Field, Kate (1838–1896)

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Field, Kate (1838–1896)

American journalist, columnist, actress, lecturer, and publisher of the weekly Kate Field's Washington. Born Mary Katherine Keemle Field on October 1, 1838, in St. Louis, Missouri; died in Honolulu, Hawaii, on May 19, 1896; daughter of Joseph M. (a well-known actor and playwright) and Eliza Lapsey (Riddle) Field (an actress); educated at Lasell Seminary.

Selected writings:

Adelaide Ristori (1867); Mad on Purpose, a Comedy (1868); Hap-Hazard (1873); Ten Days in Spain (1875); also contributed to the Atlantic Monthly.

Kate Field came from distinguished English stock, dating back to the time of Elizabeth I . One of her forebears, Nathaniel Field, was an actor and friend to William Shakespeare. From England, her ancestors migrated to Ireland, and in the rebellion of 1798 her grandfather Matthew Field, a leading Roman Catholic of Dublin, lost all his property. Emigrating to America, he settled in Baltimore, where he became a publisher and issued the first American Catholic almanac.

Matthew's son, Joseph M. Field, was educated in New York and became a popular stage actor in the West and in New Orleans, where he was one of the founders of the New Orleans Picayune. He also wrote plays (some of which he produced with success), founded and edited the "St. Louis Reveille," and built Field's Variety Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri. While playing Laertes in a stock production of Hamlet, he fell in love and married Ophelia: the actress Eliza Lapsey Riddle .

Their daughter Kate Field was born in St. Louis, on October 1, 1838. Her brother died when she was 11, but otherwise she enjoyed a carefree childhood. The little girl with red hair and blue eyes chose her own time for going to school, arranged to go there regularly, and then informed her parents that she had done so. Somewhat precocious, she also began to write at an early age and kept a journal: "I awoke at 5 finding the storm continuing unabated.…Did not rise til 6¼, lying until that time in bed wondering what the future might bring forth." Passionately fond of music and the stage, she aspired to become a successful opera singer—"Oh, how I long to be a follower of this divine art"—or a successful writer, or a successful entrepreneur. Successful seemed to be the motivating word.

In 1854, she journeyed to Boston to visit her wealthy Uncle Milton and favorite Aunt Cordela "Corda" Sanford . With a villa in Newport and glamorous friends that included Julia Ward Howe , Charlotte Cushman , and Edwin Booth, the Sanfords introduced their niece to Boston's social scene and put her through three years of school at Lasell Seminary. While she was there, her father died in January of 1856. Left with only a small insurance payment, the 17-year-old Kate and her mother moved in with the Sanfords.

In 1858, the Sanfords took Field abroad for a two-year stay in Florence, where she was placed under the charge of an Englishwoman, had tea with the Brownings, met George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ) and Frances Trollope , and flirted with Trollope's son Anthony and the 84-year-old author Walter Savage Landor while he gave her Latin lessons. Field also wrote a column

for the Boston Courier and then the Transcript. She subsequently gained much of her reputation with her three-part reminiscence of "The Last Days of Walter Savage Landor" in the Atlantic Monthly (1861). Over the next seven years, other articles concerning her stay in Florence would appear in the Atlantic, including "A Study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning ."

At the start of the Civil War in 1864, the family returned home. Meanwhile, Field's relationship with her uncle was becoming contentious. Issues that divided the nation began to divide the household. He hated abolitionists; she thought John Brown a hero. At first, he only threatened to cut off her allowance; eventually, he would cut back on her financial aid and reduce her inheritance in his will. Another setback was a fall from her horse which seriously impaired her health.

But Field kept busy. In 1868, she helped found the first professional women's club, which she then quit because she hated the name Sorosis. On November 14, 1874, she opened on Broadway as Peg Woffington in a revival of Charles Reade-Tom Taylor's Masks and Faces. The play closed the following night. Though she defied the critics and continued to tour, her ill health compelled her to give up acting. She was an excellent critic, however, and began writing articles on drama for the New York Tribune. When Dickens came to America, Kate Field heard him nightly and published Pen Photographs of Dickens' Readings which passed through several editions. About this time, Field and her friends purchased the farm in the Adirondacks where John Brown's body was buried and turned it into a memorial. She returned to New York and lectured on the subject, then followed up her first venture on the platform with a eulogy of Dickens.

Field then sailed for England and lectured abroad for several months. She traveled to Spain to meet President Emilio Castelar and wrote a series of letters for the Tribune, called "Ten Days in Spain," which eventually appeared in book form. She studied singing in London with Garcia and William Shakespeare, the English tenor; she also produced a play called "Extremes Meet," which had considerable success. She wrote many articles for leading journals and magazines, including an article about the telephone for the London Times, which led to her being considered an expert on the nascent invention. As a result, at Osborne House she sang "Kathleen Mavourneen" to Queen Victoria over the telephone, and had a harp played into a telephone in Shakespeare's house in Stratford, which was heard in a London theater. Returning home, she wrote Eyes and Ears in London, which met with genuine success.

Traveling west in 1883, Field stayed a year in Salt Lake City, where she became interested in the study of Mormonism. The double standard of polygamy infuriated her. As noted by Helen Beal Woodward in The Bold Women:

Kate claimed that the primary evil she fought was not polygamy but theocracy. It was what Jefferson had fought, and Andrew Jackson, and every real liberal since 1789; the union of church and state. This is plausible enough, but it does not quite explain the ardor with which she gathered statistics, tracked down the original lynchers of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, and interviewed Mormons, male and female. Basically a crack reporter, for all her bias, she concocted from her material her most eloquent lecture: The Mormon Monster; listening time, two hours.

When she returned East, her lectures on that subject and her evidence before a congressional committee brought about legislation that led to changed conditions and the admission of Utah as a State. Several years later (1887), Field visited Alaska and California and delivered the first lecture heard in Alaska to a crowd of miners; the subject was Charles Dickens. Her writing and lecturing were of great service to the Pacific slope. In 1890, she established a literary and critical journal in Washington, with a branch office in New York, which she entitled Kate Field's Washington, a national weekly review in which she continued her brilliant criticism of literature, the stage, and politics. She wrote most of the articles herself. Through her efforts, the tariff on arts was reduced from 30 to 15% in the McKinley bill and subsequently abolished in the Wilson bill. She was decorated by the French government with the Palm of the Academy, the highest honor given to a woman, and named as Officier de l'Instruction Publique.

In the spring of 1895, Field accepted a commission from the Chicago Times-Herald to visit Hawaii and study conditions there. Her mission, short as it was, was eminently successful, and her letters were widely read. She secured the first press interview granted by Hawaii's president Sanford Dole, and her letters to her paper were read in Cabinet meetings in Honolulu.

Exposure in a storm brought on an illness that caused her death on board a steamer traveling from Kawaihae to Honolulu on May 19, 1896. Her last words were reputed to be: "Oh, yes—The Amherst Eclipse Expedition!" The day before her death, she had met members of a party en route to Japan to observe a total eclipse. The next day, ever the journalist, she roused herself from a coma as her new friends gathered round, and she asked one more time: "Who did you say you were?" When told they were from Amherst, she triumphantly blurted her words of recognition and died. Her body was brought to San Francisco for cremation, and her ashes were deposited by the graves of her parents in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. Her friend and biographer, Lilian Whiting , placed over her grave a cross of purest Italian marble.


American Biography. Vol II. NY: American Historical Society, 1918.

Edgerly, Lois Stiles. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

Woodward, Helen Beal. The Bold Women. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1953.