The Pig-Faced Woman: Found it!

466px-The_Wonderful_Mrs._AtkinsonHave you ever found a little tidbit of research only to completely forget where or when you saw it? What you have here has eluded me for months. I originally read of this legend in Captain Rees Howell Gronow’s reminiscences. Behold: The pig-faced lady.  I finally found word of it (and was jumping up and down), at Pig-faced women on Wikipedia.

For me, it’s perfect: Regency + paranormal = fantastic!

The story goes that the story originates in Holland, England, and France simultaneously in the late 1630s, of a noblewoman with a lovely human body, but the head of a pig. Perhaps her unfortunate appearance was the result of a curse; that is unclear.  When she married, her husband was given the choice: she could appear beautiful to him, but pig-like to others, or pig-like to him, and beautiful to others. When he told her the choice was hers rather than his, the curse was broken (at which point I can only surmise she became beautiful … or maybe the story is more Shrek like).

(Sorry, I digress … all wound up with Coke and finally having found this legend!)

Anyway, the legend appears again in Dublin in the early 19th century, giving the pig-faced woman a name: Griselda Steevens. This poor woman was said to be quite shy and reclusive, often remaining in her carriage while her servants gave alms to the poor. While it’s unclear whether the rumors of her having a pig-face began while she was still alive, there are stories that dismayed (obviously!) about the idea people had about her, she took to intentionally showing off her face in public, and even commissioned a painting of herself for the hospital she had built. But alas, without avail, as locals still preferred the image of the woman with a pig’s head in the tavern across the way.

Then it shows up again in London, 1814-1815 when there were rumors a pig-faced woman was living in Marylebone. Her existence was widely reported, included many alleged portraits and sketches of her. During celebrations following the end of the Napoleonic wars, traffic was tied up, and it was said that in one of the carriages was a woman with a pig’s snout protruding from beneath her poke bonnet.

“It was rumoured that during the illuminations which took place to celebrate the peace, when a great crowd had assembled in Piccadilly and St James’s Street, and when carriages could not move on very rapidly, “horresco referens !” an enormous pig’s snout had been seen protruding from a fashionable-looking bonnet in one of the landaus which were passing. The mob cried out, “ The pig-faced lady !—the pig faced lady! Stop the carriage—stop the carriage!” The coachman, wishing to save his bacon, whipped his horses, and drove through the crowd at a tremendous pace; but it was said that the coach had been seen to set down its monstrous load in Grosvenor Square.”

[Source: Reminiscences of Captain R. H. Gronow, being anecdotes of the camp, the court, and the clubs at the close of the last war with France. Gronow. p111-113: Now I can’t lose it again!]

Belief in pig women was so widespread, that often at fairs, charlatans purported to “show” one, which were usually shaved bears they dressed up in women’s clothing. Even Dickens was said to have commented on the prevalence of the legend, remarking that every age had its own pig-lady (pardon the paraphrase).

But, belief in their legend declined eventually, leading to the last “serious” work about their existence in 1924. This was in a book Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful by Elliot O’Donnell, a supernatural researcher. He claimed there was a ghost of a pig lady in a haunted house in Chelsea. Perhaps we have seen the last of the pig-lady, but I’m sure glad I found her again! I can’t wait to tell her story. 🙂

Have you ever lost that juicy tidbit of research? Have you ever heard of the pig-faced woman?

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