Photo of the sign marking the grave of Sarah Jacob in the cemetery in Llanfihangel-ar-arth, Lletherneaudd, indicating that the story of Sarah Jacob still attracts, or should attract, tourists.

The Welsh Fasting Girl: A Morbid Spectacle

The story of Sarah Jacob is a tragic one.1 On 17 December 1869, when she was not yet 13 years old, she died of starvation. There was no shortage of food or unwillingness to provide her with food, had she asked for it. Her family, trained nurses, and male doctors were around her when she passed away, but they all quite literally watched her die.

Sarah Jacob and her family were living on a farm in Llanfihangel-ar-Arth in rural Carmarthenshire when they claimed that she had not eaten for the preceding two years, two months, and one week.2 She became a national celebrity when newspapers published articles about the ‘wonderful little girl’3 known as the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl’.4 Clerics, doctors, and other men of good standing argued with each other in journals and newspapers about whether this ‘miraculous’ self-preservation without nourishment was possible. She was put to the test under a ‘watch’, whereby, in the spring of 1869, esteemed local men observed her for a fortnight, but they could not prove fraud. Under a second watch in December 1869, she was monitored by four nurses from a hospital in London along with local doctors. On the eighth day of the watch, Sarah Jacob died. In a subsequent trial, the cause of death was debated (‘nervous exhaustion’ resulting from the presence of unfamiliar nurses in her home, or starvation) as well as who was responsible for her death (her parents as legal guardians or the doctors and nurses who had supervised the watch).

The court concluded that Jacob had died of acute starvation because her parents withheld her food in order not to be exposed as having deceived the public. In their role as legal guardians, they were responsible for providing their daughter with food and, if necessary, forcing her to eat. However, this reasoning is not the only possible one. From another legal point of view, one might also argue that the nurses and doctors were at least partly to blame for the girl’s death. Their professional responsibility would have been to help and cure Sarah Jacob. Contemporaries noted that instead the doctors ‘now gratified their morbid curiosity’5 through Jacob’s death.6 The court case was conducted in English with stark classist and anti-Welsh rhetoric. The social status should have no influence on the court process. In reality, actors of higher status, namely the doctors and the nurses, were presented in a good light and their behavior was not condemned in court. At last, only the parents were convicted of manslaughter.

Sarah Jacob is one of the most famous of a dozen ‘fasting girls’ in the UK in the nineteenth century. Her case is especially crucial in understanding the workings of the spectacle regime surrounding the fasting woman, in other words, who it was who made her allegedly supernatural abstinence from food into a public spectacle, and how they benefited from it. In my doctoral thesis, I investigate the phenomenon of ‘miraculous’ fasting by young women—the ‘fasting girls—in nineteenth-century Germany, Great Britain, and the USA. These women reported that they voluntarily abstained from food for periods ranging from several weeks or months to several years or even decades. They received regional, national, and sometimes international attention and visits from journalists, newspaper readers, and especially doctors, clergy, and lawyers. The truthfulness of the fasting women’s claims was verified by ‘watches’, in which local men of honour or medical personnel observed the women in their homes continuously for several days or weeks. Some women were exposed as frauds, while others were deemed to be ‘recognized miracles’—although such cases were confirmed only involuntarily by doctors who could not detect any fraud. Hundreds, even thousands of people visited the fasting women, who became tourist attractions in their own homes. In this they preceded the mainly male hunger artists of the end of the nineteenth century, who referenced the fasting women but were exhibited in public and were presented differently, both by themselves and by others.

Gravestone of the Jacob family in the cemetery in Llanfihangel-ar-arth, Lletherneaudd, bearing the names of the parents, Sarah, and two siblings. Photo by Elisa Heuser.

I’m interested in how the female—allegedly supernatural—fasting body was used as a wonderful, miraculous, and admirable spectacle. The historically specific physical action of the fasting women is shown in its performative aspect in the form of repeated display, a spectacle in front of an interested audience and, diametrically opposed to this, in the form of the various gazes of the actors involved, above all the ultimately dominant scientific gaze in the doctors’ observations and descriptions.

One perspective in my thesis involves conceptualizing the body as a ‘battlefield’ where various norms related to body and gender, along with notions of normality and the inclination towards transgression, are negotiated. On the other hand, I also explore the idea of the fasting women as hunger ‘artists’ who are treated as entertainment phenomena. Since I am interested in fasting and starvation as a spectacle (German: Schauhungern/Schaufasten) and the regime of entertainment surrounding the women, it was a pleasure to look at Welsh-language ballads about Sarah Jacob in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth during my GHIL scholarship. These four ballads were written by Hugh Roberts, who called himself ‘Pererin Môn’—‘pilgrim from the Welsh isle of Anglesey’. They celebrate Sarah Jacob, ‘y ferch ryfeddol’7 (‘the wonderful girl’), who is said to not have tasted food or drink in more than two years prior to the publication of one of the ballads, presumably in 1869:

To the fury of some doctors,
Because they don’t know the mysteries
without the help of Pope or Bishop
GOD supports Sarah Jacob.8

Roberts stylizes Sarah Jacob as ‘an object of attention by all of mankind’9 and a beautiful, God-pleasing child. Her parents try to take care of her while she is sick, whereas the trained doctors and the clergy remain clueless about her affliction. According to Roberts, God alone sustains her. This accords with a report by Robert Fowler, a London physician who visited Sarah Jacob in August 1869.10 Fowler states that her father believed in Sarah’s inability to eat and had said to Fowler: ‘How can you London doctors make my child eat, without making a hole in her?’11 The father goes on to say that only the ‘great doctor’—meaning God—could help her.12

At the end of one of the ballads, there are two stanzas, allegedly written by Sarah Jacob herself, which tell the story of a little girl who left a world of sorrow and troubles to be with Jesus in heaven. Again, the ballad works as a religious reminder to contemporary listeners that God Almighty manifests his power in wonderful events and is still able to intervene in the world through chosen people. Roberts’ ballads help to shape the legacy of the ‘miraculous’ Welsh fasting girl, ensuring that Sarah Jacob’s story will live on and ‘last while the world lasts’.13 And indeed, we still know about Sarah Jacob, albeit in fictionalized form, for her life and the dramatic end of the spectacle of her alleged fast has inspired several plays, novels, and films over the last 150 years—most recently the film The Wonder (2023), produced by Netflix, an adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2016 novel of the same name.14

In a society that is very much focused on the ‘right’ way to eat, body image, and discussions about the status of science and post-facts, representations of fasting girls find many points of reference. For example, in the film, one of the doctors elaborates on the idea that the fasting girl might sustain herself with photosynthesis—a theory that I have not yet come across in the contemporary sources. Nowadays, this alludes to the dangerous concept of breatharianism (German: Lichtnahrung). Since the 1990s several esoteric gurus have publicized the idea that it is possible to live off (sun)light or prana, a vital force in Hinduism. The deaths of almost a dozen people, mostly females, have been linked to this unscientific belief. My PhD is therefore an important contribution to the historicization of current forms of (physical) self-determination, body normalization, and (female) self-starvation practices.


Featured image: Sign marking the grave of Sarah Jacob in the cemetery in Llanfihangel-ar-arth, Lletherneaudd, indicating that the story of Sarah Jacob still attracts, or is expected to attract, tourists. Photo by Elisa Heuser.



Cite this blog post
Elisa Heuser (2024, April 15). The Welsh Fasting Girl: A Morbid Spectacle. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w82h

  1. E.g. ‘The drama of the Welsh fasting girl […] has ended tragically’. Anon., ‘The Week. Topics of the Day’, The Medical Times and Gazette, 25 Dec. 1869, 738 (my emphases); ‘The second act of the Carmarthen Tragedy has been played out’. Anon., No Title, The Western Mail, 27 Dec. 1869, 2. []
  2. Cf. Robert Fowler, A Complete History of the Case of the Welsh Fasting-Girl (Sarah Jacob) with Comments Thereon; and Observations on Death from Starvation (London, 1871), 7. []
  3. Evan Jones, ‘A Strange Case: To the Editor of the Welshman’, The Welshman, 19 Feb. 1869, 8. []
  4. Anon, ‘Sarah Jacob, The Welsh Fasting Girl’, The Welshman, 23 Apr. 1869, 3. []
  5. Anon, No Title, in: The Western Mail, December 27th 1869, 2. []
  6. British law historian Richard Ireland looked at the legal aspects of the case and observed the limited attention given to the evident challenges in the law, conflicting medical opinions, and disputed factual issues, noting a lack of thorough analytical examination. Cf. Richard W. Ireland, ‘Sanctity, Superstition and the Death of Sarah Jacob’, in Anthony Musson and Chantal Stebbings (eds.), Making Legal History: Approaches and Methodology (Cambridge, 2012), 284–302. []
  7. Hugh Roberts, Y ferch ryfeddol, neu Hanes Sarah Jacob Llethr-neuadd, yn agos i Bencader, Swydd Gaerfyrddin, a anwyd y 17eg o Fai 1857, ond nid ydyw wedi profi un math o fwyd, gwlyb na sych, oddiar y 10fed o Hydref 1867, sef 18 mis (s.l., 1869?), 1. []
  8. Ibid. Translations of the Welsh original are my own. See the title page of the ballad ‘Y ferch ryfeddol’ (‘The Wonderful Girl’) by Hugh Roberts, digitized by Cardiff University Library, at [http://hdl.handle.net/10107/1103490], accessed 19 Jan. 2024. []
  9. Ibid., 2. []
  10. Robert Fowler is one of the main sources for the case of Sarah Jacob. He was a Doctor of Medicine of Edinburgh University, an eminent London physician, and District Medical Officer of the East London Union. He became the leading medical expert during the legal proceedings and published a monograph on Sarah Jacob in 1871. []
  11. Robert Fowler, ‘Letter to the Editor of “The Times”’, The Times, 7 Sept. 1869, quoted in Fowler, Complete History, 29–33, at 33. []
  12. Fowler, Complete History, 11, 264. []
  13. Hugh Roberts, Bywyd a marwolaeth yr eneth hynod, Sarah Jacob, Llethrr-Neuadd, yn agos i Bencader, yn swydd Gaerfyrddin, a anwyd y 17eg o Fai, 1857, ond ni phrofodd un math o fwyd o’r 10fed o Hydref, 1867, hyd ddydd ei marwolaeth, sef dwy flynedd a thri mis (s.l., 1869?), 4. []
  14. See film still from The Wonder (2022) showing some of the main characters: a nun, a doctor, the fasting girl Anna, her mother, and Lib, the nurse who is hired to watch Anna, at [https://www.netflix.com/tudum/galleries/the-wonder-first-look-images-gallery?mediaIndex=3], accessed 19 Jan. 2024. []

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Elisa Heuser

Elisa Heuser is a doctoral candidate at the Ludwig Uhland Institute of Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen. She studied history and English literature at the Universities of Mannheim and Bristol and obtained an English-language master’s degree in European history from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and King’s College London. She currently holds a PhD scholarship from Evangelische Studienwerk Villigst and works as a freelancer in political education.

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