Ken Burns Takes on Prohibition

Carry A. Nation with Hatchet and Bible
Temperance Crusader Carry A. Nation with Hatchet and Bible
Can you identify this woman of modest raiment, resolutely bearing her Bible and hatchet? No, not Lizzie Borden, who tends to look positively serene in photos. This is Carry A. Nation (even if many misspell her as “Carrie” and the A. really stands for Amelia), crusader for national temperance, posed as if to enter a saloon and execute one of her self-styled “hatchetations” upon the demon drink and the general premises.

The passage and eventual repeal of the Constitution's Eighteenth Amendment pitted the impassioned zeal of true believers against the wider citzenry, who exhibited lawlessness from the merely complacent to the vigorous. It's a story of laws, society, violence, and organized crime. The master of the documentary, Ken Burns, will turn his slow pan toward it in a new film co-directed by Lynn Novick, fittingly titled Prohibitionto air on PBS this October 2nd. In the meantime, check out this tempting preview. Anyone else suddenly thirsty?

Still image via Kansas Historical Society, which has an excellent online exhibit about the Famous and Original Bar Room Smasher.


  1. kluelos

    While this is quite exciting, I have to say, “TV is not what I came here for”. I dropped by from expecting books, not television, so I won’t be hanging around.

    Somebody ought to make it very clear to cross-site advertisers that this site isn’t a mystery version of the SF site, or you’ll get more disappointed visitors like me.

  2. Clare 2e

    We’re covering crime stories across media- we have a lot of great excerpts, orginal stories, clips from audiobooks, crime comics, discussion of literary figures and forms, but also movies–including contemporary as well as film noir– and TV. Since the regular season of so many popular crime shows are ending now, there’s more of that at the moment, but many crime fans enjoy stories in lots of forms and venues. True crime is part of our scope, too, and organized crime as it emerged during Prohibition became such a wellspring of inspiration for so much wonderful fiction, it’s fascinating–we hope– to learn more about the genesis, to see people as they lived, to separate facts from stereotypes and gain greater clarity on the period.

    If your main interest is literary crime, I hope you’ll come back to try out the great pieces we have on Poe and Christie, on new noir, on the form of the thriller, on scads of terrific international crime writers, (both historic and current) and join the discussions of great crime on the page.

  3. Rosalie Schwartz

    Prohibition pushed another woman to national prominence. In 1921 President Warren G. Harding appointed Mabel Walker Willebrandt to the position of Assistant Attorney General in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Although she personally was not opposed to alcohol consumption, she took her responsibility seriously. For eight years she was the First Legal Lady of the Land, the highest-ranking female public official in the nation. Sometimes called Prohibition Portia, she wielded the law as a weapon against Prohibition violators and corrupt politicians. You can read about her life and work in “A Twist of Lemon.”

  4. Terrie Farley Moran

    The Prohibition era is tied to the issue of women sufferage. Women got the right to vote and many jumped into “flapper freedom.” Although both of my grandmothers were married before the 18th or the 19th amendment passed, one grandma wore short skirts, rolled stockings and smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol illegally. The other didn’t. I am always fascinated by the 1920s and 1930s. Thanks for this heads up.

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