Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Winter 2000


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 3-18.


Copyright 2000 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Beginning at age fourteen, Kate McPhelim Cleary published voluminously in turn-of-the century American periodicals and newspapers. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1863. Her father died when she was young, and her mother moved the family back to Ireland for a short time before immigrating to Philadelphia. In 1880 the McPhelim family-Kate, her mother Margaret, and her two brothers-relocated to Chicago where they supported themselves by writing. There, Kate McPhelim met and married Michael Cleary. In 1884 the newlyweds, along with Kate's mother, moved to recently established Hubbell, Nebraska, where they lived for fourteen years. The Clearys had six children but lost two daughters within a three month period, one to typhoid fever and the other possibly to polio. The family returned to Chicago in 1898, where they struggled financially to survive.

Throughout her life, Cleary's writing helped to support her family. Her most memorable stories, essays, and poems describe the Nebraska frontier at the end of the century, especially the lives of small-town pioneers. Although some of her stories and sketches are bleakly naturalistic, others present a comic, often satiric, look at Midwestern society. Her mystery novel, Like a Gallant Lady, published by Way and Williams in 1897, stirred controversy in Nebraska over its depiction of the state and its inhabitants.

When Cleary died in 1905 at age 42, Chicago newspapers lauded her as "one of the best known magazine writers in the country. Her pen products were frequently seen in the leading periodicals and her name was well-established before the public." However, the subhead lines added a teaser: "Recently Held to Be Sane by a Court."1 Further reports of her death proclaimed, "For years she had been a victim of the drug habit and had been detained in the Elgin asylum for the insane, but had been released." Not until the last line of the sensational news story detailing all of the events leading up to her death did the reporter note that "sickness led to the use of drugs and the breaking down of her health." The sensational accounts of Cleary's death echo Victorian sentiment against drug and alcohol dependence. These cultural attitudes, as well as the state of late-nineteenth-century medical practices, burdened and eventually destroyed Cleary's literary career just as it was reaching its full potential.

According to family history, Cleary's morphine addiction began after the birth of daughter Vera Valentine, her fifth child, on 14 February 1894. Cleary became gravely ill with the dreaded puerperal fever, or childbed fever, the most common cause of maternal mortality. A severe postpartum infection, puerperal fever was often introduced to birthing women through doctors who brought communicable diseases on their hands, clothing, and instruments.2 Symptoms that Cleary endured would have included an elevated temperature, inflammation, vomiting, fits of shivering, severe headaches, and, perhaps, delirium.3

Michael wired their friends, Robert and Elia Peattie of Omaha, to send a trained nurse to Hubbell to assist in her recovery. On the Plains, especially in the remote, rural regions, hospitals were mostly nonexistent. Clarkson Memorial Hospital, completed in 1883, and Omaha Medical and Surgical Institute, built in 1891, were the first hospitals to operate in Nebraska. Morrow Hospital in Seward, the only hospital west of Lincoln and Omaha, did not open its doors until 1900.4 Fortunately, the Clearys were able to afford a private-duty nurse to minister to Kate's needs. Elia, who had reported on Omaha's new hospitals in her position as editorial writer for the Omaha World-Herald, would have had good connections in the medical world. By the late 1900s, nursing schools linked to hospitals had become become more common, although the label of "private duty nurse" could apply to anyone who chose to assume it. No uniform licensing laws differentiated between those who graduated from a formal training school, those who had once worked at a hospital, or someone with experience but no formal education or hospital connections.5