Southcott, Joanna (DNB00)

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SOUTHCOTT, JOANNA (1750–1814), fanatic, daughter of William Southcott (d. 12 Jan. 1802), by his second wife Hannah, was born at Gittisham, Devonshire, in April 1750, and baptised on 6 June 1750 at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. Her father was a small farmer, and as a girl she did dairy work. Her first love affair was with Noah Bishop, a farmer's son at Sidmouth, where her brother Joseph lived. After her mother's death, an event which confirmed her in strong religious impressions (her father thought her too religious), she went out to service, her first place being as shop-girl at Honiton, where she rejected several suitors. For a short time she was a domestic in the family of a country squire, but was dismissed because a footman, whose attentions she had spurned, affirmed that she was ‘growing mad;’ she claims that her removal had been divinely intimated to her. She next got employment at Exeter, living for many years in various families, as domestic and assistant in the upholstery business. Her character was blameless and her service faithful. She attended church, usually the cathedral, twice every Sunday, and was a communicant; she also regularly frequented Wesleyan services before and after church hours. Though pressed to join the methodist society, she did not do so till Christmas 1791, and then ‘by divine command.’

On Easter Monday 1792, having reached the mature age of forty-two, she made in class meeting a confused statement about having been providentially sent to Exeter. It was not well received. Her agitation of mind threw her into a fever. For change of air she went to stay with a married sister, Carter, at Plymtree, Devonshire; there, after ten days' experience of ‘the powers of darkness,’ she began to pen prophecies, in a mixture of rambling prose and doggerel rhyme. Her sister, a practical woman, told her she was ‘growing out of her senses,’ and scouted her forecast of dearth when the best wheat would not fetch 4s. 6d. a bushel. Joanna adopted the plan of sealing up her writings, to be opened when the predicted events had matured. She used a small oval seal which she had picked up in 1790 while sweeping a shop after a sale. It bore the initials ‘I C’ with a star above and below. Leaving her sealed packet at Plymtree, she returned to Exeter, broke with the methodists, and in 1793 (when her prophecies were coming true) began to pester local clergy, from the curate to the bishop, with letters, soliciting an examination of her claims, at the same time writing and sealing up fresh prophecies year by year. Pomeroy, a clergyman of Exeter, afterwards of Bodmin, Cornwall, gave her some countenance, which he afterwards withdrew. In 1798 she visited Bristol in search of sympathisers.

She gained little notice until, in January 1801, she issued her first publication, ‘The Strange Effects of Faith,’ printed by T. Brice of Exeter, and inviting ‘any twelve ministers’ to ‘try’ her claims. Brice's bill for the printing included the item ‘For correcting the spelling and grammar of the prophecies, 2s. 6d.’ Her first important convert was Colonel Basil Bruce (d. 26 Dec. 1801) of London, a votary of Richard Brothers [q. v.], who introduced her writings to his father, Stanhope Bruce, vicar of Inglesham, Wiltshire, to Thomas Philip Foley (1758–1835), rector of Old Swinford, Worcestershire, and to William Sharp (1749–1824) [q. v.], the engraver. These last three, with Thomas Webster (1780–1840), vicar of Oakington, Cambridgeshire, and three others, visited Exeter in January 1802, and, after a ‘trial’ of Joanna's writings at the Guildhall, became her constant adherents.

At Sharp's suggestion she removed to London in May 1802, settled at High House, Paddington, and began the practice of ‘sealing’ the faithful, who were to be one hundred and forty-four thousand, certificated for the millennium on half-sheets of paper, signed by Joanna, and backed with a red seal. She was falsely accused of selling these ‘seals,’ of which ten thousand had been applied for by the beginning of 1805. None were ‘sealed’ after 1808, for among the ‘sealed’ was Mary Bateman, hanged for murder at York early in 1809. A severe illness prostrated Joanna towards the end of 1802. On 12 Jan. 1803 a second ‘trial’ of her writings was conducted at High House by fifty-eight persons, including her three clerical adherents. On 28 Feb. she first met Henry Prescott of Bermondsey, a lad of eighteen, known as ‘Joseph’ Prescott, a marvellous dreamer from his ninth year. On 4 March she began to interpret Prescott's dreams. Elias Carpenter, a paper-maker, of Neckinger House, Bermondsey, set up a ‘chapel,’ on the walls of which the subjects of the dreams were depicted; but after a few years both Prescott and Carpenter fell away from Joanna. In the autumn of 1803 she made a journey to the north, staying two months with Foley at Old Swinford, and visiting Stockport, Leeds, and Stockton-on-Tees. The third and final ‘trial’ of her writings took place at Neckinger House from 5 to 11 Dec. 1804. In the spring of 1805 William Tozer, an Exeter dissenter, a lath-render by trade, opened a chapel for her followers in Duke Street, Webber Row, Southwark, using the Anglican prayer-book.

