Fanny Henning Speed

A portrait framed in dark wood and gilded gold adorns the Ferguson Mansion’s grand entry hall.  It depicts a bearded man, his arm encircling a dark-eyed woman.  By all accounts, Joshua and Fanny Speed were deeply in love (despite some initial doubts on Joshua’s part, overcome with the help of his friend Abraham Lincoln!).  In this portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy, there seems to be a sparkle in Joshua’s eyes and the hint of a smile on the corners of his lips.  Fanny, in contrast, looks off to the side, her gaze fixed on eternity.  I think she looks rather sad, although of course no one smiled in portraits at the time.  Healy painted the Speeds in 1864, following over twenty years of marriage.  Fanny was in her mid-40s at the time, Joshua nearly 50.  It would have been all too apparent at this point that despite their love for each other, they would have no children.

How did Joshua and Fanny feel about being childless?  How did Fanny in particular feel, living at a time when society deemed motherhood a woman’s highest calling?  I searched but found nothing recorded of their thoughts.  Similarly, a search of the Filson’s manuscript collections revealed nothing about the feelings of other childless couples.  I found only silence, echoing down through the generations.

It’s a silence I’ve felt eating away at the edges of my own life, growing louder and more insistent with each passing month.  It fills the corners of a house that seems slightly too large for only two people.  Sometimes I lie awake in the middle of the night, disturbed not by the sounds of a crying child, but by the lack of them.  Was Fanny mystified by the children parading through the lives of her relatives and friends?  Did she feel less confident in her own sexuality -- an incompleteness, a feeling of being less than whole?

Perhaps she also felt relief.  In the antebellum era pregnancy was fraught with danger, both for the expectant mother and the infant child.  Many women survived the hazards of childbirth only to watch their newborn sicken and die.  Maybe Fanny sometimes felt thankful to be spared such suffering.  I’ve felt that relief too, in a different way.  I’ve felt anxious about the changes being a parent will bring, and each month the responsibility has been postponed.  Now I wonder if it will ever happen at all.  Did Fanny Speed endure that agony of conflicting emotions as well, longing for change but fearing it too?

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

5 comments on “Fanny Henning Speed

  1. Professor Alphonse Dattolo

    I am a Spanish professor but have dedicated over 50 years to the study of Dr. Abraham Lincoln . Fanny Henning has a definitive place in his life, being the wife of JoshuaFry Speed (1814-1882) Both Lincoln and speed had doubts about their marriages, but it seems to me that both of them made the right choice.

    1. Jana Meyer

      Hi Dr. Dattolo, thanks for commenting. Joshua Speed certainly was very happy with his marriage by all accounts. I think Lincoln’s marriage was much more tumultuous. Lincoln struggled with clinical depression, he and Mary Todd lost two young children to illness, not to mention he was president of a war-torn country. I don’t think they had a particularly happy marriage, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean that they made the wrong choice.

  2. Bob G. Field, M.D,

    I collect Lincoln memorabilia and I recently purchased another copy of Joshua Speeds book “Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln Notes of a visit to California.” There is a note in the front of the book to Lila M.Sheneld from Mrs. Speed. Below that note is another note given the book from his mother, who I would assume to be Mrs. Sheneld. The interesting part related by Mrs. Sheneld is that as a child she lived two doors away from the Speeds and that from the time that she was two her most intimate friend, until her death at age 18, was Fanny Henning “his adopted daughter”. I would assume that this was probably a niece or other relative on the Henning side that was being raised by the Speeds but I cannot find any affirmation of that theory. I would be interested if anyone is aware of a young woman living with the Speeds until her death at age 18.

    1. Jennie Cole

      Hello Dr. Field,
      You are correct in that Mrs. Speed had a niece named Fanny – Fanny Henning was the daughter of Mrs. Speed’s brother, J. W. Henning, from his first marriage to Mildred E. Maupin. Fanny was born circa 1847 and died 21 October 1866. Her mother died in 1850, and her father did not remarry until 1860. I am not sure if Fanny or her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth Henning, lived with the Speeds. They are not listed in the 1850 or 1860 Federal Census records. I have some resources on this topic that I can look into and will respond again!
      Best wishes,
      Jennie Cole

      1. Jennie Cole

        Hello again! I was able to pull up some old correspondence I have on the topic, and also check a genealogy book on the Henning-Duke families of Kentucky (by Charles P. Stanton, 1983). Stanton’s book confirms the three living daughters of J. W. Henning and his first wife, and also reminded me that J. W. Henning was partners with Joshua Fry Speed, further cementing the family ties. The book says nothing about any of the young Henning girls living with the Speeds. There is an image (not in Filson collections) of Joshua and Fanny Speed with a young girl, believed to be Maria Henning; I am having a hard time tracking down a version of it online to show you. I also know that in the bio of Joshua that is part of the pamphlet you mention it describes Speed’s sorrow at the death of young Fanny Henning at his house. I’m afraid that is all of the information I have at this time – if I find more, I will certainly let you know!


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