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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Temperance crusaders showed saloon keeper a real “bar fight.”

Owner of Webfoot Saloon squared off with dozens of hymn-singing upper-crust Victorian ladies on a temperance crusade in 1874. Guess who won?

EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2019 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.

Sheet music: "Girls, Wait for a Temperance Man" from 1867
The front cover of a booklet of sheet music to be used at
temperance meetings and rallies; this example dates from
1867. Click here to see [lyrics and cover-page information, in
text form]
or here to [download a PDF of the entire booklet]
(UO libraries sheet music collection)

In the spring of 1874, something closely resembling a riot took place on the streets of downtown Portland. And, as you may have guessed, alcohol was involved.

But it's probably not what you think.

In 1874, the temperance movement was sweeping the nation. Saloon keepers, brewers, distillers and other traffickers in "Demon Rum" were getting a little nervous about it. It was spearheaded by activists who were invulnerable to attack, against whom every mudslinging attempt redounded against the would-be mudslinger: Upper-crust Victorian ladies. Praying. Singing hymns.

In Portland, the temperance movement found a champion in the Portland Daily Bulletin, the reform movement's answer to the Oregonian in that age of multiple daily newspapers in tiny frontier cities.

A revolution stirring in Portland parlors

The "ladies' crusade" against "that mighty and terrible ruler, old King Alcohol" — as the Bulletin phrased it — started with the formation of a local temperance society in the image of similar outfits back east.

Albany chapter of WCTU
The Albany chapter of the Women's Christian Temperance Union stands
for a photograph in front of their headquarters in roughly 1895. (Ben
Maxwell collection, Salem Public Library) [Larger image: 1200 px]

Primarily this was composed of ladies who either were tired of their husbands drinking all the time, or found the spectacle of a boozy Friday night near the waterfront unseemly.

They started out by praying and singing hymns for extended periods of time in their churches. This didn't prove particularly effective, as the pub-crawling set wasn't seen much in churches, at least not until Saturday night melted into Sunday morning.

So they decided to go forth and beard the lion in his den.

Early skirmishes, tactical defeats

First they split their cohort of a dozen or so ladies up into pairs, like Mormon missionaries, and went out to make some house calls to as many local watering holes as possible. At the end of the day, the saloon keepers were delighted. The presence of two full-blown upper-class Victorian ladies praying, singing and pleading for temperance in the taverns stimulated business in a rather astonishing way. It was like having a circus in the pub.

Not surprisingly, The Bulletin reports that "in most instances the ladies were treated in a respectful manner,” although it goes on to complain that “we heard of one case where they were shamefully abused by the proprietress of a low doggery on Second Street."

Respectful or no, the ladies knew they were being made fun of. "The little bands had met with but meager success, and discouragement presented itself at every hand," the Bulletin noted glumly. "Their pledges (of abstinence from alcohol) received but few signatures, most of which were fictitious names."

Demoralized, they retreated to their churches.

Amid the rejoicing, though, some of the saloon keepers were worried. And well they should have been.

Temperance army finds key to victory

The next day — March 25, 1874 — the ladies tried something new:  All 13 of them descended, en masse, on Thomas Shartle's saloon, the Mount Hood, on First Street.

At first it seemed like a repeat of the previous day's disaster: "Their hymns and prayers were made sport of, and the liquor business was never better than it was when they were present." Many jovial bar patrons jokingly drank toasts to the success of their crusade — gestures of encouragement which, a few dozen years later, they might have had cause to regret.

Even so, it was immediately clear that the new strategy was a big improvement. The ladies may not have had instant success, but they had each other to lean on, and as the public learned what was going on their numbers swelled. Moreover, once the novelty of carol-singing ladies hogging all the bar stools wore off, business stopped surging when they came to a saloon — and the saloon keepers' welcome got a lot less cordial.

Tavern owners stop laughing

By early April, there were dozens of them, and their arrival at a tavern meant not a lucrative afternoon, but the effective closure of the bar for as long as they chose to stay. The hymn was probably their most effective weapon. It's hard to guzzle gin when "Nearer, my God, to thee" is roaring in one's ears with the strength of three or four dozen zealous voices, especially if one or more of those voices belongs to a family friend.

However, there were lots of bars downtown, and most of them were not infested with temperance crusaders. Those who wanted to drink could do so in peace elsewhere. And they did.

One saloon keeper decides to fight ...

Most bar keepers gritted their teeth and sucked it up — trying, to use a metaphor 50 years before its time, to stay off the ladies' radar. But one, Walter Moffett, owner of the notorious Webfoot Saloon, quickly became an exception. He refused to let the ladies into his bar, so they ranged on the sidewalk outside and sang as if they were bringing down the walls of Jericho. Moffett responded by hiring people to beat big Chinese gongs to drown them out. One of these, the Bulletin reports, was diligently beating his gong right next to a singing lady's head on April 2 when his victim suddenly snatched it from him and "retained possession of it."

As the weeks went on, the feud with the Webfoot worsened. Lighted strings of firecrackers were thrown out the window at the ladies — which legally, given the flammability of the clothing of the day, probably constituted reckless endangering. Later, the bartender chose a particularly "convenient" time to hose off the outside of the establishment; the ladies sang on, dripping wet in expensive garments that were probably ruined. The tavern's hired gong beater, the Bulletin sniffs, "made himself particularly obnoxious to every citizen who had the least respect for decency."

Under arrest — for singing in public?

Finally, Moffett swore out a warrant for their arrest, on a charge of "disorderly conduct." Apparently, the Bulletin scoffed, praying and singing in a public street was "disorderly"  behavior; who knew?

The first time, the judge threw the case out. But when the ladies were arrested again, this time on a "disturbing the peace" rap, a trial was scheduled.

This time, the legal theory was different. The ladies hadn't disturbed the peace personally — the crowd of rowdies who came to watch them square off with the Webfoot had. And because without the ladies, there would have been no riot, the ladies were being charged.

Guilty! Ladies go directly to jail

The jury reluctantly found them guilty, and they were sentenced to pay a fine of $5 each or spend the night in jail. To the surprise of almost everyone in the court, the ladies insisted on the jail option, and would not be talked out of it.

Once incarcerated, the ladies made the joint ring with songs of praise, hymns and prayers for the souls of the city's drinking men. It must have gotten on the police chief's nerves, because they were released early.

On the other hand, the police chief at the time was part owner of the most prestigious saloon in town, the Oro Fino, so there may have been more than simple annoyance in his hostility to their program.

Eventual victory with Prohibition

The temperance fight continued, of course, until Congress voted the Volstead Act into effect over Woodrow Wilson's veto in 1919, kicking off the great American experiment in prohibition. By then many cities had witnessed scenes like Portland's showdown at the Webfoot. But few could boast of any quite so colorful.

(Sources: Portland Daily Bulletin archives, March-April 1874; Sullivan, William L. Hiking Oregon's History. Eugene:  Navillus, 2006; Clark, Malcolm Jr. "The War on the Webfoot Saloon," Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1957)