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Our Rich History: Sarah Worthington King Peter — compassion and care for poor, sick, and prisoners

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

Imagine what the Cincinnati city jail—or nearly any jail—in the 1800s would have looked like. Men, women, and children were piled together in one place, not even necessarily segregated by gender or age, or for that matter, by type or severity of crimes committed. Male jailers oversaw all those imprisoned, and sexual abuses against women sometimes resulted.

Sarah Worthington King Peter

Sarah Worthington King Peter (1800–1877), a wealthy Cincinnatian, had visited prisons in the U.S. and Europe. She knew of the horrible conditions existing within their walls, and she especially commiserated with incarcerated women. In 1863, she successfully rallied for the establishment of the Cincinnati Female Prison, operated by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic religious order.

A wealthy daughter of Thomas Worthington, Ohio’s sixth Governor and its first U.S. Senator, Sarah nevertheless had a difficult life. Her first husband, Edward King, was a gambler, and when he died in 1836, left her with debt and two children, Rufus and Tom. She worked as a “housemother” to her sons and her nephews while they attended Harvard, a rather demeaning alternative for a woman of her station.

Sarah married again in 1844 in Philadelphia, this time to William Peter. The marriage was
apparently an unhappy one, but she stayed with him until his death.

Sarah dedicated most of her mansion at Third and Lytle Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio for a
convent for the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, while she lived in only two rooms on the second floor.

Sarah’s lifelong difficulties helped to forge her character and her compassion for others, especially women, the poor, and the sick. In a world where options for women were severely limited — either to marry, or if single, to become a teacher, maid, factory worker, or prostitute — she was particularly concerned for single women. She believed in education for women, and hoped that they could achieve some form of economic independence as artists.

Towards that goal, she helped to establish the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. In 1853, her husband died, and she moved to Cincinnati, to be near her son Rufus. In 1854, Sarah was among the founders of the Ladies’ Academy of Fine Art, whose collections became part of the later Cincinnati Art Museum.

In 1855, Sarah Worthington King Peter converted to Catholicism. She helped to bring three Catholic sisterhoods to the region: the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of Mercy (of Kinsale, Ireland), and the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis (of Aachen, Germany). With the latter, she established St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati’s West End in 1859. A friend of Henrietta Cleveland, Sarah was one of the founders of St. Elizabeth Hospital in Covington in 1861: https://www.nkytribune.com/2023/05/our-rich-history-henrietta-cleveland-made-the-world-a-better-place-left-legacy-st-elizabeth-healthcare/.

St. Mary’s Hospital, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1859

When the Civil War erupted, Sarah saw further needs. Medical assistance was severely lacking. In Spring 1862, at her own expense, she hired a steamboat, the Superior, and with Dr. Blackman and sisters from St. Mary Hospital, treated the Union and Confederate wounded at the Battle of Shiloh. Imagine what horrors awaited them on the battlefield. Returning to Cincinnati, she visited Confederate prisoners of war, supplying them with stationery and pens, and helping them to write letters to their loved ones. She even taught the prisoners how to make tents, canteen covers and other useful items.

In 1877, Sarah Worthington King Peter died. Cincinnati Archbishop John Baptist Purcell and Covington Bishop Augustus Toebbe celebrated her funeral liturgy, and referenced her saintliness. Indeed, she had selflessly and generously served her community, especially the poor, the sick, and prisoners.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our Ohio River Valley Region. If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender

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