Ladies with Hatchets

Mound City circa 1873-1874. Kansas Historical Society

In 1861, the citizens of Mound City, Kansas, had a nuisance on their hands: a saloon that served its customers indiscriminately.

According to William Mitchell’s Linn County, Kansas: A History, two inebriated soldiers had frozen to death while trying to make their way back to their posts, and another drunken soldier had shot a nurse, necessitating the amputation of part of her arm. Mrs. Ira Height, a merchant’s wife, decided that something had to be done.

On December 10, 1861, five young women, armed with axes and hatchets, arrived at the saloon. They were Amelia and Drusilla Botkin and Emma, Sarah, and Mary Wattles. Augustus Wattles, the father of the three Wattles sisters, had been a friend of abolitionist John Brown during the latter’s days in Kansas. The imprisoned Brown had remembered the Wattles family fondly to his wife in a letter dated November 16, 1859, and had mentioned “dear gentle Sarah Wattles” in particular.

Having met Mrs. Height in the town, gentle Sarah and the rest entered the bar, where the morning’s first customer was already being served, and proceeded to business. As described by Mitchell, “They first attacked the bottled goods behind the bar. Armed with a long-necked bottle, one of the girls standing on the bar would make a swipe at a whole row of bottles, smashing them and scattering their contents over the bar and floor. They broke jugs and other containers, chopped holes in kegs and poured whisky on the floor.” By the time the women had finished their work in both the front room and back room, they were nearly ankle-deep in whisky, a problem Drusilla Botkin solved by chopping a hole in the floor. When one of the saloon owners protested to Sarah, she responded, “I never did you as great a kindness as that which I am doing now.”

As this was occurring a crowd, largely sympathetic to the women, had collected to observe the goings-on, and a whisky seller from Leavenworth joined the spectators. Sarah Wattles took advantage of his distraction to walk up to his wagon, which contained barrels and kegs equipped with faucets, and to open all of the faucets so that his whisky flowed out upon the ground. When the furious seller threatened to strike Sarah, Amelia Botkin brandished her hatchet at him, and some of the citizens went so far as to put a rope around his neck. He was finally permitted to leave unharmed after being made to promise never to return to Linn County.

Their work accomplished, the young ladies, “almost drunk from the whisky fumes,” returned home. Mitchell wrote, “Their method may have been a little bit irregular. Undoubtedly it was heroic, but it was effective and it met the hearty approval of the good people of Linn County.” Decades later, Carrie Nation would visit her own “hatchetations” upon saloons.

According to her obituary, Sarah Wattles had wanted to attend Harvard but found its doors barred to women. She married a physician, Dr. Lundy Hiatt, and began her own medical studies, after which the couple practiced medicine together in Kansas and in Texas until his death in 1892. While in Texas, Sarah petitioned the Constitutional Convention of 1875 to extend the vote to women. Sarah later returned to Mound City, where she continued to work as a physician, and died at her niece’s house in Kansas City in 1910.

Newspaper ad for Sarah’s medical practice
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