Monday, 15 July 2013

The fasting woman of Tutbury

In 1808 Robert Taylor, a surgeon living in Tutbury, Staffordshire, made an astonishing claim: that local woman Ann Moore had survived without food or water for 13 days. The report he published appeared to vindicate Ann’s claims that she had passed years with no nourishment. Her fame as the ‘fasting woman of Tutbury’ was assured, and became one of the cause célèbres of the age.

But was it for real?

Ann’s story starts at Rosliston in the south of Derbyshire, where she was born Ann Peg in 1761. Her parents were poor and Ann went into service at a young age. At 27 she married James Moore, a labourer. But James left her, and she and her children (reputedly fathered by the master of the house) eventually made their way to Tutbury.

Perhaps because in her poverty she did actually manage to survive on very little food, once at Tutbury Ann began to make her claims that she could survive without any food. Although most were sceptical, some in the village were prepared to swear they had never seen her eat or drink. Talk grew, and Ann agreed to be placed under surveillance to prove her case. So, in September 1808 she was taken to the house of Tutbury’s grocer, Mr Jackson. The fast was supervised by Robert Taylor, with groups of villagers coming and going as they pleased, so Ann was never alone.

For three days Ann took a little water but for the next 13 she had nothing: hence Taylor’s report backing her contention. Taylor speculated that, with the window to her room always being open, she was somehow imbibing nourishment from the hydrogen in the air. With such ‘proof’ to support her, Ann’s fame spread across England and beyond; pamphlets were published about her and she was used by the prophesier Joanna Southcott to promote her cause.  

By now Ann was receiving hundreds of visitors – many of whom left a ‘little gift’ for her and her children.  It is estimated she had made £250 by 1809 and up to £500 thereafter.

Not everyone, however, was convinced. For a religious woman (a Bible always lay open on her bed and she assumed an air of piety, discussing religious matters with her visitors), Ann was subject to surprising outbursts of ‘such virulent language as would fully evince the absence of all religious principle in her’. Then there was her questionable morality – her illegitimate children and the fact she was living openly with a man while still technically married to James Moore. Her explanation for her strange gift was also inconsistent: first she claimed it was a result of her washing the cloths used to bind a boy’s ulcerous wounds; then she said it was due to ‘extreme want’; and then that it occurred gradually, that she took less and less food, then liquid only, and then nothing at all.

In April 1813, with Ann still claiming to have had no sustenance in all that time, a committee headed by Sir Oswald Mosley and including doctors, ministers and magistrates from the surrounding towns, decided that she should be placed under a second watch – and this time for a month. Ann was placed in a new bed with a weighing machine attached and the mattress was stripped and filled with chaff.

After seven days it was announced that she had taken no nourishment, and Ann looked set to prove the doubters wrong once more. But on the eighth day she appeared distressed and said she was too ill to continue. Her weight loss was noticeable and her pulse erratic. Worried she would die, Mosley halted the watch and called for Ann’s daughter, after which she started to recover. The results of the trial were published in a second report, this time by the Rev. Legh Richmond.

After the failed test Ann initially stuck to her story that she had taken no food or drink for the previous six years. However, she then made a full confession that: ‘I Ann Moore, of Tutbury, humbly asking the pardon of all persons whom I have attempted to deceive and impose upon, and above all with the most unfeigned sorrow and contrition, imploring the divine mercy and forgiveness of that God, whom I have greatly offended, do most solemnly declare, that I have occasionally taken sustenance for the last six years.’

Ann had to leave Tutbury to escape the wrath of her victims, and she is said to have died soon afterwards. Most believed that some food must have been smuggled into her in the first watch, either by her daughter or another collaborator amongst the villagers. However, it would seem that she could have received only minimal sustenance and she must truly have been able to survive on very little food.

We will never know whether Ann devised the entire scheme as a money-making scam, or whether it was just idle boasting around her village that grew completely beyond her control.
Engraving of Ann by Anthony Cardon, 1812

Frontispiece of second report

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