Wild Women Of The West: Fannie & Jennie Freeman


Nineteen-year-old Jennie Freeman stared pensively out the partially opened window of the tenement building where she lived in Chicago, Illinois.  A cold, gentle breeze blew across the bed she was lying on, and she pulled the dingy blankets that were draped across her legs around her waist. Jennie was a petite, bespeckled girl with mousey-brown hair and green eyes.  She was a fierce reader, proven by the many books stacked around the bed. A stern-faced doctor stood over her fiddling with a stethoscope. When he finally placed one end of the stethoscope on Jennie’s chest, she turned her attention from the busyness on the street outside the window to him.  After the doctor listened to his patient’s heartbeat, he scratched his head, perplexed. He eyed the wheelchair next to the bed and sighed a heavy sigh. Jennie’s mother, Fannie entered the room from the kitchen carrying a tray of food. She was a large woman of dark complexion who wore diamond eardrops and a large marquise ring.  She looked worried and carefully studied the doctor’s face, waiting for a verdict.  

The doctor lifted the covers off Jennie’s legs and studied her feet.  He removed a straight pin from his medical bag and touched it to Jennie’s foot and calves.  No matter what he did, he could not get her limbs to even twitch. After a few moments he stopped the examination, pulled the blanket back over Jennie’s legs, and began packing his medical instruments into his bag.  Fannie sat the tray she was carrying on a nightstand next to the bed and took her daughter’s hand in hers. The doctor confirmed what the troubled mother had suspected – Jennie was paralyzed. As the doctor put his coat on and exited the cramp, poorly-lit home, Jennie was crying and Fannie was comforting her.  

Jennie incurred her injury when she got caught between two cable cars.  The intricate system of street railways in downtown Chicago had malfunctioned on January 9, 1893, and the cars collided.  Jennie was found on the ground writhing in pain near the accident. After a short stay in the hospital to treat her cracked ribs, bruises, and cuts, she was released into the care of her mother.  Two days later she claimed she couldn’t move her legs from the thighs down. A railway company physician verified the report. Believing it would be cheaper to settle than it would be to go to court the company paid Jennie five hundred dollars.     

By October 5, 1893, Jennie Freeman’s paralysis had passed.  According to the July 5, 1903, edition of the San Antonio, Texas, newspaper the San Antonio Sunday Light, Jennie was injured while riding the Manhattan Elevated Railroad in New York.  The teenager told authorities she was an actress on her way to an audition when she fell against the door of a Second Avenue train.  She told them the car swung too close to the corner she was standing on at Twenty-Third Street. “I lost my balance and hit it hard,” she reported.  “The car was going too fast too” she added. Her mother, Fannie Freeman, was on hand to back up the story. Jennie was awarded one hundred dollars from the rail line for the injuries she claimed to have sustained, and Fannie was given fifty dollars for suffering.  “Seeing my daughter go through that was horrible,” she told the police who responded to the scene of the accident.  

On April 20, 1894, the Freemans were in Boston, Massachusetts, traveling aboard the West End Street Railway Company car.  This time Jennie claimed to have slipped on a banana peel lying in the aisle of the car. She told law enforcement who responded to her emergency call that she couldn’t move from the waist down.  A doctor for the railway examined her and found her in an apparent paralysis condition. As a result of the doctor’s report, the West End Railway Company paid her three hundred twenty-five dollars.  

According to the June 16, 1906, edition of the Benton Harbor, Michigan, newspaper the News Palladium, Jennie and Fannie Freeman were two of the most accomplished and wanted women in the “false claims” business.  The two were skilled at the art of staging “whiplash or other soft tissue injuries” which were hard to dispute later.  Railway companies in the Midwest and on the East Coast, as well as cable car companies on the West Coast believed the pair had made more than one hundred fifty thousand dollars from 1891 to 1894 faking injuries.  

On the 16th of May 1894, Jennie Freeman made a claim on the Cincinnati, Ohio Railroad Company for alleged injuries received while getting out the company’s cars.  She said she had stepped on a banana peel which she produced in evidence. She accepted one hundred twenty-five dollars in settlement of the case.  

On June 28, 1894, Jennie claimed to have been injured while boarding a train of the Illinois Central Railroad Company by stepping on a banana peel which threw her backwards against a seat.  She alleged total insensibility of the lower part of her body, practically amounting to paralysis. A physician for the company did every possible test, even sticking pins into her legs, but she appeared totally insensitive to the pain.  So, the company settled with her for two hundred dollars.   

Jennie and Fannie, the “Railroad Fakirs,” as the newspapers referred to them, made a crucial mistake in early July 1894 that led to their downfall.  According to the San Antonio Sunday Light, on July 6, 1894, one Elsie Deldon claimed her daughter had been injured on the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad by stepping on a banana peel just after the train arrived in Boston.  “Now it just happened that Dr. R. P. Hubbard, who had called upon Jennie and Fannie Freeman for the West End Street Railway Company, was also examining physician for the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad,” the newspaper report read.  When Doctor Hubbard came to examine Elsie Deldon’s daughter, she was lying in bed, weeping. He immediately recognized the injured woman as Jennie Freeman. Jennie claimed to be suffering with the same symptoms she had on the previous visit he had made.

