Winona Winkler Wendth
Worcester, Massachusetts, United States (Spring 2014)
|Joanna Southcott Drawn from Life by Wm. Sharp
Devonshire characters and strange events, Baring-Gould, S (1908), United States Public Domain
On December 31, 1814, at 38 Manchester Street in the Paddington section of London, Joanna Southcott lay four days dead. Her body, at one time plump and motherly, was grey, past lividity and rigor mortis, her back and legs already dark, appearing bruised. She hadn’t taken a breath since two days after Christmas, but was kept warm in a flannel blanket wrapped around her chamber clothes. The body had been under the watch of her amanuensis, Ann Underwood, as well as a nurse, several medical witnesses and committed followers, including Dr. Richard Reece, who was about to perform an autopsy.1
Reece took out a scalpel and sliced into Southcott’s abdomen, pushing through four inches of body fat on his way to her uterus: He was looking for Shiloh.
Engravings of Southcott show her as a happy, round woman with a pointy nose. One made by follower William Sharp represents her holding forward a large, fat volume that could just as easily have been an apple pie. A contemporary describes her as “ . . . a kindly, motherly creature, simple, amiable, and unaffected.”2 Another engraving, probably the best recognized, shows Southcott with a wry smile, her eyes looking at an audience off to her left. Her hair curls out from under a bonnet, a lacy collar covers all but her last two chins. She does not look like a prophet; she looks like a woman who enjoys apple pie.
Reece continued to slice, and a Dr. Mathias witnessed. The body was putrid, he said. Internal organs had begun to decompose, bacteria had escaped into the gut, gasses collected and bloated the body. The incision released hydrogen sulfide, cadaverine, and putrescine—the odor of rotten eggs and rancid butter. Attendants could hear it escape. Had the body not been indoors, wrapped from flies, maggots would have already joined the break-down forces; they would come, in time.
The woman had been sick for several months. In April, she had announced she was pregnant. She added that she was a virgin and reminded a growing number of followers that she was sixty-four. She allowed cursory examinations of her body, and Dr. Reece noted swollen breasts and an expanding abdomen, but her delivery due date in October came and went. In November, she reported intense abdominal pain, assumed to be labor. By Christmas, she was bed-ridden and had lost her grandmotherly pie-baking appearance. Two days later, she was dead and wrapped in flannel.
Southcott’s body was the site of theological contest: Her following grew staunch, convinced that only a woman’s body could bring forth an instrument of peace; her detractors argued that a woman’s body was fundamentally evil. The woman had written that Satan, not Eve, had been responsible for The Fall: it was the snake—the worm—not the apple, that brought death. This was an unattractive theology. Now, Joanna Southcott, the self-proclaimed “Woman Clothed in Sun” predicted in the Book of Revelation, was about to be irredeemably subject to worms. Shiloh, the Prince of Peace to be born of a virgin at Christmastime in 1814 and prophesied to defeat the Anti-Christ Napoleon, was still unborn. Southcott had instructed her physician to open her body and remove him after four days should she die in labor undelivered of the child. Cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson represented her as a lunatic.
Dr. Reece sliced farther toward her womb, prepared to remove the foetus. But as the gasses from putrefaction filled the room, surely, he became skeptical. Had this been a delusional pregnancy?
Southcott’s prophetic career had begun in 1792, the year Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She claimed an earthly new order through an immaculate pregnancy; Wollstonecraft claimed an enlightened society through liberated females. Southcott’s model was the Biblical Mary; Wollstonecraft’s, a vindicated woman freed from the bonds of motherhood. Only a year after virgin Southcott’s death, Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, began piecing together her own notion of a new Adam, hers born of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein’s scientific labors. Like the first Adam, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature rose and took a breath. Like Adam, he left home, disappointed and burdened with self-awareness. Shelley’s “New Man” promised neither a new Eden nor an everlasting peace. Shelley’s new man was the product of science, not theology.
Reece finally got to the dead woman’s non-gravid womb: nothing. He testified that her uterus was the size of a pear.3 Dr. Mathias speculated that what Southcott’s nurse had mistaken as foetal movement on the day before Christmas had been extraordinary intestinal gas. On January 1, 1815, Joanna Southcott’s empty fruit-sized uterus, along with the rest of her body, was returned to the earth.
- James K. Hopkins, A Woman to Deliver Her People : Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution, 1st ed., The Dan Danciger Publication Series (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).
- “Joanna Southcott: Visionary Founder of the Southcottians,” The History center for Twickenham, Whitton, Teddington and the Hamptons, Retrieved from http://www.twickenham-museum.org.uk/detail.asp?ContentID=202.
- Frances Brown, Joanna Southcott : The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2002).
WINONA WINKLER WENDTH, MFA, teaches humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College and provides workshops, seminars, and tutorials for professional and academic writing projects. She has also taught history and philosophy of health care at Kettering College and currently mentors medical students and allied health students in writing projects related to their work. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various literary journals and general interest publications, including Hektoen International and The Yale Journal of Medical Humanities. She holds an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars.