‘Buzzsaw’ McHenry took up Carry Nation’s battle

By Jim Mason  | May 31, 2024

Temperance crusader Myra McHenry was a familiar, controversial figure in Wichita during the early 1900s.

Carry Nation was temperance’s best-known crusader in these parts, but a follower who was every bit her match in militance actually carried on the battle against demon rum longer.

Myra Gaines Warren was born March 18, 1848, in Dover, Mo. She married James A. McHenry of Neodesha, Kan., in 1872. The marriage took place in the same room she was born in. James had trained as an attorney in Ohio and gone west in 1870 to seek his fortune. The family eventually settled in Howard, Kan., the county seat of Elk County. They had seven children, three of whom died in childhood, a sad but not uncommon occurrence in the late 1800s.

Around 1900, Myra became enthused about the work of Nation and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She promoted enforcement of Prohibition in Elk County and began publishing The Searchlight, a monthly temperance newspaper. Kansas had enacted Prohibition in 1880, but it seems many people found ways to get around this impediment. 

Myra’s fanaticism for this cause came to take sole precedence in her life. She eventually relocated to Wichita and became estranged from her family. James continued to work as an attorney in Howard.

In early 1902, Myra bought a half pint of whiskey from a “jointist” in Arkansas City and then turned him in for violating the law. This got press across the state. The trial ended in a hung jury, with 6 of 9 jurors voting for acquittal. 

Myra wrote and sold tracts for a nickel at her speeches. She had a good command of the English language and all its admonishing, accusatory possibilities. She turned her pen against everyone in government from the governor down to beat officers. Demon rum was the enemy, as was tobacco. Women’s clothing styles also took a beating.

She worked closely with Nation in Wichita for a while beginning in 1903. After one smashing spree in 1904, Myra, Carry and two other women were brought to trial. They served as their own attorneys, much to the amusement of the 500 people who crowded into the city court chamber to witness the spectacle. Once the main parties of the matter had been brought to the stand and deposed, the defendants insisted on calling a roster of local luminaries to testify, including Mayor Ben McLean; Sam Amidon, one of the prosecuting attorneys; and Marshall Murdock, publisher of  The Wichita Eagle.

Nation died in 1911 but Myra carried on. She often brought out a hatchet, which she claimed had belonged to Carry, for photo ops. The saloon smashing ended but she attended WCTU conferences, made speeches on sidewalks in towns across the state (for which she was often arrested) and otherwise doggedly strove to continue the work.

In 1918, the WCTU purchased an immense drinking fountain in honor of Carry Nation and got it placed in front of Wichita’s Union Station. In subsequent years, Myra gave speeches there on several occasions and laid wreaths on the fountain. (The fountain was removed from the site decades ago. It is now in storage after temporary sojourns at Old Cowtown and Naftzger Park.)

The photo above, taken in the mid-1920s, shows Myra standing next to the Carry Nation Fountain, holding her hatchet. She was small of stature, weighing 90 pounds. One publication, covering her speech at the 1902 WCTU convention in Topeka, described her as a “nervous little buzzsaw” and noted her unpopularity in Howard.

Myra castigated anyone who did not fully agree with her. In 1918, at the intersection of Market and Douglas, she made disparaging remarks about a local minister who was shipping out to Europe to work for the YMCA in support of World War I troops. His daughter walked up and slapped Myra three times, for which she was fined $1. In 1926, another woman threw punches at Myra for making harsh remarks about her in another sidewalk sermon. Myra brought charges but refused to testify in court. A judge threw out the case and sternly admonished the plaintiff.

Myra was also known for speaking at events unrelated to the Temperance movement. She did so at a Grand Army of the Republic encampment in Hutchison in 1905 and got egged for her efforts.

She made a couple forays to Washington, D.C. In the summer of 1911, Kansas’ Sen. Charles Curtis gave her minor office work to do as a source of employment. In the nation’s capital again in 1913, she was horrified to see Abraham Lincoln’s face on an advertisement for whiskey. She reached out to members of Congress and got a bill passed forbidding the use of the likenesses of former presidents in such displays.

In 1921, Myra proudly told the Topeka State Journal she had been arrested 44 times. She said the Emporia jail was her favorite. “It’s the cutest thing! Topeka hasn’t a very good one.” When asked which political party she preferred, she stated, “Oh, I don’t know that there’s much difference. The Republicans drink and say they don’t and the Democrats drink and say they do.”

On June 6, 1939, she went to the clerk’s office in the old Sedgwick County courthouse to cash a check for $10, something she did daily. On her way out, she missed a step at the top of the south stairs and tumbled all the way down. With a broken leg and other injuries, she went into a coma and died on June 17. Her estate apparently consisted of little more than her hatchet and some clothing. Her surviving children made no effort to either attend her funeral or take charge of her things. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Park Cemetery.

Both the morning and evening editions of the Eagle carried long pieces on her passing. They were balanced and respectful. It was noted that her eyesight had been failing and that might have contributed to her fall. Her faculties were also failing. The Evening Eagle ended its June 19, 1939 article thusly:

“She had some angles that only a few people knew about. Sartorially, her mode was wholly exceptional among her crusading kind. She was a superb seamstress. She might have been a great milliner. She had curious dietary theories. She believed the mineral, salt, to be poisonous to man.

“Peace has come to her in her ashes. Her spirit long outlasted her remarkable physical stamina. One of her last nights on earth was spent in The Eagle office, where in fear she sought refuge from enemies who did not pursue.”

Contact Jim Mason at jemason53@gmail.com.