Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Fanny Oella Chafin, 1850-1911
By Ann Marie Linnabery, assistant director, History Center of Niagara
Fanny Oella Chafin played a minor but important role in the history of women's suffrage in New York State. Fanny's family was originally from New England but had migrated to East Troy, Wisconsin in 1838. It was there that Fanny was born on December 17, 1850, the eighth of thirteen children of Samuel and Elizabeth Pollard Chafin. Her parents were progressive for their time, ensuring that their six daughters received an equal primary education as their brothers. She was described as "an honest and sincere student." In 1870, after completing secondary school, she taught in Belle Plaine, Wisconsin while boarding with the Crain family. In the late 1870s, Fanny attended the Whitewater State Normal School (teaching college) in Whitewater, Wisconsin, graduating in 1879. Shortly afterward, she moved to Milwaukee where she continued her work as a teacher. This she did for at least three years before embarking on a career in secretarial work, learning typing and stenography.
It is unclear when she left Wisconsin, but by 1900 Miss Chafin had moved to New York City, quite a change for a farm girl. She was living in Manhattan in 1900 but was residing with her sister back in Wisconsin in 1905. In 1907 suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt hired her as the office manager for Interurban Woman Suffrage Council (IWSC) headquartered at the Martha Washington Hotel (Catt had been the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association but resigned in 1904 to take care of her sick husband so she then devoted her time to the IWSC in New York).
In August 1909, Miss Fanny Chafin is listed in the New York Herald as among the "suffragettes of New York and the suffragettes of New Jersey [who] had a glorious time of it at the Palisades Amusement Park [and] obtained several thousand signatures to their petition, which is to be presented to Congress, seeking an amendment to the constitution on their behalf." Two months later, on October 29, 1909, the IWSC initiated the Woman Suffrage Party of Greater New York at Carnegie Hall. Considering there were over 1000 delegates in attendance, and that Fanny Chafin had been in New York only two months before, there is a good chance that she was in attendance. This may have been her last suffrage event she attended as she returned to Wisconsin in 1910. Fanny made her will out in July 1910, leaving her assets to her surviving siblings and nieces and nephews. She died on March 1, 1911 of an undisclosed illness and was buried in the family plot in Oak Ridge Cemetery in East Troy, Wisconsin. A "funeral" (memorial service?) was held on December 6, 1911 where she was eulogized by Mrs. Alura Collins Hollister, described as "a lifelong friend." Almost all of the biographical material available on Fanny Chafin is taken from this eulogy.
Fanny was not the only Chafin who was involved in a reform movement. Eugene Wilder Chafin (1852-1920), Fanny's younger brother, had been working toward the enactment of prohibition since he was a young man. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a law degree and had a practice for 20 years. In the 1890s, he ran for Wisconsin attorney general and governor on the Prohibitionist party but lost both elections. After moving to Illinois, he ran for Congress in 1902 and for attorney general of that state in 1904, again losing those elections. In 1908 and 1912, Chafin was the Prohibitionist party presidential candidate. He traveled the country preaching (he was also an ordained minister) the evils of alcohol and the virtues of temperance. In both elections he received approximately 1.5% of the vote. Chafin also wrote four books during his lifetime, three of which were on Presidents of the United States. He died in 1920 of burns he suffered from an accident at his home in California.
Chaffin, William L. History of Robert Chaffin and His Descendants and of the Other Chaffins in America. New York, 1913.
Richardson, Daniel. "Women in Walworth County History: Fanny Oella Chafin." The Legacy, Newsletter of the Walworth County Historical Society. Fall 2018, p. 2. Accessed 7/25/2019, www.walcohistory.org/images/pdf/newsletters/Legacy%20Fall%202018%20a.pdf
Richardson, Daniel. "Women in Walworth County History: Fanny Oella Chafin." The Legacy, Newsletter of the Walworth County Historical Society. Summer 2017, p. 6. Accessed 7/25/2019, www.walcohistory.org/images/pdf/newsletters/Legacy%20Summer%202017.pdf
Patrick Murfin, "The Parade of Women in White Rocks New York," Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout (blog), October 23, 2011, https://patrickmurfin.blogspot.com/2011/10/parade-of-women-in-white-rocks-new-york.html
"Suffragists of Two States Meet," New York Herald (New York, NY), August 15, 1909, Accessed through Fultonhistory.com, New York NY Herald 1909 – 5770.pdf, September 24, 2019
"A 'Dry' Tidal Wave," Fredonia Censor (Fredonia, NY), 1908 (no exact date), Accessed through Fultonhistory.com, Fredonia NY Censor 1907 – 1909 Grayscale – 0298.pdf, September 24, 2019
Ancestry.com: Fanny Oella Chaffin – Family Tree profile and census records
Find-a-Grave: Fanny Oella Chafin