Katherine M. Smith, was born into a poor Chicago family on October 29, 1882. Like her two older brothers and her younger sister, ‘Kittie’ was a rather unremarkable girl and completely intact and average. That was until a sinister incident transpired and forever changed her life.
At the age of nine, Kittie’s mother suddenly passed away and she was left in the care of her progressively abusive and alcoholic father. On Thanksgiving Day of that same year, Kittie tried to stand up for herself and refused to cook dinner for her father. Outraged, Mr. Smith beat Kittie and held her arms and hands against the stove. Despite her screams, Mr. Smith held his daughter to the red-hot stove until her arms were destroyed. Too badly damaged in the incident, both arms were eventually amputated three inches from the shoulder at Cook County Hospital. Kittie remained in serious care there until February of 1892.
The Humane Society prosecuted Mr. Smith to the full extent of the law but the jury failed to convict him due to ‘lack of evidence’. Kittie became a ward of the Children’s Home Society of Illinois for several years, specifically living in the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children. It was in that home that one Dr. F. M. Gregg took an interest in the story surrounding Kittie and, as her father had by this time waived all rights and financial responsibilities, the good Doctor created an education fund for Kittie. The ‘Kittie Smith Fund’ proved to be a success and the donations allowed the doctor to bring in specialized staff, perhaps even a sideshow performer, to teach Kittie how to use her feet to accomplish common tasks. Kittie became adept a writing with her feet and loved to draw and paint. In addition, she could play the piano, type, and embroider silk. The fund also supported Kittie when she left in 1896 and paid for her board when she moved to Poynette, Wisconsin to attend public school.
During this entire time, Kittie remained thankful and optimistic. She saw other children in the home far worse off than she was and was grateful for what she had.
By 1905 Kittie’s fund was exhausted and at the age of 21 she was no longer eligible to draw from the state. Her father had passed away, her brothers were low paid labourers and her sister had been adopted. Kittie resolved to support herself and began to humbly capitalize on her tragedy by selling drawings and autobiographical pamphlets. The pamphlets she distributed were accompanied by a return card with a slot for a quarter. Upon receiving the pamphlet, the recipient would read her story and pay only if they were moved to do so. Something about the optimism and determination of the young girl resonated with the public and by March of 1906, Kittie had amassed over $35,000 in quarters.
That outpouring of support remains a testament to human sympathy and charity. An event compounded by the fact that Kittie had long ago forgiven her father and falsely claimed in her pamphlets that she lost her arms due to her own folly, by falling into a fire.
Kittie founded the Kittie Smith Company where she employed a bookkeeper, stenographer and dozen envelope stuffers. She aspired to help children with disabilities overcome their handicaps and displayed a remarkable set of skills to illustrate that nothing was impossible. In 1913, under Illinois’ new women’s suffrage law, Kitty was the first woman in Chicago to cast a ballot – and she did so using only her feet.
In the 1930s, Kitty was still inspiring people by exhibiting her wide array of remarkable skills at Coney Island and with the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey. Shortly thereafter, she quietly slipped into the background a retired.