Sporting the Blue Ribbon
While these groups opposed the consumption of alcoholic beverages mainly by targeting saloons and by trying to get laws against drinking passed, one strain of the temperance movement, called the Murphy Movement, concentrated on the drinkers themselves. Named after its founder, Francis Murphy, who was a reformed drinker and former saloonkeeper himself, the movement asked people to sign a pledge not to drink, and they were then given blue ribbons to wear as a token of the pledge. The movement started in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in late 1876. By mid-1877, it had reached Missouri, but initial efforts to establish the movement were something short of a glowing success. A Jefferson City newspaper reported in August that the Murphy Movement men had “folded their tent” in Sedalia and moved to Warrensburg.
One of the first places in the state where the Murphy Movement took hold was Linn in Osage County. The movement was organized there in late October and was soon going strong.
By the end of 1877 and beginning of 1878, the Murphy Movement was sweeping across the rest of the Ozarks. The Carthage Banner reported on January 10, 1878, that the movement had hit Carthage exactly one week earlier, and that meetings had been held at the local Methodist Church every night since, with each one better attended than the previous one, to the point the church could hardly hold everybody. The Reverend John Dunlap of Pittsburgh was conducting the meetings.
On January 17, a Mount Vernon newspaper reported the Murphy Movement going strong there as well with meetings every night and 135 people having already taken the pledge.
Dunlap went to Springfield in late January and began a series of meetings at various churches, particularly the First Christian Church located just west of the square. Over 200 people signed the pledge the first night, and by the end of February over two thousand people had signed up.
Springfield saloonkeepers surveyed in February generally agreed that the Murphy Movement had hurt their business. One claimed the only customers he’d lost, however, were “those who are afraid to be seen coming from a saloon while the excitement is at its height,” and he thought his loss of business was only temporary. The saloon owners refused to condemn the movement, and one even said he had refused several times to sell liquor to young men who had come into his establishment wearing blue ribbons.
The movement quickly spread to other Greene County communities like Ash Grove, Cave Springs, and Walnut Grove, as well as to towns throughout southwest Missouri. One man who attended a mass meeting at the Springfield city hall in early March reported the Murphy Movement was making excellent progress in his hometown of Pierce City as well as in Neosho and Webb City.
Not everyone in Springfield completely endorsed the movement. The Murphy revival spurred a contentious debate at a city council meeting in mid-February over the subject of prohibition.
And the movement failed to take hold everywhere throughout Missouri. For instance, at Hermann, county seat of Gasconade County and home to a large German population, the Murphy Movement that swept through neighboring towns was viewed as something of a joke. Several of Hermann’s saloonkeepers started sporting blue ribbons in jest as they continued serving a steady stream of customers.
After March of 1878, the Murphy enthusiasm gradually waned in the Ozarks, but the temperance movement as a whole, of course, continued throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, culminating finally in passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Prohibition Act of 1920. But it is probably safe to say that few, if any, temperance rallies in the Ozarks that came later surpassed the fervor of the Murphy Movement in 1877-1878.