A few weeks ago, while researching something entirely different, I stumbled across the story of Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence. Widely known in the 1860s as a “redeemed slave child,” Fannie was a poster child for the abolitionist movement.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Slave child? Isn’t that little girl white?” No, despite her fair complexion and light brown hair, she’s not. In the mid-1800s, when Fannie was born to a mulatto slave mother and a white slave owner, she would have been described as an “octoroon,” or someone who is one-eighth black.
At the time, terms like quadroon, octoroon and quintroon were used to describe people who were one-fourth, one-eighth and one-sixteenth black. Regardless of how white Fannie appeared or how little African ancestry she actually had, she was considered black.
You can find many carte-de-visite photographs of Fannie online, including on the Library of Congress website. In the photos, the cherubic child is photographed in various poses, among them kneeling to pray while clad in an angelic, white nightgown.
Because these photos were used as anti-slavery propaganda, this was all about strategy — not only the sweet, innocent pose, but also because Fannie appears to be white. The thinking was that one might be more apt to support the cause, emotionally and monetarily, if one could imagine that praying child as one of their own.
But who was Fannie?
There’s an entry on FindAGrave.com about Fannie, written by a Rick Lawrence, who may or may not be a relative (he didn’t respond to my message). According to Lawrence, Fannie was born in 1858 in Rectortown, Fauquier County, Va.
Fannie’s mom was said to be a slave named Mary Fletcher and her dad was reportedly Fletcher’s owner, Charles Ayres. Ayres, who went by the middle name “Rufus,” was a white lawyer and farmer.
As described by William Page Johnson II, who wrote an article about Fannie and her family for the Historic Fairfax City newsletter in 2015, “Like many slaveholders, Rufus, who was unmarried, took full advantage of the relationship and had at least three children by his slaves Mary Fletcher, Jane Payne, and Ann Gleaves.
“However, unlike most slaveholders, he acknowledged them and provided for them in his last will and testament.”
In November 1859, that will came into play when Ayres was killed by a neighbor. An article headlined “Fatal Affair” in Richmond’s Daily Dispatch states that Ayres was “shot and instantly killed” by James Phillips, and that “the difficulty between them originated about the location of a road.
“Ayres struck Phillips with a cowhide, when the latter drew a pistol and shot Ayres, killing him on the spot.”
A subsequent article in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser describes a more drawn-out incident, involving multiple locations and an additional suspect or two, but the end result is the same: Ayres is dead.
(Both of these articles can be found in the Library of Congress newspaper archive, Chronicling America. Just search for Virginia, the year 1859 and Ayres.)
After Ayres death, the aforementioned slave women and the children Ayres fathered with them were freed. Unfortunately, because of laws at the time, that also meant they had to leave the state of Virginia. Because Mary Fletcher was married to another slave and had other children who were not freed upon Ayres’s death, she chose to remain enslaved.
But during the Civil War, in 1862, Mary Fletcher, Fannie and several other slaves, including others named in Ayres’s will that remained in slavery, escaped. There’s a long, detailed description of the escape in Johnson’s story, but in short, the group flees to Union territory.
What happens to Fannie’s mom after this is uncertain — Johnson includes some theories in his article — but Fannie ends up being adopted by a Civil War nurse named Catharine Lawrence. Lawrence was acquainted with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Lawrence takes Fannie, who’s about 5 years old at the time, to New York. There, she’s baptized by Beecher as “Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence.” It was at this point that Fannie’s “career” as a “redeemed slave child” began.
According to Johnson, before baptizing Fannie, Beecher held her up to his congregation, declaring dramatically, “This child was born a slave, and is redeemed from slavery!” upon which there was an “audible gasp from the astonished, and equally horrified parishioners, who assumed the child to be white.”
Johnson goes on to write that Beecher told his congregation of the terrible fate awaiting Fannie, had she not been adopted by Lawrence. Because of Fannie’s “near-white complexion,” Johnson writes, “Fann[ie], and others like her, were in danger of being abused by their white masters, or worse, being sold as Fancy Girls, a 19th century euphemism for light skinned slave prostitutes, which were then common in New Orleans.”
Or as Beecher put it:
… 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 chattel; For while your children are brought up to fear and serve the Lord, this one, just as beautiful, would be made through slavery a child of damnation.
It was an effective ploy, albeit for the good cause of ending slavery.
Sometime shortly after that, photos of Fannie were taken and widely distributed. As Johnson tells it, the pictures were “wildly popular in the North, making Fannie the most photographed slave child in history.”
While Johnson doesn’t say Fannie was abused or neglected in any way, he describes the tactics Beecher and Lawrence used as “exploitive.”
According to the Find A Grave entry, Lawrence raised Fannie “as her own child.” This is supported by the 1865 New York census, which shows a 6-year-old Fannie living in the town of Schoharie with Lawrence and her older brother, Henry Lawrence, a farmer.
Find A Grave also states Fannie married while in her teens and had two children. Johnson’s research led him to this quote by Lawrence, which supports this and also suggests the marriage was not a good one:
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.
Fannie is believed to have died sometime before 1895. Her burial site is unknown, although it’s believed to be somewhere in New York.
You can read Johnson’s article, in its well-researched entirety, here. It includes a lot more information about Fannie and her family, including the story of her older sisters, who also were brought north and adopted, but to even less happy endings.
And here, you can read an NPR story about other children who were photographed for anti-slavery campaigns.