Wednesday, 10 September 2014

10th September 1814: Letters to the press about Joanna Southcott's 'pregnancy'

Both of these letters appeared in the Leeds Mercury of Saturday 10th September 1814, in a column entitled 'Extracted from the Courier':


TO THE EDITOR.—SIR,—Several persons having expressed a wish that I should visit Joanna Southcott, that they might be better satisfied what foundation there was for a report that she was pregnant, I consented to accompany one of her friends, a surgeon and accoucheur of experience, for that purpose, on the 18th of August. He informed me on my way thither, that the most satisfactory examination would not be permitted, but that it was not at all necessary, as no professional man could have any doubt of her situation, upon seeing the state of her breasts.

Their appearance gave no reason to doubt the truth of her statement, that she was in her 65th year, and that certain natural effects had ceased since she was 48; circumstances under which her pregnancy was naturally incredible, and were it real, might well enough have induced a belief that it was supernatural.

I endeavoured, however, not to prejudge the case, but to form and my opinion of her situation from the symptoms alone, as I should have done had she been only 45 years of age, and therefore within the period of probable pregnancy.

After a minute statement of particulars of his examination of the woman, the writer concludes thus:—

Considering all the above appearances, I did not hesitate to declare it to be my opinion, that Joanna Southcott was not pregnant, but I was told that I was the first medical man that had seen her, who was not perfectly satisfied of the contrary.

I believe that her uterine organs are diseased, and that the breasts, as is usual, sympathising with those parts, have an increased quantity of blood determined to them. Had I thought the external appearances such as ought to lead to a belief in her pregnancy, I should have urged the propriety of submitting to a more satisfactory examination; but feeding, as I did, a perfect conviction that she was not with child, it seemed to me unnecessary to insist upon any further enquiry.

Having observed in the newspapers, that assertions are repeatedly made, the eminent accoucheurs have declared this woman to be pregnant, I am desirous not to be reckoned of that number. Yet, before I conclude, I feel right to say that I am convinced that this poor woman is no imposter, but that she labours under a strong mental delusion.


Sept. 3, 1814.


SIR,—In a Morning Paper the 30th ult. a Medical Gentleman, the signature of J. C. H., states, that "he should not be doing his duty to those poor deluded people, who are in the belief of John Southcott, and the public at large, were he not, after having an opportunity of seeing her, to state the result of such a visit." He then complains "of an imposition that was tried to be practised on him; or rather a trap, in which he had like to have been caught." This trap, it seems, was a request made by Joanna Southcott, that in giving his opinion, he should consider her a married woman of 24 years of age, and divest his mind of all prejudice respecting her inspiration. Now, Sir, I should suppose that a Medical Man employed on such an occasion, would pay no attention whatever to the statement of a woman, who was represented in all the Journals to be an impostor: one would suppose that he would have attended to those symptoms only, the existence of which he had an opportunity to ascertain. Mr. J. C. H. who I understand is Mr. Hobday, of Ratcliffe Highway, was allowed to make the same examination as was afforded to the other Medical Gentlemen who attended her, on which he has thought proper to be silent. Joanna Southcott, I find, was examined by nine medical practitioners of some eminence in London, six of whom pronounced her to be pregnant, and the other three declined to give a decided opinion, principally on account of her age. [Here the writer enters into some particulars which it is not necessary for us to repeat. He concludes thus:]

As the medical men who have attended Joanna Southcott, has to be apprised of her labour when it takes place, I hope they will all attend. Indeed, so far from being her wish to have it conducted privately, I know that applications have been made to the Archbishop of Canterbury, to appoint a person to attend her accouchment, and to procure for her a suitable apartment, which his Grace has refused to do, under the idea that such a measure would tend to confirm her followers in the belief of her inspiration. The pregnancy of a woman in the 65th year of her age, is in modern times a novel occurrence, and deserves to be recorded. With respect to the operation of the law, I consider it worthy of notice, causes having been determined in the House of Lords against claimants born in foreign countries, on the presumption that their mothers were at the time of their birth, too far advanced in life to bear children, although one (Lady Jane Grey) was about ten years younger than Joanna Southcott. If then, in this point of view, the case of Joanna Southcott be interesting, it is of great consequence that its authenticity should not be called in question at any future period. For the purpose of avoiding deception, and any ground for suspicion or misrepresentation, might not he Lord Chancellor with great propriety, take her under his protection, place her in decent apartments, and appoint accoucheurs of experience and respectability to attend her? Such an interference could not possibly be considered by her followers as in any degree countenancing the marvellous part of the business. Of this plan, I understand her followers, and I think I may say the public in general, would approve.

I am Sir, your obedient servant,


171, Picadilly, Sept. 2, 1814.

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