Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Laura Sutton Bruce, 1853-1904
By Randolph Hollingsworth, Ph.D., Independent Scholar, Auckland, New Zealand
Laura Sutton Bruce was born on August 16, 1853, in Lexington, Kentucky. She was the third of seven daughters of Elizabeth T. Colesberry and William W. Bruce. Her father was a wealthy man whose fortune came from hemp and bagging manufacturing, having partnered for some years with the Lexington millionaire Benjamin F. Gratz. W.W. Bruce's social and political influence included that of two of his brothers: Benjamin Gratz Bruce who established the Live Stock Record in Lexington and who compiled the first two volumes of the American Stud Book; and Saunders Dewees Bruce who also bred thoroughbred horses and founded the popular journal Turf, Field and Farm. As was common for Southern belles in the day, family friend, thoroughbred owner and breeder James Shy, named a mare after her. Laura Bruce's mother Elizabeth was prominent in social circles, known for her volunteer work for the Episcopal Christ Church. Laura was named after her mother's ancestor, William Sutton, whose military service qualified her for the Daughters of the American Revolution. Laura Sutton Bruce lived at home with her parents at 107 Second Street until she began to travel in her late twenties: she applied for a passport in 1886. Her passport application described her at 28 years of age, as relatively tall at 5 ½ feet tall, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a small nose with an oval face and fair complexion.
Laura Bruce was a talented and recognized visual artist. According to a profile printed in the local newspaper, W.W. Bruce paid a nickel to his daughter for every portrait she would draw. Her studio in her family home was filled with life-sized sketches. Laura Bruce studied art, first in Lexington with Anna Totten then under an artist by the name of Martin in Cincinnati -- perhaps Laura Martin who was in the Art Department of the Young Ladies' Institute in Granville in 1884. Sometime in the 1880s she painted an oil portrait of her friend and suffrage leader Laura Clay (this painting was handed down to the Bennett family and hangs now in White Hall in Madison County). Laura Bruce traveled to Madrid then Dresden to live with relatives and study art there. She moved on to study in Rome, Florence, Berlin and Paris where finally she stayed for several years. Her sister Julia "Lilla" Jacobs joined her in February 1890, and in 1892 another sister, Fannie Bruce Loughridge, wrote to the Kentucky Leader of her travels with Laura Bruce to Gibraltar. The Leader announced in 1891 that Laura had finally returned home after five years in Europe. The editor described her as "a tall, queenly woman with an expressive, intellectual countenance. She converses fluently in English, French and German, is an accomplished artist, and a daughter of whom Lexington is justly proud." She contributed to suffragist Eugenia Dunlap Pott's journal The Illustrated Kentuckian in 1892, displayed her painting "The Four-Leaf Clover" at the 1895 World's Fair in Atlanta, and continued to travel back and forth to France where she was elected President of the American Woman's Art Association of Paris. She had several pictures exhibited in Paris salons. In 1899 the Champs-Elysees Salon in Paris accepted two of her watercolors: a portrait of Frances Carrier (her niece) and a study of a little girl.
In December 1894, the Woman's Club of Central Kentucky formally incorporated, and the founding president, Nannie Scovall, appointed Laura Bruce as the chair of the Art Department. She resigned the next year as she was still traveling to Paris for her art, but by 1900 Laura Bruce had returned to Kentucky and she began her involvement in the suffrage movement. The 1900 census counted her living with the family of her cousin Charlotte Bruce Davis on North Mill Street in Lexington, and she described her occupation as "capitalist." She was elected president of the Fayette Equal Rights Association, and in February 1900 she attended the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) convention in Washington D.C. Then, in May 1901 she traveled with Laura Clay and Sallie Clay Bennett to Minneapolis for the NAWSA convention where she represented Kentucky on the Resolutions Committee. She spent the winter of 1901-1902 in California, probably to offset her health problems that had begun to flare up. She vacationed and painted in New Hampshire in the fall of 1902, and then went to Washington D.C. to stay with her sister, Lizzie Bruce Chew, that winter. She continued to serve as the FERA president in 1903, and her portrait of Laura Clay was featured that summer at the Woman's Council tent organized by the Fayette Equal Rights Association for a Chautauqua program in Lexington.
She maintained a busy schedule of work, travel, and volunteer activity, but Laura Bruce must not have been feeling well, since she wrote her will in October of 1903. She suffered from what was diagnosed then as Bright's Disease, a problem with the kidneys sometimes called nephritis that we know now typically followed an untreatable case of strep throat. She must have been fighting the disease successfully for several months since she was elected vice-president of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Kentucky (with Laura Clay as president) in March 1904, and she had a picture accepted for display in the Kentucky building at the St. Louis World Fair. Renal failure, for which there was no treatment in the early 1900s, put her in the hospital in June 1904 where she died of "uraemic poisoning" on June 22. Her funeral was held at Christ Church Episcopal, and she is buried at the Lexington Cemetery in Section D, Lot 109 next to her parents and a baby sister.
