Mary Hanchet Hunt, who was born in 1830, became the most powerful woman in the nation promoting prohibition. Her amazing story of success began in the early 1870s when, as a former teacher, she visited her local school board in Massachusetts and persuaded that body to establish temperance instruction in the schools.
Then, together with colleague Julia Coleman, Mrs. Hunt extended the campaign to other school districts in the state. They promoted a series of graded lessons on hygiene and physiology prepared by the former teacher 1 and a new textbook, Alcohol and Hygiene, authored by Ms. Coleman. 2
In 1879 Mary Hunt accepted an invitation from Frances Willard to speak to the WCTU's national convention on "Scientific Temperance Instruction." There she presented her vision of "thorough text-book study of Scientific Temperance in public schools as a preventive against intemperance." 3 A standing committee was appointed with Mary Hunt as chair. The following year (1880) a Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges, with Mary Hunt as National Superintendent, replaced the committee. 4
In her new position, Mary Hunt called on each WCTU local to visit its school board to demand that temperance textbooks be incorporated into the regular course of study. Around the country, locals held mass meetings and petition drives converged on school boards to press their case. This led Hunt to observe that "It is not too much to say that the school boards of the country ... are in a state of siege" at the hands of WCTU members. 5 She, herself, spoke to 182 meetings in 1880. 6
But Mary Hunt found the results disappointing. School boards were not as pliant as expected and it was much more difficult to remove recalcitrant board members. While Hunt was having difficulty promoting her temperance instruction, the prohibition movement was experiencing serious difficulties as well. During the decade, 12 of 20 prohibition referenda were defeated and states were often failing to enforce those bills that did manage to pass. This led Hunt to conclude that voters "must first be convinced that alcohol and kindred narcotics are by nature outlaws, before they will outlaw them." 7 She decided to use legislation to coerce the moral suasion of students, who would be the next generation of voters. This gave birth to her idea of the compulsory Scientific Temperance Instruction Movement. 8
Hunt's strategy was for WCTU members to pressure state legislators and promote the nomination and candidacy of pro-temperance candidates in election years. The strategy was first used in Vermont where highly organized members campaigned for temperance candidates, developed letter writing campaigns, obtained temperance endorsements from leading citizens, presented legislators with a deluge of petitions, and packed open hearings on a proposed bill. The strategy worked. The bill was passed by a large majority and became law in 1882. 9 Mary Hunt developed and pioneered the use of tactics used ever since by lobbyists and pressure groups.
But Hunt was not entirely pleased with her first effort; the Vermont law was general and vague. She feared that a few lessons presented to a few students could be interpreted as compliance with the law. Therefore, in the next state campaign, Mary Hunt worked to ensure that the proposed bill would require that temperance instruction be given to all students in all schools in Michigan. 10 One provision required schools to teach the harmful physical effects of alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants, while another required teachers to pass an examination on the effects of alcohol and narcotics. The Michigan law, passed in 1883, became a model for subsequent legislation in other states. 11
Hunt proved to be a brilliant strategist and leader. State prohibition laws had not been faring well and temperance could be a political minefield capable of destroying all but the most astute political operative: Prohibition of alcohol was an issue that shook state politics in the nineteenth century. Even politicians in favor of temperance were not sure that they wanted to alienate voters by proscribing drink. Children, however, were another matter; they did not vote, and they might safely be taught to shun what their parents cared little to abandon. By the turn of the century every state and territory had laws mandating the teaching of the evils of alcohol. 12 Many of these laws were more specific and binding than legislation on any other branch of the curriculum. 13 However, many of the compulsory laws were still not strong enough to suit Mary Hunt. Even while some states were being pressured to enact legislation, she was waging campaigns to strengthen many of the existing laws. For example, due to Hunt's continued efforts, Vermont's easily-evaded 1882 legislation was amended in 1886. Even the model Michigan act was amended to include the same provisions as the revised Vermont law. 14 From there, Mary Hunt carried the amendment fight on to other states.
