Hannah Jumper & The End of Alcohol In Rockport MA
Hundreds of gallons of liquor flowed through the streets of Rockport, Massachusetts and the smell of rum drifted for miles across the bay. On that hot summer morning of July 8, 1856, Hannah Jumper led a band of hatchet-wielding women on a frantic 5-hour revolt through town raiding 13 establishments and destroying over 50 barrels of illicit liquor.
For better or worse, these bold acts eradicated alcohol sales in Rockport for the next 162 years. Let’s take a closer look at the hardheaded Hannah Jumper and the group of women who would become known as “The Hatchet Gang.”
The United States has always had a unique relationship to alcohol. Today, the United States is the only country in the western hemisphere with a drinking age of 21. In fact, it’s only one of 12 countries in the world with a drinking age of 21 putting it in the company of places such as: Iraq, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Micronesia, and Cote D’Ivoire.
While the 21-year-old drinking age was enacted under federal pressure from President Reagan, the roots of American alcohol struggles can be traced back to the Temperance Movement in the 1800’s.
Throughout the 1800’s there was a growing concern about the use and sale of alcohol in the United States and states such as New York and Massachusetts were home to some of the earliest temperance movements.
These movements were often led by women and were focused on curbing the social, financial, and health ills associated with excessive alcohol consumption. By the 1850’s this movement was gaining significant traction in Rockport, Massachusetts.
Rockport, like many coastal towns, had an intimate relationship with alcohol. Fishermen of the day said that rum was as important a part of fishing as bait!
But fishermen had a lot of idle time on their hands. Due to the volatile New England weather, fishermen could only work about 9 months out of the year. For their 9 months of fishing men earned approximately $157 which was barely enough to feed a family.
Despite the struggle to make ends meet, many fishermen would waste away the off-season hours drinking “gill dippers” (¼ pints of rum) at a cost of 1 3/8 cents per drink. Once their money ran out, they would drink on credit until they could head back out to sea.
Money from a good trip would then pay their charge accounts down before buying household necessities. The women of Rockport, understandably, grew wary of this behavior.
Massachusetts already had a law on the books from stated that, “all intoxicating beverages kept for sale could be declared, regarded, and treated as common nuisances.” But they left the regulation of alcohol to individual cities and towns.
By 1847 an abstinence committee with about 100 members was formed in Rockport. Despite the formation of this committee, alcohol sales and consumption continued to rise in Rockport. Between 1852 and 1856 sales had soared 250%.
In early 1856, a committee was set up in Rockport enforce the Massachusetts law allowing the regulation of liquor but it didn’t curb drinking.
On July 4, 1856 there was a large drunken fracas that occurred in town and that was the straw that broke the camels back for Hannah Jumper and the women of Rockport.
Hannah Jumper was born in 1781 the 6th of 8 children born to William & Susan (Parsons) Jumper. Hannah grew up in a Cape Ann farming community then known as Joppa that was situated between Gloucester and Rockport.
According to author Eleanor Parsons, who wrote Hannah & The Hatchet Gang, Hannah was likely named after the first ship in the American fleet, the schooner Hannah. The ship was commanded by Nicholas Broughton of Marblehead and commissioned by George Washington to stop British supplies from flowing in and out of Boston Harbor.
Hannah grew up tall and slender with red hair and a feisty spirit of defiance that may be attributed to her father who led Cape Ann troops on a 5-day march down to the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.
When she grew older, Hannah moved from Joppa to Rockport as the parish had expanded. She was known as a seamstress; she had a green thumb and was very well versed in the utilization of plants and herbs as medicine. Hannah also knew how to plant the seeds of rebellion which would soon come to the streets of Rockport.
While the seafaring men of Rockport recklessly imbibed a growing tide of temperance was sweeping across Rockport. Preachers’ sermons demonized liquor and painted purveyors of alcohol as sinful criminals.
Hannah Jumper and the other women Rockport started to organize and construct a plan to stomp out the demon rum for good. They met in sewing circles, and card parties and behind closed doors to develop a plan. And they kept their secret for months while the plan developed.
