Kittie Smith | Armless Wonder | Frances O’connor 1914-1962 Image. Wikimedia

Compiling articles about people of everyday character, Kittie Smith earned her place through extraordinary feats of determination over the course of her life.

Ever since I was old enough to remember, and especially since I lost my arms, I have been an object of charity, and the little money I have been able to earn came slow and required hours of hard work. – Kittie Smith

Katherine ‘Kittie’ M. Smith, was born on October 29, 1882 in Chicago, Illinois. When she was nine years old, her mother passed away suddenly, leaving Kittie under the care of her father William Smith, along with two older brothers and a younger sister. Kittie’s family was very poor, often going without sufficient food and clothing, but otherwise, Kittie was a strong and healthy child.

With her mother’s passing, Kittie took on the role of mothering and cooking. It was in this way that on Thanksgiving Day of the same year, Kittie’s arms were injured irreparably by the blazing hot kitchen stove. She remained hospitalized in serious condition from November of 1891 to February of 1892. There are conflicting accounts, reporting about how the accident came to pass. With testimony from neighbors as to Mr. Smith’s abuse, Kittie’s father was put on trial, faced with charges of cruelty and assault against his daughter, but in the spring of 1892 he was acquitted for lack of evidence. Whatever role her father played in the tragedy, during her lifetime, Kitty forgave him, and her account was that the incident had been an accident.

Afterward, her father waived all claim to his daughter. Kittie became a ward of the Children’s Home Society of Illinois. Charitable funds were raised on Kittie’s behalf and used to provide for her care and education.

Kittie’s resilience and determination became forefront as she stayed at the Home for Destitute Children and learned common education, along with how to write and sew with her feet. In addition, she learned to draw, paint, play the piano, type, and embroider silk. By the time she came of age, Kittie’s charitable fund had been exhausted.

Faced with daunting adversity, throughout her life, Kittie remained thankful and optimistic.

It seems that when a person loses an arm or a limb, the remaining members become doubly strong and you very often find a man with one arm doing the work which ordinarily is considered hard or difficult for a man with two arms to do. – Kittie Smith

She saw other children in the home far worse off than she was and Kittie was grateful for what she had.

Kittie persevered, resolving to support herself, she humbly leveraged her weakness 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. Reading her pamphlet’s heartfelt sentiments, full of optimism and grit resonated with the public and by March of 1906, Kittie had amassed over $35,000 in quarters. The sentiments expressed by Kittie in her pamphlets still resonate today.

Eventually, 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, as part of the efforts of Gracie Wilbur Trout, and Illinois’ new women’s suffrage law, Kitty was the first woman in Chicago to cast a ballot.

She voted using her feet.


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