Not surprisingly, many school officials were unsympathetic or resistant to mandatory temperance education. An Ohio temperance worker complained that "school examiners, school boards and school superintendents are, many of them, indifferent to the law-ignore it-and are not dismissed" and observed that "no law will enforce itself." 15 Accordingly, Mary Hunt asserted that "It is our duty not to take the word of some school official, but to visit the school and carefully and wisely ascertain for ourselves if the study is faithfully pursued by all pupils." 16 To this end, she asserted that local WCTU superintendents or other members must visit their local schools to observe the temperance lessons, examinations, recitations, and textbooks. 17
With about 150,000 members scattered in communities across the nation in 1892, the WCTU was in an excellent position to monitor compliance to the temperance legislation. "When, in an unusual gesture of defiance, teachers in New York State protested a highly prescriptive temperance law, the WCTU mobilized influential local members to make sure that teachers were obeying the statute." 18 Not surprisingly, both supporters and opponents used military metaphors to describe Hunt's organization and methods.
By the turn of the century, the Scientific Temperance Instruction movement directed by Mary Hunt had proved to be highly successful. Virtually every state, the District of Columbia, and all United States possessions had strong legislation mandating that all students receive anti-alcohol education. Some textbook authors even prepared different editions of their books to meet the differing legal requirements of various states. 19 Furthermore, the implementation of this legislation was closely monitored down to the classroom level by legions of determined and vigilant WCTU members throughout the nation.
Enacting mandatory temperance instruction laws and making sure that they were strictly enforced was only part of the movement. Mary Hunt wanted to dictate the content of the instruction and textbooks. She was particularly disturbed that some of the texts being used were "not safe in that they did not preach total abstinence" and most did not devote at least one-fourth of their content to temperance instruction. 20 She described her long search for acceptable texts as an "almost superhuman effort to secure absolute scientific accuracy, not modified in favor of occasional or moderate use of alcohol." 21 But she was highly effective.
In 1886, after persuading Congress to require the use of a WCTU- approved text in Washington, D.C., and the territories, Mary Hunt wrote a petition to publishers with a checklist for selecting textbooks that would comply with the temperance instruction laws. Books should stress, she said, that a little drink creates an uncontrollable craving for more, illustrate the "appalling effects of drinking habits upon the citizenship of the nation," and omit reference to the fact that doctors used alcohol for medicinal purposes. Temperance should not be relegated to an appendix; it should "be the chief and not the subordinate topic" in physiology texts, she wrote. WCTU members, following Hunt's lead, barraged publishers with petitions signed by school board officials and educators. Aware of the market being created by the new laws and eager to avoid offending the temperance lobby, seven major publishers promptly submitted their physiology textbooks for her endorsement. In 1891 she presented the WCTU convention with a list of twenty-five approved books. 22 Temperance materials made no distinction between drinking and alcohol abuse, which were portrayed as one and the same.
The textbooks approved by Mary Hunt and then endorsed by the WCTU reflected the view that "any quantity of alcohol in any form was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation." 23 One such textbook asserted as "scientific" the idea that:
sometimes one is sick or suffers very much because of wrong things that his parents or grand-parents did.... Over in the poor-house is a man who does not know as much as most children four years old ... because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned life blood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane because they inherit disordered bodies and minds, caused by the drinking habits of their parents; and the descendants of "moderate drinkers" differ in this way as well as those of the drunkard.... This is called the law of heredity... one of God's laws, and just like earthly laws, helps right living and punishes those who disobey. 24
Another textbook approved by Mary Hunt asserted that "One of the most destructive agents man has brought into use is alcohol" and explained:
It has often been observed that children of intemperate parents frequently fail to develop into manhood or womanhood. They may not be deformed, but their growth is arrested, and they remain small in body and infantile in character. . . . Such are examples of a species of degeneracy, and are evidences of the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children, which may extend even into the third and fourth generations. 25
Under Mary Hunt's direction, the WCTU's Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction promoted as scientifically proved fact that:
Mary Hunt promoted compulsory temperance education so as to create "trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon." 27 To this end she required that textbooks she approved "teach that alcohol is a dangerous and seductive poison; that fermentation turns beer and wine and cider from a food into poison; that a little liquor creates by its nature the appetite for more; and that degradation and crime result from alcohol." 28
At least one-fourth of each book had to consist of temperance teaching and publishers had difficulty selling textbooks that were not approved by Mary Hunt and endorsed by the WCTU. "The cornerstone of the educational campaign was the absolute insistence that alcohol in any form and in any amount was a poison to the human system." 29 Many of the statements in approved texts were, at best, misleading and designed to frighten young impressionable readers:
The nature of alcohol is that of a poison ...
