St Michael's Church, Llanfihangel-ar-arth in stained glassSarah Jacob, the Welsh Fasting Girl

Sarah Jacob was born on the 12th of May, 1857, at Llethrneuadd Uchaf, Llanfihangel-ar-arth. She was one of seven children of farmers Hannah and Evan Jacob. A smart child, Sarah was taught by Reverend Evan Jones at Pencader School, who noted she could read and write well in English.

She became ill in February, 1867, from a mysterious illness which caused her to have seizures and become bed-bound, with apparently half of her body paralysed. That illness is now thought to have been scarlet fever. After this illness, she ate and drank much less, until she seemed neither to eat nor drink by the October of that year.
Her parents did not want to force her to eat because of her illness – she was treated by local doctor Henry Harries Davies, who could not help her. It seemed that both her family and her doctor were reluctant to admit her to a hospital, where she may have been treated.

She was visited by Reverend Evan Jones and she asked to join the Church – the rest of her family were previously chapel-goers, though they didn’t seem to mind this. She was often seen surrounded by books, including the Bible. After initial scepticism over Sarah’s ‘fasting,’ he became convinced that she was a miracle and wrote a letter about her condition in ‘The Welshman,’ inviting medical men to come and prove she was not a miracle.
‘The Last Hours of the Welsh Fasting Girl,’ Illustrated Police News, December 1869.
‘The Last Hours of the Welsh Fasting Girl,’ Illustrated Police News, December 1869.

The news of the ‘Welsh Fasting Girl,’ as she was known, soon circulated and visitors came far and wide to see her, by Pencader Railway, which opened in 1864. She became a tourist attraction and a pawn in the ongoing debate between science and the Church. The medical profession was still new at this point and clearly not trusted or understood by superstitious people such as Sarah Jacob’s family so they sought to prove that Sarah’s fasting was a hoax.

Evan Jacob, for his pride and reputation, wanted to prove that she was fasting, as did others in the local community, and wider Welsh community. A 24-hour watch on Sarah was planned, the first of which failed. But in December 1869, 4 nurses were sent from Guy’s Hospital to watch her, as well as seven local doctors. Sarah Jacob died on the 17th of December, 1869 from starvation. She was 12 years old and claimed to have been fasting for 113 weeks.
An inquest was held at the Eagle Inn on the 21st of December, which proved that she had been starved for at least a week, and later a trial at Carmarthen Assizes. The doctors were criticized for their part in her death, but Hannah and Evan stood trial for manslaughter – Evan was sentenced to 12 months of hard labour at Swansea Jail, and Hannah, who was pregnant, was sentenced to 6 months.

The case of Sarah Jacob has never fully been explained, but Sarah Jacob somehow accessed food - possibly hiding a bottle in her armpit or was being snuck food by her sister – though it is not known whether her parents knew or encouraged her. In hindsight, it seems that the doctors who failed to treat her were equally, or even more to blame. Reverend Evan Jones, who invited the doctors to study her, also blamed the railways for bringing such attention to Sarah Jacob’s home, though making a miracle of her can also be blamed.

The cause of her fasting is still debated. ‘Anorexia mirabilis’ is a ‘holy fasting,’ or self-starvation seen in history. ‘Anorexia nervosa,’ an eating disorder, is a possible explanation. ‘Fasting girls’ were a phenomenon themselves in the Victorian period, often associated with ‘hysteria’ or were proven to be a hoax. Other Welsh fasting girls were Gaenor Hughes of Bodelith, who died in 1780, and Ann Morgan of Borth, who broke her fast after a few weeks in hospital in the 1870s. Mental illness, possibly as a result of an unknown trauma, or attention-seeking have also been suggested explanations. A most recent explanation is a viral infection, caused by her previous illness or by the Jacobs’ proximity to livestock, which would have made it difficult and painful for her to eat much at a time. It is possible that Sarah Jacob could have been treated in hospital, and survived, if her fasting had not been made into a miracle, a medical study and a tourist attraction.

The Jacob family are buried in the graveyard at St Michael’s Church, as are her vicar the Reverend Evan Jones and her doctor Henry Harries Davies.
  Photograph of Sarah Jacobs' grave