This article was published in ‘The Skeptic’ (hence the spelling of that word in the text), Vol. 6, No. 6, November/December 1992, pp.9-11. It was illustrated with a picture of Ann Moore from the Mary Evans Picture Library, and the title page of the third edition of the pamphlet “An Account of the Extraordinary Abstinence of Ann Moor”. At one time the article was included on a Tutbury community website but the village doesn’t seem that bothered to emphasise the association these days, and the place is probably better known for having had the Most Haunted crowd descend on its castle. The asterisked information was omitted by the magazine’s editors, though they left the asterisk itself, otherwise the article is exactly as it appeared then.
The Fasting Woman of Tutbury
A close look at a nineteenth century ‘miracle’
Ann Moore was born in 1761 in Rosleston, Derbyshire, and had spent her working life firstly in service and later in the cotton industry. Early in 1807 she declared that she could live without food. At the time she was living in Tutbury, Staffordshire, and consequently became known as ‘The Fasting Woman of Tutbury’.
The first watch
Moore agreed to be subjected to a watch in order to prove her story, so in September 1808 she was taken from her own home to that of a local grocer, Mr Jackson. The event was supervised by a surgeon, Robert Taylor, but all inhabitants of the village were invited to help, and 80-90 participated. The fast lasted for sixteen days, though Moore was allowed some water on the first three days. Then she was taken home, having apparently succeeded in establishing her claim.
Taylor published an account of the proceedings, declaring that Moore had lived without food, liquid or solid, for thirteen days. Her window was always kept open, and the hypothesis was advanced by Taylor that she was somehow obtaining nutrients from hydrogen in the air. Other cases of people fasting for lengthy periods without ill effect were adduced.
The claim, now seemingly verified, was believed by many, and large numbers flocked to see her. They left gifts, ostensibly for her children, and these were estimated to amount to about 250 shillings in two years, and perhaps as much as 400-500 by 1813. Moore professed to be very religious, and would discuss theological matters with visitors, in order to add weight to a divine interpretation of her ability. But it was felt that this was a mask, as she was capable of ‘virulent’ language when challenged by skeptics. It was the case that prior to the advent of her fame she had been morally depraved; she had been separated from her husband for about twenty years, during which time she had lived in adultery with a man by whom she had borne two children.
From the time the watch ended, she claimed to have eaten nothing, a declaration which was clearly profitable. Indeed, she said that she had now lost the power of swallowing - if she attempted to do so, she would suffocate. As a corollary she had not urinated nor defecated during that time, neither had she slept.
Various causes were advanced by Moore as to why she had been afflicted (or blessed, depending how one looks at it) in this way. To begin with she said that it had been caused by washing some clothes which had been used to bind the ulcerous wounds of a boy. Then, she said that it was due to extreme want. Latterly she stated that it had come on gradually, so that she ate less and less food, then took liquids only, then nothing at all.
The Henderson report
As a result of hearing of Moore's fame, Alexander Henderson and two friends on holiday visited her at her home during 1812. They had previously canvassed opinions of the phenomenon, and found that whereas the medical community was skeptical, members of the general public were convinced of her sincerity, and pointed to the nine-day watch as definite proof.
On meeting her they gave her a full examination, and found her healthy. She was thin, though not abnormally so, and her stomach had not caved in as would be expected in a case of starvation. On the other hand the lower part of her body appeared to be wasted and paralytic. She produced plenty of saliva, and her bed stank of urine. In addition to her ability to survive without food, she still claimed not to be able to sleep. She did doze, she said, but was always conscious. She also stated that she was subject to fits, had problems opening her mouth, and had lost the use of all but the index finger on her left hand. She said that she had lost all feeling in her lower limbs.
The party was not convinced and thought that she was fabricating her condition in order to ‘excite wonder and compassion’, carried out in collusion with others. Henderson produced fourteen reasons in support of his contention that Moore was not telling the truth. Some were direct, others circumstantial, based on previous cases of lengthy fasting.
To begin with, there was the natural and healthy appearance of her face and the strength of her pulse, muscles and voice. Moisture in her mouth, nostrils, eyes and the surface of her skin did not indicate any desiccation. Her intellect had not been impaired. On a moral note, the dissolute conduct of her earlier life and the admission that she had once passed as religious for worldly gain did not inspire confidence in her probity. There was the vested interest she and her attendants had in perpetuating the deception, as well as the declaration that she had made that she thought that a time might come when God would restore her appetite. This would be a useful escape should she be caught eating.
Other factors militating against her were: evidence of the concealment of the evacuation of urine; her dread at a repetition of the watch; a general dread of experiments performed upon her; variations and contradictions in her statements, for example the date upon which she ceased eating, using a finger she had declared to be useless, and whether she did or did not perspire; the performance of actions which were inconsistent with her statements, such as drinking when she had declared that it caused her pain; and the fact that her bodily state was about the same as when she began her fast, yet case histories of starving people consistently found that physical deterioration occurred quickly.
Instances of similar frauds from across Europe were discussed by Henderson, and it becomes apparent that there was a tradition of women claiming that they had not eaten for extended periods. He cites various cases of women who, like Moore, had been convincing at first, but had later been caught cheating. In any case, he continued, the previous scrutiny of Moore had only lasted sixteen days, which was not the same as five years, nor had it been scientific.
The second watch
Moore's claims were treated with skepticism by the scientific community, so she was invited to participate in a second watch which would be better controlled than its predecessor. It was reported in a pamphlet published, like Henderson's, in 1813. This was now six years after she first made claims of abstinence, and four and a half after the first watch. It was clear that despite these alleged privations she was still in good health. The Henderson pamphlet spurred her friends to encourage her to refute his allegations as quickly as possible.
This watch was to be more rigorous than the first, so only Church of England ministers, medical men and magistrates, upright citizens all, were to be allowed to participate. The committee was headed by Sir Oswald Mosley, Bart., of Rolleston. It met on 20 April 1813, and agreed that Moore should be watched for one month. She refused at first, but the medically qualified members were adamant that no shorter time would suffice to test her adequately, so she was forced to agree.
To begin with she was weighed and was put on a new bed which had a weighing machine attached. Moore was dissatisfied with these arrangements, and said that she expected to lose 2-3 lbs. The bed had been inspected and filled with chaff. The bedding was searched, and the move from the old to new bed watched. Her person was examined, as was the room. Naturally she was kept isolated, except for the investigators.
At the end of seven days, an announcement was made that she had taken no food in that time. Moore's supporters were confident that she would last the entire month, though it was clear to those observing that she was suffering, and had lost a lot of weight. She developed a fever, and asked for cloths dipped in a vinegar/water mixture with which she could wet her tongue and mouth. These were usually wrung out, but one watcher did not do so in order to see if she could swallow, despite her claim to the contrary. She swallowed the mixture avidly.
By the eighth day she was very distressed, and her pulse was registering 145 beats per minute. The day after she said that she had to give up the test as she was ill, and asked for her daughter to be sent for. The watchers were worried that she would die, and admitted the daughter. She, upon seeing her mother's condition, ran to a neighbour's house, but immediately returned, and it was supposed that she transferred a quantity of water from her own mouth to her mother's under the pretence of kissing her.
Moore was somewhat revived by these ministrations, and her daughter begged the team to leave the room, which they were loath to do. The daughter refused to assist her mother unless they did, and they felt that they had no choice as the doctors present opined that Moore appeared to have only a couple of hours to live. Her pulse was now 160 beats per minute in one wrist, and not discernible in the other. The watch therefore broke up, the daughter took charge, and Moore began to improve.