Any substance capable, when absorbed into the blood, of injuring health or destroying life, is a POISON... Remember this- ALCOHOL IS A POISON...
A cat or dog may be killed by causing it to drink a small quantity of alcohol. A boy once drank whiskey from a flask he had found, and died within a few hours...
Any drink that contains alcohol is not a food to make one strong; but is a poison to hurt, and at last to kill... Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison. Its presence makes what was before a good fruit juice a poisonous liquid. (Alcohol) changes a food to a poison ... alcohol and all spirituous liquors are poisonous. 30
Not only did the approved textbooks describe alcohol as a poison; it was the cause of numerous physical problems and resulting death:
Very often in chronic, though perhaps moderate, drinkers, the arteries, instead of being strong, elastic tubes, like new rubber hoses, become hardened and unyielding, and are liable to give way.
[Among drinkers] in some cases the liver reaches an enormous weight, fifteen, and even twenty to twenty-five, pounds being not uncommon (Sheehan, 1984a, p. 105).
Alcohol sometimes causes the coats of the blood vessels to grow thin. They are then liable at any time to cause death by bursting.... Worse than all, when alcohol is constantly used, it may slowly change the muscles of the heart into fat. Such a heart cannot be so strong as if it were all muscle. It is sometimes so soft that a finger could easily be pushed through its walls. You can think what would happen if it is made to work a little harder than usual. It is liable to stretch and stop beating and this would cause sudden death.
There is one form of... disease, called alcoholic consumption, which is caused by alcohol. The drinker looks well, till suddenly comes a "dropped stitch," or a pain in the side. Then follows difficulty of breathing and vomiting of blood, then a rapid passage to the grave. 31
And the textbooks approved by Mary Hunt also implicated psychological problems as well:
Many people are made crazy by the use of alcoholic liquors. In some asylums where these people are kept, it has been found that nearly one half of the crazy people were made crazy from this cause. Not all of these were drinkers themselves. It often happens that the children of those who drink have weak minds or become crazy as they grow older...
A noted murderer confessed that never, but once, did he feel any remorse. Then he was about to kill a babe, and the little creature looked up into his face and smiled. "But," he said, "I drank a large glass of brandy, and then I didn't care." 32
The approved textbooks appear to have been written with the purpose of frightening children into avoiding all contact with alcohol. One can only speculate as to how many children unnecessarily suffered anxiety and emotional trauma as they watched their parents enjoy a glass of alcoholic beverage with their dinner. But Mary Hunt and the WCTU were unalterably opposed to moderation.
The historian Kobler pointed out that:
Nowhere in all this gallimaufry of misguidance . . . aimed at children, or in any of the prohibition literature and talk addressed to adults, did there linger the ghost of a suggestion that perhaps one might drink moderately without damage to oneself or to others. The very word "moderation" inflamed the WCTU and the Prohibition Party. It was "the shoddy life-belt, which promotes safety, but only tempts into danger, and fails in the hour of need . . the fruitful fountain from which the flood of intemperance is fed. . . . Most men become drunkards by trying to drink moderately and failing." Even conceding that a rare few could conceivably imbibe in moderation at no risk to themselves, they should nevertheless refrain lest they set a bad example for the weaker majority of the human race. 33
Thus, approved textbooks asserted that "To attempt to drink fermented liquors moderately has led to the hopeless ruin of untold thousands" and "It is the nature of alcohol to make drunkards." 34 By the mid-1890s, the extensive exaggerations, distortions, and gross inaccuracies in textbooks approved by Mary Hunt and endorsed by the WCTU were increasingly criticized by leading scientists and educators. The latter included the presidents of Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Vassar. 35
Such criticisms became increasingly strong after a report issued by the prestigious Committee of Fifty, a group of leading citizens formed in 1893 by eminent sociologists to study the "liquor problem." 36 It sought to determine facts rather than promote any theory or point of view. 37 A subcommittee, headed by faculty from Harvard and Clark University, found the Hunt-WCTU program of temperance instruction seriously defective. The committee contended that children should not be taught and forced to memorize "facts" that they would later find to be incorrect. This instructional approach was seen as inappropriate and doomed to backfire.
