Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was born into a poor but devoutly Anglican farming family in Devon. Southcott left home around her 20th birthday. She spent the next 30 years working in and around Exeter as a farmworker, a housemaid, a lady’s maid and an upholstery seamstress.
Sometime around 1792, Southcott claimed to have experienced voices and visions. Some of these voices predicted events that later proved true. They also instructed Southcott to take up writing. In 1801, she spent her meagre life savings on self-publishing a book of her divine prophecies. It was picked up by a small but influential group of millenarian Christians and, within three years, Southcott had become a minor celebrity.
In February 1814 Southcott, by then 64 years old, never married and apparently still a virgin, shocked her followers by announcing that she was pregnant with the Second Messiah. She described her immaculate conception to a follower, George Turner:
“It is now four months since I felt the powerful visitation working upon my body… to my astonishment, I not only felt a power to shake my whole body, but I felt a sensation that is impossible for me to describe upon my womb… This alarmed me greatly, yet I kept it to myself.”
The news was greeted with comedic interest by the London press, which followed Southcott’s prophecies closely. She certainly developed some of the symptoms of pregnancy, growing “great in size”. But when no baby had appeared by the start of November – the 14th month of Southcott’s ‘pregnancy’ – the sceptics were in an uproar.
Southcott blamed the child’s non-appearance on her spinsterhood and recruited one of her followers as a token ‘Joseph’, marrying him on November 12th, but even this could not coax out the reluctant Messiah.
Southcott, by now very ill, disappeared from sight and died two days after Christmas. Followers kept her body for four days, believing that Southcott might rise again. Instead, they were greatly disappointed when her corpse started to putrefy and stink. An autopsy was conducted on Southcott’s body to find causes for the symptoms of pregnancy, including her greatly swollen belly. One attending doctor put this down to her abdomen, which was:
“…the largest I ever saw, being nearly four times the usual size, and appeared [to be] one lump of fat… this preternatural enlargement, the thickness of fat [and] the flatus of the intestines… satisfactorily accounts for the extraordinary size of the deceased.”