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Joanna Southcott

Joanna Southcott

The life of this impostor or self-deluded woman is not pleasant to write or to read, and it is only because in such a collection including Devonshire oddities and unworthies she could not be excluded that her story is here given.

Joanna was a native of Gittisham, the daughter of William and Hannah Southcott, respectable people, the father a very small farmer. She was baptized at Ottery St. Mary, on 6 June, 1750. There was nothing remarkable in her during the first forty years of her life. She was in domestic service, and then moved to Exeter, where she entered the household of an upholsterer, in 1790.

What turned her head was the visit of a revivalist Methodist preacher, who, combining the most fiery evangelic preaching with laxity of morals, lived in adultery with her mistress, and endeavoured to seduce the daughter. But his ministrations in the pulpit were acceptable. He shrieked and threatened till sometimes the whole congregation fell flat and rigid on the floor, when he would walk in and out among them and revive them by assuring them they had received pardon for all their sins, were elect vessels, and that their election was sealed in heaven. He would declare that there never was a man so highly favoured of God as himself, and that he would not thank God to make him other than what he was, unless he made him greater than every other man on earth, and placed supreme power in his hands; and he boasted, when he heard of the death of a man who had derided his mission, that he had prayed this man to death.

Joanna Southcott

Isaiah Ch. LXV & LXVI., Joanna Southcott. Jan y  1812

Published by Jane Townley London.

Drawn and Engraved from life by W m  Sharp.

Published according to Act of Parliament Jan y  12 th  1812 by Jane Townley London.

All the servants in the house were afraid of this preacher; but Joanna affirmed that he had no power over her, and that she was wont to think that the room was full of spirits when he was engaged in prayer. But though she fancied this man had no power over her, he certainly had, and turned her into a fanatic, intoxicating her with his own spiritual pride.

When first she went to Exeter, she attended the services in the cathedral, but she left the Church and joined the Wesleyans in 1791, as she affirmed, by Divine command, for she was already beginning to see visions. The ministers of the sect frequented her master's shop, and took a good deal of notice of Joanna, and this encouraged her to launch forth in the course she afterwards pursued. In 1792 she stated that she had had a vision of the Lord, and a meeting of Methodist preachers was summoned to discuss her spiritual condition. It concluded by their signing a paper to the effect that her calling was of God.

One of the Methodist preachers in Exeter was named Pomeroy, and he at first more than half believed in her mission. She gave him a number of sealed packets, which she told him contained her prophecies, and desired him to keep them till a time she mentioned, when they were to be opened and would prove the truth of her claim to inspiration.

The minister received the precious papers; but afterwards, when Joanna publicly announced that he was a believer and a recipient of her prophecies, he got frightened, and committed the unopened predictions to the flames. “From that time,” says Southey, “all the Joannians, who are now a considerable number, regard him as the arch-apostate. He is the Jehoiakim, who burnt Jeremiah's roll; he is their Judas Iscariot, a second Lucifer. They call upon him to produce those prophecies, which she boldly asserts, and they implicitly believe, have all been fulfilled, and therefore would convince the world of the truth of her mission. In vain does Mr. Pomeroy answer that he has burnt these unhappy papers: in an unhappy hour for himself did he burn them! Day after day long letters are dispatched to him, sometimes from Joanna herself, sometimes from her brother, sometimes from one of her four-and-twenty elders, filled with exhortation, invective, texts of Scripture, and denunciations of the law in this world and the devil in the next; and these letters the prophetess prints, for the very sufficient reason—that all her believers purchase them. Mr. Pomeroy sometimes treats them with contempt; at other times he appeals to their compassion, and beseeches them, if they have any bowels of Christian charity, to have compassion on him and let him rest.”

Meanwhile, the falling away of this believer was abundantly compensated to Joanna by the accession of other adherents, both lay and clerical. Among the persons of superior station in the world who became ardent disciples was the Rev. T. P. Foley, incumbent of Old Swinford, in Leicestershire, who should have written his name Folly, not Foley.

In 1792 she had a serious illness, and went to Plymtree to recruit. When she was recovered she set to work again with renewed vigour. She pretended to have found, whilst sweeping the house, a die with J.S. on it between two stars, and this she used henceforth for sealing her prophecies and her passports to heaven.

But she had other disappointments, beside the defection of Mr. Pomeroy. One of his elders, Elias Carpenter, of Bermondsey, after going a certain way with her, fell off. This, however, was later. He was followed by six others. Thereupon she wrote and printed five letters of denunciation and woe to the back-sliders.