By making such unqualified assertions as "Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison," the Hunt-approved textbooks clearly conveyed the false impression that alcohol is poison in any amount and is always harmful. 38 By constant repetition of the word poison and by making numerous exaggerations and false statements, the approved texts attempted to mislead and frighten young people into abstinence.
The committee believed that instruction should be based on facts so that students could form their own educated opinions. They "should not be taught that the drinking of a glass or two of wine by a grown-up person is very dangerous." 39 This was diametrically opposed to the view expressed by a prominent WCTU leader that "To teach the danger of forming the awful, insidious, inexorable appetite [for alcohol], is the especial province of the teacher" 40 and of Mary Hunt, who referred to the enormous "harvest of death that might result from the universal teaching that the drinking of one or two glasses of wine is not 'very dangerous'" and asserted that "such teaching would be nothing less than crime." 41 The committee contrasted contemporary knowledge on alcohol with that taught in approved textbooks by systematically contrasting passages from standard authoritative textbooks with those from "Indorsed and Approved" textbooks. 42 The results were shocking.
One author of an approved series of textbooks remarked to the committee that "I have studied physiology and I do not wish you to suppose that I have fallen so low as to believe all those things I have put into those books." 43 While the author may not have fallen so low as to believe what he wrote, he did fall low enough to put it into textbooks for impressionable young students.
However, it appears that relatively few authors were willing to compromise themselves by writing or revising books to conform to Mary Hunts strict ideological guidelines, because one-third of the approved textbooks were written anonymously. 44 Hunt had to pay one author $6,000 to write two books, an amount of money that could have built or purchased a very large and commodious house at that time. Furthermore, at least one of the texts "authored" by another writer has been attributed to Mary Hunt. 45 By her own admission, 46 the publisher of nearly all of the early written texts that were ultimately approved had asked her either to revise them herself or to supervise the revisions to bring them into conformity with her WCTU guidelines.
The investigating committee conducted a survey of all members of the American Physiological Society as well as of 45 physiologists, hygienists, and specialists in allied sciences holding prominent positions abroad. The goal was to "obtain valuable expert opinions from practically the entire scientific world" regarding Scientific Temperance Instruction. 47 Although a number of the scholars opposed the consumption of alcohol, every respondent from the American Physiological Society except one "oppose[d] the so-called 'scientific temperance instruction' as it is now being promoted in the schools, the strong conviction of a number being that it is resulting in more evil than good." 48 Of the foreign scientists, only one reported being in support of the approved textbooks. "Even [August] Forel, perhaps the most energetic and brilliant advocate of total abstinence in Europe, who goes so far as to maintain that alcohol in all doses is a poison, remarks, in speaking of educational methods: I think that in America somewhat unwise methods have been adopted.'" 49
The committee expressed concern over the ideological and propagandistic nature of WCTU-endorsed textbooks and of the "Scientific Temperance Instruction" movement:
As is generally the case when feeling and prejudice run high, the temptation has been irresistible to either manufacture evidence or stretch it over points that it does not cover; to call "scientific" everything that happens to agree with [its] particular prejudices, and to relegate to the limbo of human error all the evidence that appears for the other side. Another characteristic feature of this movement has been the flattery of authors who favor the views to be inculcated with such appellations as "greatest living authority," "foremost scientist," "the wise physician of today, who is abreast of the modem investigations concerning the drug," "author of great prominence," "most skilled in his profession," "eminent scholar," etc. 50
While the WCTU and other temperance writers tended to exaggerate the stature of those who agreed with them, they "frequently ... abused anyone who disagreed with them; indeed, derogatory and vituperative language became a trademark of the temperance crusade." 51 Often, they went beyond mere words. The Committee of Fifty noted "the efforts of the 'scientific temperance' people to secure the dismissal of state employees suspected of not being sufficiently in sympathy with their own extreme views" 52 and Mary Hunt "pushed the editor of a temperance newspaper to investigate those opposed to temperance physiology instruction." 53 After extensively documenting " 'scientific temperance' propaganda," 54 the committee noted that "It is little wonder that educators and teachers oppose 'scientific' temperance" (p. 31) because "the text-books are written with a deliberate purpose to frighten the children, the younger the better, so thoroughly that they will avoid all contact with alcohol" (p. 32). Indeed, a "study of what children actually remembered from their [Scientific Temperance Instruction] physiology classes reported one pupil's response: Alcohol 'will gradually eat away the flesh. If anyone drinks it, it will pickle the inside of the body.'" 55
Mary Hunt expressed strong concern over "the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world, men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol]" and peppered her writing with references to this "undesirable immigration" and "these immigrant hordes." (Hunt, 1897, p. 63)
Not surprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan was a strong supporter of prohibition.