“The woman who let me into the house had been introduced to me in the past as Fannie,” he later recalled for the paper.  “But this time she said her name was Elsie. They both appeared not to recognize me and I played the same game with them.  Jennie, or as Elsie referred to her Bella, complained she was paralyzed; she claimed to have never had any previous accidents, had never been confined to her bed since childhood; had never had a doctor call on her in her life; and her mother corroborated her statement.  The mother pulled me aside and pleaded with me to heal her daughter. I told her I didn’t think Elsie was seriously injured but that they needed to go to the Providence depot the following day to settle things up.”  

 Doctor Hubbard was waiting for Fannie when she arrived at the depot the next morning.  He told her that he knew who she was and offered her a piece of advice. He suggested that she and her daughter not try to steal from the rail lines in the Boston area again.  The doctor told her he had notified every large corporation in the city about their actions and promised he would have them arrested if they came back.   

Evidently the Freemans took the hint because they were back in Chicago in September where Jennie attempted, without success, to make the West Chicago Street Railway pay for another paralysis comedy.  That was on September 10, 1894. The very next day her mother had her arm wrenched by a Chicago City Railway car and received one hundred dollars for it. The Freemans’ personal injury ambitions ended three months later. 

The claim agent of the Cincinnati Railway was sitting in his office on December 24, 1894, when Fannie entered and informed him that her daughter was injured while riding on one of the trains.  She said it had left the station at 4:50 p.m. on December 10, 1894, and that a sudden start of the train had caused Jennie to fall, striking her back against a seat. As a result, she had become paralyzed and ruined for life.  

According to the News Palladium, the claim agent had never heard of the Freemans before this, but in the course of the investigations he found several incongruities in the mother’s statement which made him suspicious.  For instance, no single trip tickets had been punched by the conductor on duty, and the crew were positive that no sudden start had been made or was possible at the scene of the accident. Fannie insisted the accident did happen and that she and her daughter had saved themselves from falling by catching hold of the straps hanging in the cars.  Fannie told the claim agent the trouble she had gone through and her daughter’s future invalidism was worth two thousand dollars.  

The Cincinnati Railway hired a private detective to look into the Freemans’ claims.  Detective Eugene Lawson, from Cleveland, took the case. He lost no time ingratiating himself with the Freeman ladies.  Using the name “Mr. Seymour” he began to visit the Freemans often and became friends with Jennie. She was confined to her bed and claiming to be paralyzed.  Lawson found that the family consisted of the mother, Jennie, five children under the age of ten, a father and son then in Boston and New York.   

In spite of how friendly he had become with Jennie; he could not penetrate the armor of invalidism with which she had surrounded herself.  He was not deterred, however, but went to work on another angle.  

Lawson rented the apartment directly above the Freemans and moved in an employee of the rail line and his wife.  Soon after the arrival, under the pretense that a rat had died in the flooring, a hole was cut in the back parlor directly above the spot where Jennie’s bed was located.  The necessary dead rat dropped into the room below, and the rail line employee ran down apologizing for the mishap. He promised to have the hole repaired immediately; it was patched up, but an inconspicuous opening was left so that a person could see through the hole if they were lying on the floor.  So, there might be no possibility of error, many people associated with the case were allowed to look through the hole in the floor.  

One Sunday in mid-January 1895, Detective Lawson and another employee with the rail company witnessed something critical to the case.  According to the San Antonio Light, “Fannie Freeman was sitting in a high-back dining chair at the foot of the bed.  One of her daughters was sitting in a chair directly in front of a stove and the other children were playing on the floor.  Fannie, addressing Jennie lying in the bed, asked her what she had done with the shoes belonging to one of the children. Jennie told her that she had put them in the other room.  She then asked Fannie to hand her the paper which was lying on the back of the bed. Fannie picked up the paper and handed it to her. Jennie then placed both her feet on the headboard of the bed and began reading the paper.  

“At one o’clock in the afternoon, forty-five minutes before the doctor for the rail line was to arrive and examine Jennie, Fannie sat down at a piano and started to play at tune.  Jennie got up and danced with her siblings. After five or ten minutes, Fannie left the room and reappeared carrying a large basin of ice water, into which she plunged Jennie’s feet. Jennie kept her feet there almost until the very moment the physician arrived.  She occasionally swore at the extreme coldness of the water, but her mother cheered her on and helped her to dry her feet quickly so she could become properly rigid for the doctor’s inspection. When the doctor arrived, he was escorted into the home and he went about examining Jennie’s feet and calves.  No amount of prodding could make her limbs move.”    

Several hours after Lawson secretly witnessed the events at the Freemans’ home, the police arrested the conspirators.  Jennie and Fannie were tried, found guilty and each sentenced to a year in prison.


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