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Founder Profile: Laura A. Smith

--By Ann Allen, WPCI member

Of the 13 women who met on Feb. 18, 1913, to organize Woman's Press Club of Indiana, Laura A. Smith remains the most mysterious, although by that February day she had accumulated more bylines, both as Laura A. and Laura Alexandrine Smith, than most of the others would attain in their lifetimes.

A listing of Indiana authors shows that she was born in Waterloo, N.Y., date unknown. Nothing is known of her family or her educational background.

Her first book, The Music of the Waters: A collection of the Sailors' Chanties, or Working Songs of the Sea, of all Maritime Nations, was published in London in 1888. It was followed in 1889 by Through Romany Songland published in New York. Both were bylined Laura Alexandrine Smith.

After donning the dress of an "average young woman without means," she visited 37 churches in New York, Brooklyn and Boston to see what was meant by the term "strangers always welcome." As Laura A. Smith, she described her findings in an article published in Ladies Home Journal ca 1907.

"In 32 New York churches I was absolutely ignored by their members," she wrote. Her findings were a bit better in Boston but bad enough that she turned her steps to "the West" with the promise to record the manner of welcome she was extended.

Whether or not she fulfilled that promise is unknown, but she was followed by a trail of criticism from pastors who felts their churches were unfairly characterized.

"Sincere worshipers do not seek human fellowship in the church," one said. "They are in search of something else-and they appreciate the gentle courtesy of being let alone in their quest."

Her inquiries into why children were not in churches led to discussions of whether or not Sunday school was the solution.

Already a woman of controversy, she settled in Indianapolis, where Anna McKenzie's Indianapolis Red Book listed her as living at 2201 N. Alabama St. No one knows how long she lived there, only that she wrote feature articles for the Indianapolis News and Indianapolis Star.

She also seems to have written for the Indianapolis Press and Indianapolis Sentinel. Described on Grace Julian Clarke's woman's page as "a former Indianapolis newspaper woman and now a New York magazine writer," she was quoted as saying the new club (WPCI) should have "no formal papers."

Although she reportedly spent most of her life in Indianapolis writing for the News and Star, little else is known about her except that before, during and after America's involvement in World War I, she lived in Paris and sent lengthy articles to the Star describing living conditions and her work with the American Committee for Devastated France.

She wrote many essays for Elks Magazine, including "Christmas Day with James Whitcomb Riley," that reportedly attracted wide attention after its publication in 1932. No definition of "wide attention" was given.

The enigmatic Miss Smith died in Indianapolis on Aug. 1, 1935, but a search of all the city's newspapers failed to yield an obituary. The Hammond Times carried a brief paragraph about her death but did not mention survivors or plans for interment.

In death, as in life, she seems to have simply drifted from one place to another, quietly and with little or no ceremony.

The fine print:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. -- First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States
reporter's notebook
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Updated January 2013