Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence

With her adoptive mother, Catherine

I came across a mention that got my attention yesterday in a book I am reading that is titled White Tears, Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad. “Some of these children were sent on tour with famous Abolitionist persons like the Rev Henry Ward Beecher who adopted 6 yr old Fanny Lawrence.” But in looking into it, Rev Beecher (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin) did not adopt Fannie, Catherine did. Beecher baptized her. This is longer than most of my blogs but I do love when history and adoption walk alongside one another.

I don’t know about you but her adoptive mother certain does not look like a happy woman to me and she appears rather stern. The best source for information on Fannie that I found was a pdf from The Fare Facs Gazette titled A Sad Story of Redemption by William Page Johnson II. There is a lot in that link about the backstory but I want to pick up the story of Fannie where it intersects Rev Beecher.

Mary Fletcher was Fannie’s mulatto mother. Her owner (Fannie’s white father) had set her mother and Fannie free in his will but her mother rejected that possibility. She describes the choice she made and the reasons why: “[She] was born and raised in the County of Fauquier and that all her kindred and friends are now living in the county. That she is married and her husband is a slave who could not accompany her. That she has several children, besides those provided for by the will of her late master, all of whom are young and helpless, and that if she goes away she parts from all whom she has ever known and goes, a friendless stranger, to a new state encumbered by helpless children. Your petitioner declares that she deliberately prefers slavery in Virginia to freedom outside of it.”

Later, under the custody of their deceased owner’s mother, the slaves under the advice of that woman sought to make their way to Union lines (the Civil War had begun by now). The large group of slaves included Mary Fletcher, Jane Payne, Ann Gleaves, and their children, Viana, Sallie, and Fanny (Fletcher) Ayres; Bettie (Payne) Ayres; and, Selina (Gleaves) Ayres. The group likely included Jane Payne’s other daughters, Ellen and Rachael Payne, along with several other unknown slaves. They were all led by a slave by the name of Uncle Ben, who had been with their deceased owner, Rufus Ayres, as his personal body servant. Taking only what possessions they could carry and a small amount of food, they walked east toward Fairfax County and Union lines. They took turns carrying Fanny, Selena, and the other children who were too young to walk on their own. They kept off the roads for fear that they would be captured by the Rebs.

They were also fearful of vicious wild hogs, which then freely roamed the countryside. After walking all night, an estimated seventeen miles, they stopped the next morning to rest in a thicket. They ate a meager breakfast and lay down on the ground and slept. Several hours later, Uncle Ben woke with a start. He had been sleeping with his ear pressed to the ground and thought he had heard the sound of approaching horsemen.

Panic ensued. Belongings and children were quickly gathered up and everybody ran headlong through the woods. After they had gone a couple of miles, they slowed when they realized they were not being pursed. It was then discovered that little three-year-old Fanny was not among them. There was significant debate about what to do. All were still fearful of being captured and would not agree to turn back. Someone suggested that Fanny had probably already been eaten by hogs by this time. Hearing this, Viana and Sallie began to cry for their baby sister. Uncle Ben would later say, “Their cries were more than I could bear.” So, Uncle Ben agreed to go back for Fanny. He called out softly to her, “Fanny? Fanny?” his voice barely a whisper, fearful that either the rebels or the hogs would get him too. He was about to turn and leave when he saw some bushes moving a little ways off. He moved cautiously forward not knowing who, or what, it might be. On drawing nearer he saw the child, Fanny, rising and crying softly. Uncle Ben gathered her in his arms and asked her why she did not answer him when he called. She replied, “Cause, I was afraid the hogs would hear me!” Ben lifted the child onto his shoulders and raced back towards the rest of the slaves.

Just before Christmas 1862, Viana, Sallie, and Fanny met Catherine S Lawrence, a Union Army Nurse from New York who was working in the Convalescent Hospital at the Episcopal Seminary near Alexandria. Catherine Lawrence, who was unmarried, was a staunch abolitionist. One day she happened to see several white girls amongst a group of freed slaves. In her autobiography Catherine Lawrence described the smallest child: “The little girl had flaxen hair and dark blue eyes, but dark complexion, or terribly sunburned.” Catherine asked her servant woman, “Helen, see there, where did that white child come from?” Helen replied, “Well missus, they come, a company of them, here a short time ago. The family all died and left the three children to the care of the slaves and were told to go into Union lines, and that one is the youngest of them.

