Fannie M. Anthony

Fannie M. Anthony was born on June 27, 1827 in New York City. Often listed in Census records as “mulatto,” according to a 1907 Daily Freeman article, “[h]er father was an East Indian, and her mother a full-blooded Indian of the Montauk tribe.” In Census records, her father, Charles R. Smith is listed as “mulatto” and born in 1797 in New York (with his father listed as being born in Neris, Wisconsin and his mother in New York), and her mother, Mary Walker, as born on Long Island. It is certainly possible that her mother was Montauk, but it is unlikely that her father was East Indian. Few, if any East Indians emigrated to the United States before 1830. In the 1900 Census and her 1914 death record, her race is listed as Black. Many people of African descent often concealed their heritage in an attempt to deflect the worst effects of racism.

Fannie’s husband was Cornelius Anthony, born in 1825 in New Jersey. Census records also list him as “mulatto,” and the 1880 Census lists him as a steward aboard a steamboat. Sadly, it does not indicate which one, although his 1900 obituary lists him as working aboard “Albany boats.” It would be kismet if he and Fannie both worked aboard the Mary Powell, but that cannot be confirmed. He is listed as a carpenter in the 1900 Census, but other information in that record, including the spelling of names and birthdates, is inaccurate.

Cornelius died on or before Monday, July 16, 1900. The following day, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published his obituary. It read, “Jamaica, L. I., July 17 — Cornelius Anthony, aged 69 years, a negro, a well known and respected resident of this place, died at his home on Willow street on Friday. Deceased was for many years head steward on the Albany boats and was known as a caterer of considerable note. He was at one time sexton of the Methodist Church of Jamaica. He leaves a widow and many near friends and relatives. Internment was made yesterday, at Maple Grove Cemetery.”

An 1894 article in the Brooklyn Times Union indicates that he was sexton of the Methodist Episcopal Church at that time. Although we do not know which vessels he worked on as a steward, he must have had considerable skill in his management of the dining rooms, as his obituary also notes his fame as a caterer.

It is unclear when Fannie began her work as the “chambermaid” of the Mary Powell, although sources (listed below) suggest a start date of 1869 or 1870. Her occupation in the 1880 Census, at age 52, is listed as “steamer chambermaid.” Identified alternately as “chambermaid,” “stewardess,” and “lady’s maid,” Fannie worked in the “ladies’ cabin” of the steamboat Mary Powell.

In a private home, a Victorian era chambermaid cleaned and maintained bedroom suites. Ladies’ maids assisted upper class women with dressing, cared for their wardrobe, and dressed hair. As a day boat, the Mary Powell did not have sleeping cabins, so it is likely that the “ladies’ cabin” was a “saloon” or public indoor space designed specifically for women, likely including toilet facilities, couches, and other private comforts. Since the days of Robert Fulton’s North River Steamboat, a separate, private cabin for women was reserved, allowing delicate Victorian sensibilities to relax, knowing that White women were protected from the unwanted attentions of men. Fannie Anthony likely would have cleaned and maintained this space and assisted female passengers with requests, much like the steward would do for the rest of the steamboat. In all likelihood, as a “stewardess,” Fannie’s role was probably similar to that of a housekeeper in a wealthy household. Her husband Cornelius, as a steward, likely had a job similar to a household butler. In particular, he would oversee dining facilities and public spaces, ensuring their cleanliness and smooth operation, and overseeing waitstaff, porters, etc.

One of the earliest newspaper articles about her is a very complimentary one. Published in the Monday, September 17, 1894 issue of the Brooklyn Times Union, it quotes the Newburgh Sunday Telegram. The article, titled, “Compliments for a Jamaica Woman” reads:

“A correspondent of the Newburgh Sunday Telegram speaks very pleasantly of Mrs. Fannie Anthony, for many years stewardess of the North River steamer Mary Powell. Mrs. Anthony is a Jamaica woman, and the wife of Cornelius Anthony, sexton of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Jamaica. The correspondent says:

“’Mrs. Fannie Anthony, the efficient and obliging stewardess on the steamer Mary Powell, is about concluding her twenty-fifth season in that capacity. Mrs. Anthony enjoys an acquaintance among the ladies along the Hudson River that is both interesting and highly complimentary to the amiable disposition and cheery manner of the only female among the crew of the favorite steamboat. Mrs. Anthony travels over 15,000 miles every summer while attending to her duties on the boat. She seldom misses a trip and looks the picture of health and happiness. Many are the compliments I have heard from Newburg ladies of the genial stewardess’ worth aboard the boat. Rich and poor are alike to her. Her smile and mien are as cheery on a stormy day as on one of sunshine. Every member of the crew pays the homage due her, and the Captain thinks the boat couldn’t run without the stewardess. She is the second oldest traveler now aboard the vessel, but this statement does not imply that Mrs. Anthony is by any means very old. She is well preserved and active, and in every way a credit to her sex and race. Good luck to her.’”

Note that the “Jamaica” woman refers to Jamaica, Long Island — it does not connect Fannie to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. If she was finishing her 25th season in the fall of 1894, that gives her a start date of 1869.

This article is very respectful, particularly when compared with subsequent publications. Fannie is referred to as “Mrs.” and by her full name.

A 1902 New York Press article about her, when she would have been 75 years old, writes, “She looks as young as when she bustled about in the saloon in 1860, her chocolate complexion betraying no ravages of time.” It is unlikely that Fannie started in 1860. For one, the Mary Powell was not even built until 1861. In addition to the Brooklyn Times Union reference, which indicates a start date of 1869, a 1907 article in the Daily Freeman indicates that she had been in service aboard the Mary Powell “for thirty-seven continuous years,” giving her a start date of 1870. Regardless of when she actually started her work, by the turn of the 20th Century she was a Hudson River legend.

An issue of the Newburgh Register from sometime after August 12, 1900 reads, “Mrs. Fannie Anthony, who for the past thirty years has been employed as a lady’s maid on the steamer Mary Powell, is spending the summer at Kingston, her daughter having taken her position on the Powell.” But clearly, as subsequent articles indicate, Fannie did not retire in 1900 and no mention is made of which daughter may have ultimately taken her place.

She is mentioned again in the May 6, 1902 issue of New York Press. In a gossip column entitled, “On the Tip of the Tongue,” following a brief description of the Mary Powell, there is a whole section entitled “Fanny.” The article is transcribed verbatim:

“’Fanny’ is known to a majority of regular travelers on the Hudson as the stewardess of the Mary Powell, a billet she has held ever since the boat was launched. No one knows her age, but it must be 80. She looks as young as when she bustled about in the saloon in 1860, her chocolate complexion betraying no ravages of time. The multitudes that have been in her care never bothered to inquire about her surname, but accepted her as ‘Fanny,’ and ‘Fanny’ she is to all. This good woman and my old friend H. R. Van Keuren are the only two living of the early crew of the Mary Powell. ‘Van’ has just celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He resigned the stewardship of the boat in 1876, I think, and got rich in another business. Recently when he stepped upon the deck of the Mary, who should run up and throw her arms about his neck but faithful old ‘Fanny?’”

In reality she was 75, not 80 years old. This article, like several that follow, speak of Fannie in a condescending way, consistent with the racism of the day. In addition, Fannie’s position as chambermaid or stewardess meant that she was likely treated as a servant, albeit an upper level one. Hence the passengers never bothering to “inquire about her surname.” A stark contrast to the earlier, more respectful article of 1894.

On Wednesday, July 24, 1907, The Kingston Daily Freeman published on page 8 an article entitled, “Fannie of the Powell: A Character and Fixture on the Steamer.” It reads:

“Almost everyone who has even been on the Mary Powell has seen the stewardess, ‘Fannie,’ says the Poughkeepsie Star. She has been on the boat for thirty-seven continuous years. Her name is Fannie M. Anthony. Her father was an East Indian, and her mother a full blooded Indian of the Montauk tribe. She has the shoes that her grandmother was married in, and a copper kettle one hundred years old. She is a very fine looking woman, and talks history with authority. She has met in her time thousands of people, the majority of whom have passed away. All the prominent men who travel shake hands with Fannie and have an old-time chat with her. She is exceedingly interesting and full of [maint?] humor. She hates a snob, and knows ladies and gentlemen at sight. Fannie is the pet of the public and the faithful and honored servant of the Powell.”

