Today, the Bridgeport Connecticut Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin tells the story of a couple of showmen and their efforts toward temperance.
In his book Life of P.T. Barnum, Mr. Barnum shared the beginnings of his temperance efforts:
In the fall of 1847, while exhibiting Gen. Tom Thumb at Saratoga Springs, where the New-York State Fair was then being held, I saw so much intoxication among men of wealth and intellect, filling the highest positions in society, that I began to ask myself the question, What guarantee is there that I may not become a drunkard?
I reflected that many wiser and better men than myself had fallen victims to intemperance; and although I was not in the habit of partaking often of strong drink, I was liable to do so whenever I met friends, which in my travels occurred every day. Hence I resolved to fly the danger, and I pledged myself at that time never again to partake of any kind of spirituous liquors as a beverage.
I now felt that I was out of danger, and the sensation was a pleasant one. True, I continued to partake of wine, for I had been instructed, in my European tour, that this was one of the innocent and charming indispensables of life.
I however regarded myself as a good temperance man, and soon began to persuade my friends to refrain from the intoxicating cup.
Seeing need of reform in Bridgeport, I invited my friend the Rev. E. H. CHAPIN to visit us, for the purpose of giving a public temperance lecture. I had never heard him on that subject, but I knew that on whatever topic he spoke, he was as logical as eloquent.
He lectured in the Baptist Church in Bridgeport, His subject was presented in three divisions : The liquor-seller, the moderate drinker, and the indifferent man. It happened, therefore, that the second, if not the third clause of the subject, had a special bearing upon me and my position.
I do not pretend to give the precise language of the eloquent Mr. Chapin, and no man can depict the overwhelming power with which he urged his position. But I have given the gist of his argument as applied to the moderate drinker. It sank most deeply into my heart.
I returned home and went to bed, but not to sleep. These arguments continued to ring in my ears, and though striving to find a reasonable answer to them, I spent a wretched and sleepless night.
I had become fully conscious that I was pursuing a path of wrong-doing, and one which was not only causing great wrong to the community, but was also fraught with imminent danger to myself.
I arose from my bed, and feeling that as a man I could not persist in a practice which I could not conscientiously and logically defend, I took my champagne bottles, knocked off their heads, and poured their contents upon the ground. I then called upon Mr. Chapin, asked him for the teetotal pledge, and signed it.
Next, Mr. Barnum spent time and effort converting others to the teetotal pledge. Later, as mayor of Bridgeport, 1875-76, he stopped Sunday sales of liquor in his quest to save people from drinking.
In addition to Mr. Barnum, other showmen joined the temperance effort.
One such man, an ex-saloonkeeper, traveled the country promoting temperance. Francis Murphy’s presentations became widespread and well-known as the Murphy Movement.
On January 28, 1878, the Meriden Daily Republican out of Connecticut printed the following article:
Murphy In Washington.
The following graphic account of the beginning of the Murphy movement in Washington on Sunday, appeared in the special telegraphic dispatched to-day. As Mr. Murphy may visit Meriden soon, we think it will be of interest to our readers:
The opening of the Murphy temperance meetings Sunday afternoon resulted in a great outpouring of the population, notwithstanding the bad weather. The meeting was announced for 3 o’clock, but Lincoln Hall was so crowded, and the entrance so choked at 2:15 o’clock, that the doors were closed against the public and thousands turned away.
Murphy spoke for an hour , and kept his audience either laughing or crying the whole time. Men all over the house wept as freely as the women, and during the pathetic portions of his address, tears washed the big face of Murphy himself, and his voice was almost choked with sobs. His son, a young man of 19 or thereabouts, wept constantly.
Murphy’s close was exceeding powerful and dramatic. He pictured intemperance as a serpent whose folds he had felt around his own neck, but had torn them away. He pronounced a curse upon it, and said he would devote himself as long as he lived to destroying it.
He drew a terrible picture in imagination, and said the serpent should be crushed by the heel of man, and driven back to the darkness whence it came. In closing, he exclaimed: “I will kill it! I will kill it!” each time vaulting high in the air, and alighting with two hundred pounds descending weight upon the stage.
Then he sank upon his seat beside his son. His appearance and action indicated a person worked up to the high pitch of agony that can be produced by a powerful imagination, stimulated by reflections of past sufferings and present religious excitement. During his imprecation against the serpent he seemed like a man in delirium tremens.
Hundreds signed the pledge, and were furnished with blue badges.
These were not the first to promote temperance nor were they the last.
The culmination, however, occurred when Congress passed a Constitutional amendment in 1917 and enough states ratified it to prohibit liquor sales beginning in January 1920.
The next few years saw bootlegging and hidden bars selling spirits until the repeal of the 18th Amendment in December 1933.
The Bridgeport Connecticut Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against a mid-nineteenth century painting by Nathaniel Currier called the Drunkard’s Progress.