|Joanna Southcott by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1908|
Today we commemorate the death of a very different sort of guest, a self-proclaimed prophet and the woman who reckoned herself to be mother to the forthcoming Messiah, Joanna Southcott was one of the more eccentric characters of the Georgian era.
Southcott was born as one of six children to Hannah and William Southcott, a Devon farmer. As a girl she was devoutly religious but through her teenage years began to enjoy the attention of various suitors, only returning to her pious ways after she made a deathbed promise to her mother to do so.
and when her mother lay on her deathbed, promised that she would never lose her faith. She went into service in Exeter for many years until, at the age of 42, she became convinced that she had psychic gifts. She constantly heard a voice that made predications for the future and approached a number of local Devon clergy in an effort to have the veracity of the prophecies tested, though all declined. However, she shared her prophecies with the public who attested that several came true, beginning Southcott's journey to massive popularity.
Giving up her job Southcott devoted herself instead to prophecies, convinced that she was referred to in Revelations as "a woman clothed with the sun [...]", who would have a vital part to play in the years to come. In her new capacity as prophet, she gave paid audiences and prophecies, amassing a following than ran into tens of thousands. She began to publish on the subject of prophecy and spiritual enlightenment at the turn of the century, finally driven to distraction by the refusal of the clergy to acknowledge or test her prophecies, she used her last money to publish a book on religion and prophecy.
The book came to the attention of engraver William Sharp and he, along with several prominent friends, invited her to come to London, where her popularity flourished. She supplemented this with tours of the country and tirelessly wrote pamphlets that circulated through England. However, she was not without her critics and attacks were made on her character and behaviour, though Southcott brushed these aside and enjoyed the redoubled adoration of her followers.
At the age of 64, Southcott declared that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and predicted that the child would be born on 19th October 1814. Fearful of giving birth outside of wedlock, she married friend John Smith, who was happy to serve as father to the unborn Shiloh. As her followers waited with baited breath the appointed day came and went without a birth, though it was declared that Southcott had fallen into a trance.
Two months later, Southcott died. Convinced that she would rise from the dead her followers kept her body for several days until it began to putrefy. Following her death, the thousands of Southcottians who hung on her teaching began to drift away from the movement. She left a sealed box of prophecies that was opened in more recent years and found to contain nothing of note; those who still follow her, though, claim that the box that was opened was nothing but a hoax and that Southcott's real prophecies remain sealed away.
A final note to consider is that Southcott claimed that the day of judgement would fall in 2004. So far, apart from the odd Friday night on Gin Lane, we have yet to witness the apocalypse.