I have a a website bookmarked, one which lists a variety of crimes that have taken place in England since the 1800s, to help me with this series of articles, and I was looking through it for this week’s post when I came across the story of Fanny Adams (30 April 1859 – 24 August 1867)
Normally I wouldn’t have done an article on the murder of Fanny Adams, as you can see from the dates of her birth and death, she was only 8 when she was killed, and I’m not keen on child murder stories, especially gruesome ones; one of my criteria for selecting what I’m going to write about, though, is if there’s anything interesting connected to the story, and in this case there is – the murder of Fanny Adams resulted in the birth of the English phrase ‘Sweet F.A.’ which means ‘nothing’.
Sweet Fanny Adams
The murder of Fanny Adams was a relatively simple affair; on 24 August 1867 the young girl was out with her sister and a friend when they encountered Frederick Baker, who worked as a clerk in a solicitor’s office.
Baker gave Fanny’s companions money to go and spend, while he gave Fanny some money to come with him. Fanny took the money but then refused to go with him, Baker’s response to that was to carry Fanny into a nearby field, out of sight of her friends.
When Fanny’s sister and friend returned home around 5, their neighbour, Mrs Gardiner, asked where Fanny was, at which time they told her what had happened. Mrs Gardiner immediately told the story to Harriet Adams, Fanny’s mother, and together they took the girls and returned to where Fanny had last been seen to look for her. They encountered Baker as he returned but because of his position and seeming respectability they accepted his story that Fanny had left to rejoin her friends and he regular gave kids money to buy sweets.
With Fanny still missing at 7 p.m. a further search was made, this time involving more people, and her dismembered body was discovered in a hop field a short distance from where she had last been seen. Harriet immediately ran to find her husband, who was playing cricket, he in turn hurried home to get his shotgun and went in search of his daughter’s killer, but was stopped by his neighbours.
Baker was arrested that evening at his place of his work, blood was found on his clothes and two small blood-stained knife were discovered on his person. A search of the office where Baker worked, which took place in the days following his arrest, led to the discovery of his diary in which the police found this entry
24th August, Saturday – killed a young girl. It was fine and hot
On 27th August the coroner determined that Fanny Adams had been wilfully murdered, her head having been bashed in with a rock found in the field and then dismembered. Following the verdict the police found themselves hard-pressed to protect Baker, who was committed for trial at the Winchester County Assizes, from the mob who were outraged by what had happened.
When it came to the trial, which took place early in December, the defense tried many tactics: they contested the identification of Baker, claimed the knives found on Baker were too small to have been used in the crime, and even tried to claim insanity based on his family history (he had attempted suicide, his sister had died of a brain fever, a cousin had been committed to an asylum, and his father had been violent). The defense also attempted to claim that the phrasing of Baker’s diary entry meant it could not be considered a confession.
In summing up the case the judge, Justice Mellor, said this
‘If you come to the conclusion he murdered the child, you must consider whether it was under such circumstances as would render him not responsible on the grounds of insanity. This must not be used as a means of escape, and you must exercise the greatest care before you give effect to such a plea as that’¹
The jury did not entertain the insanity defence presented by Baker’s counsel and in no more than 15 minutes they found him guilty.
So notorious had the case become that 5,000 people are estimated to have attended the hanging.
Results of the case
In terms of crime prevention and investigation, even of prosecution and defence, the case is unspectaculae. The murder of Fanny Adams, though gruesome and notorious in its time, would no doubt have become little more than an historic footnote in the annals of crime, were it not for an incident that occurred some 2 years after the event.
In 1869 new rations of tinned mutton were introduced for British seaman and, for reasons that are now unknown, the seaman, who were unimpressed by the rations, suggested that the mutton might in fact be the butchered remains of Fanny Adams. Fanny Adams then became slang in the navy, and then elsewhere, for mutton, and then stew, before coming to be slang for anything that was considered worthless, with the phrase eventually becoming Sweet Fanny Adams, or Sweet F.A. intended to mean ‘nothing at all’.
I can’t say that I have used the phrase Sweet F.A. in some time, nor have I heard anyone else using it, but now that I know the origins of the phrase, you can be sure I won’t be using it again.
Details of this article have been sourced from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Adams and the Harvard library linked above.