By the sale of her sealed passports to heaven Joanna obtained a very respectable revenue, and from being a poor working drudge she blossomed out into a woman of substance. Her followers in Exeter were recognized by the peculiarity of their dress, somewhat in the fashion of that of the Quakers, the men being particularly distinguished by wearing a long beard at a time when beards were not generally adopted.

In 1798 she moved to Bristol, and in 1801 began to publish books of prophecies and warnings, which were eagerly purchased by her followers. In 1802 she moved to London, where she was patronized by Sharp, the engraver, and had other influential friends, Brothers, the fanatic, who had proclaimed himself the promised Messiah, and a certain Miss Cott, whom he admitted to be the daughter of King David and the future Queen of the Hebrews. But Richard Brothers was sent to Bridewell, and those who had believed in him, amongst others an M.P., Mr. Halhead, member for Lymington, were drifting about in quest of some new delusion. Joanna suited them to a nicety, and they rallied about her.

The books which she sent forth into the world were written partly in prose, partly in rhyme, all the prose and most of the rhyme being given forth as the direct words of the Almighty. It is not possible to conceive that any persons could have been deluded by such rambling nonsense, did one not know that human folly is like the Well of Zemzem that is inexhaustible. Joanna's handwriting was illegibly bad; so that at last she found it advisable to pretend that she had received orders from heaven to discard the pen, and deliver her oracles verbally, and the words flowed from her faster than the scribes could write them down. Her prophecies were words, and words only, a rhapsody of texts and vulgar applications; the verse the vilest doggerel ever written, and the rhyme and grammar equally bad. She made a pretty penny, not only by the sale of her books, but also by her “Certificates for the Millennium,” and her “Sealings of the Faithful,” passports to paradise. Of these she sold between six and seven thousand, some at twelve shillings, but most at a guinea; and she continued the sale until a woman, Mary Bateman, a Leeds murderess, who had poisoned a Mrs. Perigo, and had attempted to poison Mr. Perigo, was hanged in 1809, and it was ascertained that this poisoner had been furnished by Joanna with one of her passports to paradise.

In 1813, she first announced that she was to become the mother of Shiloh, that she was the Woman spoken of in the Apocalypse as having the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; the twelve stars were twelve evangelists or apostles whom she sent abroad to declare her revelations. In herself, she asserted, the scheme of redemption would be completed, by woman came the fall of man, and by woman must come his restoration. She was the Bride, the promised seed who was to bruise the serpent's head. The evening-star was placed in the firmament to be her type. The immediate object of her call was to destroy the devil; of this Satan was fully aware; and that it might not be said he had foul play, a regular dispute of seven days was agreed upon between him and Joanna, in which she was to be alone; the conditions were that if she held out her argument for seven days, Satan should retire from troubling the earth, but if she yielded, then his kingdom was to stand. Accordingly, she went alone into a solitary house for this contest. Joanna on this occasion was her own secretary, and the procès verbal  of the conference was printed from her manuscript. She set down all Satan's blasphemies with the utmost frankness, and the proficiency he displayed in vulgar language and Billingsgate abuse is surprising.

Of all Joanna's books this is the most curious. The conference terminated like most theological disputes. Both parties grew warm; but Joanna's tongue was more lightly slung on its pivots, and she talked Satan out of all patience. She gave him, as he complained, ten words to his one, and allowed him no time to speak. All men, he said, were already tired of her tongue, and now she had tired the devil.

This was not unreasonable; but he proceeded to abuse the whole sex, which would be ungracious in any one, but in him was peculiarly ungrateful. He said that no man could tame a woman's tongue; it were better to dispute with a thousand men than with one woman.

Once she declared that she had scratched the devil's face with her nails, and had even bitten off one of his fingers, and that his blood tasted sweet.

When she announced to the world her pregnancy, her followers were filled with breathless expectation. Presents came pouring in for the coming Shiloh. One wealthy proselyte sent a cradle that cost £200, manufactured by Seddons, a cabinet-maker of repute in Aldersgate Street; another sent a pap-spoon that cost £100; and that nothing might be lacking at this accouchement laced caps, infant's napkins, bibs, mantles, some of white satin, pap-boats, caudle-cups arrived. A Bible also, richly bound, was not forgotten as a present to the coming Messiah. The cradle is now in Salford Museum.

