Once in a while I come across these amazing stories full of twists and turns that could out-do even some of the best fiction novels. This story, in my humble opinion, would be among those few. First and foremost, I would have never even known the name “Fanny Sweet” had it not been for my friend and fellow researcher, Amanda Trainor. She originally came to me with information regarding a lady named Mary McCormick who is buried at the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento.
It was Mary’s life that she wanted me to delve into and solve a few mysteries surrounding her and her family. Once I started digging, I found another story, the story of her sister, Fanny. This one I just had to get to first, and so down the rabbit hole I went, and what I found was both equally astonishing and confusing. From each account to the next, it seemed that every recollection of incident in this woman’s life has been tainted with scandalous rumors, and yes, some downright lies. But one of the biggest lies about Fanny didn’t come from those around her, but was actually a concoction derived by Fanny herself.
Bear with me, while I attempt to fill you in on the many lives of Fanny Sweet…..
While wandering through the St. Louis Cemetery # 3 in New Orleans, Louisiana, among the many rows of crypts side by side you might easily walk past the one that belongs to Fanny Sweet, although no one would have ever known it before. You see, the crypt itself is marked “Tomb of Mrs. F.M. Hinkley-Mills,” with little to nothing else, besides the tiny writing on top, just below the broken cross that reads: “Aunt Fanny.” So even those who may have wanted to find her, couldn’t have, unless they were privy to certain research.
If you were to Google search the name “Fanny Sweet, New Orleans,” you will find site after site and book after book, reciting basically the same information. A woman, said to have been born in England, who traveled to America and lived many lives, and went by many different names. Her aliases include: Fanny Smith, Fanny Seymour, Minerva Seymour, Fanny Hinkley, Fanny Sweet, and Fanny Mills. From a madam at a brothel, a lesbian cross-dresser, a Confederate spy, a thief, a murderer, a jealously violent woman and a practitioner of voodoo, there wasn't anything that she hadn't been accused of or given credit for.
Most of the writers who have chosen to mention her story like to throw in the mix that she was exceptionally tall, very unattractive and that she had a hairy upper lip. That, somehow despite her grotesque appearance by way of her sorcery and powers she seemed to seduce old and young men alike by taking advantage of them and stealing their money.
It sounds so unbelievable right? And yet, people have continued to publish this nonsense over and over in various books, publications and even on websites and blogs.
So how did all these unreal rumors and accusations get out there in the first place? Where did it all stem from?
Well, what happened was that someone had spread some very slanderous information about her way back in the mid-19th century, who that person was we will get into later in greater detail in this blog, and that information was published as a sort of expose’ about Fanny in a publication titled the True Delta. This one publication forever branded Fanny in a horrific light and found her guilty of all these atrocities in the “court of public opinion,” without giving her a platform to defend herself.
What I am going to do with this blog is go through her life and share with you the facts I have uncovered. That way you, the reader, can decide for yourself what to believe. From the beginning you will see that this woman was not perfect, and she definitely did not live the best life but we owe it to her to get her story straight no matter what. First and foremost let’s tackle the biggest lie – Fanny Sweet wasn’t really Fanny Sweet. She also wasn’t born in London as she had claimed most of her life (even in legal documents such as wills and marriage certificates).
Her birth name was actually Rachel Fanny Brown, and she was born on January 9, 1826, in Rome, Lawrence County, Ohio. Her parents were Rebecca Smallwood White and John Jacob Brown. Their union produced eight children, three of which died during infancy shortly after birth.
Rachel grew up with four siblings: James (born 1816), Mary (born 1822), Sarah Henrietta (born 1824) and Charles Clinton Brown (born 1829).
James disappeared at the age of 22, in 1838, and was never seen or heard from again. Rachel’s father also disappeared (year unknown), and later on her mother remarried this time to a Mr. White. Her sister Mary Brown married a Mr. James McVey, while her other sister Sarah Henrietta** married a Mr. Swartwood who died shortly thereafter. Sarah would again remarry, this time to a Mr. John McCormick of Cincinatti. Rachel remained at the family homestead with her mother, step-father, and her youngest brother Charles at the time of her sister's marriage and move to Cincinatti.
(**Sarah Henrietta McCormick (who would later change her name to Mary McCormick, for reasons unknown) came California in 1849. Her story is one that deserves her own blog post as well, so I will leave that story for another day. )
According to the testimony by her brother Charles Clinton Brown in 1897, out of the surviving Brown children, Sarah Henrietta and Rachel Fanny were the only ones who strayed from the family, and down a dangerous path that led them into trouble. It was around 1841-1842 when “Fanny” left her hometown and moved to Cincinnati to live with her sister, Sarah Henrietta. Charles came to visit Fanny in 1844, and at that time she was living with a lady named Mrs. Seymour. Fanny told her brother that Mrs. Seymour wanted to adopt her. Charles knew this would upset their mother and he told Fanny that she should keep her real name. Apparently she had grown very close to Mrs. Seymour, so much so that she wanted so badly to be her daughter. This is very important to remember in regards to the possible reasons why she chose to create for herself a new identity later.
The Start of a Sketchy Past
The timeline of Fanny’s whereabouts after this is sort of sketchy. Some records indicate her to be in one certain place during a certain time frame based on vital records such as marriage and divorce, or death records. Still, the in between areas and her excessive travel back and forth with lack of records to prove makes her timeline a bit foggy.
So far I have ascertained that Fanny was living in Cincinnati with both her sister and then Mrs. Seymour during 1841, 1842, 1843 and part of 1844. She then left and went to work as a chambermaid at the Chapman House in Guyandotte, West Virginia, which is just across the river from Procterville, Ohio, where her mother was living.
This is where it appears that she came up with the idea of concocting an elaborate story of being from London. Perhaps she was trying to forget a traumatic childhood and start a new life away from the ties of her family, perhaps she wanted some excitement, or maybe she just didn’t want word getting back to her family of the sorts of people she was associating with. No matter the case, she came back from West Virginia with a whole new back story.
From that point moving forward she would claim that her real identity was Minerva Seymour (some reports say Fanny Maria Seymour), and that she was born in London to a rich family but was orphaned at a young age. Some accounts she claimed she was sent to America to live with a family in Virginia, while some of the newspapers state that she claimed she had grown up in London and worked as a barmaid before making the journey across the ocean to America. She even attempted to perfect a cockney accent as it was described, to give it more believability.
She was working there at the Chapman House, in West Virginia, until sometime between 1846 and 1847, when she married a man named Mr. Smith from New York. She must have stayed in New York some time prior to moving to New Orleans. The marriage didn’t last long though, because Mr. Smith died on December 27, 1847, a short time after moving to New Orleans. Fanny was sued by the undertaker for the amount of $80.00 for funeral expenses she didn’t pay up front.
At this point, she was penniless and alone in New Orleans. From the way it looks, it seems she more than likely got involved in prostitution during her first stay in New Orleans. It didn’t last long before she found her way back to Cincinnati again. It was alleged that she and her sister Sarah started running a brothel, in Bank Alley (or Bank Street) between 3rd and 4th Streets.
A witness in a later court battle, Edward Fulton testified in court that he met Fanny while she was “working” in Cincinnati and he became acquainted with both Fanny and her sister, who he claimed sometimes went by the name "The Stevens Sisters." This was in 1849, just before they left to California. The sisters first stopped in Ohio to tell their family of their intended move to California, this is when they brought a little girl named Cordelia** to their mother. Fulton's testimony that Fanny and her sister went by "the Steven's sisters" was later determined in court to be inaccurate and that part of her history has been discredited. She did however live in Cincinnati along with her sister, and Mrs. Seymour, but that was all the information that could be proven with the facts available.
**(Little is known about who actually gave birth to Cordelia. She could have been Sarah's or Fanny's, no one has ever been able to determine for certain who her mother was. Cordelia was left to be raised by Rebecca Smallwood White until later on when she moved to Sacramento to live with Sarah Henrietta McCormick.)
Then they set off on their journey across the country. Fulton claimed he had ran into Fanny by sheer luck in Sacramento in 1850, while playing at the Faro tables in her beau’s, Rube Raines establishment. According to the several sources, Fanny was running brothel known as The Palace, while Raines was running a gambling house known as The El Dorado.
Per Fulton’s statement, he had opened a faro bank in Rube Raines’ gambling house and one of the first people he faced was Fanny. She lived upstairs with Raines and her sister was at that time married to a man named Charles Green. It seemed to be the perfect place for Fanny, the Wild West was still alive and well in Sacramento during the Gold Rush, and with it came an element of people she probably felt comfortable around. It was an incident here in Sacramento that proved to be the first of many highly publicized accounts that has given her an even more unsavory reputation. In some documented news sources they claim Fanny killed a man in Sacramento but again, that is not accurate.
According to the local Sacramento newspapers of the time, on December 20, 1852, Fanny Seymour aka Fanny Smith shot a man by the name of Albert Putnam.
“ About 9 o’clock in the evening of the 20th, Albert Putnam, who was a stage driver on the Auburn road, in company with some friends, went to the Palace, a house of prostitution on 2nd street, between I and J, as he had often done, being in the habit of taking parcels there. The house is kept by Fannie Smith – as she is known. She was somewhat intoxicated and is known to be, when in that condition, a desperate woman. She demanded that Putnam buy a bottle of wine and he refused. They had a quarrel and during it he told her to ‘dry up,’ and threatened her if she did not do so.
She ordered him to leave the house and he refused to do so, unless his friends approved of it. She went to the back park of the house and one of his friends, who was acquainted with her violent disposition, advised him to leave. As he had just stepped outside of the door, she returned with a Colt’s five-shooter and fired at his back, the ball striking him just under the shoulder blade and passing through his body, lodging just under the skin in front. He was taken to the City Exchange, on Second street by his friends.
She ran out on the street in the meantime and inquired for a police man and the Marshal met her and took her to the station house. Crowds began to gather almost immediately on the streets and the opinion was freely expressed that she ought to be hung. The sentiment gained ground and the continually augmented crowd moved down toward the station house. As it was evident that their intention was to lynch her, several citizens hastened to the station house in advance of the mob and warned Captain Mace, who was in charge. He had a boat ready for the emergency and took Fanny out and deposited her on the prison brig, in the river.” --- Union, December 21, 1852
(By the way, the prison brig mentioned was called La Grange, and it was literally a floating jail. It sunk in 1859, and its remaining pieces are at the bottom of the river just below the I Street bridge.)
The article goes on to state that Fanny was admitted bail for $3,000.00, which Rube Raines helped her post. As fast as she was released she fled the country. And what became of her victim? Albert Putnam survived.
According to Fanny’s recollection, the event was entirely different.
(Her autobiography published in the South Western, January 8, 1862, was written by her in the third person.)
First, Fanny claimed that the incident happened in the El Dorado, her boyfriend’s establishment, which, "The first floor was a coffee-house, and on the upper stories were rooms which she had the renting of, and for which she obtained large parties. They were used as the recorder’s court, mayor’s office, State treasurer’s office, masonic hall and law offices.”
“A politician, named Judge Ross, who had come to Sacramento, obtained the temporary use of one of her rooms from the lawyer to whom she rented it as an office……..They caroused in the building until 2 o’clock in the morning, which, naturally enough, caused the other lodgers to complain, and judge Ross was informed in the morning that such debauch must not be repeated in that building. Still, under the influence of his last night’s potations, he replied, in an insulting manner, that he would do as he pleased. Next night, as if in defiance of propriety and the rights of others, he repeated his drunken carousal, apparently trying to make as much noise as possible…..”
As it were, the next day he was kicked out of his room. She assumed that it was out of anger and revenge that he paid his stage driver, Putnam to come inside and start destroying her property, and accosting her by slapping her in the face. She claimed she feared further violence, being without protection, and she drew a revolver and shot Putnam in self-defense.
Given the fact she had a history of lying about things, it is hard to sift through her statement without having some doubts about her honesty. Still, I wanted to show both accounts to prove there are always two sides to every story. I would like to think somewhere between both of those accounts, the true story might be hiding.
One thing I will mention though is that the newspaper account regarding this incident stated that Fanny was a beautiful woman, which contradicts most of the mean statements that I have found in recent books mentioning her story. In reality, she was actually a very beautiful lady. Probably not the best in moral character, but attractive nonetheless.
And Fanny's story doesn't end there. Not by a long shot..... trust me, there's a lot more and I am just barely getting started.
(J'aime Rubio, Copyright 2017-- www.jaimerubiowriter.com)
Special thanks to Alicia Borges for the photo of Fanny's crypt,
and Amanda Trainor and John Marshall for their awesome help with research!!
and Amanda Trainor and John Marshall for their awesome help with research!!
Sources for entire story will be at the end of the final blog post for Fanny Sweet.