The Women’s Convention of 1848, in Seneca Falls, NY, was an early major milestone in the US Women’s Rights movement. It was arguably the first. Two years later, in Saint Louis, a girl was born who would go on to become an unwilling icon of that movement: Catherine “Kate” O’Flaherty.
Catherine O’Flaherty was born, in Saint Louis, Missouri, in February, 1850, to an Irish immigrant father (Thomas) and a Saint Louisan mother (Eliza) of well-heeled lineage, including French-Creole  and Quebec ancestry.
Thomas O’Flaherty was born in 1805 in County Galway, Ireland. Ireland had been ruled by, and oppressed by, England for centuries. He emigrated to the United States around 1825 seeking opportunity — before the infamous Potato Famine hit in the mid-1840s. He settled in the country’s most prosperous and fastest growing heartland city, Saint Louis, Missouri.
He did well financially almost immediately. He ran a boat shop along the river and a small store. He expanded into cotton and grain trading. Now entitled to rub shoulders with city’s oldest and wealthiest families he moved in the highest circles. There, through arrangement, he met and courted Eliza Faris – she from a first class family in St Louis society, with well-established St Louis Creole roots. On August 1, 1844 they were wed. She was barely 16 at the time. Thomas 38.
Eliza was his second marriage – this time an arranged marriage. From the 1850 census, we see a child George O’Flaherty, age 9 in the household – Eliza’s stepchild. Eliza is some 22 years younger than Thomas. Besides George, Eliza, and several of her family, there are 2 more children: Thomas, age 2, and Catherine. The later shown as 0 years old; she was born on February 8 of that census year. Thomas’ profession in the census is shown as “Merchant.”
At age 5 Catherine, now going by “Kate” was sent to a private Catholic boarding school, across the Missouri River, in St Charles. There her studies lasted but a few months.
Thomas extended his business interests. He saw opportunity in the nation’s expansion, and its need for more railroads. He was an initial investor in, and one of the founders of the Pacific Railroad (later the Missouri-Pacific Railroad).
In 1855, shortly after Kate was sent off to school, the Pacific’s first major line from St Louis to the state capital – Jefferson City – was finally completed after four excruciatingly long years of construction.* The inaugural trip to Jeff City, the state capital, was to occur on October 1.
[* Excruciating long: it took only 6 years to complete the “transcontinental” 1,800 mile line from Omaha to the San Francisco Bay area. From Saint Louis to Jefferson City was about 110 miles of rail line].
Again, a delay … this time to complete a temporary trestle bridge over the Gasconade River, just west of Hermann and some 20 miles short of the capital.
Finally, the line was complete by the end of October. A large freighter pulling a dozen Gondola cars, each with tons of gravel, traversed the entire line, confirming its safely. It was good to go.
November 1, All Saints’ Day, ominously the day after Halloween, the inaugural full-length passenger run set out. The train carried some 600 passengers; among them were dozens of St Louis dignitaries, including O’Flaherty, Thomas O’Sullivan, and Henry Chouteau. O’Sullivan was the Pacific’s chief Engineer, Chouteau a direct descendant of St Louis’ founding family.
At 9AM, after much fanfare, band music and speechifying, the 14-car train pulled out of the Seventh Street Station (just south of the site of today’s Busch Stadium, and under ½ mile east of where the landmark Union Station would stand four decades later). Pulled by the small but mighty 4-4-0 locomotive Missouri* the train made its way west through a heavy rainstorm, over many creeks and small rivers, mostly along the right bank of the Missouri River, toward the capital city. About 25 miles from the route’s terminus, some 9 miles west of Hermann, the line crossed the Gasconade River bridge via the temporary mostly-timber trestle.
[* The locomotive had recently been re-named “O’Sullivan” after the engineer. He was also a prominent St Louisan and member of one of its oldest families].
At 1:30 PM the train reached the Gasconade bridge. A notion to stop and check the bridge was dismissed, as that heavy gravel-laden train had crossed the day before – with chief engineer O’Sullivan himself aboard that run as well. Plus, it was raining hard and the train was running late for the scheduled ceremonies to be held in Jeff City.
As the engine and tender rolled onto the first of six 150-foot spans the bridge gave way. Complete collapse. All cars but one left the track and tumbled down the thirty-five-foot embankment, most of them all the way into the swollen river. A historic catastrophe. Among the 30 fatalities were O’Sullivan, Chouteau and Thomas O’Flaherty. [This line along the Missouri River is still used by Amtrak today. It’s called the Missouri River Runner. The bridge has, of course, been replaced and upgraded several times]. Thomas is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in St Louis.
Trains were to proceed over the bridge by creeping at just a few miles per hour. The O’Sullivan “dared” to cross at over 10 mph. This was determined to be the catastrophe’s cause.
