Letitia Youmans and the Temperance Movement in Canada

Kellough, JanetJanet Kellough is a performance storyteller and author who lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of two contemporary novels The Palace of the Moon and The Pear Shaped Woman; the semi-non-fictional The Legendary Guide to Prince Edward County; and the popular Thaddeus Lewis historical mystery series. She has also written and performed in numerous stage productions that illuminate Ontario’s rich history through a fusion of spoken word and music.

For a large part of the 19th century, drunkenness was the single greatest social scourge in Canada. And against all odds, the liquor trade’s greatest enemy turned out to be a very dangerous woman who unexpectedly found herself leading the campaign to control it.

Letitia Creighton Youmans was born near Cobourg, a small town on the north shore of Lake Ontario. In her 1893 autobiography Campaign Echoes, she writes that her father, a farmer with a relatively small holding, made great sacrifices to ensure that she was well-educated. The reasons for this are unclear, but the traditional female goal of marriage and children never seemed to be part of John Creighton’s expectations for his eldest daughter. He somehow scraped up enough money to send Letitia to The Cobourg Ladies’ Seminary and later The Burlington Ladies’ Academy, both of which offered females an academic curriculum. When she graduated in 1846, she accepted a position as an instructor at a Ladies’ Academy in Picton, another small town along the shores of Lake Ontario. It seemed her life would be spent as a teacher.

However, in 1850 she met Arthur Youmans, a widower with eight children. He needed a wife and someone to raise his family. He asked Letitia if she would consider taking the job. It was not the most romantic of proposals, and in spite of the fact that “the subject of matrimony had not engaged much of my thoughts and that later she admonished young women to “marry no man for the sake of a home”, there must have been something she found appealing about Arthur, for she accepted and settled down to try to become a farmer’s wife.

It was a position she was ill-suited for, a fact her neighbours lost little time in remarking upon. “Some of them asserted that I could not even boil a potato without looking into a book to see how it was done,” she wrote. “To the latter part of this charge I will, to a certain extent, plead guilty.”

Aided by Catherine Stowe’s Domestic Economy and Recipe Book she was soon turning out perfectly-formed loaves of bread, and that trickiest of things to make – beautiful bars of hard soap. She also found time to educate not only her adopted family, but the neighbourhood children as well.

But it was her role as a Sunday School teacher that led her to her real life’s work. In 1874 Letitia attended a conference at Lake Chautauqua in New York State to discover the newest methods of instruction. There, she also came into contact with American temperance groups who were holding concurrent meetings. Mightily impressed and armed with information, support and organizational strategy, she returned from Chautauqua determined to form a Temperance Union in Picton.

The selling of liquor licenses was a lucrative source of income for municipalities in the province of Ontario. There was a tavern at every crossroads and in the smallest of villages. Whiskey was freely available at grocery stores and children could purchase it to take home to their parents. Entire paycheques would disappear into a bottle, and the social cost was enormous. Families were left to struggle on pennies when the breadwinner spent all of his money on whiskey. Chronic public drunkenness was punishable by a jail, or even a penitentiary term, and when their alcoholic husbands were incarcerated women and their children were left dependent on the scant charity of friends and relatives.

Letitia organized. Then, along with a small band of followers, she petitioned Picton Town Council to stop granting liquor licenses to grocery stores in the town. Council members were aware of her efforts, and decided to meet secretly to issue the licenses before the petition could be presented. It was a small town though, with a well-developed grapevine, and someone tipped off the temperance band. They rushed off to the secret meeting, where their petition – which should have been first put in the hands of a councillor – was laid on the table by the janitor.

The Mayor picked it up, and glancing over it said, “There is a petition from the ladies. Who is to present it? Will any member of the council volunteer his services?”

He clearly expected no such volunteer, but unexpectedly the local newspaper editor, also a councillor, took the petition, read it, expressed his approval and laid it before his fellow council members.

The mayor countered by insisting that someone from the group of temperance supporters must advocate the petition, asking if they had selected a gentleman to speak for them, “or will one of (the ladies) address the council?” It was a blatant attempt to embarrass them into going away, for in those days it was completely unheard of for a woman to speak in public. Letitia recalled the moment:

Almost unconsciously I rose to my feet. A mountain weight of responsibility rested upon me and the pent-up agony of the past found vent in words which did not seem my own, but voiced the sentiments of another and a higher source…and should I have held my peace, the very stones would have cried out against me.

Everyone was astonished. Far from being embarrassed, Letitia spoke succinctly and with passion. The battle was not yet over, however – another councillor suggested that they would withhold licensing if Letitia was willing to personally reimburse merchants for their loss of sales. She countered by asking if families of drunkards would be compensated for their losses as well. And in a final salvo, the mayor insisted that the temperance supporters gather a petition consisting of “the majority of ratepayers” by the next evening, when they would meet again. Letitia and her band did heroic work gathering names, but fell just short of a majority.

It didn’t matter – she had found her voice. News of her confrontation spread and soon she was invited to organize Temperance Unions in towns and villages throughout the province. She travelled tirelessly, at times addressing audiences as often as five or six times a week. The movement gathered momentum and soon municipal councils everywhere found themselves debating anti-liquor by-laws.

And throughout it all, she had the unwavering and proud support of her dear, unromantic husband Arthur. At one point, when Letitia was slapped with a defamation suit for anti-liquor remarks she had made at a meeting, Arthur vowed to defend his wife “if it takes every last penny I have.” The suit was quietly dropped.

Letitia Youmans quickly rose to the highest ranks as an administrator and field organizer for the provincial Women’s Christian Temperance Union and eventually became the first president of the national organization. As her fame spread, she was invited to speak across North America, attended international conventions and was regarded as a powerful and influential figure in Canadian public life.

She emphasized what she termed “home protection”, rather than prohibition, recognizing that the true curse of alcoholism was the social cost it exacted. She formulated three “inalienable rights” – the right of every woman to have:

  1. A comfortable home
  2. A sober husband
  3. Sober sons

She also saw women’s suffrage as a necessary adjunct to social justice for women. In 1885, the Ontario government granted unmarried women the right to vote, but Letitia wrote:

It is a problem I have not yet been able to solve, why a woman having a husband would be disqualified from voting any more than a man who had a wife…If only widows and spinsters are allowed to vote, then surely bachelors and widowers should be the only men eligible to the same privilege.

Although it is fashionable in a modern age to dismiss the temperance movement in Canada as a parochial and church-sponsored moral crusade, in reality it was a response to a severe social problem, whose victims were mostly women and children. Letitia Youmans did not see alcoholism as a purely individual failing, but laid the blame for widespread drunkenness firmly on the shoulders of the liquor merchants, who made their product cheap and easy to get and who reaped enormous profits from their activities.

And in the end, her efforts were successful. Many municipalities in the province, and indeed in the whole country, eventually passed by-laws regulating the sale of liquor, and in many respects, Letitia Youmans laid the groundwork for the social safety net that underpins modern Canada.

Letitia Youmans died in 1896 and was buried in Picton, where a historical plaque honours the memory of this giant of Canada’s social reform movement.