The scandal never died. Her suicide note was published in the local newspapers. A young neighbor wrote a novel that was a thinly disguised account of the affair.
Unfortunately for Fanny Apthorp, it was the first novel written in America, by an author born in America, published first in America, set in America and about something that happened in America.
The novel, The Power of Sympathy, was reprinted throughout the 19th century. Today it is available on Kindle.
The Family Manse
Sarah and Perez Morton, married in 1781, were a Boston power couple. Perez Morton was a Revolutionary patriot, a friend of John Adams, a powerful lawyer and future Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Sarah Wentworth Apthorp was the daughter of Charles Apthorp, one of the richest men in Boston. She also one of the most celebrated poets of her generation. In 1792 she wrote an anti-slavery poem called The African Chief, something her slave-trading father might not have appreciated.
The Mortons lived in the Apthorp family mansion on State Street.
Sometime in the mid 1780s, Sarah's younger sister Fanny (Frances) came to live with the them and was seduced by – or fell in love with, or both – Perez Morton. She bore him a daughter in 1787 or 1788.
It wasn’t much of a secret. Betsy Cranch, Abigail Adams’ niece, was a neighbor of the Apthorps. She reported in her diary that her friend Fanny was ‘very unwell,’ a euphemism for pregnant in those days.
Fanny’s father demanded a confrontation with Perez, which Fanny begged him not to do. She argued it would cause a scandal and disgrace the family. Her father ignored her.
On Aug. 28, 1788, Fanny Apthorp took an overdose of laudanum and died, leaving a letter/suicide note, now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The letter is half written to Perez Morton and half to herself. She proclaimed her 'guilty innocence.' “I have felt from the first that this matter would go against me, but I have resolved never to live after it has,” she wrote.
The note was published in Boston newspapers, and so was the commentary that followed it.
Noah Webster, writing in his diary in Hartford, Conn., on Sept. 5, 1788:
Hear of a singular death at Boston--Miss Fanny Apthorpe, by laudanum. Unhappy Girl.
As the scandal was dying down, Fanny and Sarah’s brother challenged Perez Morton to a duel. The two men arrived at the appointed site to find the sheriff was conveniently there already and prevented the illegal encounter.
Loyal to the End
On Jan. 21, 1789, Isaiah Thomas printed The Power of Sympathy by an anonymous author. It was a thinly disguised story of the Fanny Apthorp tragedy written by William Hill Brown, the 24-year-old neighbor of the Mortons. He probably saw the coaches come and go and heard weeping from the Apthorp house, but he was also probably afraid to risk the wrath of the powerful Perez Morton.
Morton tried to suppress the novel, but failed.
Sarah Apthorp stayed with her husband until he died in 1837. Though she had five children during the first six years of their marriage, she had no more that survived after the scandal.
In 1850, author Joseph Tinker Buckingham attributed the book’s authorship to Sarah Morton. The mistake was later repeated.
The novelwas later published serially in 1894 and celebrated as the first American novel, again attributed to Sarah Morton.
The real author’s niece came forward and claimed her uncle, William Hill Brown., wrote the book. Scholars unearthed letters and other material establishing that William Hill Brown did indeed write it.
What happened to the child is lost to history.