Despite her later fame, there was no sign in Joanna Southcott’s early life that she would one day become known as the Prophetess of Exeter, the inspiration for a major national cult.
Born on a farm in Ottery St Mary, Devon in 1750, Southcott was in domestic service when she was visited by God in 1792, and she spent the rest of her life ‘warning the world of what is approaching’, the imminent Millennium. She didn’t look much like a harbinger of doom – more a stout, middle-aged countrywoman of sound common sense – but over a period of two decades, she acquired a huge national following, perhaps a hundred-thousand strong, with her writings.
Towards the end of her life, she moved to London, proclaiming herself to be the ‘woman clothed with the sun’, whose appearance was prophesized in the Book of Revelation. She also revealed that, in accordance with the Scriptures, she was pregnant with ‘a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron’. She was sixty-four years old at the time, and insisted that ‘I have never had knowledge of man in my life’. Her due date, however, came and went without issue, whether miraculous or otherwise. She died shortly afterwards, on 26 December 1814.
She had predicted that this might happen, and had been adamant that in such an event she would be restored to life within four days. So after her apparent death, her disciples made sure to keep the body warm, piling her bed with blankets and earthenware hot-water bottles, and keeping the fire stoked up. Large crowds gathered outside the house in Manchester-street, the faithful awaiting news of the promised resurrection, the sceptical wishing only to jeer and taunt, and all under the eyes of ‘police officers stationed in different directions to preserve tranquillity’.
As the allotted time passed, and it became clear that she wasn’t coming back from the dead after all, a panel of fifteen doctors assembled to examine the corpse, which – having been kept in such overheated conditions – was by now putrescent: ‘the smell was dreadfully offensive and it required all the aid of tobacco smoke and burnt vinegar to render it all to be borne.’
The unanimous conclusion of the medical experts was that the Prophetess was definitely dead, beyond any possibility of re-animation, and that there was no sign of her having ever been pregnant, though it was an understandable mistake: ‘the intestines were much distended by flatulency, hence that protuberance.’ Not expectant, then, merely bloated. When her remains were subsequently removed for a burial that was held in strict secrecy, it was reported that the coffin had to be sealed with pitch so that it didn’t leak decomposing flesh out into the hearse.
The cult became a byword for gullibility and delusion. Southcottians were still to be encountered for decades to come, though not unreasonably the numbers diminished in the wake of her death. That left a gap in the prophetess market, but despite there being no shortage of candidates, none could match up to the original.
Typical of the imitators was Mary Boon, of Staverton, Devon, who renamed herself ‘Mary Johanna the Lord Is Here’ and announced that she was the Lord’s handmaiden. She never became a national figure, but she did have some local followers who obeyed her injunction that they should work on Sundays, since Saturday was the true Sabbath; when two labourers were subsequently convicted of breaking Sabbath regulations, they broke into a ‘hysteric laugh of joy’, welcoming the fact that they were suffering for their faith.
But Mary Johanna the Lord Is Here and all her peers proved to be false prophets, unable to replicate the success of their model. Britain never did produce another Doomsday preacher of the calibre of Joanna Southcott. Mind you, more than two centuries on, the world still hasn’t ended, and nor have the prophecies of its imminent demise.