Pierce Butler (1744-1822) purchased the farm that would come to be known as "Butler Place" in 1810. According to Butler's great-great daughter, Frances Kemble Wister Stokes, it had "a rather unimpressive, middle-sized, owner's dwelling, but with splendid barns and outbuildings." (Wister, 1978). The property stood between North 17th and North 16th Streets somewhere along West Grange Avenue, east of La Salle's campus, and north of Olney Avenue. The house was torn down in the mid-1920s. Today the block is populated with row homes, but just below these homes, the legacy of the estate's history exists through Fanny Kemble Abolitionist Memorial Park, named for the famed actress, abolitionist, and women's rights activist, who once lived at Butler Place.
Pierce Butler (1744-1822) was a United States Senator and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He married Mary Middleton, an heiress to a large fortune in 1771. By 1773 Butler was one of South Carolina's largest landowners, and one of the largest slaveholders in the United States. Butler resigned from the Senate in 1804, and in 1816 became director of the Second Bank of the United States. He resided in Philadelphia until his death in 1822.
Grandson of Pierce Butler (1744-1822), Pierce Mease Butler (born Butler Mease) inherited two rice plantations in the Sea Islands of Georgia from his wealthy Southern family; one on Butler Island, and another on St. Simon Island. Both sites were farmed by enslaved people.
Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble came to America from London in 1832 with her father, Charles Kemble. They were of the third and fourth generations of the famous Kemble theatrical family. The Kembles toured the eastern seaboard, acting together, and it was in Philadelphia that Pierce Butler was introduced to Fanny. "Pierce was captivated by the English actress Fanny Kemble (1804-1893) and induced her to marry, with famously disastrous consequences." They were married in Christ Church on June 7, 1834, and lived at Butler Place.
They raised daughters Sarah (1835-1906) and Frances (1838-1910) at the Butler Place estate. Their daughter Sarah Butler married Owen Jones Wister, M.D., a prominent Germantown physician, in 1859.
In 1838, Fanny visited one of Pierce's plantations and kept a journal about her experiences there. She was horrified by what she saw. She and Pierce eventually divorced largely because Pierce was an enslaver and would not repent. After having divorced her husband in 1849, Fanny published her journal, Journal of A Residence on A Georgian Plantation, which is written as a series of letters to a friend. In this journal, Fanny describes the horrors of slavery and also draws parallels between slavery and women's lack of social, legal, and economic rights. She was an early feminist as well as an anti-slavery advocate. Special Collections has an early edition of Journal of A Residence on A Georgian Plantation that was owned by the Butler family.
Read an essay on Fanny Kemble in La Salle's Digital Commons.
The Wister and Butler Family Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania contain archival material related to Pierce Mease Butler and his family.
Sarah Butler Wister (1835-1906), daughter of Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble, married Dr. Owen Jones Wister of Grumblethorpe in 1859. According to her granddaughter, Fanny Kemble Wister Stokes, "Sarah was fine looking, nearly beautiful... She is remembered as regal when she received at the Philadelphia assemblies... She was the great lady of her neighborhood." (Wister, 1978)
Sarah a writer, published travel writing, translations of French poetry, and a volume entitled Worthy Women of Our Century. She also journaled, as her mother did, and her Civil War diary was published by her daughter in The Philadelphia Magazine of History, in 1978. Her original diaries are preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Sarah and Owen had a son, Owen Wister, who is credited with writing the very first American cowboy novel--The Virginian.
Discover more about the residents of Butler Place in the Library's online exhibition Philadelphia in the Civil War.
Owen Wister (1860-1938), son of Sarah Butler and Dr. Owen Jones Wister, spent part of his childhood at the Butler Place estate. He married second cousin Mary Channing Wister (1870-1913), who was raised at a property on the "Belfield Estate." Their children grew up at Butler Place.
Owen Wister lived a fine life. Like his mother, he became a writer, and would gain great notoriety for his novel The Virginian: A Horseman on the Plains, first published in 1902.
La Salle's Connelly Library has extensive material related to Owen Wister. In addition to first edition copies of his novels, the Library has a set of his handwritten letters, numerous archival photographs, and biographies written by his daughter, Frances Kemble Wister Stokes (who wrote as Frances Kemble Wister). The Library also houses a set of books that were owned by Owen Wister, some bearing the bookplate of "Butler Place."