Kitty Smith’s is the saddest story I’ve encountered thus far in exploring the sideshow world and writing about over 150 of its artists. Most human anomalies are born different; they’ve never known any other reality, so they simply learn how to get about in the world and the rest of us find their accomplishments remarkable. Others in the sideshow world alter themselves in an interesting way: e.g., grow hair in unusual places (on women, that tends to be the chin); get tattooed; or gain massive amounts of weight. Katherine M. Smith however was MAIMED into her condition.
Born on this day in 1882 and raised in Chicago, Katherine M. Smith was nine years old when her drunken, abusive father held her arms against a hot stove and burned them beyond reclamation. In later years she tried to gloss over this incident and claimed the ‘accident” had been her own fault, but there are records of the legal trial (he was acquitted but Kitty was placed in a home). In the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children, she learned to do with her feet many of thing things ordinary people do with their hands: write, draw, paint, play piano, sew, embroider, type with a typewriter, comb her hair, brush her teeth, and even make furniture with woodworking tools. When she reached majority, she published pamphlets telling her life story and asking the reader to donate a quarter — she raised $35,000 in this fashion.
It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she began working in actual sideshows, and when she did, she worked in the finest, at Coney Island and for John Robinson’s and Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circuses.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc