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Reference: NLW MS 23137

Who was Sarah Jacob (1857-1869)

Sarah Jacob was born at Llethr-neuadd farm, Llanfihangel-ar-arth, Carmarthenshire on May 12, 1857, one of seven children of Evan Jacob (1830-95) and his wife Hannah (née Williams, 1830-1907). The manuscript states that her parents were ‘kind and good to their children and that Sarah was very fond of her parents.’ (f.83r). Sarah attended Pencader school, and it is said that she was of ‘above ordinary inteligence … and a precocious child’ (f.7r) who ‘spoke English pretty well and read it pretty well’ (f.40r) and it is recorded that she appeared to be healthy before being taken ill in February 1867, suffering seizures before falling unconscious for a month.

The story of Sarah Jacob

The local doctor Henry Harries Davies could not diagnose her illness. Sarah was confined to her bed, and by October she did not eat or drink, and her parents vowed that they would not force her to eat. The defence notes that her parents seemed upset about their daughter's illness, and did not seek any publicity regarding her fasting.

Evan Jones, the local vicar, wrote about the fasting in a letter to the Welshman on 19 February 1869, and called on doctors to investigate the case. Her story spread, and by the summer of 1868 the newspapers were full of the miraculous story of a girl who had not eaten or drunk since 10 October 1867. Visitors flocked to see her and to bring her presents. In March 1869, with the permission of her family, ‘4 watchers were appointed and did watch for the fortnight but during that time they failed to ascertain that [Sarah] ... partook of any kind of food whatever. The result of this watching was publicly announced in the County newspapers and caused strangers to flock in larger numbers’ (f.82r) to see Sarah.

There were many discussions in the medical journal The Lancet. The leading physician Robert Fowler (1828-1886) called to see Sarah in August, stating in The Times on 7 September that she was suffering from ‘simulative hysteria’. He suggested that she was deceitful, and was eating at night. By November ‘the public again seemed anxious to investigate the supposed miracle’, (f.82r) and John Griffiths (alias Gohebydd) ‘negotiated with the authorities of Guy’s Hospital’ (f.82r) to allow 4 hospital nurses to watch her. He held a public meeting on 30 November, where Evan Jacob signed an agreement with Sarah’s ‘knowledge and consent' (f.84r) to ‘give over the entire control of the room in which [Sarah] lay as well as of [Sarah] herself’ (f.84r) to the 4 nurses from Guy's Hospital, and a team of seven local doctors to watch over her day and night.

‘On the 9th of Decr last the watching commenced and was vigorously prosecuted until Friday the 17th when ... [Sarah] expired during the whole of which period no food or nourishment was offered to or administered to the child’ (f.83r). According to the evidence of one of the nurses, Elizabeth Clench, ‘the object of the watching was not the whithholding of food, but acertaining whether food was given' (f.23r). Another nurse, Anne Jones said, ‘I went to both the father and mother and told them that the child was very bad and that if she was my child I should give her a drink or a drop of Brandy and water with a spoon. They told me not to offer her anything' (f. 55r). Sarah died on December 17, 1869.

The inquest was held on 21 December 1869. John Phillips, one of two surgeons who performed the post-mortem examination, testified that she died from ‘exhaustion from lack of food. No food whatever was found in her stomach and no liquid in her bladder' (f.62r) … 'the evidence shews no other cause than the want of food and drink for eight days'. (f.66r) It was decided to prosecute the adults who had allowed her death - her parents, and the doctors who had supervised surveillance over her - for unlawful killing. Carmarthen magistrates criticized the doctors for their foolish behaviour but her parents were sent to stand trial for 'having feloniously killed and slain one Sarah Jacob'. (f.81r) Her parents were found guilty of manslaughter - Evan Jacob sentenced to a year of hard labor in Swansea jail, and his wife jailed for six months.

Further reading

  • Roy Evans NLW MS 10, that contains a volume of newspaper cuttings, 1869-1870, relating to the death of Sarah Jacob and the inquest
  • D.G. Lloyd Hughes Manuscripts G/34, which contains the story of Sarah Jacob, including the imprisonment of her parents following the case (published in Y Casglwr, 51, Gaeaf 1993)
  • Robert Fowler, A complete history of the case of the Welsh Fasting-Girl, (London, 1871)
  • John Cule, Wreath on the crown: the story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl (Llandysul, 1967)
  • H. Roberts, ‘Y ferch ryfeddol, neu, Hanes Sarah Jacob, Llethr-neuadd (c.1869)’, Y Casglwr (1993)
  • Siân Busby, A wonderful little girl: the true story of Sarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl (2003)