Fannie Murray Bachman

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“Aunt May” and “Auntie Bachman”

By Natalie Kammerer

DCHS recently received a collection of materials that provides a rich glimpse into the lives of two female artists active in Omaha at the turn of the 20th century.

May Murray (some records spell her name “Mary”) and Fannie Murray Bachman were born in 1850 and 1856 respectively, the two youngest children of Dr. Henry Murray and Ellen Leffington Murray. Dr. Murray immigrated to the United States from Ireland and became the first practicing doctor in Johnson County, Iowa.

In 1874, Fannie married Levi Bachman, an ice dealer in Iowa City.[1] The story goes that May Murray was engaged to be married as well, but learned that her fiancé already had a wife living. She burned her wedding dress and never married. Luckily for us, one of the highlights of the collection is Fannie Bachman’s wedding dress, along with photographs of her wearing the dress on her wedding day.

Bodice and hem detail of Fannie Murray Bachman’s 1874 wedding gown, sewn by Janis Mason of Iowa City. A note reads: “was once light blue like the buttons but has faded.” Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Fannie in her wedding gown, April 1874. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

In 1891, May Murray moved to Omaha to take a post as art instructor at the Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (later known as the Nebraska School for the Deaf) at 3223 N 45th Street. For the first two years, she boarded at the school, which advertised itself as “free to all deaf mutes of school age in Nebraska.”[2] Fannie followed her to Omaha in 1893, and the sisters either purchased or rented a home on Sycamore St. (now Binney St.). There is no mention of Fannie’s husband Levi until later in the decade.

Fannie Murray Bachman, shortly after her arrival in Omaha. c. 1895. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

As soon as she arrived, Fannie Bachman started renting studio space at #619 in the Paxton Block downtown. She would keep her studio there until 1914, at which time her husband was also working out of the space. (He is listed in city directories in the 1910s as a “nurseryman,” but I was unable to find any connection with a greenhouse or nursery. I doubt #619 had good enough windows to keep a whole nursery running out of the studio…) She exhibited her work from the 1890s through the 1910s (both watercolors and painted china) with the Nebraska Ceramic Club[3] and in solo exhibitions, and received very favorable reviews.[4]

In 1899, May Murray was no longer with the Institute, but also had a studio at the Paxton Block, where she pursued watercolor painting. She continued to board with the Bachmans during this time. In 1900, the Omaha World-Herald announced that May had taken a position as the head of the art department for the Deaf and Dumb Institute in Olathe, Kansas.[5] She returned to Binney Street in 1902.

Sadly, there are no identified photographs of May Murray, and the vast majority of the artwork in the collection is signed by Fannie. Only one piece—a portrait of Fannie as a girl—was done by May.

Portrait of Fannie Murray, by May Murray. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Photo of the Art course at the Nebraska School for the Deaf, 1904. In this year, May is listed as a teacher in the directory, so this is perhaps her classroom. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Much of the information we have on the Murray sisters was given to us anecdotally by the donor, who never knew either sister. The sisters lived practically their entire time in Omaha at 4335 Binney Street, and were close friends of the Johnston family across the street at 4340 Binney St. Mabel Johnston, who knew the sisters as “Aunt May” and “Auntie Bachman,” was the donor’s own grandmother. When the sisters were aging and in poor health, she looked after them as if she were their daughter. Their closest relatives were in Michigan. Sometimes, they would say, “Take this,” and hand her a piece of silver, a doll, or a painted plate. Mabel kept everything they gave her, and these items were passed down through two generations of her own family. The treasures moved with the family from Omaha to California, back to Omaha, to Texas, North Carolina, then Texas again, and now have been brought back to Omaha.

Crazy quilt, hand-worked by one or both sisters. Notice that the white section with the strawberry, the red section with the daisies, and the somewhat creepy human baby/pea pod section at the bottom left are all painted directly onto the fabric. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

This painting, signed by Fannie and dated Nov. 11, 1928, would have been completed less than two weeks before her death. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] Iowa State Census, 1885.

[2] Omaha City Directory, 1892.

[3] “Ceramics In View: Annual Exhibition of the Nebraska Club Opens,” Omaha World-Herald. December 4, 1895. p. 8.

[4] “Announcements,” Omaha World-Herald. December 7, 1908. p. 6.

[5] “Art Notes,” Omaha World-Herald. January 21, 1900. p. 16.

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