Louise Atkinson Smith (1883-1976)

Family of Emily Sibley Watson

Louise Atkinson Smith (1883-1976)

While most of the Sibley women were noted for their volunteerism and philanthropy, Louise Atkinson Smith did not follow the family tradition. Born to Elisabeth Storer Smith and Arthur Cosslett Smith, she was their second child and only daughter. Her mother was one of two daughters of Zilpha Louise Atkinson, a niece of Emily Sibley Watson, and granddaughter of Hiram Sibley and his wife Elizabeth. Little is known of her education, although she was enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1907-1908, studying English.

Like most of her affluent extended family, Louise began to travel at a very young age. At age nine, in 1892 she and her entire family went to Europe, and again the following year. Her 1914 trip was cut short in August, when World War I broke out in Europe, and she had to obtain an emergency passport to return home. In 1919, she returned to Paris to do relief work as an ambulance driver in the Hacker-Lowther Unit, made up primarily of British and French women with a few Americans, but only stayed one month.

Louise seemed to have allied herself with suffragism, and while there is little documentation, one strike for women’s rights stands out clearly: her August 1912 entry in her anti-suffragist aunt Emily’s guest book aboard the yacht “Genesee,” (guest book is now in the collection of the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation department). “Votes for Women,” she wrote in a decisive hand. In 1920, the year that women won the vote, Louise Cosslett Smith was admitted to the bar in the State of New York, having discarded “Atkinson" by then. In The Women Lawyer’s Journal of March/April 1923 Smith and Margaret M. Burnet announced their partnership under the firm name of Burnet & Smith at 280 Broadway, New York City. Louise maintained that office at least until 1930.

After 1923, most of the available information about Louise Smith is connected with her travels, including a 1931 trip to Puerto Rico with her brother, landscape architect Sibley C. Smith, and a 1933 trip to Bermuda with her law partner, Margaret Burnet.

Greenwich Village was Louise’s neighborhood after she moved to New York, with her office on Lower Broadway and residences at 6 East 9th Street (1922), 122 Waverly Place (1926), and 29 Washington Square by 1928. One wonders if she hobnobbed with her cousin, James Sibley Watson, Jr., and his wife Hildegarde Lasell Watson, and their Dial Magazine friends, as the Watsons lived only a few blocks away until they moved back to Rochester and took up residence by 1928 in Louise’s family home at 6 Sibley Place.

Louise’s father, lawyer and author Arthur Cosslett Smith, died in 1926. The house then passed into the hands of the Watsons, who lived there until they died. By 1940, both Louise and her mother were residents of Craig House in Beacon, New York, a luxury psychiatric residential treatment facility that was famous for patients like Zelda Fitzgerald and Rosemary Kennedy, sister of the President.

There is no information about their diagnoses. Elizabeth Atkinson Smith was high strung and predisposed to nervous conditions throughout her life. For a period of time, her personal correspondence was handled by nurses, for example. By 1940, she may well have been suffering from dementia. Less clear is why Louise, an accomplished professional woman, required this kind of care, although mental illness respects no boundaries. When she died in her nineties, her address was given as Newburgh, New York, which is across the Hudson River from Beacon. Did she moved to another care facility? Did she recover and live independently?

Louise is buried in the Atkinson plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, probably the most recent and perhaps the last burial there.