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People & Events
Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler
1806 - 1893

Resource Bank Contents

Fanny Kemble

Pierce Butler's Philadelphia Mansion

Pierce Butler

Their own private civil war would foreshadow the country's. Fanny Kemble was an abolitionist; her husband Pierce Butler was a slaveholder. With such diametrically opposed views, it's no wonder that their initially blissful marriage would end in divorce.

Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble was born on November 27, 1809 in London, England. From one of England's most prominent family of actors, she took to the stage herself to save her family from financial ruin. Though a brilliant actress, the stage was not the true love of Fanny Kemble -- her first love was for literature and writing. Throughout her life she would be a prolific and accomplished writer of plays, journals, poetry, letters, and memoirs.

Fanny Kemble was a strong and spirited person. She had no formal training as an actress, but held audiences spellbound with the sheer force of her personality. She was described as having "masculine" characteristics: she was independent, physically strong, and highly intelligent. And she did not hide her talents, but lived them out passionately. In addition to acting and writing, Kemble spoke French fluently, read widely, and was an accomplished musician. She loved the natural world and had a passion for vigorous exercise, especially riding.

In 1832, Fanny set out on a two-year theater tour in America, where she was received with great enthusiasm. Audiences were enraptured, and she was soon being introduced to political and cultural dignitaries.

One of her most ardent admirers was a man named Pierce Butler. Born into a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia family in 1806, Pierce was the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Major Pierce Butler. Major Butler was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and the author of the Constitution's fugitive slave clause. He owned two plantations in Georgia: one on St. Simon's Island, where sea-island cotton was grown, and one on Butler Island, where rice was grown. He also owned a mansion in Philadelphia and a country home near the city. In 1812, Major Butler owned 638 slaves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Pierce Bulter, the grandson, stood to inherit this fortune (and to become one of the largest slaveholders in the nation) when he met Fanny Kemble in 1832.

Pierce Butler became infatuated with Fanny Kemble after seeing her perform. He followed her devotedly while she toured. He was charming, solicitous. Fanny fell in love with him, and they were married in 1834 in Philadelphia. In marrying Pierce, Fanny escaped the life of the theater and her family's precarious finances and entered a life of wealth. At that time, she would later state, she did not know the source of this wealth.

The marriage was troubled nearly from the start. Fanny believed that Pierce would continue in his devotion, and Pierce believed that Fanny would curb her independent nature and allow herself to be ruled by him. Differences in opinion on slavery also created friction. Pierce thought he could persuade Fanny of the benefits of slavery; Fanny thought she could persuade Pierce to emancipate his slaves. Early in their marriage Fanny even attempted to publish an antislavery treatise that she had written. Pierce forbid her to do so.

In March of 1836, Pierce and his brother John inherited the Georgia plantations. Fanny wanted to see the plantation firsthand, and begged Butler to take her with him. He refused to do so on his first trip, but finally relented. In December of 1838, Pierce, Fanny, their two children Sarah and Frances, and their Irish nurse Margery O'Brien set out for Butler Island. After travelling for nine days by train, stage and steamboat, they arrived at their destination. Nothing in Fanny's life had prepared her for this place.

Kemble spent four months on Butler and St. Simon's Islands. During that time she and Pierce clashed frequently over the issue of slavery. Fanny recorded her experiences in letters which she later compiled and published as her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. It is the closest, most-detailed look at plantation slavery ever recorded by a white northern abolitionist.

By the time the Butlers returned to Philadelphia, their marriage was in turmoil. Life for Fanny went from bad to worse as Pierce harassed and ignored her and prevented her from seeing their children. Finally, Fanny gave up her attempts at reconciliation, and left for England. While there, she resumed her life in the theater by performing readings of Shakespeare. She was in the midst of a successful run when she learned that Pierce was suing her for divorce. He contended that she had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845." He filed for divorce on April 7, 1848.

Fanny returned to America to defend herself against his charges. After a long and painful court proceeding, the divorce was granted in September of 1849. Fanny would be allowed to spend two months every summer with her children, and Pierce would pay her $1500 a year in alimony.

Fanny continued to support herself in the U.S. and in Europe with her highly acclaimed Shakespearian readings. Pierce, however, fell further and further into economic ruin, as he squandered away his vast fortune in gambling and stock market speculation. In 1856 his situation became so severe that the management of his finances was handed over to three trustees. To satisfy his enormous debt, they began by selling the Philadelphia mansion and liquidating other properties. But this was not enough. The trustees turned their attention to the property in Georgia, which consisted mostly of human beings.

In February 1859, the men travelled to Georgia to appraise Pierce Butler's share of the slaves. Each person was examined and his or her value assessed. This was the preparation for what would be the largest single sale of human beings in United States history. It was an event that would come to be known as "the weeping time."

Pierce's financial situation was saved at the expense of his former slaves. In the meantime, the country hovered on the brink of civil war. In 1861 the war erupted. Again the family was divided: Fanny Kemble and their daughter Sarah were pro-North; Pierce Butler and their daughter Frances were pro-South. In early 1861 Pierce and Frances went to Georgia. Upon their return to Philadelphia in August, Pierce was arrested for treason; in September he was released. He did not return to the South until after the war.

Following the war, Pierce Butler returned to Butler Island with his daughter Frances. He found numbers of former slaves living there, and arranged that they would work for him as share-croppers. Management of the plantation was difficult, and though Frances returned to Philadelphia, Pierce remained on the island despite the dangers of disease. He contracted malaria and died in August 1867.

Following Pierce's death, Frances returned to Butler Island to continue organizing the plantation, and Fanny Kemble moved to Philadelphia. Throughout her life, Fanny continued to perform dramatic readings, to travel, and to publish her journals. Fanny Kemble died peacefully in London on January 15, 1893.

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Related Entries:
Francis Anne Kemble as Bianca
Daguerreotype of Pierce Butler

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