Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Frankie Gunnell’s wife and children

At Washington DC the local government began in about 1874 to experiment with a system of birth certificates, using what was called the “Return of a Birth,” a short form to be filled in following every live birth by the attending doctor or midwife. Two of these early Returns report children—both of them boys—born in the District to Fanny Miller Gunnell and her husband Frankie Gunnell. Another child was probably born before the Returns system was in place, since the babies in the two documents are numbered Fanny’s second and third: a boy born in 1876, then another in 1881. The Returns do not record babies’ names.

The Returns do ask for the address of the mother. In one case Fanny was living in Southwest Washington, and in the other case in Northwest. Since the children were born in DC to a mother living at a local address, it seems almost certain that Frank and Fanny did live there more of less continuously in the years from 1872 or so through to 1881. This makes it that much more noteworthy that they are not in the 1880 Census enumeration, and downright strange that they are never even included in the DC directories published during those ten years. Exactly what their domestic situation was during this period there’s not much telling. On each Birth Return there’s a line for the father’s occupation, and it shows that Fanny in 1876 called Frankie a carpenter and in 1881 a mechanic. So much for the inexplicable Frankie Gunnell.

Recently and out of the blue I heard from a descendant of Frankie and Fanny. Thanks to some friendly correspondence with this distant cousin, I’ve been able to learn what later happened to Fanny and to the Gunnell children Violet, the first born, and Rosser, the boy born in 1876. (The boy born in 1881 was not heard of again.)

The Civil War seems to have scattered the Miller family, and two of Fanny’s older brothers had left Virginia and gone to live in Arkansas. Fanny made her way there. She met a peripatetic lawyer from Ohio named George Bushnell Denison. In 1885 at Conway near Little Rock Fanny and Denison were married. Subsequently Violet and Rosser Gunnell were called by the surname Denison, and Fanny referred to G.B. Denison as their father. The peripatetic lawyer moved on to Alabama, while Fanny and the children went to live, for unknown reasons, in Galveston, Texas. There Violet came of age and married a jeweler called Field, a Massachusetts man. The Fields had two daughters.

When the Spanish-American War came, Rosser Denison enlisted in the army and went off to the Philippines. He stayed on after the war, living at Zamboanga, where he married and raised a family. A large number of Rosser’s descendants (and thus Milburn descendants, as well) presently live in the Philippines.

Violet divorced the jeweler Field and promptly married a civil engineer called Morris who was about to leave Texas to take up a position with the city of Portland, Oregon. It’s around Portland and in the U.S. Northwest that Violet’s descendants, including my excellent correspondent, are living today.

Fanny, meanwhile, reached San Antonio where she married for the third time. Her new husband William Knight was yet another peripatetic lawyer, only this time from New Hampshire by way of West Virginia and Missouri. The Knights didn’t live together for long. After a few years Fanny took off, and continued to travel about the country visiting her kith and kin. So many changes of name and place! Finally, with her resources depleted, she wound up back at San Antonio in a rooming house. She died there in 1931 and was buried in the City Cemetery.

A story that circulated among Fanny’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren was that she had insisted that no one ever again say the name Frankie Gunnell. Well, that rule was obviously broken, but still nobody is able to say what became of Frankie. We’ll probably never know the rest of that story. He'll just remain a minor character, a footnote in the history of Spiritualism and stage illusions.


  1. WOW! Thank you for this amazing blog. I didn't have any information aboit my great grand father. Thank you so so much. This means a lot to us.

    Dennis Denison from philippines

    1. I'm so happy you found the post. I would welcome any information you would care to provide about Rosser Denison's life and family. In particular, I'm missing the full name of his wife. One new detail that I can add—a tiny one—is that Rosser Denison was briefly enrolled in the preperatory school at Guilford College in South Carolina. This was during the period when Rosser's mother was married to the lawyer Denison, and while G.B. Denison himself was a prosecutor on the Hawes murder trial in Birmingham, Alabama.