A Woman of Grit (Part 2): Author, Photographer, Millionaire

Five months after the Kelly-Larimer Massacre (see Part 1), Fanny Kelly’s release from the Sioux tribe was purchased by ransom, and she was reunited with husband Josiah.

After Sarah Larimer escaped from the Sioux she was reunited with husband William. Still determined to start a photography business, the Larimers replaced their equipment and ping-ponged around the West, operating a photo studio, stage coach business, saloon, and boardinghouse in Wyoming and Colorado.

The Kellys returned to Kansas. But in 1867 Josiah died of cholera, and Fanny, at the invitation of Sarah, went to Wyoming to live with the Larimers.

And that’s when the litigation hit the fan.

Part 1 quotes both women’s recollections of the massacre and their ensuing captivity by the Sioux tribe. Those recollections come from two books.

According to Loretta L. Evans in Pegasus magazine, soon after Fanny Kelly had been freed by the Sioux, she and Sarah Larimer had agreed to collaborate on a book about their harrowing experiences. Fanny Kelly apparently began work on a manuscript soon after her release. After she moved in with the Larimers, the two women began to collaborate on the manuscript.

But imagine Fanny’s surprise when in 1870 Sarah Larimer published her own account: The Capture and Escape; or, Life among the Sioux.

This etching of Mrs. Larimer was made by John Sartain in 1869 for inclusion in her book.

The book received positive reviews.

Fanny Kelly accused Sarah Larimer of secretly taking their manuscript to Philadelphia and having it published under Larimer’s name alone. Mrs. Kelly sued Sarah and William Larimer for $10,000 ($200,000 today) in district court in Kansas. She accused the Larimers of “failing, neglecting and refusing to perform and comply with the terms of a certain contract, made and entered into between said plaintiff and said Sarah Larimer in relation to the publication of a certain book, and the secret and fraudulent taking possession of certain manuscripts belonging to and the property of said plaintiff by the said Sarah L. Larimer and appropriating the same and the proceeds arising from the sale and anticipated sales of said book to her, said Sarah L. Larimer’s and said William J. Larimer’s use and benefit.”

In 1871 Fanny (pictured) published her own account, Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians.

Fanny’s book includes this passage: “My leisure hours, since my release from captivity, had been devoted to preparing for publication, in book form, a narrative of my experience and adventures among the Indians, and it was completed. The manuscript was surreptitiously taken, and a garbled, imperfect account of my captivity issued as the experience of my false friend, who . . . escaped after a durance of only one day and night.”

Fanny Kelly’s book also received positive reviews.

In Mrs. Kelly’s lawsuit against the Larimers, she won $10,000 damages initially, but the Larimers appealed, and the case dragged through the courts for five years. Finally Fanny Kelly dropped her suit, paid court costs, and acknowledged Mrs. Larimer’s rights.

Actually the two books are very different (although they do contain some verbatim passages).

Sarah Larimer in her book did not claim Kelly’s five-month-long captivity as her own. In Larimer’s book, she escapes after just two days. Her book also acknowledges the ordeal of Fanny Kelly:

“My unfortunate friend, Mrs. Kelly, whom I left in the Indian camp when I escaped with my child, remained with those Indians four months, suffering all the privations and hardships of a white slave with a roving band of hostile savages. At the expiration of that time, she was taken by the Blackfeet Sioux, and remained with them some time, but was finally ransomed at Fort Sully.”

Larimer’s account of the massacre, her captivity, and her escape constitutes a small part of her book, the rest being her observations of Native American culture and anecdotes of Native American “depredations” that she collected from other white immigrants while living five years in the West.

On the other hand, most of Kelly’s book details the massacre, her captivity, and her ransoming. Her account is meticulous, her experiences confirmed by affidavits from white soldiers and Native Americans.

Mrs. Larimer continued to write about Native American culture in the West.

From Wyoming, the Larimers moved back to Kansas. Mr. and Mrs. Larimer soon separated but never divorced. Mrs. Larimer resumed her photography business in the town of Humboldt. Her son was now a lawyer.

Upon Mrs. Larimer’s escape from the Sioux in 1864 she had provided the soldiers at Fort Deer Creek with information about the location and intentions of her captors. In 1867 she petitioned Congress for (1) compensation for the information she had provided and (2) compensation for the destruction of her belongings by the Sioux in the massacre. In 1888 the government granted her $5,000 ($150,000 today) for “services rendered” but denied her claim for property destroyed.

Undaunted, Mrs. Larimer each year went to Washington to petition the government for compensation for property destroyed. And for several years newspapers used that annual ritual to recount her ordeal of 1864.

Her grit again got her through: She eventually was awarded $5,280 ($166,000 today) for property destroyed.

By 1896 Mrs. Larimer’s husband and son were dead. By 1899 Mrs. Larimer, who had been a rolling stone most of her adult life, had rolled to a stop in Fort Worth. She used her government compensation as seed money to start over in Fort Worth. Early on she contributed to The Bohemian, Fort Worth’s first literary magazine, appearing in the first issue.

About 1900 she built the two-story Larimer Building at 1209 Main Street. She set up her photo studio downstairs and lived over the studio. She also rented commercial and residential space in the building.

A rare surviving photo taken in Fort Worth by Sarah Luse Larimer. (Photo from Donna Humphrey Donnell.)

But as Mrs. Larimer developed photos she also developed a lucrative sideline. Calling upon her grit yet again, she entered another profession that was male dominated: real estate. She dealt primarily in commercial real estate on Main and Commerce streets downtown, the Fort Worth Record wrote.

For example, in 1906 Mrs. Larimer bought the St. Elmo Hotel, located at Commerce and 2nd streets. The St. Elmo had been built by Henry Howard Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

Sarah Luse Larimer died in her rooms in her Larimer Building in 1913 at age seventy-seven. According to the Record Mrs. Larimer spent her last years in “quiet seclusion.” The Star-Telegram wrote that she “lived so quietly that few knew her,” “preparing her frugal meals and taking care of her rooms unassisted.”

The Record headline says her photography was the “nucleus” of her $300,000 ($8 million today) fortune, but I suspect the nucleus was her real estate. She was a shrewd businesswoman.

In 1910 she had listed the value of her real estate at $86,000 ($2.4 million today).

After her death, the Star-Telegram reported that her estate was valued at $170,000 ($4.5 million today).

Sarah Luse Larimer, who survived an ordeal of the wild West to break two glass ceilings and die a millionaire, is buried in Iowa next to her husband and son. Her tombstone reads “Author-Artist.” (The Women’s Relief Corps was the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union Army veterans’ organization.) (Photo from Find A Grave.)

(Thanks to Donna Humphrey Donnell for the tip.)

Posts About Women in Fort Worth History

This entry was posted in Advertising, Life in the Past Lane. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *