Sweet Fanny Adams (1856-1864)
Thursday, August 04, 2005
Most people assume the expression "sweet Fanny Adams" is just a euphemism for "sweet fuck-all," but its pedigree is much, much darker. The phrase arose from the unfortunate temporal confluence of the savage mutilation of a small child and <shudder> potted mutton. But I get ahead of myself.

Fanny Adams lived in the village of Alton, in Hampshire, in the South of England. She was eight years and four months old on August 24 of 1867 when she walked off toward Flood Meadow to play, along with her little sister Lizzie and her friend Millie . They were met in the lane by a respectable looking young man in a frock coat, who gave them some small coins to spend on sweets. He singled out Fanny and asked her to walk up the road with him. When she refused, he picked her up and carried her into a hop field.

Fanny's little companions weren't alarmed, and played together nearby for several hours. When they came home sans Fanny, Mrs Adams was very alarmed indeed, all the more so when she heard their story. She and a neighbor walked up the lane and met the man coming toward them. He gave his name as Frederick Baker, clerk to a solicitor in the High Street (which was, oddly, true). He admitted giving the children a few coppers, but said he hadn't harmed Fanny and she returned to her friends (which was very, very not true. Very). He was so calm and well-spoken (and so not dripping gore) that the women let him go on his way. No one searched for Fanny in earnest for a couple hours more.

They soon began finding her, all over a hop field. First her head, missing several important components, stuck on a hop pole. A leg next. Then her torso, scooped out like a melon. Her organs were torn and strewn about with gay abandon. Bits of her weren't found for days. Her eyeballs were ultimately located floating in the River Wye. The coroner said she died from a conk on the head with a rock, also found.

The police walked directly from Fanny's entrails to Baker's desk and arrested him. He protested his innocence (and continued to do so through the trial). The evidence against him: some blood on his cuffs. A small bloody knife in his pocket. Some remarks he made to a fellow clerk about leaving town and getting a job in the butchery trade. Oh, and an entry in his daily diary that read: "24th August, Saturday killed a young girl. It was fine and hot."

He was convicted and hanged on Christmas Eve that year, in front of a crowd disproportionately composed of women. It was the last public hanging in Winchester. Baker wrote to Fanny's parents before his execution, confessing he had murdered her "in an unguarded hour" because he was enraged by her crying. He swore he had not molested her. This is not an uncommon claim after an especially gruesome child murder. The following statement makes sense to a murderer: "yes, I scooped out your daughter's eyeballs and pitched them into the River Wye, but I didn't do anything improper."

There's often something very unsatisfactory about Nineteenth Century murder accounts. Left to deal with a set of bizarre circumstances, it is seldom recorded that anyone asked the important questions. Like, WHAT THE HELL? No, seriously, WHAT the HELL was THAT all about?! How could Baker be so howling insane that he could rip a small child into her constituent parts and spread them over a field, then blandly make a note of it, along with the weather, in his diary? And, incidentally, why wasn't he dripping with Fanny Adams? Had he shown any prior indication in his 29 years that he was a stone cold nutcase? He was a solicitor's clerk, the blue ribbon definition of ordinary. If he was that crazy, why plead not guilty? Why not just shout, "yes, I killed her. Nice weather. birble-a-beeble-a-birble-a"? If he wasn't that crazy, why give his real name to Fanny's mother? Did he hear voices? Was there a big scar on his forehead? Did he give his fellow clerks the creeps?

Oh, they trotted out the usual "insanity in the family" thing, but it was pretty small beer. His dad was mean and he had a cousin who spend some time in an asylum. Well, that's pretty much all of us, isn't it?

Both he and other witnesses mentioned that he had been drinking that day. Okay. Sexually-repressed young Victorian bachelor, drinks an extra pint at lunch, lures a young girl into a field. I can follow that far. He touches her, she screams, he beans her with a rock. I'm still with you. Then there's the bloody ripping, the hooting, the wild-monkey child-disemboweling, the organ-flinging. Now you've lost me.

I'm obviously having a hard time working through the whole "eyeballs in the Wye" thing.

It gets worse. He left the office at 1. He met Fanny at 1:30. He was back in the office at 3:30. He left again. Mrs Adams saw him coming back from the field after 5. He was in the office again at 5:30. So that's office murder office mutilate office, is it? And no-one he met (saving Fanny) thought he behaved strangely. You see why I'm having a hard time digesting this one.

And the potted mutton? A new ration issued by the Royal Navy around the time of the murder, which was a national media sensation (the murder, nae the mutton). I suppose it was inevitable that sailors would speculate that the one was made out of the other. The mutton came in large tins that sailors often kept to use as mess tins, hence mess tins are still known as "fannys".

Funny old homicide.

The inscription on Fanny's headstone reads "fear not them which kill the body, but rather fear Him who is able to kill both body and soul in hell." Is it just me, or does that sound like "God is MUCH scarier than a mad Victorian child-disemboweler who plucks out little girls' eyes and pitches them in the River Wye" to you?

Ghastly details: the eyeballs. The diary entry. The tinned mutton. The eyeballs. Oh, god, the eyeballs.


2005. Anyone who would make off with this box of shite deserves everything he gets.