Mary Elizabeth Lease
Populist orator. Born: September 11, 1850, Ridgway, Pennsylvania. Died: October 29, 1933, Callicoon, New York.
Populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease, who supposedly advised Kansas farmers to "raise less corn and more hell," was born Mary Clyens to Irish immigrant parents in Pennsylvania in 1850. In her later years, she claimed she had been born in 1853. At the age of twenty she came to Kansas to teach school in Osage Mission, and three years later she married Charles L. Lease, a local pharmacist. After unsuccessful farming ventures in Kingman County and in Texas, the Leases and their four children moved to Wichita, where Mary Elizabeth took a leading role in civic and social activities.
By 1890, her involvement in the growing revolt of Kansas farmers against high mortgage interest and railroad rates had placed her in the forefront of the People's (Populist) Party, and she traveled all over Kansas as well as the Far West and the South for the cause. She was a powerful and emotional speaker; Emporia editor William Allen White, who did not share her political views, wrote on one occasion that "she could recite the multiplication table and set a crowd hooting and harrahing at her will."
More an agitator than a practical politician, by 1896 Lease had become alienated from the Populist Party, and thereafter she turned to personal interests. She divorced her husband in 1902 and spent the rest of her life with one or another of her children in the East until her death in 1933.
Entry: Lease, Mary Elizabeth
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2003
Date Modified: June 2013
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