The Smoking Gun

At the turn of the 20th century, the country’s most famous antismoking crusader was a sharp-tongued, stern-faced zealot from Chicago who nearly succeeded in achieving a statewide ban on cigarettes. Now, as a new antismoking law takes effect in Illinois, her nearly forgotten story gets a fitting coda.

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Year after year, Lucy Page Gaston sat through Chicago City Council meetings and legislative sessions in Springfield. Even as politicians exhaled clouds of tobacco smoke, the prim lady in a somber black dress urged them to pass laws restricting cigarettes. Gaston carried a handbag stuffed with pamphlets, along with a supply of graham crackers and her trusty antismoking remedy, gentian root. At times, when Illinois legislators dragged their discussions past midnight, Gaston was the only citizen sitting in the gallery, peering at the proceedings through her rimless round spectacles.

Her legislative triumph came in 1907, when the General Assembly passed a law banning cigarettes. No one would be allowed to make, sell, or give them away in Illinois. But Gaston’s success quickly turned sour: Two days before the cigarette ban was slated to take effect, a judge snuffed it out.

Almost precisely a century later, the Illinois General Assembly has approved a bill that prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars, workplaces, and all public buildings. The law takes effect January 1st, making Illinois the 19th state to adopt such restrictions. Eight decades after Gaston’s death, her campaign to curtail smoking is winning some belated victories.

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In the early years of the 20th century, Lucy Page Gaston was the most famous anticigarette crusader in the country, a cantankerous zealot often compared to Carry Nation, the hatchet-wielding enemy of saloons. Gaston grabbed children on Chicago’s streets when she saw them smoking, hauling them to the nearest cop. She harangued everyone from Britain’s Queen Mary to prostitutes at the Everleigh Club about the danger of smoking those little white sticks she liked to call “coffin nails.”

“Lucy Page Gaston was a complicated combination of moral concerns about smoking, but also very serious concerns about the health and medical implications of smoking,” says Allan Brandt, a professor of the history of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who wrote about Gaston in the recently published book The Cigarette Century. This mix of morality and medicine was typical of that era, Brandt says.

Born in Ohio in 1860 and raised in Lacon, Illinois (upriver from Peoria), Gaston came from a family with a history of fighting for abolition and prohibition. A schoolteacher by the age of 16, Gaston was appalled when she saw boys smoking. “The back rows of her classrooms were filled with surly, shuffling boys who failed their examinations, who loitered on street corners after school, caps on the sides of their heads, hands fumbling in pockets,” Frances Warfield wrote in a 1930 magazine article about Gaston. “Miss Gaston knew; there were cigarettes in those pockets.” While attending the Illinois State Normal School (now Illinois State University), Gaston led raids on saloons, gambling dens, and tobacco shops.

She was known as a “new woman.” Single all her life, she advised women to consider pursuing careers instead of marrying. “The lives of society girls are frittered away in uselessness,” she said. Tall, angular, and bony, with dark hair and spectacles, she often wore the white ribbon, a symbol of temperance, sometimes adding a miniature hatchet for emphasis. She struck observers as brainy and confident. Neighbors knew Gaston as something of a scold. She once yelled across the street at a man for slouching as he walked. “You straighten up!” she said.

Around 1893, Gaston moved with her parents and brother, Edward Page Gaston, another temperance activist, to Harvey. The evangelist Dwight Moody was extolling the virtues of that “Magic City,” which had sprung up among Chicago’s south suburbs in 1891. Harvey, he said, was “an earthly paradise which had never been defiled by painted windows and the music of gurgling bottles.” All property deeds in Harvey included a pledge against serving alcohol, gambling, or manufacturing gunpowder on the premises. A promotional book for Harvey promised “absolute protection from the evils which spring from drinking places, gambling hells and low resorts.”

Gaston became managing editor of the Harvey Citizen, and when Harvey officials issued a license for a tavern in 1895, Gaston led a protest by temperance advocates. She was arrested twice for criminal libel, though the charges were quickly dismissed. “She wields a trenchant pen,” the Chicago Tribune noted. Despite Gaston’s efforts, liquor eventually flowed in Harvey. Speaking at a national meeting of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Gaston described her struggle against “the ravening wolves of the liquor traffic” in apocalyptic terms. “I know what it is to have a hand-to-hand conflict with the powers of darkness,” she said.

 

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