Katherine M. "Kitty" Smith was born in Chicago on October 21, 1882, to a poor inner-city family. At the age of nine she attended a fresh air retreat in Whitley County, Indiana, for two weeks; at this time, Kitty was entirely normal and with a full complement of limbs. It was not until later that year, after her mother suddenly died and she was left in the care of her alcoholic father, that Kitty became armless. In her autobiographical pamphlet, published years later, Kitty claimed her drastic injury was the result of an innocent accident. On Thanksgiving day, 1891, little Kitty came across an open bottle of whiskey and partook. Her father called from another room, asking her to put more wood on the fire. When she took the lid from the stove, the wave of heat, combined with her drunkenness, caused her to faint into the hot stove. She was saved from death by her younger brother, but her arms could not be saved and both were amputated, three inches from the shoulder, at Cook County Hospital. Kitty remained hospitalized until February of 1892.

The truth behind Kitty's tragedy, however, is far more sinister. It seems that an intoxicated William Smith ordered his young daughter to cook him dinner. When Kitty failed to obey, he held her arms and hands against the hot stove until they were too badly burnt to be salvaged. The Humane Society intervened and arrested Mr. Smith for this barbaric act of abuse, and he was tried in the spring of 1892, but the jury failed to convict him. Kitty was staying at the Home for the Friendless at this point and when she appeared to testify in court, she wanted nothing more than to be embraced by the man who had disfigured her. She was allowed to remain in her father's arms for only a few minutes before the two were pried apart and Kitty was led away, sobbing. A religious woman, she would eventually forgive her father and include the less incriminating story in her autobiography.

Kitty remained a ward of the Children's Home Society of Illinois for several years, living at the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children. A Dr. Frank M. Gregg took a special interest in her and established the "Kitty Smith Fund" to pay for her education. After leaving the home, she went to stay with a family in Poynette, Wisconsin, for the next eight years.

When Kitty turned 21, in 1904, she could no longer draw assistance from the state and found herself on her own. Her father had died and neither of her two brothers, both laborers, had the means to help her. It was at this point, Kitty claimed, that she began to learn to use her feet, although it's more likely that she began using her toes as fingers as soon as she found herself without arms. She turned her attention to drawing, and within a year could draw well enough to sell her drawings for money. So successful was Kitty at exploiting her handicap that she soon established the Kitty Smith Company and began selling copies of her autobiography by mail. Each booklet was accompanied by a card with a slot for a quarter. By March of 1906, Kitty had amassed some $35,000 in quarters from a sympathetic public. Her company, managed by a man who sought to make a fortune of his own, employed a bookkeeper, stenographer, office boy and eleven envelope stuffers. Her intent was noble, however: she aspired to help children with disabilities overcome their handicaps and become successful people like herself.

Kitty's skills were not limited to the realm of business. According to her autobiography, she could "write a letter, paint a picture and embroider in silk. She can saw wood, drive nails, mow the lawn, thread a needle and operate a phonograph. She can sweep, dust, mop, scrub, blacken stoves, build book-cases, chairs and desks and varnish them. She can comb her hair, brush her teeth, take her hat off, eat at table and do many other things, remarkable for an armless girl." She could also play the piano and type on a typewriter. Of typing, Kitty told newspapers, "You see, with all the training in the world one cannot spread one's toes as wide apart as one's fingers. The trouble at first was that I would strike two keys at once, but I finally managed to overcome this fault." She was a member of the Epworth League, an order of Methodist youth, and sang in the Methodist choir. In 1913, under Illinois' new women's suffrage law, Kitty was the first woman in the Chicago suburb of Maywood to cast a ballot.

By the 1930s Kitty was working as a professional armless wonder, exhibiting at Coney Island as well as with the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey and John Robinson circuses.

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