Question of the Week
Wealthy Philadelphian and Georgia plantation owner Pierce (Mease) Bulter married a famous British actress in 1834. What was her name?
Answer: Fanny Kemble.
The Butler family was one of the most prominent in Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Born in Ireland, Major Pierce Butler (1744-1822) fought for the British in the French and Indian War, then began a new life as a South Carolina planter, became a U.S. Senator, and wrote the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause. His grandson, Philadelphian Pierce (Mease) Butler (1810-1867), inherited much of his fortune and 10,000 acre estate to become one of the largest slaveholders and wealthiest men in the nation (pictured at right).
In 1834, Pierce married well-known British actress Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble (1809-1893) in Philadelphia (pictured at right). Fanny was born in London from one of England’s most well-known family of actors. She reluctantly took the stage to save her family from financial ruin and was an immediate success. During an acting tour of the U.S. in 1832, she met Pierce, one of her most ardent admirers.
From the beginning, Pierce and Fanny’s marriage was plagued by rumors of infidelity on his part and disagreements over the institution of slavery. As described in her 1863 abolitionist memoir, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (which Pierce had forbid her to publish), Fanny was appalled at the fact that nearly everything around her was produced by the toil of enslaved people. She left Pierce in 1845 to return to England, and they divorced in 1849 after a long and painful court proceeding. By the late 1850s, Pierce had nearly bankrupted the plantation, and sold off nearly half of the 1,000 enslaved people he owned in the largest single sale of human beings in U.S. history - an event that would come to be called “the weeping time.” In Philadelphia, Fanny continued to perform, travel, and publish her journals.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.