Everyone Loves a Good Mystery - WCTU's 1876 Crusade Mystery Quilt
Updated: Sep 25
Throughout history, quilts have been made not only to keep loved ones warm, but often to tell a story, to make a political statement, and/or to support a cause.
In 1876, members of the WCTU made a quilt with a secret message that was not to be opened for 100 years. The quilt is known as the Crusade Mystery Quilt or the Prophecy Quilt. It is owned by the WCTU and is safely stored in our Frances Willard House Museum in Evanston, Illinois. The photo above was taken in 1976. It shows then National WCTU President Mrs. Herman Stanley posing with the quilt which was opened during the National WCTU Convention that year.
The idea for making the quilt was conceived in 1876 by the Ohio WCTU president, Mrs. H. C. McCabe. Her idea was to raise funds by inviting the original crusaders to piece up a quilt, and "everybody to write an autograph at so much a piece."
Mrs. McCabe's goal was 3,000 names. It is unclear the total amount raised or the amount paid by each person as some of our archival documents record ten cents, while others one dollar.
I'll share the message later in this article but first, as a quilter myself, I was interested in the actual details of the quilt and the history behind it and thought you might be interested, also.
The quilt was made by the women of Ohio in 1876 to commemorate the Women's Temperance Crusade. It has 77 nine-inch square blocks with a 19-inch square center block which contains the message.
Each block was a project of a county or local WCTU. All of the blocks are in shades of green or gold and are decorated with a wide variety of embroidered emblems and slogans, flowers and various colored nosegays and the United States flag are favorite patterns. Some blocks have no embroidery but are intricately quilted in elaborate patterns.
The quilt contains the names of the crusaders, any woman who marched and prayed in a saloon. There are 30 or 40 inscribed names on the back of each block of the quilt, some in print, some in script, legible, others faded beyond deciphering.
The large center block of green satin is decorated by two large flags with staffs crossed, embroidered in color and beneath, in shades of tan embroidery, "Ohio WCTU 1876." Across the back of the center block, the words, "Be Still and know that I am God, WCTU Convention, Zanesville, Ohio, May 31, 1876. Then the rather lengthy explanation, "Women's Temperance Crusade, a purely religious movement began at Hillsboro Ohio, Dec. 23, 1873. First success in closing saloons by prayer and pleading soon after at Washington Court House, Fayette County, Ohio."
The slogans in each corner of this block seem designed to encourage the fainthearted, "The Race Is not to the Swift, Faith Workth Wonders, With God All Things are Possible, In Union is Strength."
The quilt effectively commemorates a most significant event in temperance history. After being inspired by the lecturers of Dr. Dio Lewis, who told how his mother had repeatedly implored a saloonkeeper to refuse her husband drink when he came to spend money desperately needed by his impoverished family, the women of Hillsboro, Ohio, met in the Presbyterian Church to pray and plan.
On December 23, 1873, inspired by the leadership of Eliza Trimble Thompson, daughter of a governor and wife of a prominent judge, about 70 Hillsboro women began daily marches to the saloons of the city. They knelt on the sawdust floors to pray that the saloonkeeper would renounce his business which caused so much anguish and close his doors.
Similar crusades started almost simultaneously in other towns. The Women's Temperance Crusade is credited by historians of the time as closing saloons in 250 towns in less than two months. Church attendance increased and crime decreased. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union grew out of the Women's Temperance Crusade.
Frances E. Willard presented the quilt to Mrs. Thompson saying, "Within its folds are hidden all our hearts. The day will come when young men and young women will point with pride, and say, 'There is the name of my great-grandmother who took part in Ohio's great crusade.' "
Documents in our archives record in great detail the program and the exciting moments of the National WCTU convention when, at 4:00pm, the "Mystery Quilt" was presented to those in attendance.
Mrs. T. Roy Jarrett, National WCTU Vice President, read the transcription of the Crusade Quilt Note:
"After having transcribed for the ladies the names the record bears, it occurred to me that I would write this note thinking that in the far-off future the patch might be opened and enclose it, the ladies knowing nothing of what is written. When this shall be opened all who perhaps now people...our...happy land (save for the cause of intemperance) will be in the dust.
"Noble women often have watched them on the coldest days of winter when denied the privilege of the admittance to saloons, to ask those who sold the accursed stuff to sell no more, next on the cold pavement in front of those places to ask God to change the hearts of those wicked men, whose drinking cursed their homes.
"When 100 years shall have passed and the patch is opened in the year 1976...Let Hillsboro be remembered as the birthplace of the Crusade and may the names of Mrs. Thompson, Mrs. McDowell, and all whose names this record bears, live forever. L. Detwiler"
Then Mrs. Paul Lafferty, President, Ohio WCTU, Chairman of the 1976 WCTU Quilt Committee, presented a new quilt to the National WCTU. Each state WCTU had a part in making its own individual square, with the Idaho WCTU quilting the entire piece.
The 1976 quilt also contains a hidden message, just as its counterpart of the nineteenth century did. National WCTU President, Mrs. Herman Stanley, wrote the message to be opened and read in 2076. She gave no hint as to what she wrote. She just said, "I wrote what I believe you would have wanted to say to the women of 2076."
The beautiful quilt, a joint effort of every State WCTU, was accepted by Mrs. Stanley on behalf of the National WCTU. The quilt of 1876 and 1976 were both hung from a cable across the back of the stage for the impressive ceremony.
Enthusiastic convention goers took pictures of the two quilts to their hearts' content.
Source: Union Signal, the Official Publication of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union. All rights reserved.