But what was most extraordinary of all is that a regular London physician, a Dr. Richard Reece, having on the 7th of August, 1814, visited Joanna, “to ascertain the probability of her being in a state of pregnancy, as then given out,” declared his opinion to be that she was perfectly right in the view she had taken of her situation, and according to his own admission in a four-shilling pamphlet, entitled A Correct Statement of the Circumstances, etc., which he published, declared his belief in the fact. No wonder that after this the Rev. Mr. Foley, who had headed a deputation that waited on the doctor to obtain an authentic declaration of the conclusion to which he had come after his first visit, and the whole body of the believers were frantic with exultation and confidence; and that even a portion of the hitherto incredulous public began to have misgivings, and not to know very well what to think of the matter.

When Dr. Reece first saw the prophetess she expected to lie-in in a few weeks; months however passed without bringing the looked-for event. Further, to strengthen the delusion, it was unblushingly asserted that a number of medical men of the highest reputation had been called in, and that they had expressed their opinion affirmatively as to her pregnancy.

Dr. Sims, however, published a statement to this effect in the Morning Chronicle  of September 3, 1814: “I went to see her on August 18th, and after examining her, I do not hesitate to declare, it is my firm opinion, that the woman called Joanna Southcott is not pregnant; and, before I conclude this statement, I feel it right to say, that I am convinced the poor woman labours under strong mental delusion.”

A Mr. Want, also, a surgeon, who was called in by Dr. Reece, unhesitatingly declared his opinion that she was not in the family way, as also that there were no hopes of her recovery.

Before her death, which took place on the 27th of December, she had been confined to her bed for above ten weeks. During this time she had lived in a state of mental exaltation, but towards the end her courage failed. A scene in the chamber of the dying woman, which Dr. Reece relates that he witnessed on the 19th of November, is not without pathos.

Five or six of the believers, who had been waiting, having been admitted, “She desired them to be seated round her bed; when, spending a few minutes in adjusting the bed-clothes with seeming attention, and placing before her a white handkerchief, she thus addressed them, as nearly as I can recollect, in the following words: ‘My friends, some of you have known me nearly twenty-five years, and all of you not less than twenty. When you have heard me speak of my prophecies, you have sometimes heard me say that I doubted my inspiration. But, at the same time, you would never let me despair. When I have been alone it has often appeared delusion; but when the communications were made to me I did not in the least doubt. Feeling, as I now do feel, that my dissolution is drawing near, and that a day or two may terminate my life, it all appears a delusion.' She was by this exertion quite exhausted, and wept bitterly.” She then, the doctor proceeds to inform us, after some further discourse about her death and funeral, wept again, and some of those present also shed tears; but after a little while, one of them, Mr. Howe, spoke up, and said: “Mother, your feelings are human. We know you are a favoured woman of God, and that you will produce the promised child, and whatever you may say to the contrary will not diminish our faith.”

This assurance, we are told, revived her, and from crying she fell to laughing. She however then made her will.

Immediately on her decease, Dr. Reece wrote to the editor of the Sunday Monitor , which had lent itself to become an organ of the Joannites:—

“Agreeably to your request, I send a messenger to acquaint you, that Joanna Southcott died this morning precisely at 4 a.m. The believers in her mission, supposing that the vital functions are only suspended for a few days, will not permit me to open the body until some symptom appears, which may destroy all hopes of resuscitation.”

In fact, in 1792, Joanna had published a prophecy to the effect that she, the mother of Shiloh, previous to his birth would be as dead for four days, and at the end of that period would revive and be delivered. No sooner was she dead than her friends proceeded to wrap her body in warm blankets, to place bottles of hot water at her feet, and by keeping the room warm, to endeavour to preserve the vital spark.

Manchester Street was thronged by a crowd watching the house, and inquiries respecting her resuscitation were constant and anxious. To all inquiries the answer given was consolatory. On Saturday the crowd again assembled early, before 4 a.m., and the most zealous pronounced their positive conviction that she would come to life again that day.

But the prescribed period of four days and nights elapsed, and so far was the body from exhibiting appearances of a temporary suspension of animation, that it began to display a discoloration which at once brought home to conviction the fact that the wretched Joanna was but mortal. Preparations were made to dissect her remains. A summons was issued to the surgeons who had expressed a wish to be present, and at 2 p.m. fifteen gentlemen assembled; in addition were the apostle Tozer, Colonel Harwood, and one or two other of Joanna's followers and proselytes. Ann Underwood was in the ante-room, much chagrined at the disappointment of her hopes, and the breakdown of her convictions.