Fatherless, Kate was returned home from school. For the rest of her youth she was raised in a household led by only women, all strong matriarchs: her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. All had been widowed young, never re-married, and developed into fully self-sufficient, self-directed and independently minded women. They raised Kate to be likewise. She was home-schooled, mostly by her great-grandmother, Victoria Verdon Charleville, assisted by her grandmother, Athenaise “Mary” Charleville Faris. They ensured she was well-educated, and that she was well-rounded, including extra studies in classic & contemporary literature, music and her ancestors’ French language.
After she completed what amounted to Elementary School at home – about the time her great-grandmother’s health began fading (she died in 1863) – Kate began attending the nearby Catholic Girl’s School, Academy of the Visitation, in St Louis’ Visitation Neighborhood around 1859.
Kate must’ve been quite the catch. Handsome, well-off, well-educated, much attention was directed at her by local young men. But it was on a family vacation to New Orleans where she met her future husband – Oscar Chopin.
Chopin was also of French Creole decent; his surname is pronounced like the famous composer’s. They were married in 1870. By all accounts they had a good relationship and loving marriage. This despite Chopin’s father having a notorious reputation as a tyrant with an irritable disposition. Their relationship and marriage blossomed, and over the first 10 years of marriage they had six children.
Oscar held Kate in very high regard. He admired her intelligence, creativity and devotion to duty, all wrapped in a free spirit. He allowed her many freedoms not normally seen in the south. She was involved in his business, managed many of his contacts, went unescorted in public, and dressed as she wished. Oscar praised her publicly.
After an extravagant honeymoon that took them across Europe they settled in New Orleans. Following a few years of prosperity, Oscar’s cotton trade business failed due to a series of economic crises that struck the post-war South. They moved to Natchitoches Parish, started a General Store and helped manage local plantations. Although the store’s sales were healthy, Oscar was well-known to be excessively generous in extending credit to his customers, and then not bothering much with debt collection.
Buried in debt and struggling to support his family, the good-natured Oscar was under great pressure – to which he succumbed. In 1882, aged 38, he contracted “Swamp Fever”* and died after a period of brutally painful suffering.
[*a generic name for local diseases; it was probably malaria].
Kate was now a young widow, like three generations of women before her, at age 32, with 6 children and shouldering over $12,000 in debt (worth about $350,000 in 2023). She took over the business and ran it well for two years. During this time, she shamelessly flirted openly with local men – not all were single. Outrageous! She had a brief affair with a local wealthy plantation owner, Albert Sampite. (Although married, Sampite was estranged). He encouraged her to further reach for her own aspirations. He inspired her to boldly engage her imagination – something she’d do the rest of her days. It was a brief, yet exciting, liaison. But this was all just too much work. Her life was too full, too busy. At her mother’s urging she sold the store, packed up and returned to her hometown in 1884. Permanently, as it turned out. Saint Louis was home.
The main reasons for the big move were to get financial relief, emotional support, and help raising the children. The support was short-lived, however. Within a year of Kate’s arrival Eliza fell ill. When she died Kate was alone again. [Phone book records show them living at 1122 St. Ange Ave, in the Peabody Darst Webb neighborhood]
Through her mother’s illness Kate fell into a depressive funk. The doctor who attended to her mother through failing health, Dr Kolbenheyer, noticed Kate’s struggles. He recommended she try writing for solace. When Eliza died, Kate did start writing. Oh, how she could write. She wrote about what she knew. She was almost immediately successful, writing about people and things she knew about and had seen in Louisiana. With her inheritance and money she earned from writing she was pretty well-off. Enough to support herself and her children. She moved to a very nice home at 4232 McPherson Ave, in the Central West End neighborhood.
Inspired by this success, she tried writing novels. By the later 1890s she was well-known nationally and famous locally. She had hundreds of articles and short stories published, as well as novels that critics reviewed highly. In 1897 she embarked on writing her pièce de resistance: The Awakening.
After two years it was complete. Published in 1899, The Awakening caused quite a stir. Briefly it’s about a woman, Edna Pontellier, who is married to a wealthy businessman in New Orleans. She feels trapped in her life and hemmed in by the expectations of a wife and mother in the old south. She seeks independence and self-discovery. She seeks, and finds, her own desires – outside the bounds of polite society’s expectations. Her desire includes enjoyment, which includes sexual pleasures. The rest of the story is about the conflicts and crises that arise as she finds fulfillment of those desires. In the end, it’s a tragedy.
It was a scandal! In mixed reviews most critics found it disturbing. Readers thought the same. Shameful. Immoral. Outrageous. Women don’t do that! And if they do, we don’t write about it. Feminists praised her as a hero. Feminist “Hero” was a mantle she never accepted. She was just a writer.
The result? Chopin’s writing career crashed. Publishers eschewed her work. Copies of The Awakening were stashed away in unlit corners of libraries and homes. She was largely forgotten. Even by feminists. A decade after her death, her works were briefly re-considered, and some critics, like Fred Lewis Pattee, began considering her among the best writers of the late 19th century. Alas, her works soon again drifted into the realm of cob-webbed dust-covered attics.
