We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Jacob, Sarah [called the Welsh Fasting Girl] (1857–1869), victim of self-starvation, was born on 12 May 1857 at Llethr-neuadd farm, Llanfihangel-ar-arth, Carmarthenshire, the third daughter of Evan Jacob (1830–1895), a tenant farmer, and his wife, Hannah, née Williams (1830–1907). She attended the national school at Pencader but in February 1867 fell ill and suffered fits before becoming unconscious for a month. She received medical attention from a local surgeon, Henry Harries Davies, who admitted that he did not know the cause of her illness. A second doctor was consulted in April, before Davies returned and attended to Sarah for a further two weeks. Although he believed her to be on the road to recovery, she remained bedridden and refused all but a little milk food. Over the coming weeks she became increasingly weak and skeletal and lost most of her hair. By 10 October she had stopped eating and drinking altogether and her parents vowed never to attempt to feed her again unless requested by their daughter. In November Evan Jones, vicar of Llanfihangel-ar-arth, was summoned to her bedside for the first time. Although he was initially extremely sceptical of the extraordinary claims made about Sarah, he soon became a regular visitor at Llethr-neuadd and was later to form a very different opinion of her situation.

News of Sarah Jacob's remarkable story soon became public knowledge and by the summer of 1868 several Welsh-language publications, notably Seren Cymru, had featured articles discussing the ‘miraculous case’ of the young girl. In February 1869, however, following the publication of a letter by Evan Jones in The Welshman, the story of the ‘wonderful little girl’ who had gone without food and drink for sixteen months attracted the attention of the English press. In his letter Jones had issued a challenge to members of the medical profession to come and see Sarah for themselves and conduct their own investigations into her situation. A stream of visitors soon began arriving at Llethr-neuadd as the case of the Welsh Fasting Girl became the subject of intense public speculation and debate. The English medical journal The Lancet was particularly critical of the whole affair and voiced grave concerns about the credibility of Sarah's story. In a bid to silence the critics, a group of local men, including Evan Jones and Dr Harries Davies, met at Llanfihangel-ar-arth on 15 March 1869 with the intention of devising a scheme to watch Sarah day and night for a fortnight and prove that her claims were not an elaborate deceit. In the event, however, the watch was denounced as an amateurist sham and, despite concluding that Sarah had not taken any food or drink during the fortnight, the exercise failed to convince the sceptics.

During the summer of 1869 visitors continued to arrive at Llethr-neuadd, bringing small gifts and money for Sarah Jacob and her family. Sarah, who had taken to wearing ribbons in her hair, was now said to be adorned by the various trinkets and garments which were left for her at her bedside. In August she was paid a visit by an eminent London physician, Robert Fowler (1828–1886), who published his observations in The Times on 7 September. Fowler suggested that there was a psychological explanation for Sarah's illness and concluded that she suffered from ‘simulative hysteria’. In his opinion, she was a ‘night feeder’ who had successfully deceived her parents and others around her. He also suggested that she should be admitted to hospital and force-fed.

Fowler's diagnosis refuelled the controversy surrounding the case and after much debate in the Welsh and English press, Sarah Jacob's parents gave their permission for a second watch to be placed over their daughter. Four trained nurses from Guy's Hospital, London, were appointed to carry out the task and arrived at Llethr-neuadd on 9 December 1869. A committee comprising seven local doctors was also established to supervise the watch. On 17 December 1869, a little over a week after the arrival of the nurses, Sarah died in her bed in the farmhouse at Llethr-neuadd. She was probably buried at Llanfihangel-ar-arth cemetery on 24 December 1869, aged twelve.

An inquest into Sarah Jacob's death was convened on 21 December 1869 and concluded that she had died of starvation. During the inquest it was also revealed that there were signs that she had been eating and drinking secretly, either with or without her family's knowledge. After consultations with the law officers of the crown and the Treasury solicitor, a government prosecution was brought against the adults who had allowed her to die: her parents, and the committee of medical men who had overseen the final watch over her, were summonsed on charges of unlawful killing. The Carmarthenshire magistrates threw out the charges against the doctors—though criticizing them for having acted foolishly—but committed Sarah's parents for trial. Charged at Carmarthen assizes in July 1870 with ‘having caused the death of their child, through their culpable abstention from giving her food’ (Cule, 122), they were found guilty of manslaughter after a trial which lasted a week. The judge, Sir James Hannen, stated that they had persisted in a fraudulent deception, and risked the death of their child in order to escape exposure. Evan Jacob was sentenced to a year's hard labour at Swansea gaol while his wife, Hannah, received a six-month sentence.

Although other cases of fasting women were reported during the Victorian period, Sarah Jacob's tale received an unusual amount of publicity and aroused much controversy. Robert Fowler, the doctor who wrote a detailed account of Sarah's case, asserted that the degree of public interest in it was unmatched since that of Mary M'Avoy in 1816 (Fowler, 257). It continues to attract attention and divide opinion. The portrayal in the English press of her monoglot Welsh-speaking parents as superstitious, ignorant, and cruel people, contrasted sharply with the depiction of the health professionals who attended to her as trustworthy, responsible, and reputable. The case not only exposed a clash between two very different cultures and ways of life, but also highlighted the contemporary conflict between science and faith. In 1873, shortly after Sarah Jacob's death, the disorder of anorexia nervosa was formally named and described by the physician Sir William Gull.

Mari A. Williams

Sources  

J. Cule, Wreath on the crown: the story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl (1967) · R. Fowler, A complete history of the case of the Welsh Fasting-Girl (1871) · The Welsh Fasting Girl (1904) · W. M. Wilkinson, The cases of the Welsh Fasting Girl, 3rd edn (1870) · S. Busby, A wonderful little girl: the true story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl (2003) · H. Roberts, Y ferch ryfeddol, neu, Hanes Sarah Jacob, Llethr-neuadd (c.1869) · Y Casglwr, 51 (1993)

Archives  

NL Wales, D. Roy Evans MS 10 · NL Wales, NLW Facs. 813 · NL Wales, NLW MS 231 37E


Likenesses  

illustration, 1869, repro. in Illustrated Police News