The examination of the body showed that Joanna Southcott had been suffering from dropsy, which had killed her.

The adherents of the prophetess, who had awaited the event, skulked off in great tribulation, and were happy to escape the populace, who were outrageous towards any whom they suspected of adhering to the sect of Joanna. This excusable indignation had nearly proved fatal in the morning to an old lady who had rapped at the door of the house, to make inquiries as to whether Joanna was already resuscitated. No sooner was she suspected to be a disciple, than she was assailed with mud and cabbage stalks.

Some glimmerings of sanity had lightened the mind of Joanna previous to her death, and she had indited a will, in which she professed that she had been a deceiver, prompted to play her part by the devil, and directing that after her death, cradle, caudle-cups, pap-boats, etc., that had been sent for the use of the coming Shiloh, should be returned to the donors. She was buried in Marylebone burying-ground on 2 January, 1815. On her stone was inscribed:—

In Memory of Joanna Southcott,
who departed this life December 27, 1814, aged 60 years.
While through all my wondrous days,
Heaven and earth enraptured gaze,
While vain sages think they know
Secrets thou  alone canst show,
Time alone will tell what hour
Thou'lt appear in greater power!

The composition evidently of one of her dupes, hoping on still. She was really aged sixty-four years. Her tombstone was shattered by the great gunpowder explosion in the Regent's Park Canal in 1874. The delusion was not at an end with the death and burial of Joanna. Sharp, the engraver, ever after maintained that she was not really dead, and would rise again and become the mother of Shiloh. When he was sitting to Haydon for his portrait, he predicted that Joanna would reappear in the month of July, 1822.

“But suppose she should not?” said Haydon.

“I tell you that she will,” retorted Sharp; “but if she should not, nothing would shake my faith in her divine mission.”

Those who were near Sharp during his last illness, state that in this belief he died.

Nor was he singular. Some of her one hundred thousand adherents fell away, but a great many remained, waiting in yearly expectation for her reappearance. The men bound themselves by a vow not to shave their beards till her resurrection. It need scarcely be said that they descended to their graves unshorn.

Under the date of January, 1817, the Annual Register  quotes the following notice of the proceedings of the sect from a Lincoln newspaper of the day: “An interdict arrived at Newark, on Sunday, the 19th instant, from a disciple of the Conclave at Leeds, inhibiting those of the faith, amongst other things, from attending to their ordinary business during the ensuing eight or nine days; and a manufacturer's shop at that place is at this time entirely deserted, and the business of many small dealers suspended in consequence.” This was due to the expectation of the resuscitation of Joanna.

Leeds was one of the strongholds of Joannism, and several of the founder's publications are dated from that place.

Two years after this, in January, 1817, the London disciples made a remarkable outbreak. One morning, having assembled somewhere in the West End of the metropolis, they made their way to Temple Bar, passing through which, they set forward in procession through the City, each decorated with a white cockade, and wearing a small star of yellow riband on the left breast. In this guise, led by one of their number, carrying a brazen trumpet ornamented with light blue ribands, while two boys marching by his side bore each a flag of silk, they proceeded along Fleet Street, up Ludgate Hill, and thence through St. Paul's Churchyard to Bridge Row, followed by the rabble in great force. Here, having reached what they considered to be the centre of the great city, they halted; and then their leader sounded his trumpet, and roared out that the Shiloh, the Prince of Peace, was come again to the earth; to which a woman who was with him, and who was said to be his wife, responded with another wild cry of “Woe! woe! to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the coming of Shiloh.” This terrific vociferation was repeated several times, and joined in by the rest of the party. But at last the mob, which now completely blocked up the street, from laughing and shouting proceeded to pelting the enthusiasts with mud and harder missiles. They struggled to make their escape, or to beat off their assailants; this led to a general fight; the flags were torn, and the affray ended in the trumpeter and his wife, five other men and the two boys of the party, after having been rolled in the mire, being rescued from the fury of the multitude by the constables, and conveyed to the Compter.

