Women of History: Fanny McNeil Potter

September 18, 2018

Potter was an avid painter and mentioned some of her portrait work in her letters. This portrait of her uncle, Franklin Pierce, now belongs to the New Hampshire Historical Society.

While visiting Washington, D.C., in the winter of 1882, Mary Baker Eddy wrote to Clara Choate, one of her early students in Christian Science: “I am expecting every moment a call from a lady who has presided at the White House and done the offices faithfully that our nation owns as highest in the world of fashion and festivity.”1

That lady was Fanny McNeil Potter (c.1821–1892), a niece of President Franklin Pierce—and Eddy’s distant cousin. Their relationship, which is documented from the 1880s until Potter’s passing, was warm and mutually supportive. Eddy’s father, Mark Baker, had been a friend of General Benjamin Pierce, President Pierce’s father. Her brother Albert Baker was both a law partner and political protégé of Franklin PIerce.

Born Frances Maria Potter, her family lived for a time at Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River in Illinois (incorporated as the city of Chicago in 1837). Her father was Col. John McNeil (1784–1850), a hero in the war of 1812. In 1856, she married Chandler Eastman Potter (1807–1868), a New Hampshire judge and state representative who also owned and edited the Manchester Democrat newspaper.

Potter’s close ties to the White House during Pierce’s 1853–1857 presidency arose out of tragic circumstances. The president’s son, Benny, died in a train accident not long before Pierce was sworn in. His wife, Jane, struggled with that loss and was often unable to fulfill her work as First Lady. As Pierce’s niece, Potter was one of several women who took on hostess duties at the White House during this time 2.

Although Potter did not live her entire adult life in Washington, she still spent time there and maintained connections with powerful individuals in the Capital long after Pierce left office. Her correspondence indicates that she endeavored to use these relationships to benefit her cousin. When Eddy visited Washington in 1882, Potter was well positioned to support her in making the most of her time there. Together they visited some of the local sites and Col. McNeil’s grave in the Congressional Cemetery. “I have met with a better reception than my most sanguine expectations promised,” Eddy wrote on February 17.3 Six days later she told Choate, “Today I go into the Capitol by invitation.”4

Potter’s support of Eddy continued after that visit. An 1884 letter offered, “I can if you desire have your books favorably noticed in a prominent Washington paper.”5 In a follow-up letter, Potter suggested that Eddy send a copy of her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures to Richard Sylvester, Editor of the Washington Post, along with a letter reminding him of his promise to Potter that he would give it a favorable review6 Other correspondence shared more opportunities for reviews of Science and Health in publications where Potter had connections. In her letters Potter also enclosed newspaper clippings of stories she thought would be helpful to Eddy.

Potter took an interest in Christian Science, sometimes mentioning the possibility of her studying it in one of Eddy’s classes. Yet this seemed to grow primarily out of her desire to support Eddy in her endeavors. “You know I always defend you, darling & your cause,” she wrote in November 1885 7 In addition to identifying opportunities for Eddy’s work to receive favorable reviews in the press, she regularly expressed concern for her health, as well as the frequent hope that she was getting enough rest from all the demands on her time. While those who wrote to Eddy often included requests for her help or the desire to position themselves in her favor, Potter appears to have asked nothing. “I have no mad ambition to gratify,” she wrote in 1891. “all I do is for loves sake.” 8

Potter’s support for Eddy, following her discovery of Christian Science, stands in contrast to other friends and relatives who distanced themselves from her once she became committed to promoting her system of metaphysical healing. No doubt those unselfish expressions of care encouraged her amid the ongoing challenges of her work—especially in that they came from a gentle and loyal woman with family ties.

Fanny McNeil Potter’s memory lives on in several portraits she painted, and in other family heirlooms she saved, now preserved in the collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society.

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  1. Mary Baker Eddy to Clara E. Choate, 17 February 1882, L02497, https://mbepapers.org/?load=L02497.
  2. Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), 586
  3. Eddy to Alice M. Sibley, 17 February 1882, L13364, https://mbepapers.org/?load=L13364.
  4. Mary Baker Eddy to Clara E. Choate, 23 February 1882, L02497, https://mbepapers.org/?load=L02497.
  5. Potter to Eddy, 15 April 1884, IC226.37.024, https://mbepapers.org/?load=226.37.024.
  6. Potter to Eddy, 18 April 1884, IC226.37.025, https://mbepapers.org/?load=226.37.025.
  7. Potter to Eddy, November 1885, IC226.37.057.
  8. Potter to Eddy, 26 September 1891, IC226.37.072.