buy liquor. Not until April 2005 would residents vote to permit inns, hotels, and restaurants to serve alcohol with meals. Twelve towns in the Commonwealth are still dry today, down from 17 in 2004.
Since early colonial days, alcohol often hard cider was Americans' drink of choice with a meal. People steered clear of water, which they rightly believed might be contaminated. Liquor was considered virtually essential at all occasions, whether it was the ordination of a minister or a pauper's funeral (both of which would have been paid for from the town treasury). Inevitably, though, excessive alcohol consumption began to threaten social stability.
Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) is often credited with initiating the temperance movement in the United States. "A people corrupted with strong drink cannot long be a free people," he wrote in An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and the Mind, published in Boston in 1790. He made his point with a "Moral Thermometer," illustrating how "cider, wine or porter" could result in "cheerfulness, strength and nourishment, when taken only at meals, and in moderate quantities," while hard liquor would lead to various "vices and diseases."
New Yorkers established the country's first temperance organization. Massachusetts followed in 1813, with the formation of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (later called the Massachusetts Temperance Society).Women made up the majority of the members of this and other temperance societies. At a time when married women had no property rights not even the right to their own wages women were at great risk if the "dark beverage of hell" took hold of their menfolk.
Temperance supporters collected pledges, held meetings, and lobbied legislators. They published books of songs, with titles such as "Touch Not the Cup" and "Twas the Last, Last Rumseller." Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, a novel recounting the stories of three men debilitated by alcoholism, published in Boston in 1854, sold more than a million copies, second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
However strongly they favored temperance, few groups chose to protest the way the Rockport women did. In the mid-1800s, Rockport was a tiny, isolated village perched on the edge of Cape Ann. Its men made their living from the sea. At the best of times they earned barely enough to scrape by; when they spent their meager share of a catch on drink, the consequences for their families were dire.
In most traditional accounts, Harriet Jumper, a 75-year-old single woman, respected in town for her skill as a seamstress and with medicinal herbs, was the leader of the "hatchet gang" of 1856. Many meetings at which women shared their distress over alcohol abuse were held in her rooms, and she was a fierce opponent of liquor. But in fact it was five other Rockport women who were responsible for planning the infamous raid of July 8th.
The preceding week, under cover of night, a number of women marked their targets with small white crosses. At 9:00 o'clock on the morning of the 8th, wrote eyewitness Ebenezer Pool, "a large number of females of Rockport" gathered "in accordance with a secret appointment" in Dock Square. They carried hatchets beneath their shawls.
The leaders unfurled a banner, a rectangle of unbleached cotton with a black hatchet painted across it and red tassels along the bottom. "From thence," continued Pool, "they with many others who followed went to places where they suspected liquor was being kept and sold to some of their husbands and friends. On finding any keg, jug, or cask having spirituous liquor in it, they moved it into the streets and there with their hatchets broke or otherwise destroyed it."
They smashed at least 50 barrels of rum in 13 different establishments. While the owners fumed and threatened, the rest of Rockport's residents stood by and watched. No one was arrested.
One outraged shop owner, Jim Brown, did file a lawsuit. The case went to trial three times. Juries, who apparently sympathized with the women, consistently ruled against Brown, only to be overturned by higher courts. Finally, in 1860, the jury verdict was upheld, and Brown was ordered to pay court costs of $346.25.
In the 1870s, the Women's Christian Temperance Union began to stage their own raids on saloons in Ohio and other parts of the country. Over the next decades, the temperance movement gained enough momentum to win an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In 1919 the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages was prohibited in the United States. Only 14 years later, Prohibition was repealed. At the tip of Cape Ann, things changed much more slowly. Except for a year-long interruption in the 1930s, Rockport remained a dry town until 2005.
Hannah and the Hatchet Gang: Rockport's Revolt Against Rum, by Eleanor C. Parsons (Phoenix Publishing, 1975).
The Boston Globe, April 17 and April 20, 2005.
Online introduction to the temperance movement.
Further information on the temperance movement.