When they were brought up the next day before the alderman at Guildhall, they maintained that they were only obeying the commands of God in acting as they had done. Their spokesman, the trumpeter, who turned out to be one Sibley, a City watchman, who appeared to exercise great authority over the others, said that he had proclaimed the second coming of the Shiloh in the same manner and with the same authority as John the Baptist, who had announced the first coming; and his wife asserted that she had had the Shiloh in her arms four times. In the end they were all sent back to prison, to be detained till they could find security for their peaceful demeanour in future.

A remnant of the sect, the Jezreelites, lingered on for long at Chatham, remarkable for the general singularity of their manners and appearance.

The Joannites are now almost, if not wholly, extinct, leaving room for some newer outbreak of religious folly.

If we did not live at a period when such charlatans as Dr. Dowie and Mrs. Eddy have appeared, drawn about them crowds of adherents, and conjured tens of thousands of pounds out of their pockets, we should have supposed that such irruptions of religious mania, such eagerness to believe in a lie, such credulous clinging to an impostor, were a thing of the remote past. But the fools, like the poor, are always with us, and—

Still Dunce the Second reigns like Dunce the First.
Silver Pap-boat


From the original in the collection of A. M. Broadley, Esq.



Reproduced from the original print in the collection of A. M. Broadley. Esq.

The question presents itself to the mind whether Joanna was a conscious impostor, or whether she was self-deluded. With her dying confession and her will before us, it would seem that she knew that she was imposing on the credulity of men and women. She had seen a debauched and dissolute Methodist preacher in her master's house pose as an apostle and as inspired, and draw crowds and convince them that he was an oracle of God. She imitated him, and found that her imitation was successful, and also that it paid well. She was able to command thousands of pounds from her dupes, and it flattered her vanity to be appreciated as one half divine.

She had occasional qualms of conscience, but her devotees had more faith in her than she had in herself, and they overbore every feeble attempt to retrace her steps.

The authorities for her life are numerous.

Southey has given a full account of her in Letters from England by Dom M. A. Espriella . London, 1806.

A full account of the dissection of her body is given in Notes and Gleanings , VI, 15 December, 1891. Exeter, 1891.

A reproduction of one of her Passports to Heaven made out to Richard Hubbard, is in Devon Notes and Queries , Vol. II. Exeter, 1903.

Memoirs of the Life and Mission of Joanna Southcott , to which is added a sketch of the Rev. W. Tozer, M.J.S., with portrait. London, 1814.

Life of Joanna Southcott the Prophetess: her Astounding Writings, etc., with Caricature Portrait. London, 1814.

The Life of Joanna Southcott, the Prophetess, etc., with Portrait and View of the Crib for the Expected Messiah. London, 1814.

Fairburn's edition of the Prophetess . Portrait and Prints. London, 1814.

The Life and Prophecies of Joanna Southcott, from her Infancy to the Present Time, etc. Portrait. London.

The Life of Joanna Southcott, illustrative of her supposed Mission, etc. By D. Hughson, LL.D. Portrait. London, 1814.

Full Particulars of the Last Moments of the Pretended Prophetess, Joanna Southcott. London, 1815.

A Correct Statement of the Circumstances that attended the last illness and death of Mrs. Southcott. By Richard Reece, M.D. London, 1815.

A Complete Refutation of the Statements and Remarks. Published by Dr. Reece, relative of Mrs. Southcott. London, 1815.

The Case of Joanna Southcott, as far as it came under his professional observation, impartially stated. By P. Mathias, Surgeon and Apothecary. Portrait. London, 1815.

The Life and Death of Joanna Southcott, with the particulars of her will, and an account of her dissection. Woodcut. London (n.d.).

Memoirs of the Life and Mission of Joanna Southcott. Portrait. London, 1814.

There are other tracts, but these are the principal.

N OTE.—Mr. A. M. Broadly, of Bridport, kindly supplies the following note:—

Stourbridge, in the second decade of the nineteenth century, was a stronghold of the followers of Joanna Southcott. Amongst them was the Rev. T. P. Foley, a member of one of the leading county families of the district. In the spring of 1814 the coming of the Shiloh was announced, and a crib and a pap-bowl were among the presents which were made by the faithful. The pap-bowl was presented in June, and was engraved by Lowe of Birmingham. It has on it a portrait, cherubim in rays of light, the dove with the olive branch, and a crowned child leading a lion, with two repetitions of “Glory to God.” The reverse of the bowl contains, within two branches of laurel and oak, the following inscription: “A Token of Love to the Prince of Peace. From the Believers of Joanna Southcott's Divine Mission in Stourbridge and its vicinity.”