A century before there was a Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there was Matilda Bradley Carse, a wealthy widower who mourned the death of her youngest son, Thomas, in June 1874. A drunken driver of a horse-drawn truck killed the boy in the streets of Chicago. But instead of merely pressuring politicians to pass laws, Carse used her wealth and influence to tackle poverty, the assimilation of immigrants, and improving the lot of working women. She also stood for women's right to vote, as well as education. Matilda Carse embodied the thinking of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, a group maligned by history.
Born to a wealthy merchant family on November 19, 1835, in Saintfield, Ireland, Matilda Bradley was well-educated. She moved to Chicago in 1858, where she met and married Thomas Carse, a railroad freight manager. They had three sons. His health deteriorated, however, and they went to Paris, France, hoping he could recuperate. He died in 1870, but he left her with plenty of money and a steady income. The death of her youngest son stirred her into action. She vowed to oppose the drinking of alcohol for the rest of her life. She helped found the fledgling Woman’s Christian Temperance Union's central Chicago chapter, which she later presided.
Carse turned out to be a solid businesswoman. She founded the Woman's Temperance Publishing Association, a stock corporation which published the Union Signal, which became the largest women's publication in the world at one point. It continues today, 135 years later and 82 years after the end of Prohibition.
"Carse's reform activities encouraged temperance but also more generally improved conditions for the working class in Chicago. Carse supported the development of nurseries for the children of working mothers, Sunday schools, medical dispensaries, and low income housing. Several of her notable reform projects include the opening of the Rehobeth refuge and recovery shelter, as well as the Bethesda Mission, which was specifically aimed at teaching neighborhood women practical household skills," according to the New York City chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails.
While there is some irony in quoting a pro-drinking organization, it is a testament to her great work that she is remembered and even honored by the drinkers.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union still exists today. In the 19th century, not only did it oppose drinking, it set up day nurseries, advocated blue laws to protect the Sabbath, opposed smoking and the use of other drugs, and set operations at Ellis Island to help immigrants assimilate into society -- Americanization. One of the union's best presidents, Bessie Laythe Scovell, explained the group's thinking.
“We must have a regiment of American workers, who will learn the German language, love the German people, work among the German children and young people until we get them to love clear brains better than beer. There must be others who for the love of country and dear humanity will learn the Scandinavian language and be real neighbors to the many people of this nationality who have come to make homes in America. Again others must learn the French and Italian and various dialects, even, that the truths of personal purity and total abstinence be taught to these who dwell among us. We must feel it a duty to teach these people the English language to put them in sympathy with our purposes and our institutions.” Bessie Laythe Scovell said.
Matilda Carse's downfall was her biggest project, the Temperance Temple in Chicago. Designed by the noted architectural firm of Burnham and Root, it opened during the Panic of 1893 -- one of the worst depressions in the nation's history -- with too many vacancies. The organization was unable to meet its mortgage payments and lost the building to creditors. It was demolished in 1926.
However, this did not stop her. She continued to work with the temperance union. The people of Chicago elected her as the first woman on the school board. Matilda Carse turned a tragedy into a triumph by working for the betterment of others.