Watching Colonel Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H is a little like watching a gruff but loveable history teacher in action. He often tosses out comments in such rapid-fire fashion that they’re easy to miss, but if you pay attention, he offers up some real historical gems, and one of them involves a horrific true crime tale. (I guess all true crime stories are pretty horrific.)
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
In the episode, “Period of Adjustment,” which comes in Season 8, B.J. and Hawkeye have a serious disagreement. Radar has recently left Korea for the states (sorry if that’s a spoiler alert, but the show did air in the 1970s and 80s, and so hopefully you’re caught up), and everybody in the unit is a little on edge. B.J., especially, who ends up learning that his baby daughter saw Radar, in uniform, and called him, “Daddy.”
So deep into this episode, B.J. is not in a good mood, and he ends up punching Hawkeye, and shortly after B.J. storms out, an irascible Potter comes in, surveys the tent and says,
"What in the name of Sweet Fanny Adams happened here?”
It’s a casual comment, and in the past, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it and would have kept watching the show, but this time, like many of Potters references, I found myself thinking, “Wait… I wonder if Sweet Fanny Adams actually means something? Was it something that a colonel in the military in the 1950s might have said?”
So I did some digging, and what do you know? Sweet Fanny Adams does mean something.
The story is pretty grisly as true crime stories go, just to warn you.
The Story of Fanny Adams
Fanny Adams was just eight years old when she was murdered in Alton, England.
It was August of 1867.
Fanny’s body was found by townspeople, dismembered, in a field.
Her killer was also soon located — a 24-year-old government clerk named Frederick Baker.
Baker denied hurting Adams, but his guilt seemed pretty clear. Blood spots were on his clothing, for instance, and it was quickly discovered that earlier in the day, Baker had run into Fanny and her sister, Lizzie, seven years old, and a friend, Minnie Warner, eight.
Baker offered Minnie three halfpence if she and Lizzie would go off somewhere and play. Apparently, he also offered Fanny a halfpenny if she would go with him. She wisely refused, and so he picked her up and took her.
He must have taken her in a way that didn’t alarm the sister and friend, however – because they went off playing. Later that evening, a neighbor spotted the girls and asked where Fanny was. The girls explained what had happened, and the neighbor’s alarm bells went off. Concerned, she began combing the area and found Baker. When he was asked what he had done with her, he said, “Nothing.”
But a few hours later, in the evening, a search party found Fanny’s body. In pieces.
Baker insisted that he was innocent, but there were some telltale clues that suggested he wasn’t being truthful. For instance, his diary was found, in which he wrote: “killed a young girl, it was fine and hot.”
A criminal mastermind, he was not.
Baker was charged with murder. Before the year was up, he was hanged.
How Fanny Adams Became a Swear Word
So what does this have to do with M*A*S*H and Colonel Sherman Potter?
Remember how when Baker was asked if he had done anything to Fanny, he said, “Nothing”? He did “nothing” to Fanny.
Well, as the years went on, sadly, the term “Sweet Fanny Adams” came to mean “nothing.” Her name also became something of a morbid joke. Two years after her death, in 1869, the Royal Navy offered its sailors tins of mutton as food rations. Apparently, the sailors didn’t like it much. When they opened the tins, they said that the food looked and smelled like the butchered body of “sweet Fanny Adams.” From then on, the tins became known as Fanny’s.
As it turns out, the initials F.A. can also be an acronym for a phrase that probably was around long before Fanny Adams. Since we’ll try to keep this blog to a PG rating, we’ll note that the F refers to the infamous F-word. The "A.," in this case, stands for "all."
So this poor kid gets bludgeoned, and soon her name becomes synonymous with the term “worthless” and “nothing” and her initials become an acronym that includes a curse word. Not only is life unfair, sometimes life after life is unfair.
The M*A*S*H and Fanny Adams Connection
Again, what does this have to do with Sherman Potter?
Well, in World War I, some soldiers who wanted to be polite but still swear, would use the phrase, “sweet Fanny Adams,” as a euphemism. Fellow military men knew what you meant when you said “Sweet Fanny Adams,” but bystanders wouldn’t.
Potter, a lifetime military man, got his start in the military fighting in World War I. He clearly picked up the phrase, “Sweet Fanny Adams” in his unit. And considering B.J. had just slugged Hawkeye, Potter was steamed and would have liked to let a few curse words fly. But he was a gentleman, and we were dealing with 1970s’ television standards.
So “Sweet Fanny Adams” works pretty well for both Potter and the scriptwriters (Jim Mulligan, John Rappaport and Dan Wilcox), and it’s a phrase Potter apparently used repeatedly. At least, in another episode, when Klinger is imitating Sherman Potter, he uses the epithet, “Sweet Fanny Adams.”
In any case, the term, “Sweet Fanny Adams” is a testament to the M*A*S*H writers and producers that they took the television series’ characters and history so seriously. And the episode is a nice tribute to poor Fanny Adams. She may be long gone, and just another case file in the true crime annals, but thanks to Sherman Potter, she is not forgotten.
Where you can watch M*A*S*H (at the time of this writing): It airs regularly on MeTV. The entire series is also on Hulu.