Popular rumour connected her with Brothers, whose writings seem to have been first made known to her by Basil Bruce in 1801. Except for a mild universalism, her own theology was orthodox, and at the end of 1802 she denounced some of Brothers's positions as ‘blasphemy,’ and drew away from him Sharp, George Turner of Leeds, and other disciples. On 17 and 18 July 1806 she defaced with red paint a thousand copies of Sharp's fine engraving of Brothers. Her own likeness was engraved by Sharp in January 1812. At Exeter she had designated herself ‘the Lamb's wife.’ In October 1802 she had described herself as ‘bringing forth to the world’ a spiritual man, ‘the second Christ.’ It would seem that the grosser interpretation of these figures was due, in the first instance, to the enthusiasm of her followers, overbearing her own expressed doubts, and fears of delusion. The announcement that she was to become the mother of Shiloh was first made in her ‘Third Book of Wonders’ (1813); it was said to have been revealed in 1794, but not then understood. On 11 Oct. 1813 she shut herself up from society, seeing only Jane Townley and Ann Underwood, who lived with her. Shiloh was to be born in the following year. She became ill on 17 March 1814, and on 1 Aug. Joseph Adams, M.D. [q. v.], was called in. Of nine medical men consulted on the case, six admitted that the symptoms would, in a younger woman, indicate approaching maternity. The excitement of Joanna's followers knew no bounds. In September a crib costing 200l. was made to order by Seddons of Aldersgate Street; 100l. was spent in pap-spoons; a bible was superbly bound as a birthday present. The ‘Morning Chronicle,’ which had inserted an advertisement for ‘a large furnished house’ for a public accouchement, announced next day that ‘a great personage’ had offered ‘the Temple of Peace in the Green Park.’ The London papers teemed with letters on the medical aspects of the case. On 19 Nov. Joanna told Dr. Richard Reece [q. v.] that she was ‘gradually dying,’ and signed a paper directing him to open her body four days after death. By her desire all the articles prepared for Shiloh were returned. She died at 38 Manchester Street, Manchester Square, on 27 Dec. 1814. For four days her body was kept warm, as she had desired. The autopsy conducted on 31 Dec. by Reece, in the presence of Adams, John Sims, M.D. [q. v.], and other medical men, revealed the cause of the ambiguous symptoms, assisted, so Reece thought, by deception, a judgment which seems needlessly harsh. There was no functional disorder or organic disease; probably ‘all the mischief lay’ in the brain, which was not examined, owing to the high state of putrefaction. She was interred with great privacy on 1 Jan. 1815 at St. John's Wood; the tombstone, with lines ending ‘Thou'lt appear in greater power,’ was shattered by the Regent's Park explosion (1874), a circumstance which revived the hopes of her return. From her followers have sprung two minor sects, led by John Ward (1781–1837) [q. v.] and John Wroe [q. v.]

Joanna's portrait has a cunning expression, but she struck unbelievers as a kindly, motherly creature, simple, amiable, and unaffected. Her writings (latterly dictated) are very numerous, and first editions are rare. A ‘General Index’ (to March 1805) deals with twenty-five publications, and there are at least as many more. The principal are (all 8vo): 1. ‘The Strange Effects of Faith,’ 1801 (six parts), with three ‘Continuations,’ 1802–30. 2. ‘The First Book of the Sealed Prophecies,’ and ‘The Second Book of Visions,’ 1803. 3. ‘Copies and Parts of Copies of Letters,’ and ‘Letters and Communications,’ 1804. 4. ‘The True Explanation of the Bible,’ 1804–10, seven parts. 5. ‘The Trial of Joanna Southcott,’ 1804. 6. ‘Answer to Five Charges,’ 1805. 7. ‘An Answer to … Smith,’ 1808. 8. ‘The Book of Wonders,’ 1813–14, five parts. Collected from her writings are two books of verse, ‘Song of Moses and the Lamb,’ 1804, 16mo, and ‘Hymns or Spiritual Songs,’ 1807, 24mo.

[Nearly all her writings yield biographical particulars, given without order or continuity; from them are derived the Life and Prophecies, 1814; Life, 1814; Memoirs, 1814, reprinted with appendix in Memoirs of Religious Imposters (sic), 1821, by M. Aikin, LL.D., i.e. Edward Pugh; Life and Death, 1815. See also Evans's Sketch, 1811, p. 272 (account by a believer, not mentioning Shiloh); Reece's Correct Statement of the Last Illness and Death of Mrs. Southcott, with the Appearances in Dissection, 1815; Mathias's Case of Joanna Southcott, 1815; Monthly Repository, 1809 p. 351, 1815 pp. 56 seq., 120, 381; Gent. Mag. 1800–14, passim; Evans's Sketch (Bransby), 1842, p. 285; extract from the baptismal register of Ottery St. Mary, per the Rev. M. Kelly. Use has been made of a collection of newspaper cuttings, 1814–15, bearing on her case.]

A. G.