1814 The death of a prophetesss
When I was a young man, still in my teens, I visited London. The attractions included an English girl I had met back in Saskatoon, Carnaby Street, the British Museum, and London newspapers. I was dazzled by the journalism, high and low. One advertisement in a tabloid caught my eye — it demanded that the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s Box. It was implied that untold wisdom and cosmic secrets would be revealed and national calamities averted if they did. Who was Joanna Southcott? And what was in her box? Here is a near-contemporary account of the remarkable woman.
Joanna Southcott was born about the year 1750, of parents in very humble life. When about forty years old, she assumed the pretensions of a prophetess, and declared herself to be the woman mentioned in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. She asserted that, having received a divine appointment to be the mother of the Messiah, the visions revealed to St. John would speedily be fulfilled by her agency and that of the son, who was to be miraculously born of her. Although extremely illiterate, she scribbled much mystic and unintelligible nonsense as visions and prophecy, and for a time carried on a lucrative trade in the sale of seals, which were, under certain conditions, to secure the salvation of the purchasers. The imposture was strengthened by her becoming subject to a rather rare disorder, which gave her the appearance of pregnancy after she had passed her grand climacteric. The faith of her followers now rose to enthusiasm. They purchased, at a fashion-able upholsterer’s, a cradle of most expensive materials, and highly decorated, and made costly preparations to hail the birth of the miraculous babe with joyous acclamation.
The delusion spread rapidly and extensively, especially in the vicinity of London, and the number of converts is said to have amounted to upwards of one hundred thousand. Most of them were of the humbler order, and remarkable for their ignorance and credulity; but a few were of the more educated classes, among whom were two or three clergymen. One of the clergymen, on being reproved by his diocesan, offered to resign his living if ‘the holy Johanna,’ as he styled her, failed to appear on a certain day with the expected Messiah in her arms. About the close of 1814, however, the prophetess herself began to have misgivings, and in one of her lucid intervals, she declared that ‘if she had been deceived, she had herself been the sport of some spirit either good or evil.’
On the 27th of December in that year, death put an end to her expectations—but not to those of her disciples. They would not believe that she was really dead. Her body was kept unburied till the most active signs of decomposition appeared; it was also subjected to a post-mortem examination, and the cause of her peculiar appearance fully accounted for on medical principles. Still, numbers of her followers refused to believe she was dead; others flattered themselves that she would speedily rise again, and bound themselves by a vow not to shave their beards till her resurrection.
It is scarcely necessary to state, that most of them have passed to their graves unshorn. A few are still living, and within the last few years several families of her disciples were residing together near Chatham, in Kent, remarkable for the length of their beards, and the general singularity of their manners and appearance. Joanna Southcott was interred, under a fictitious name, in the burial-ground attached to the chapel in St. John’s Wood, London. A stone has since been erected to her memory, which, after reciting her age and other usual particulars, concludes with some lines, evidently the composition of a still unshaken believer, the fervor of whose faith far exceeds his inspiration as a poet.
In the twentieth century the sealed box she had left behind was, indeed, opened. She had specified that it was to be examined only in a time of national crisis and in the presence of 24 bishops of the Church of England. In 1927 one bishop was found who agreed to be present at the opening — it contained only a few odd papers, a lottery ticket, and a horse pistol. True believers insisted that this was not the genuine casket and that the Panacea Society continues to hold it in a secret location until a conclave of 24 bishops is assembled.