The committee attempted to use contemporary social scientific methods to study alcohol and to avoid the moralism of Mary Hunt and the WCTU. It concluded that occasional and regular moderate drinking did not cause health problems, that drinking did not inevitably lead to drunkenness, and that alcohol education should be based on a recognition that "Intoxication is not the wine's fault, but the man's." 56 The committee was clearly displeased about "the manner in which scientific authorities are misquoted in order to appear to furnish support to 'scientific temperance instruction'" 57 Then, after reviewing the results of three studies of Scientific Temperance Instruction practice and outcomes, the committee concluded that "under the name of 'Scientific Temperance Instruction' there has been grafted upon the public school system of nearly all our States an educational scheme relating to alcohol which is neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive." 58
Mary Hunt prepared a Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty in which she charged the authors of the report with being prejudiced against abstinence instruction, blasted them for gross misrepresentation of facts, argued that alcohol is a drug, and insisted that the WCTU-endorsed textbooks were completely accurate. She then had the Reply entered into the Congressional Record 59 and distributed more than 100,000 copies. 60
It is indisputable that "By the time of her death in 1906, Mary Hunt had shaken and changed the world of education" 61 with her campaign for coercive temperance education (or "institutionalized prohibitionist propaganda"). 62 In 1901-1902, 22 million school children were exposed to anti-alcohol education. 63 (6) "The WCTU was perhaps the most influential lobby ever to shape what was taught in public schools. Though it was a voluntary association, it acquired quasi-public power as a censor of textbooks, a trainer of teachers, and arbiter of morality." 64 Temperance writers viewed the WCTU's program of compulsory temperance education as a major factor leading to the Eighteenth Amendment. 65 Other knowledgeable observers agreed. For example, the U. S. Commissioner of Education asserted in 1920 that:
In the creation of a sentiment which has resulted first in local option, then in state prohibition, and now in national prohibition, the schools of the country have played a very important part, in fact probably a major part.... The instruction in physiology and hygiene with special reference to the effects of alcohol... has resulted first in clearer thinking, and second in better and stronger sentiment in regard to the sale and use of alcoholic drinks. 66
A study of legislative control of curriculum in 1925 indicated that teaching about temperance "is our nearest approach to a national subject of instruction; it might be called our one minimum essential." 67
The WCTU held a virtual monopoly over the selection of textbooks until the 1940s, when it began to experience competition from the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. 68 Writing in 1961, Mezvinsky (p. 54) reported that "some alcoholic physiology and hygiene textbooks still stress total abstinence.... Some schools still stage [temperance] assemblies and meetings each year and hold WCTU essay and oratorical contests." 69 So-called Scientific Temperance Instruction "laid the groundwork for the formal drug education programs that remain high on the agendas of today" 70 and some of the laws Mary Hunt had passed still remain. 71
It can also be argued that Mary Hunt and her compulsory Scientific Temperance Instruction failed to achieve her major objective of bringing about complete abstinence. Annual consumption of alcohol beverages increased between 1880 and 1920. That is, it increased between the beginning of the movement and the beginning of national prohibition. Additionally, the difficulty of enforcing prohibition and its ultimate failure indicates that the instruction had not convinced enough young people to abstain (and to support prohibition) when they became adults. 72
The methods Mary Hunt used to achieve her objectives were controversial. Her integrity and morality were highly questionable and she was very coercive, manipulative and vindictive. Indeed, controversy followed her into death. In order to deal with the accusation that she profited from reform, she signed over to charity the royalties due her on the thousands of physiology textbooks sold annually. Her never-publicized charity was the Scientific Temperance Association, a group composed of Hunt, her pastor, and a few friends. The association used its funds to support the operations of the national headquarters of the WCTU's Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction, a large house in Boston that was also Hunt's residence. 73 For Mary Hunt, charity both began and stayed at home.
Mary Hunt's education or indoctrination activities had a major influence on American culture. Although Prohibition was a dismal failure that created serious problems, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.
Filed Under: Biography