In 1869, canned mutton was given to the British Navy as a ration. The meat was disgusting, and the men joked that it wasn’t mutton; it was the remains of a little girl named Fanny Adams, who had been murdered several years prior.
Somehow, Fanny Adams became slang for subpar-quality canned meat. Then, the phrase evolved in the mid-20th century to become “Sweet F.A.” for sweet Fanny Adams, used as a euphemism for the phrase “sweet f**k all.”
It seems a cruel epitaph for the death of a young girl. How did the name of a murdered little girl become British slang?
Fanny Adams was born on April 30, 1859, in the town of Alton in Hampshire, England. Before Fanny Adams’s demise, Hampshire’s most famous resident was English author Jane Austin.
Fanny lived in a small home on Tanhouse Lane, and she grew up with her mother, her father, who worked in agriculture, and her five siblings. The Adams were not wealthy, but the children were well cared for, your average Victorian family.
At the time of her death, Fanny Adams was eight years old but was said to look older than her actual age. She was noted as being a “tall, comely, and intelligent girl” and a happy child.
Alton was a safe town, and when Fanny, her sister Lizzie, and her best friend Minnie Warner asked Mrs. Adams if they could play outside near the Flood Meadow on August 24, 1867. With parental approval, the girls ran into the afternoon sunshine in one of the hop gardens near the Flood Meadow.
As Fanny, her sister, and their friend walked into the hop garden to play, they ran into a man they recognized from church, 29-year-old Frederick Baker. He was new to town but worked as a solicitor’s clerk and was seen as a respectable man.
On this occasion, Baker appeared to be drunk, but the girls felt safe as he approached them. Frederick Baker gave three halfpence to buy some candy, and he gave Fanny another halfpenny. The girls took the money and played while Frederick Baker stood nearby watching the girls and picking blackberries.
As it was a hot day, Lizzie and Minnie decided they were done playing outside and were going to go back home. According to the girls, Frederick Baker asked sweet Fanny Adams if she would accompany him on a walk to Shalden, the next village over, but Fanny said no.
That didn’t stop Fredrick Baker from suddenly snatching Fanny up and carrying her into a nearby hop garden. Lizzie and Minnie ran back to Minnie’s house to tell Mrs. Warner what happened to Fanny. For some reason, Mrs. Warner thought the girls were being silly and playing a joke, and she ignored them.
Minnie and Lizzie played together for the rest of the day, and at 5:00pm that evening, a neighbor, Mrs. Gardner, noticed that Fanny wasn’t with the other girls and asked where she was. The girls again said that Mr. Baker had given them money and then carried Fanny off into a hop garden. Realizing the girl’s accusations were serious, regardless of whether they were true or not, Mrs. Gardner told Fanny’s mom what the kids said, and the two of them went off towards the Flood Meadow to look for Fanny.
Along the way, the women ran into Frederick Baker. Mrs. Gardner was said to have asked the man, “What have you done with the child?” He replied, “Nothing. I gave them money, but only to buy sweets, which I often do to children,” and Fanny had left him to go back to playing with her friends.
Due to how respectable a solicitor’s clerk was and how he was dressed nicely, the women let him go and continued looking for Fanny. But by around 7:00 or 8:00 pm, Fanny was still missing, and other neighbors joined Mrs. Adams to search for the girl in the Flood Meadows, which was unsuccessful.
A gardener working in a nearby hop garden was the one to find Fanny and was horrified at what happened to the poor girl.
A Gruesome Murder and a Single Suspect
Fanny’s head was found stuck on the tops of two hop poles. Her ears had been removed. She was left with a Glasgow smile, also known as a Chelsea smile, with two significant cuts that ran from her mouth to the temple where the ears used to be.
Fanny Adams’s arms and legs were severed from her torso, and she had deep cuts that reached down to the muscle on her limbs. Her right leg had been ripped from her trunk, and her left leg was severed at the hip joint.
As if the brutal dissection wasn’t enough, her eyes, heart, vagina, and the contents of her chest and pelvis were removed from the body: she had literally been emptied out. It was clear to everyone that little Fanny Adams had been shockingly brutalized by her killer.
Fanny’s mother went to tell her husband, who was playing cricket, what happened, but she collapsed from shock and grief on the way, so the news was eventually shared with Mr. Adams.
The following day, hundreds of locals came out to help collect the scattered remains of Fanny Adams. Her breast bone was never found, but the pieces of the girl were taken to a doctor for an autopsy, where they sewed her back together. Police believed knives were used to dismember the little girl, but a stone found with flesh and hair stuck to it was given to police as a possible murder weapon.
This case had only one suspect, Frederick Baker, and upon locating the man at his place of work, the police superintendent arrested him. Frederick protested his innocence, but nobody was buying it.
The interrogation into the murder of Fanny Adams yielded no results or a confession, and the police searched his work desk for evidence. In his desk was a diary, and the entry for August 24, 1867, read, “Killed a young girl. It was fine and hot.” Baker told the police that he was drunk when he wrote that, and it was nonsense, but that entry was as good as a confession.
Baker was put on trial, and it was of little surprise that the jury returned a guilty verdict after only 15 minutes of deliberation. Baker was hanged outside of Winchester Prison on December 24, 1867.
A crowd of around 5,000 people gathered to watch the execution, which was the last public execution held at that prison. While Frederick Baker never confessed to the murder of Fanny Adams, he did write a letter to her parents apologizing for what he had done and asking for their forgiveness.
Top Image: Photograph of Fanny Adams shortly before her murder. Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.