Catherine was shocked to learn that the girls were actually light-skinned slaves. Helen then pleaded with Catherine, “…[she] has no one to see to her…I’ll go with you to the other two girls, if you will take her.” Catherine responded, “Oh, Helen, not now, I am going away tomorrow, and I have no time now.” The following day Catherine was visited by Helen and twelve-year-old, Viana Ayres. With a trembling voice, Viana said to Catherine, “This one [Fanny] you can have as your own. I have no home for myself, nor for her. I reckon she’ll be better off with you, than with me. I have a sister [Sallie] younger than I am. I reckon I must look after her some.” Catherine agreed. She was certain she could find a home for Fanny with a family in New York. She promised that she would come back and do the same for Viana and Sallie, as well.

In the spring of 1863, Catherine and Fanny traveled to Brooklyn, New York. On the way, Catherine determined that she would adopt Fanny as her own daughter and see that she was baptized and properly educated. In Brooklyn, Catherine met with the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher. Reverend Beecher was a famous evangelical abolitionist. He had recently held a mock slave auction and conducted a baptism for a redeemed slave in his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Reverend Beecher took one look at Fanny and immediately asked Catherine Lawrence if he could baptize her in his church.

Several weeks later, on Sunday, May 10, 1863, Catherine and Fanny were waiting patiently at the end of a long line of parents inside Plymouth Church. This Sunday was the regular day of baptismal of infants. Reverend Beecher was concluding his baptismal duties before an immense crowd. Reverend Beecher, a skilled and gifted preacher, had carefully staged the day’s events for maximum dramatic effect. After he baptized the last child, he turned to his audience and stated that there was one more child to be christened. A flutter of excited murmuring rippled through the congregation. Beecher stepped off the pulpit and walked over and gathered up Fanny in his arms and carried her, alone, to the center of the altar. Fanny, her head nestled against his chest, timidly eyed the crowd. Beecher addressed his congregation, “This child was born a slave, and is redeemed from slavery!” He added – “Look upon this child. Tell me have you ever seen a fairer, sweeter face? This is a sample of the slavery which absorbs into itself everything fair and attractive. The loveliness of this child would only make her so much more valuable as a chattel (of being sold as Fancy Girls, a 19th century euphemism for light skinned slave prostitutes, which were then common in New Orleans.); For while your children are brought up to fear and serve the Lord, this little one, just as beautiful, would be made, through slavery, a child of damnation.”

Reverend Beecher then baptized her Fanny Virginia Casseopia Lawrence. Fanny, for her birth name; Virginia, for where she came from; Cassiopeia, for the mythological Greek Queen of unrivaled beauty; and, Lawrence, the surname of her adoptive mother. After her baptism, Reverend Beecher arranged to have Fanny photographed. In fact, Fanny posed for photographs at least seventeen different times, sometimes with her adoptive mother, Catherine Lawrence. The truth is Reverend Henry Ward Beecher exploited Fanny from the pulpit, and later with her image, as propaganda to further his abolitionist aims. It worked. Fanny’s photographs were distributed widely. The little carte-devista (CDV) photographs of Fanny were wildly popular in the North, making Fanny the most photographed slave child in history (enter her full name into google images to see the variety of photographs taken of her). Sadly, Catherine S. Lawrence used similar exploitive tactics with her adoptive daughter. Ostensibly, this was to raise money for Fanny’s education. Fanny sang at church gatherings and Sunday schools at which, donations were encouraged.

Shown barefoot as in transition from slavery

There is a note that Catherine Lawrence wrote and all I can find about the later life of Fanny – “The little one that I adopted and educated, married one whom I opposed, knowing his reckless life rendered him wholly unfit for one like her. When sick and among strangers, he deserted her and an infant daughter and eloped with a woman, who left her husband and two small children. My three Southern children are all laid away . . .” (seems to indicate all 3 had died.)

The essay that led me to the pdf is here – The ‘Redeemed Slave Child’ at the Appetite4History WordPress Blog by Suzanne Ramsey. The Rev Henry Ward Beecher was colorfully described in an article in Brownstoner titled – Walkabout: By Justice Possessed, Part 1 by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris) this way – “He was an amazingly complex man, with the religious zeal of a Billy Graham, the oratorical gifts of a Martin Luther King, Jr., the showmanship of a P.T. Barnum, and the marital infidelity and scandalous downfall of a Tiger Woods.”

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