Her works lay largely dormant and forgotten until after the mid-20th century when scholars, many of them feminists, re-discovered The Awakening. It’s now held in high regard as an early classic of feminist literature. It’s widely studied and celebrated for its exploration of themes like repression, gender roles, identity, sexual awakening, and women’s individuality and freedom.
Authors and readers since have been inspired by Chopin’s female characters. Two popular and very successful novelists of our era who nearly always include female protagonists who face challenges and grow to become heroic figures are Kristin Hannah and – gasp, a man! – Ken Follett.
Excitement for Kate. Her hometown, Saint Louis, hosted the 1904 World’s Fair. The main entrance was just two miles from her home in the Central West End neighborhood. Instead of going to see the world, the world had come to her: a perfect fit for her hungry and inquisitive mind. She bought a season’s pass and delighted in roaming the grounds – a nearly 1,300 acre expanse with over 1,500 buildings, 12 Palaces and a mile of Pike with curiosities of all sorts, all connected with 75 miles of roads and walkways – to learn of countless technical and cultural advances in the world.
A Saint Louis native, she certainly had already experienced many a warm day with oppressive humidity. Most Fair visitors that summer remarked on this unpleasant “feature” of Midwest weather. In the late morning of August 19, a huge storm system developed over Kansas, then moved slowly east. The intense storm dropped two inches of overnight rain on Saint Louis – much after midnight – before drifting east, dumping buckets all the way to Buffalo.
The next day Kate was at the Fair again. The heavy rain had driven the humidity to the point of being nearly unbearable in the 87-degree heat. With so much to see and learn, Kate soldiered on. In the afternoon she began feeling very tired and woozy. She began feeling faint. Then she passed out.
She was taken home. Victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. She passed away in her own bed, two days later, age 54. She is also buried in Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, St Louis, near her parents.
A legendary figure in Saint Louis history, literature and feminism, Kate Chopin aspired, achieved, and inspired many.
Thanks for reading. I enjoy sharing almost forgotten history from my own perspective. Be well. Be like Kate Chopin. Color outside the lines. Live your dreams. Aspire. Be you.
Joe Girard © 2023
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Author’s notes (footnotes follow):
Note 1: Many will wonder, after reading this, whether I am a “feminist,” or not. My position is nuanced, and largely depends upon how one defines the term. First the affirmative.
I am a feminist in a practical sense. No society can reach anything close its full potentional in areas of human progress – economics, arts, philosophy, or technology – while restricting the participation of one-half of its population. Yes, I’m a feminist insofar as that means fully empowering all of the population to contribute to society … legally and without infringing the rights of others. Everyone has something to contribute to society … as they see fit. This is consistent with classical liberal philosophy.
And the negative. I am not in harmony with fringe opinions attributed to “feminists.” These include notions of “male toxicity”, “all heterosexual intercourse is rape”, destruction of capitalism, attacks on trans-woman as they’re perceived to be “hogging” their victimhood spotlight, banning religions with a patriarchal history, renaming anything with the sounds “her, him or his” in the word: e.g. Hurricanes become Him-icanes. In any case, much may all be well on its way to history’s dustbin as women in the US now earn 38% more college degrees than men at nearly every level. This last point is very interesting – perhaps a topic for another essay.
I might have uncovered some disagreement here. OK. Tribal rules don’t care about nuance.
Note 2: As many of my readers reside in the St Louis area – and I’m hopeful more will join as I often write essays with St Louis themes – I have included reference to the St Louis neighborhoods, streets and addresses to that they can place events in the region.
 The term “Creole” has many definitions. Herein I use it to refer to those who trace their ancestry to Europe, of French and/or Spanish ancestry, often mixed with black. This ancestry often goes back to upper classes or upper-middle classes, whether the status was attained in Europe or in the New World. Most of these Creoles do not speak “pigeon English” and are definitely not Cajun, which is a unique Louisiana background and culture altogether – although in some parts of Louisiana they overlap.
It appears that O’Flaherty’s first marriage was also to a society St Louis Creole, named Catharine Reilhe. They wed in November, 1839. Catharine was born in 1819, in St Charles, and passed in 1846. It’s likely that Kate was named for her. His son from his first marriage, George, was born in 1841; he died in 1863. As with most of the O’Flaherty and Chopin family he’s buried in Calavary Cemetery, St Louis. It seems he died in Arkansas, as a member of the Confederate Army, as a consequence of the Battle of Prairie Grove, December 1862, in Northwest Arkansas. As Saint Louis, indeed most of Missouri, was very fractured over slavery and the Confederacy.
Reihle sounds like, and is, a name of Germanic origins — mostly Austrian, some from Württemberg. As multiple sources state she’s from a Creole background, I suspect this is either due to interpretation, or something acquired by ancestral marriage, separate from her maiden surname.
A much abbreviated list of sites for resource, plus there was familysearch.org, a great free resource.
3 thoughts on “Kate Chopin”
I read “The Awakening” when I was a student. ????
I’m trying to figure out how to do this. Everything is difficult these days.
(Somehow the smiley turned into question marks.)
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