Mary Elizabeth Lease
15 August 2012
Denison Women's Christian Temperance Union
by Donna Hunt
not hear from anyone who can identify the author of the account of
Denison's earliest days, so I will continue sharing some of the very
one paragrah was dedicated to the Women's Christian Temperance Union although it said that the temperance movement had reached Denison in the
early 1880s and that resulted in its organization. I've written a
couple of times about the WCTU and included in this column is
information that I have gathered.Roles we
play in every aspect of life have reached new heights as what was known
as "the weaker sex" has come out of the shadows and taken a leading
role. Times were different a little more than 100 years ago.
Mary Elizabeth Lease gave
women a new "lease on life" when she spoke in Denison in the 1880s at a
meeting of the newly formed Denison Women's Christian Temperance Union.
That speech was one of her first moves down the road to national
fame, being called the Populist Party's "Joan of Arc."
it's not unusual to find a woman in a leadership role in a company, a
city, a county, a state or even the national government. Women
have beent old for many years that they can do anything they set their
minds to do. Today we believe it if we are willing to work hard
was born in Ridgeway, Pa., in 1853. Her father and two brothrs
died during the Civil War, her father at the notorious Andersonville
Prison in Georgia, and subsequently she hated the Democratic Party
which she considered responsible for the war.
after graduating from St. Elizabeth's Academy in Allegany, N.Y,, she
moved to Osage Mission, Kansas to teach at St. Anne's Academy and in
1873 she married Charles L. Lease, a pharmacist's clerk, and move to
Kingman County to live on a farm. They lost their farm and stock
in the financial panic and in the summer of 1874 started over in
Denison after they were told that "on the other side of the Indian
Territory was Texas, according to information in the book, Queen of the Populists, by Richard Stiller.
Elizabeth and Charles had hoped that he could find work as a druggist
or maybe even own his own druggist shop here. Stiller described
Denison at the time as "a town full of rough, wild, desperate men - a
thieves' and murderer's capitol." But Stiller also said Denison
was a respectable place with Main Street reserved for respectable
businesses and Skiddy Street, a block away (now Chestnut Street)
limited to "disorderly houses, tippling shops, barroms, bawdy houses
and other tough establishment.
The young couple found a frame house at the corner of Walker Street and Houston Avenue and Charles got a job as a clerk in Dr. Alex Acheson's
drugstore on Main Street between Rusk and Austin Avenues. They
lost two children in infancy and four others, Charles, Louisa, Grace
and Ben Hur, survived. Ben Hur was named for the Christian hero
of Lew Wallace's popular novel.
Dr. Acheson's wife, Sarah, invited Mary Elizabeth to give a short address at the historic meeting of the newly formed Women's Christian Temperance Union
in her home. The temperance movement was second only in women's
hearts to the growing campaign for women's suffrage. This
possibly was the first public speech that Mary Elizabeth ever made.
1875 about 150 communities in Texas had adopted local prhibition laws
and Grayson County was a stronghold of the temperance movement,
primarily because Denison was such a heavy drinking place.
Acheson, Charles Lease's edmployer during the family's sty here, was
one of Denison's most colorful pioneers whose more than 90 years were
highlighted by service as mayor. Sarah Acheson also left her
imprint on early Denison as an organizer and officer of the Women's
Christian Temperance Union. She probably was the influence that
brought Mary into the WCTU and thereby launched a career that later
achieved national scope.
1971 a New York author, Dorothy Rose Blumber, was in Denison compiling
information for a book she was writing on Mary Elizabeth Lease, whom
she said "had a beautiful speaking voice." A check with
amazon.com shows that the book Mary Elizabeth Lease, Populist Orator : a profile, published in 1978, is no longer available.
women at the meeting found that Mary was not a quiet person once she
had the floor and had something to say. She got very vocal when
she talked about the evils of drink and the importance of making
Denison a respectable and moral community in which she wanted to rear
her children. It is said that she enjoyed every minute of the
speech and she had a natural gift of speaking. The women made a
big fuss over the shy young wife of the drug clerk, who like most men
of that time wasn't overly pleased with his wife's actions.
the spring of 1883 Charles and Mary Lease and their children gathered
up their savings and belongings and moved back to Kingsman, Kansas,
where Mary Elizabeth went on to rally the farmers by telling them,
"What you farmers need to do is raise less corn and more hell," as she
campaigned vigorously for the Populist Party.
spoke before crowds as large as 20,000 people, both men and women, who
gathered to listen. Although her lectures and speeches covered a
wide range of subjects, she was a promoter of Women's Liberation.
ardent believer in women's right to vote, she had followers all across
the nationa. When the National Council of Women had its first
meeting in Washington D.C., Mary was invited to speak on "Women in the
Farmers' Alliance," which also was nown as the Populist Party.
told her story which made such an impression on the New York Review of
Books that it called her "the Joan of Arc of the farmers and working
men in Kansas."
after 1896 Mary divorced Charles and moved to New York City with her
four children, shwere she worked as a lawyer and lecturer.
spoke on behalf of Eugene Debs when he ran for president in 1908, then
became an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and supported his bid to
recapture the presidency under the banner of the "Bull Moose"
she died in 1933 she saw the passage of many of her goals - prohibition
and womaen suffrage as well as much of the Populist platform.
Elaine Nall Bay