This article reflects the changing times and a new veneration for elders who had lived through a history-making era. The references to the 100-year-old copper kettle, her grandmother’s shoes (perhaps Montauk), and all the people who have “passed away” is not only establishing her as someone who can “[talk] history with authority,” but also establishing her as a third-generation free American, distancing her from the possible taint of slavery. Her role in public service and her long tenure aboard the Mary Powell led to her fame and the fondness with which newspapers and general public spoke of her.

[11] “Fannie, of the Powell,” Kingston Daily Freeman, July 24, 1907.

Fannie M. Anthony

Detail of photograph of the crew of the Mary Powell, showing Fannie M. Anthony, c. 1900. Donald C. Ringwald Collection, Hudson River Maritime Museum.

Fannie retired from the Mary Powell in 1912, at age 85. She died on May 26, 1914 in Queens, just short of her 87th birthday, and was buried May 28, 1914 in Maple Grove Cemetery, in Kew Gardens, Queens. Her husband Cornelius was also buried in Maple Grove Cemetery.  

Like Cornelius, she received a formal published obituary, emphasizing her status and fame in the community. On Thursday, June 4, 1914, the Poughkeepsie Evening Enterprise published “Aunt Fannie, of the Mary Powell Dies:”

“Mrs. Fannie Anthony, who for 39 years was chambermaid in charge of the ladies’ cabin on the steamer Mary Powell, died at her home at Jamaica, Long Island, on Friday, aged 87 years. She was in active service on the Powell until failing health and advancing years compelled her to give up her work two years ago, when she was succeeded by her daughter. To the traveling public she was familiarly known as ‘Aunt Fannie,’ and hundreds of visitors on whom she waited during her service have pleasant recollections of her. She began under the late Captain Frost, and continued under Captain Absalom Anderson, Captain ‘Billy’ Cornell and Captain A. Elting Anderson.”

Two days later, on Saturday, June 6, 1914, Fannie made front page news in the Rockland County Journal — “Aged Chambermaid of Mary Powell Dead” — a verbatim reprint of the above Evening Enterprise obituary.

The nickname “Aunt Fannie” is a complicated one. On the one hand, it likely was used by most as a term of endearment. However, the use of the word “aunt” in relation to older Black women in the 19th and early 20th century, especially by white people, is often a derogatory honorific. By using the terms “aunt” and “uncle,” white people could avoid using the more respectful “Mrs.” And “Mr.” with elder people of color, maintaining racial hierarchy. People of all races in service were often referred to only by their first name as a way of highlighting their subservient role. At the same time, the Evening Enterprise also refers to her as “Mrs. Fannie Anthony,” giving her the proper honorific.

Here we also have confirmation that she was, indeed, succeeded by her daughter, although we still do not know which one. An Ada Anthony, granddaughter of Charles R. Smith (and therefore probably Fannie and Cornelius’ daughter) is listed in the 1880 Census, born in 1862. By the 1910 Census, Cornelius is dead and Fannie is living alone with her widowed daughter (listed as granddaughter in the 1900 Census) Mary R. Smith and a boarder.

Newspaper searches for Ada and Mary have so far revealed nothing of substance. The Mary Powell itself was taken out of service in 1917, just five short years after Fannie’s retirement.

Fannie M. Anthony walked a delicate balance in the 19th and 20th centuries aboard the steamboat Mary Powell. Although she occupied a service role, often one of the few avenues of employment open to Black people, it seems that through sheer force of personality, excellence, and longevity, she managed to overcome some of the obstacles that faced most women of color at the time. Like the steamboat Mary Powell herself, Fannie achieved a measure of fame not usually afforded ordinary people.