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The 1788 Scandal of Fanny Apthorp Never Dies

In 1788, a young Boston heiress named Fanny Apthorp killed herself after giving birth to her powerful brother-in-law’s child. She left a suicide note saying she was determined to to die rather than face disgrace and abandonment.

Sarah Apthorp Morton, by Gilbert Stuart

Sarah Apthorp Morton, by Gilbert Stuart

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 Apthorp Old_State_House_and_State_Street,_Boston_1801

State Street or the Old State House 1801 by James Brown Marston. The Apthorp mansion is the second on the right.

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

Perez Morton

Perez Morton

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.



  1. Elinor Apthorp Stapleton

    Hhhhmmm my ancestors…. I did not uncover this when I researched them way back in 1974-75 as a high school senior. Guess I did not know how to dig deep. Elaine Apthorp: have you heard of any of this?

    • Elaine Apthorp

      Yup. And we’re told that Perez Morton’s colleague, the ever-clever barrister and future Pres JQ Adams, defended Morton on the grounds that an individual cannot be held legally responsible for the suicide of another. Sarah was a pretty good poet–best known now for her anti-slavery poem “The African Chief.” This cheers me, given the sickening heritage of her papa Charles Apthorp, whose lucrative mercantile endeavors included slave transportation. I’m glad they stripped a lot of the Apthorp fortune in the 1778 Confiscation Act and gave it to Nat Greene 🙂 on account of Charles Ward Apthorp bein’ a heavy duty Loyalist (signing checks and trooping about with Clinton’s forces in the South during the War, etc.) That’s why you and I don’t own a huge chunk of Manhattan and are out from under at least that much wretched karma 😉 We patched things up a little in the first Robert East Apthorp’s generation–he was a fierce activist in the MA Anti-Slavery Society. Great-grandson was our granddad. And our beloved Thor, of course, his namesake’s namesake , R E. Apthorp III 🙂

    • New England Historical Society

      Thank you for sharing. That is fascinating.

    • Elinor Apthorp Stapleton

      Thank you Elaine. I definitely did a ‘C’ job on my research way back then for Mr. Proctor’s U.S. History class!

  2. Marge Castellanos

    My mother’s maiden name is Apthorp and we are related to the 4 brothers (Chautauqua County 112th Regiment) and cousin Dunkirk (49th Regiment) who died serving in the Civil War. Most probably we are related. If you are interested, we could possibly exchange genealogical information….

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