Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis is like the Hollywood Walk of Fame for history nerds. The list of notable people buried there is so long that the walking brochure can only spare room for a few words about each one. My friend and I went exploring the cemetery last summer, following the brochure from the grave of Sara Teasdale (“Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet”) to the mausoleum of the Lemp family (“Brewers / Family Madness”) and onward.
As we crested the first hill, we came across the grave of Kate Brewington Bennett. “She died for her beauty,” my friend read aloud, puzzled. It was a little vague, even by the brochure’s standards. So I told him the story as best I remembered it. It goes like this:
Kate Brewington Bennett was the wife of William Bennett, one of the cemetery’s founders. She was regarded as the most stunning woman in St. Louis. Her skin was smooth and pale, like the finest polished marble. Kate’s secret was her dangerous beauty regime: she took a small dose of arsenic every day, which had the effect of lightening her complexion. It also slowly killed her. She died of arsenic poisoning at age 37. Her husband’s final gift to her was an elaborate gravestone, as white and flawless as she had once been.
“Wow,” said my friend. “So have you written about her for the blog?”
I shrugged. “We’re interested in women who lived extraordinarily. She just… you know, died weird.”
In the months since, I’ve been wondering if I was right to be so dismissive. In an age of diet pills and eating disorders and a beauty standard created by Photoshop, is there really nothing to say about Kate Bennett? This is a woman who literally killed herself to preserve her beauty and, by extension, her value to those around her.
Or did she?
Kate Bennett’s story is one that I’d heard for years, but had never seen any documentation for. I decided to dig into it a little deeper. According to the census, Kate and William Bennett came to St. Louis from Maryland. William was a partner in the Russell & Bennett wholesale grocery firm, specializing in imported spices and liquor. In 1850, William and Kate were living with their three daughters on Fourth Street, not far from William’s riverfront warehouse.
The St. Louis County history from the 1880s notes that William Bennett did, in fact, serve as one of the first trustees for Bellefontaine Cemetery. However, it doesn’t mention anything about Kate’s death, which is a bit of a letdown. County histories from the 1880s love to report bizarre deaths. We know from Kate’s gravestone that she died on November 20, 1855, so I checked the death notices in the next day’s issue of the Daily Missouri Republican. Sure enough, there she was:
“A short illness.” That’s hardly conclusive, one way or the other. It’s worth mentioning here that arsenic was absolutely used in patent medicines in the 1800s and early 1900s. It was specifically sold as a way to clear up and lighten the complexion, which is completely false—taking arsenic actually darkens the skin. So what kicked off this nonsense trend? The source seems to be a widely circulated medical paper about the Styrian Arsenic Eaters, a group of villagers in Southeast Austria who swore by small doses of the poison. They claimed it kept their appearances youthful and helped them breathe in high altitudes.
It’s unlikely that Kate Bennett got swept up in the arsenic eating fad, though. The article about the Styrians didn’t reach American audiences until 1855-1856. By the time it became a hot news item, Kate was probably already dead. It’s not yet clear how or when the arsenic story became attached to her.
Even as a myth, though, it’s fascinating. There’s something mean-spirited about it, something that becomes clearer when you know it isn’t true. The pressure on women to strive for an impossible standard of beauty goes back centuries, if not millennia. Yet, when a woman actually harms herself in trying to achieve it, we’re quick to scoff at her vanity or naiveté.
The truth is, we still don’t know the story of Kate Bennett, and the story we tell really says a lot more about us than it does her.