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Armless Wonder Kittie Smith Astonished Nineteenth Century Audiences With Her Extraordinary Talents

Kittie Smith did not lead a normal life. Hers was exceptional. She was born with both arms, but they were amputated after her alcoholic father held her to a lit stove. She was ten years old at the time. Unwilling to speak against him, she claimed all responsibility for the supposed accident. Still, authorities permanently removed her from his care. Despite her trauma, Armless Wonder Kittie Smith (Kathryn M. R. Smith, 1882-1967) made her way cheerfully in the world with courage, dignity and grace. She also exhibited impressive business acumen.

In later years, she earned money as an “Armless Wonder” in circuses. She was also the first woman to vote in Chicago in 1913. She cast her ballot with her feet.

Kittie Smith Bounced Forward

According to Dorothy Dale of the Pittsburgh Press in 1910, Smith’s neighbors at the time of the accident said that the “nine-year-old child would have been better off had she died than to be so afflicted with her father, baby sister and two little brothers to housekeep for.” But with extreme optimism and positive thinking, Kittie Smith considered herself to be extremely lucky in life.

In Bouncing Forward, The Art And Science of Cultivating Resilience, Michaela Haas Ph.D. presents an extraordinary vision of contemporary people who not only survived unfathomable trauma, but also thrived after their experiences. Kittie Smith would have been an excellent interview for Bouncing Forward. Smith forgave her father and like Nellie Bly, never dwelled on her past. She embraced her pain and overcame her limitations. As Haas says, Smith refused to let her circumstances define her. She bounced forward.

Armless Wonder Kittie Smith’s Autobiographical Pamphlet

Kittie Smith published her autobiographical pamphlet years after her loss. In it she said her younger brother saved her from death on the day of the accident. After her lengthy hospitalization, she became a ward of the Children’s Home Society of Chicago, Illinois. She spent four years at the Home for Destitute Crippled Children, where she attended school and learned to perform everyday tasks. It seems she lived with joy, forgiveness and a determination to live a full life.

Dr. Frank M. Gregg established the “Kitty Smith Fund” to pay for her education. After leaving the home, she went to stay with a family in Poynette, Wisconsin. When she turned 21 she was no longer eligible for assistance from the state. With no biological family willing or able to help her, Kittie Smith struck out on her own.

Kittie Smith travelled, giving personal demonstrations and lectures. She also distributed autobiographical pamphlets with a slot for a coin. Her optimism and determination resulted in a considerable income for her day. Some accounts estimate the amount as high as $35,000. That would be worth roughly $850,000 today. While the number is uncertain, we do know from Dorothy Dale’s article in the Pittsburgh Press that she spearheaded a charity organization and ran a house for handicapped children.

Kittie Smith’s Drawings Today

In addition to her many talents and skills, Smith was also an entirely self-taught artist. After she turned her attention to drawing, she was soon selling her work to supplement her income.

Bromer Booksellers displays a remarkable Kittie Smith drawing titled Pencil Drawing of Three Cats Executed With The Artist’s Toes. Two images share a single sheet: on the left is a cat peeking out of a shoe, and on the right are two anthropomorphic cats courting over a picket fence. A card signed by Kittie Smith is attached at the top of the page. It reads, “Poynette, Wisconsin. Written and drawn with her toes. 1903.”

The drawing is accompanied by Kittie Smith’s 32-page autobiographical booklet.

“The drawing is reproduced in the accompanying booklet, “My Life Story,” a 32pp. autobiography first published in 1906. This is a later edition, and it includes numerous examples of Smith’s artwork and black & white photographs showing the artist combing her hair, building furniture out of wood, and writing at her desk, all with her toes.”

Item #25447 Price: $2,500.

The Pittsburgh Press Praised Kittie Smith, 1910

Dorothy Dale of the Pittsburgh Press Daily Magazine and Home Page published a glowing article about Kittie Smith on March 29, 1910.

Kittie has learned to use her feet to do the things that hands were intended to do, and almost weird are her powers. How completely she has overcome her misfortune is best told by herself. She said: I can’t say I handle things, but I can say that I foot them. “

Yes, I can sew. See these centerpieces which I embroidered all myself. Just a moment and I will show you how quickly I can thread a needle.” In a twinkle her needle was threaded and the thread knotted. The needle was threaded with her toes and the knot made with her teeth.

Now do you wish to see my workshop in the basement? We went there and I saw pretty Kittie work at her bench, which she built herself. This is my favorite pastime she said. I love to hammer and saw and make things out of wood I can saw a board perfectly straight, and almost as fast with my feet as any carpenter could with his hands.”

She picked up her saw with her right foot and while steadying it with the toes of her left foot, deftly demonstrated how easily it was done.

“Now do you wish to see my workshop on the basement? We went there and I saw pretty Kittie work at her bench, which she built herself.”

 Her autobiography reveals a cheerful and persevering mentality. Smith worked with several organizations to support children with disabilities and established the Kittie Smith Company, wanting to serve as a role model.” 

Kittie Smith Became The First Woman To Vote In Chicago

Yes, this is true. Kittie Smith was the first woman to cast her ballot in Chicago, Illinois in 1913 and she did it with her feet. Although women were not given the right to vote until 1920, they were technically allowed to vote in a few places after the American Revolution. That was assuming they had enough savings in the bank. In 1891, Ellen Martin was the first woman to vote in Lombard, Illinois after she noticed that her city’s charter did not mention gender. Fourteen other women voted after her in that election.

Kittie Smith led the way in the 1913 election in Chicago, with some 250,000 women voting behind her. She filled out her ballot with her feet. How’s that for Bouncing Forward?

Armless Wonder Kittie Smith Performed In Circuses

By the 1930s, Smith performed as “The Armless Dynamo” at Coney Island and with Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey, and John Robinson’s Circuses. The “Armless Wonder” became a regular feature in sideshows across America and Europe. Most of these people were born without limbs. All learned to deal with their circumstances in extraordinary ways that inspired audiences.

Following are a few phenomenal examples.

Frances Belle O’Connor (1914 – 1982)

She was known as the living Venus de Milo. O’Connor was a beautiful, graceful woman who performed with from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s with circuses including Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. Her hobbies included knitting and sewing.

Carl Herman Unthan (1848-1929)

He was Prussian violinist, born without arms. By the time he was 20, he performed to full concert halls with classical orchestras. During one performance he broke a string, which he quickly replaced and tuned with his feet. Because the audience was so enthralled, replacing a broken string became a regular part of his performances.

Charles B. Tripp (1855-1930)

He was a Canadian-American performer known as the “Armless Wonder.” Tripp supported his mother and sister as a carpenter and calligrapher. He later travelled with circuses including Barnum and Bailey, Ringling Brothers and others. Known for his genteel behavior, his stage act included shaving, carpentry, writing, painting and photography.   Like many of his fellow performers, he supplemented his income by signing photographs of himself.

This photo shows him biking in tandem with Eli Bowen who was born without legs.

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