Despite the failure of the test, Moore said that she wanted to make an oath that she had taken no food during the preceding six years. This she did, no doubt hoping to retain her credibility. She might have succeeded in this endeavour, but Mr Bott of Tutbury, one of the investigators, discovered linen concealed in her room which seemed stained with urine and faeces. Her blanket was also wet through. When confronted, Moore broke down and made a written confession, dated 4th May 1813. At last she admitted that she had eaten during the six years, and asked forgiveness of the people she had deceived, as well as of God. She drank some milk in the presence of witnesses without difficulty, though when water had been placed in her mouth when she seemed to be dying she had imitated the act of suffocation and had brought up blood.
Conjectures as to why she had succeeded during the first watch were put forward by the writer of this third pamphlet. One was the possibility that the huge number of watchers had included collaborators, although this had not been proved. Her linen had been brought and removed by one woman, and could have been used as a vehicle for food, but again nothing had been found when it was searched. The daughter could have helped, as she had visited every day and had been permitted to approach the bed. The conditions of the second watch ruled out this possibility.
Any urine discovered during the first test would not have been seen as significant, as she had been allowed to drink during the first three days; it was only after the test ended that she claimed to have lost the power of swallowing. During it she took snuff, and also pretended to have a cold, so that she used nineteen handkerchiefs in two days. These were washed in case they contained starch, but were more likely used to absorb her urine. They would have been dried on her body before being returned, with the smell covered by the window always being kept open. She was also at first given hartshorn for a headache, the ammonia in which would have helped to disguise the smell of urine. This remedy was later withheld.
With all these loopholes in the protocol of the first watch, Moore must have been confident of succeeding in the second, and it is unlikely that she would have agreed to participate had she appreciated how rigorous it was to be. During the nine days the only assistance she received was the supply of wet cloths. She was so grateful to Mr Wright, who had not wrung out the cloth he had given her, that she promised him her body for dissection after her death.
The report acknowledged that people can survive on very little, and postulated that Moore, never a hearty eater, had been tempted to exaggerate this ability. Her daughter did admit that her principal source of sustenance was tea. The writer concedes that had she had access to water, she would probably have been able to survive the entire month. This admiration for her constitution is tempered with the declaration that Moore was an imposter, her deception made worse by its religious cover story. It had been impious of her to offer herself as a miracle.
It is interesting to speculate on why Moore should have chosen to make such a preposterous claim. Apart from the monetary gain, which came after she had passed the first trial, she found herself an object of interest and celebration. Medical men came to visit her, which must have been gratifying to somebody who would not otherwise have been found interesting. Starvation, with all the discomforts it entailed, was one of the few ways for a working woman to gain social and financial advancement.
It is possible too that the fraud got out of hand, so that something designed to impress the inhabitants of Tutbury blew out of proportion until it was a matter of national interest. On a larger scale, this was a time of uncertainty. The long war with France had created unrest and economic difficulties in the country, and industrialisation was affecting the cotton industry in which Moore worked. It is clear that fantastic claims flourish when times are hard.
An account of the extraordinary abstinence of Ann Moor (sic), of Tutbury, Staffordshire, who has, since June 1807*, lived entirely without food; giving the particulars of her life to the present time, an account of the investigation instituted on the occasion, and observations on the letters of some medical men who attended it. Also other similar cases of abstinence. By a gentleman
living near Tutbury. Uttoxeter. Third edition, 1810 (First edition issued in 1809).
An examination of the imposture of Ann Moore, called the fasting woman, of Tutbury; illustrated by remarks of other cases of real and pretended abstinence. By Alexander Henderson, M.D. Physician to the Westminster General Dispensary. London, 1813.
A full exposure of Ann Moore, the pretended fasting woman of Tutbury. London, 1813.
* The plate opposite the title page is captioned ‘Ann Moore, of Tutbury Staffordshire. Born 1761. Who has lived without Food, since July 17. 1807’"
Tom Ruffles is a freelance writer living in Norfolk.