Bruce never married, and in her will she bequeathed some of her estate, enough to amount to $5,000, to the "National Woman Suffrage Association," specifying that Laura Clay could use it as she saw fit to further the woman suffrage movement. She did not mention her widowed mother in her will, prompting Elizabeth Bruce to sue to reclaim her daughter's estate. She first wrote to Laura Clay, claiming that her late husband had stipulated that whenever one of the children died, the remaining property should be divided among the living siblings. Elizabeth, could not understand why Laura, always eager to please her father, did not comply with his wishes. Elizabeth challenged the bequest to the National Woman Suffrage Association, claiming that the NWSA had been dissolved in 1890 with the creation of the NAWSA, so there was no way to give it the funds stipulated in the will. Harriet Taylor Upton of NAWSA wrote regularly to Laura Clay's lawyer, Charles Kerr, trying to explain how the national organizations worked and emphasizing that Laura Bruce had been a member up to the time of her death. Clay, president of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, finally won the suit in 1906. She carefully held the gift of real estate and stocks in a special fund and, according to historian Paul F. Fuller, used it strategically to generate additional revenues. She rented out Bruce's "cottage" at 718 North Broadway in Lexington and with the rent from that house along with dividends and interest from other investments, Clay was able to pass along to the NAWSA (and League of Women Voters after 1920) nearly $9,000 in total. After 1925, the remaining investments (worth nearly $2,000) were given to the Christ Church (Episcopal) in Lexington for the Laura Sutton Bruce Memorial Fund that would offset the hospital expenses of those unable to pay.
Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary. Mary Sayre Haverstock, Jeannette Mahoney Vance, and Brian L. Meggitt, eds. (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2000): 577.
E.T. Bruce to Laura Clay, August 3, 1904, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 30. Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Ky. (hereafter "SCRC, UK").
"Fine Arts from Kentucky to Be Shown at World's Fair," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (March 27, 1904): 12.
Fuller, Paul E. Laura Clay and the Woman's Rights Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1975): 95-96.
Harriet Taylor Upton to Charles Kerr, June 1, 1905, Linda Neville Papers, Box 27, Folder 6. SCRC, UK.
The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. V 1900-1920. Ida Husted Harper, ed. (New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922): 127. [LINK].
"The Historical Room," The Kentucky [Lexington] Leader (January 11, 1895): 5.
"The Illustrated Kentuckian" advertisement, The Kentucky Chautauqua Detailed Illustrated Program (1892): 19. Available online via the Lexington Public Library at http://rescarta.lexpublib.org/jsp/RcWebImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=4b6721c8-86a6-43af-b29d-e86242e1ff82/KYLX0000/20180930/00000001&pg_seq=19
"In her will..." Daily Public Ledger [Maysville, Ky.] (June 29, 1904): 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. (Hereafter "Chronicling Am") Available online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069117/1904-06-29/ed-1/seq-1/.
"Last Will," The Kentucky [Lexington] Leader (June 27, 1904): 1
"Laura Bruce [thoroughbred]," The New York Herald (November 21, 1897). Chronicling Am. Available online at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1879-11-21/ed-1/seq-4/
Laura Bruce, Certificate of Death No. 7777, Kentucky Birth, Marriage and Death Records Microfilm (1852-1910). Microfilm rolls #994027-994058. Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
Laura Sutton Bruce, Last Will and Testament, Probate Place: Fayette, Kentucky; Probate Date: October 21, 1903, County Court (Fayette County); Kentucky, Wills and Probate Records, 1774-1989. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
Laura S. Bruce, U.S. Passport Application (April 24, 1886), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 281; Volume #: Roll 281 - 01 Apr 1886-30 Apr 1886. Accessed via Ancestry.com.
"Miss Laura Bruce Dies," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 23, 1904): 5.
"Miss Laura Bruce is at home again after five years...." Daily [Lexington, Ky.] Leader (August 2, 1891): 2.
"Miss Laura Bruce is at Paris, France..." The Kentucky [Lexington] Leader (October 2, 1892): 3.
"Miss Bruce's Pictures," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (January 4, 1903): 15.
"Miss Laura Sutton Bruce. 30315," Lineage Book National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Vol. 31, 1900. Compiled by Sarah Hall Johnson. (Washington D.C.: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1910): 109.
Catherine Waugh McCulloch to Miss Clay, April 1905, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 30. SCRC, UK.
"Mrs. Elizabeth Bruce Dies at Ripe Old Age," Lexington [Ky.] Herald (March 21, 1911): 1.
"Notes and Personals," Los Angeles Times (January 7, 1902): 11.
"Olla Podrida," Morning [Lexington, Ky.] Herald (December 8, 1897): 6.
"Off for Europe," Daily [Lexington, Ky.] Leader (February 4, 1890): 4.
"Officers are Elected," Courier-Journal (March 30, 1904): 2.
"Presenting the Reports. The Woman Suffragists Hard at Work in Convention. Minneapolis, May 31." The [Washington D.C.] Times (June 1, 1901): 3. Chronicling Am. Available online: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85054468/1901-06-01/ed-1/seq-3/
"Signal indeed is the honor conferred..." Morning [Lexington, Ky.] Herald (April 18, 1899): 6.
"Social Circles...Sketches of Miss Anna Totten and Miss Laura Bruce..." The [Lexington] Kentucky Leader (December 3, 1893): 4.
"State Personals," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (March 13, 1896): 4.
Suit, Executor Laura S. Bruce v. Elizabeth T. Bruce, Linda Neville Papers, Box 27, Folder 6. SCRC, UK.
"Tent for Woman's Council at Lexington Chautauqua in 1903 Organized by FERA," June 30, 1903 to July 10, 1903 entry on KWSP Timeline, H-Kentucky network, H-Net.org. https://networks.h-net.org/node/2289/discussions/185127/tent-womans-council-lexington-chatauqua-1903-organized-fera
"Tomorrow's Session," Washington [D.C.] Times (February 11, 1900): 7.
"Will Contest at Lexington Involves Fine Points. The Testatrix's Mother is Fighting for $5,000 Trust Fund," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 12, 1905): 2.
"Will Filed for Probate," Courier-Journal [Louisville, Ky.] (June 28, 1904): 2.
William Kerr to Miss Clay, May 21, 1906, Laura Clay Papers, Box 2, Folder 37. SCRC, UK.
"Women Formally Inaugurate their Club Work," The [Lexington] Kentucky Leader (December 20, 1894): 6.