The leaders of the movement included Mary Choate Blatchford Hale, Esther Lane, Sophia Young, Rachel Perkins, and Sophia Manning. These women along with 55 others concocted a clandestine plan to systematically rid Rockport of liquor.
Interestingly, one of the women involved in this clandestine undertaking was Sally Choate Webster, the namesake of our Sally Webster Inn! She was only 29 years old at the time but was clearly strong-willed and rebellious in her own right.
In addition to Sally, there were 3 other Choate women involved in the undertaking. It’s so fun to have a connection to the history of Rockport with both Addison Choate & Sally Webster.
On the morning of July 8, 1856, the women in town, led by Hannah Jumper, made their way down to Dock Square at around 9am. They marched through the streets in ankle-length skirts wielding hammers and hatchets and flew a banner with an image of a hatchet emblazoned on it.
The banner, made by Sally Smith Norwood and is now on display at the Cape Ann Museum, along with a hatchet that belonged to Joseph Griffin and was carried by his wife Eliza during the raids.
Ebenezer Pool, father of 12 and resident of Dock Square recorded the historic events of the day:
“The Hatchet Gang, so called being a large number of females of Rockport, assembled near the town pump, in accordance with a secret appointment, at about 9 A.M. From thence they with many others who followed went to places where they suspected liquor was being kept and sold to some of their husbands and friends. On finding any keg, jug, or cask having spiritous liquor in it, they moved it into the streets and there with their hatchets broke or otherwise destroyed it as found in different places.”
There were a number of interesting incidents that occurred on the day but one of our favorite stories comes from the Mount Pleasant House, directly across the street from our Sally Webster Inn.
Upon hearing the house had alcohol, the hatchet gang entered the house. There they found a woman rocking a cradle. She tried to dissuade the hatchet gang from getting too close by claiming that the baby had smallpox and to stay away. But as Mary Hale bravely approached the cradle and pulled back the blanket she discovered a jug of whiskey which was quickly dispatched with a swing of her hatchet.
At the end of the day, hundreds of dollars of booze and dozens of barrels, bottles, and demijohns were destroyed turning Rockport into a giant punchbowl.
The bold actions of this band of hatchet wielding vigilantes will forever live on as a part of Rockport lore. The courage and decisive action of this group of women who didn’t even have the right to vote yet, is truly incredible. The merits of prohibition; however, are certainly up for debate. Prohibition would take hold in America in the early 20th century with the ratification of the 18th Amendment and last from 1920 to 1933.
Millions of dollars were ineffectively spent on enforcement, illicit production of alcohol skyrocketed, there was a huge spike in both criminal activity and dangerous home consumption, and there were numerous arrests of citizens for non-violent offenses.
This failure ultimately resulted in the first United States Amendment to be overturned as the 21st Amendment was passed, and prohibition ended.
On a local level it’s also interesting to consider the jobs that were lost in the hospitality/restaurant industry, the lost tax revenue from those employees, lost property taxes from the businesses, the alcohol licensing fees, tax revenue from alcohol sales that could have had a tangible impact on local education system, infrastructure, and the community welfare.
But the legacy of Hannah Jumper and the Hatchet Gang looms large. Rockport did not allow the sale of alcohol for 162 years. That ended in 2019 when Rockport started allowing direct to consumer alcohol sales, after a unanimous Board of Selectmen vote.
That leaves 8 remaining dry towns in Massachusetts – Dunstable, Tisbury, Chilmark, Gosnold, Alford, Hawley, Montgomery, Mount Washington, and Westhampton.
We hope that when you visit Rockport, you can now see it through the lens of history and feel a deeper connection to the people and the culture. You can picture the scene that hot July morning as you walk through Dock Square, take a stroll over to Hannah Jumper House right at 35 Mount Pleasant Street, beautifully refurbished back in 2017, and visit the Mt Pleasant House at the top of the hill.
And then, walk directly into Sea & Cellar and pick up a beautiful bottle of wine to enjoy!