Friday, August 12, 2011

Joanna Southcott -- Faithful or Fanatic?

The Regency era had its fair share of fanatics and eccentrics, but few of their names have resonated through the past two hundred years to the present day. Joanna Southcott (her name is variously spelled Johanna, her last name Southcote) is one of the few.

In our world, she has a Facebook page, her name is associated with a South Park episode (Royal Pudding), and she was referred to in a Monty Python sketch (The Epsom Furniture Race). In the Regency era, she was viewed with equal parts of faith and of dismay.

Joanna Southcott was born in Devon in 1750 to a farming family. She spent part of her early years as a domestic, but in about 1792 she was taken with the belief that she was possessed of the gift of prophesy. In fact, she believed she was the woman mentioned in the Book of Revelations in the Holy Bible. She spent the following years writing her prophesies and collecting over 100,000 followers who paid anywhere from several shillings to a guinea to be 'sealed'; that is, to receive a square of paper folded and wax-sealed with a seal she had found bearing the initials 'I.C.'. She believed these initials stood for Jesus Christ.

She produced some sixty publications in her life, many of them pamphlets, or tracts. Some of her writings were in verse, some letters to followers. Their nature can be seen from this excerpt:
"I warned the Parliament; and they refused the warning, and the sword of war followed; but now is come the second warning, from the woman's hand to the shepherds."
Two things ensured her lasting notice by history. One was 'Joanna Southcott's Box' -- a sealed box containing her prophecies and valuable papers. The box was supposed to be opened in the presence of twenty-four bishops, but it was never possible to gain the agreement and attendance of said bishops. One box, claimed to be the original "Ark of the Testament", was opened in 1927 and found to contain nothing of value. The Panacea Society, the last remnants of Joanna Southcott's followers, claims to have the original box in safe keeping still.

Southcott's other claim to lasting fame came about when she believed herself to be pregnant with the new Messiah at age 64. Her followers greeted this revelation with rapture, and the 'pregnancy' was met by a flood of preparations and gifts for the coming of the Shiloh of the Book of Genesis. Chief among these was the 'cot' of cradle of satinwood and gilt, costing reportedly 200 pounds.

The Literary Panorama of February 1815 printed an article about Southcott headed with the following:
"It would be criminal in us to omit the story, and much more, to insert it without deriving from it an occasion of caution against the first deviation from rectitude, truth, and duty."

The Panorama published a full account of her death, passed judgment on her life, and printed a list of "Specimens of presents lately made to Mrs. Southcott". The following is a selection:

- A superb Manger, fitted up as a Child's Crib, decorated with infinite taste, and made of the most costly materials, by Seddone and Co. with its draperies, hangings, etc. cost 300 pounds.

- A costly Mohair Mantle, a purple Robe, divers rich Frocks, Bibs, Caps, etc.

- A magnificent gold Caudle Cup, ditto Pap Boat, and spoons, with a complete set of matchless China Caudle Cups, etc.

- Many dozens of rich Wines.

- A matchless Child's Coral, with golden bells.

- Fourteen brilliant Diamond and other Rings, some with curious devices and pious mottos.

To her credit, in the last days of her life in December 1814, Southcott instructed that all these gifts be returned to their donors. The 'cot' remains in the possession of the Panacea Society.

Joanna Southcott expected the birth of her divine child in July 1815. By September it became obvious that something was wrong. Joanna began to believe that "Now it all appears delusion". In fact she wondered if Satan had misled her for many years. She died on December 27 and was observed for four days, as per her instructions, in case she was merely in a trance, or should rise from the dead. When it was clear that she no longer lived, a dissection was done and dropsy declared the cause of death. Since then, people variously have claimed the cause of death to be brain disease, cancer, or possibly cystic growth of the kind seen in 'hysterical' pregnancy.

Whatever the truth of her life and death, Joanna Southcott has resonated through the past two hundred years. There have been several books written about her, there are many websites devoted to her, and her own writings are available from Google Books. A simple Google search will bring a multitude of results.

The Regency era--as always, full of surprises!

'Til next time,



Vic said...

Joanna is one reason why I find the Regency era so rich with details that are surprising and that herald the stiffness of the Victorian era in reaction to their loose and free ancestors.

Thank you for this interesting post. This topic is absolutely new for me.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I'd never heard of this lady until I came across the article in The Literary Panorama. I'm glad you enjoyed discovering her also! Thanks for dropping in, Vic!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this informative post, particularly as I was only just reading the letters of Lord Byron in which he makes mention of her!

"I long to know what she will produce - her being with child at 65 is indeed a miracle - but her getting any one to beget it - a greater.."

Byron to John Murray
September 2 1814

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I love Byron's comment! He's always so wonderfully snarky. Thanks for sharing this great connection to Southcott...