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.
Photo #1: American artist Thomas Sully painted this portrait of Fanny Kemble one year before the young actress married Pierce Butler. Like Fanny Kemble, Sully came from a theatrical family and even performed onstage with his parents and siblings. His ambition soon after turned to painting -- an ambition that would lead him to become, for a number of years, the leading portrait painter in the U.S.
Sully's subjects included prominent politicians and military heroes, but he became known mainly for his paintings of society women. In 1837 he was sent to England to paint Queen Victoria.
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.
Photo #2: By the time this photograph of Pierce Butler was taken, the wealthy plantation owner's 14-year marriage to Fanny Kemble was nearing its end. He had filed for divorce in 1848, contending that she had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845." Kemble, who had in fact been driven away by Butler, returned from England to defend herself. The divorce was granted in 1849.
"[It is] the most amphibious piece of creation that I have yet had the happiness of beholding. It would be difficult to define it truly by either the name of land or water, for 'tis neither liquid nor solid but a kind of mud sponge floating on the bosom of the Altamaha."
Butler Island was an inhospitable place -- hot and steamy, a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. No place for a woman in Fanny Kemble's station in life. Her husband, Pierce Butler, had recently inherited the island, and on the island was his plantation, complete with several hundred slaves.
It was no wonder that Pierce wanted to keep Kemble, a staunch abolitionist even before they met, away from the plantation. But she wanted to see firsthand how the slaves lived. At first he refused to let her come, giving the excuse that the house on the island was too small to accomodate her, the children, and the childrens' nurse. Eventually, though, he relented, and in December of 1838, the entire family, including their Irish nurse, set out for the island.
Kemble had been told that the slaves were well-treated, that they were never sold, that they were content. At first this seemed true. This opinion quickly changed, however, after she visited the various settlements on the island. She complained in her journal that the slaves' dwellings "were filthy and wretched in the extreme." The slaves lacked tables and chairs and knives and forks, and ate their meals with crude wooden spoons. She discovered that slaves were sold out to work on distant plantations. The slaves were not exempt from harsh punishment, either. One slave, asked by Kemble why the children were not kept clean, replied that there wasn't enough time. The slave was later whipped by the overseer for her "impudence." Other slaves as well felt the sting of the lash after complaining to Kemble. Even pregnant women were whipped.
News of Kemble's sympathetic nature spread among the slaves, and soon she was listening to more of their stories. Kemble passed on complaints to her husband and otherwise spoke on behalf of the slaves. He claimed they were liars. Kemble continue to speak out for the slaves. In her journal she tells of a heated agument over a lashing, in which she lectured her husband of "the manifest injustice of unpaid and enforced labor," and of "the brutal inhumanity of allowing a man to strip and lash a woman, the mother of ten children." Pierce Butler eventually had enough. He forbade his wife to speak on behalf of any slaves.
Kemble's observations regarding the slaves were not limited to floggings and living conditions. She noticed at their other plantation on St. Simons Island, that there was a larger percentage of mulatto slaves than at Butler Island. Her husband told her the reason was that white men had easier access to the plantation. There was one slave, she remarked, that "was the exact image of Mr. King." Roswell King and his son, Roswell King, Jr., were two whites who had mangaged the Butler plantations for years. Through the years, slaves had bore them a number of children. Roswell King Jr. had even raped the wife of the plantation's most prominent slave -- a black overseer named Frank. Of Frank, Kemble wrote, "I see that man. . . looking, with a countenance of deep thought. . . over the broad river, which is to him as a prison wall. . . . I marvel what the thoughts of such a man may be."
Fanny Kemble could do little to better the lives of the slaves during her short, 15-week stay on Butler and St Simons Islands. More effective in the fight against slavery was the publication of the journal she kept during those weeks, entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation.