Kate Field

Kate Field

Photo by Charles Reutlinger (1896)

Courtesy of Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-134817]

          Mary Katherine Keemle Field (1838-1896) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, a descendent of a long line of authors and theatre people. At age 16, Kate was sent to Boston to be with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Milton H. Sanford. She attempted to be an actress without much success. 

          Slowly Kate gained notoriety as one of the first woman reporters in the country, writing for the New York Tribune, the New York Herald, the Atlantic Almanac, and other papers. She also wrote several books: Adelaide Ristori (1867), Planchette’s Diary (1868), Mad on Purpose, a Comedy (1868), Pen Photographs of Charles Dickens’s Readings (1868), Hap-Hazard (1873), Ten Days in Spain (1875), History of Bell’s Telephone (1878), and Charles Albert Fechter (1882).

          Kate also pursued another occupation. On March 3, 1869, at age 30, she debuted as one of the first professional female lecturers, presenting “Women in the Lyceum.” Field used the lecture platform to campaign for social reforms, and to boost her salary. She openly stated that she lectured “because it pays better than anything else, and I am tired of grubbing along.” 

          Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said, “It was worth an admission fee just to see Kate Field on the platform, as she made so lovely a picture.”

          When people heard that Kate Field, along with her mother and two other ladies, had plans to enter the Adirondack woods, they gave no encouragement. “Four women!...Order four coffins, and take them with you” was the cry from their critics. Field ignored the critics and went went into the Adirondack woods. She wrote of her experience:

Ah, the luxury of laying care and thought aside! the luxury of feeling that for one month out of the twelve you can be a rough, stupid, good-natured, selfish animal, with no more regard for the sins and woes of humanity than have the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!...To be a babe in the woods watched over by a human robin redbreast, is as near an approach to Eden before the fall as comes within the ken of woman.

...The open air means tan and freckles. Shall health be considered when complexion is in danger? Expansion of the lungs means expansion of the ribs. Can this be tolerated at the expense of an enlarged waist? But there are women who are willing to be tanned, freckled, and even made to resemble antique statuary, for the sake of renewed youth. Let such try the wilderness.

...Helter skelter, off with silks, kid gloves, and linen collars, on with bloomer, stout boots, and felt hat, and we helpless women are transformed into helpful human beings. 

Kate Field

John Brown's Grave, North Elba

by Seneca Ray Stoddard (1885)

          While visiting John Brown’s farm and grave, Kate Field discovered that the place was for sale. She wrote:

“For sale with the bones of John Brown lying there!”

And set out to raise $2,000 to buy the property. “I want the farm to be held as sacred ground,” she wrote, “as proof that even in the nineteenth century there is such a thing as poetic justice.”

          Field secured the necessary subscribers and preserved the 244 acre farm. Later, to give the John Brown Farm permanent protection, Field changed her will to bequeath her shares in the property to the State of New York. She encouraged the other shareholders to follow her example, and they did. On March 25, 1896, New York State accepted ownership of the John Brown Farm. An official ceremony was held at the farm on July 21, 1896. Unfortunately, Kate Field did not live to attend. She died of pneumonia on May 19, 1896.

Kate Field