(Chapter 1 here)
With their marriage irretrievably broken, Pierce and Fanny returned to Philadelphia after four or five months in Georgia. Pierce harassed his wife, made it hard for her to see their daughters, and just generally drove her back to England, where she picked up her old life of the theatre, and regained popularity by giving readings of Shakespeare. She was successful at this and was able to support herself. Then she learned that Pierce was suing for DIVORCE (gasp). She also learned that he was still dissolute—and quickly losing his fortune. He gambled. He made bad stock market speculations.
Fanny traveled back to the States to answer the “charges” and following a long and painful court procedure, the divorce was granted in 1849. She was granted two months with her daughters every summer, and $1,500 a year alimony. The two daughters, Frances and Sarah, split their loyalties, with Frances taking her father’s side, and Sarah, her mother’s. Fanny settled in the States, but kept her connections in England by traveling to perform there.
Pierce, though, was falling further and further down the crappy side of the Wheel of Fortune. His situation was so dire that, by 1856, his affairs were turned over to trustees, who began to liquidate his properties in order to pay his debts. Three years later, the debts were still intractable, so the trustees turned their attention to the “movable property” housed down at those two coastal Georgia plantations.
The slaves were divided between Pierce and his brother John. Pierce’s lot was then scheduled for auction: March 2-3, 1859, at the Ten Broeck Racetrack outside Savannah, Georgia. There were torrential rains during the entire sale, which would go down in history as the largest single transaction of human beings in United States history. It brought Pierce Butler $303,850 (8.4 million in today’s $). At the end of the sale, he celebrated with champagne, his debts mostly settled.
|Pierce, (front row, far left) and his daughter Frances, next to him, at about the time the sale took place|
This sale would become known as The Weeping Time.
About two years later, the Civil War would burst upon our scene. The bitter divisions within the Pierce Butler family situation (Pierce & Frances vs. Fanny and Sarah) intensified. In 1861, Pierce and Frances left for Georgia and what remained of the plantations, but returned to Philadelphia in August, only for Pierce to be arrested for treason. He was released in September and did not return South until after the war.
Meanwhile, Fanny’s daughters had both reached their majority by 1863, removing the force behind Pierce’s old threat of “if you publish these letters of yours, you’ll never see your kids again.” The letters were published in May of that year! I wonder how Pierce felt at seeing his ex-wife’s name rising again in fame and popularity?!
|Butler Island Plantation today|
Pierce and Frances did return after the war, and began organizing the remaining now-freed slaves into being sharecroppers. The task proved difficult; Frances returned to Philadelphia; Pierce contracted malaria and died in August, 1867. Frances returned to Georgia and picked up the reorganization efforts. She too wrote a book, Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation since The War, which was an attempt at a rebuttal of her mother’s book.
But it was Fanny Kemble who weathered all these storms the most gracefully. She continued to support herself through performance and writing, never married again, and died peacefully in London in 1893. By the end of her life, she amassed quite a collection of poetry, plays, and essays.
I'll usher us out with one of her poems:
Better trust all, and be deceived,
And weep that trust, and that deceiving;
Than doubt one heart, that, if believed,
Had blessed one’s life with true believing.
Oh, in this mocking world, too fast
The doubting fiend o’ertakes our youth!
Better be cheated to the last,
Than lose the blessed hope of truth.