Etta Semple

Etta Semple with Laura KnoxPhoto—Kansas State Historical Society Etta Semple with Laura KnoxPhoto—Kansas State Historical Society

On this date in 1855, Etta Semple (née Martha Etta Donaldson) was born into a Baptist family in Quincy, Illinois. After being left a widow with two sons in 1887, she married Matthew Semple, of Ottawa, Kansas, and they had one son. Etta became Ottawa's town radical, espousing freethought, feminism, opposing racial bigotry, capital punishment, and "blue laws." Her pro-working class novels included Society and The Strike. She helped found the Kansas Freethought Association to "fight ignorance, superstition and tyranny," and in 1879 was elected its president. She also served as vice-president of the American Secular Union. From her parlor she published the bimonthly Freethought Ideal, an 8-page newspaper with a 2,000 circulation. Etta, a community celebrity who supported temperance, amused Ottawans in the summer of 1901 by strolling arm-in-arm with Carry Nation, prompting a local wag to quip: "One believes in no saloons, and one believes in no god." In 1902, Etta opened a "Natural Cure" sanitarium with 31 rooms. "No tramp ever went away hungry, and no fallen woman has been kicked down by us," she once wrote. While the Evening Herald (Ottawa) hailed Etta as a "Good Samaritan" and "one of the greatest benefactors Ottawa has ever had," she was stalked by an assassin. In an unsolved murder on March 28, 1905, an elderly patient in the hospital was bludgeoned in bed. Etta was believed by authorities to be the intended victim. When Etta died of pneumonia at age 59, court was adjourned and crowds filled the cemetery for a godless oration in the spring sun. The Ottawa Herald's banner headline read: "Good Deeds of A Good Woman Are on the Tongues of Ottawa Today." Mourners sang one of Etta's favorite secular songs, "Scattering Seeds of Kindness," which the local newspaper called "emblematic of Mrs. Semple's life." D. 1914. For more about Etta Semple, see Women Without Superstition.

“I never yet have seen the person who could withstand the doubt and unbelief that enter his mind when reading the Bible in a spirit of inquiry.”

—Etta Semple, "A Pious Congressman Twice Answered," Truth Seeker, Feb. 23,1895

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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