I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An Odd Legend
Myths about women with hog’s heads seem to have started at roughly the same time in France, Holland, and Britain in the 1630s. These women were said to have human bodies in all aspects, except they had the faces of pigs. The fact that nobody had ever actually seen a woman with a pig head did not seem to dampen enthusiasm for the belief that they existed for 200 years.
Belief in witchcraft was widespread at the time, so it was popularly believed that the affliction was caused by bad spells being cast on the victim.
Several stories emerged about how the phenomenon occurred. In one, a pregnant woman refused to hand over money to a beggar so the vagrant cursed her; the result being that a female child was born with a pig’s head.
In another yarn, a witch approached a man shortly after his wedding with a proposition. She could make his wife eternally beautiful to him but with a pig’s face to everybody else. Alternatively, the witch could make her beautiful to everybody else but pig-faced to him.
The legend might have come out of popular myths of the Middle Ages known as the “Loathly Lady.” These stories centered around an unattractive woman who is seen as beautiful by a heroic man. As a result of the man’s attention, the woman is transformed into a ravishing beauty.
In 1639, ballads and pamphlets related the sad predicament of Tannakin Skinker. She was a young woman of noble, Dutch birth whose story weaves together both myths about the creation of pig-faced women.
Her facial deformity was the result of a witch’s curse that was the result of her pregnant mother rebuffing a beggar. The spell of the sorceress is described in a pamphlet: “As the mother is hoggish, so swinish shall be the Child shee goeth withall.” The witch was tracked down and refused to lift the curse even as she was being burned at the stake.
A fortune teller said the spell might be lifted if the family could find a husband for Tannakin. The family offered a massive dowry that attracted a goodly number of suitors, but all were repelled by the woman’s porker snout.
Having exhausted the possibilities in Holland, the family went to London in search of a less-discerning man. Just such a fellow was found and in the marriage bed he turned to his wife and saw “a sweet young lady of incomparable beauty and feature, the like to whom to his imagination he never had in his whole life time beheld.”
But, there was a snag; there always is. The bridegroom had to make a choice; Tannakin could appear young and gorgeous to him and hideously ugly to everybody else, or monstrously pig-like to him and stunningly beautiful to all others. Nasty dilemma, that.
The husband ducked the question and said Tannakin should decide. Apparently, that was a good decision, because by not choosing, the spell was broken and Tannakin appeared lovely to her spouse and to all and sundry day and night.
Victims of Rumours
Reclusive people often find stories are made up about them; such was the fate of Griselda Steevens. She was a wealthy woman who never appeared in public. So, the stories started circulating that she shut herself away because she was pig-faced.
The rumours reached her ears, so to put an end to them she had a portrait painted. It was hung in the lobby of a hospital she had founded. The strategy failed. The public had a preference for a pig-faced portrayal of her that was on display in a local pub.
In about 1815, Fairburn’s magazine published a story about a supposedly wealthy young woman of noble Irish ancestry who lived in fashionable Manchester Square. She was said to have been glimpsed in various parts of London in an enclosed carriage; enclosed, of course, because she had the face of a pig.
The British Library reports that “Tales of the lady’s lifestyle were whipped up by a deluge of newspaper reports, pamphlets, and general rumours about her existence, including her habit of eating from a trough and talking in grunts.”
In February 1815, the following advertisement is said to have appeared in The Morning Herald: “Secrecy―A single gentleman, aged thirty-one, of a respectable family, and in whom the utmost confidence may be reposed, is desirous of explaining his mind to the friend of a person who has a misfortune in her face but is prevented for want of an introduction.”
Taking an awfully long time to get to the point, the fellow was proposing marriage to the Manchester Square lady. But, marital bliss eluded the swain because the pig-faced lady never existed.
Decline of Interest
The pig-faced lady fable had a long run. It wasn’t until the early years of the 19th century that people began to question its veracity.
In 1815, a man in Paris gave the name and address of a woman of swinish appearance. Large crowds turned up to catch a glimpse and the commotion was such that the man had to confess that it was a hoax. The young lady had rejected his advances and he had conjured up the story as an act of revenge. It seems she had made a wise decision.
Carnival operators started exhibiting pig-faced ladies, but it emerged the show was fake. Usually, a bear was fed strong beer until it was in a stupor, then its face was shaved. It was dressed in women’s clothes and tied to a chair. Once properly set up the crowd was allowed into the tent. The revelation that it was all a sham cast doubt on the whole face-of-a-sow sensation and it disappeared from view, except on Halloween.
- The pig-faced woman yarn was resurrected in 1865 in Sheridan Le Fanu’s novel Uncle Silas. The character Maud Ruthyn is a rich young woman with the porcine affliction who is beset by wastrels conniving to get their hands on her money.
- Joseph Merrick was born in England in 1862 and was a normal, healthy boy until swellings started to appear on his face. For several years, he earned a living as an exhibit in a freak show and became famous as the Elephant Man.
- Centuries of inbreeding among the royals of Europe produced what is called the Hapsburg Jaw. One of the most severely afflicted was King Charles II of Spain (1661-1700). No doubt the portrait painter did his best to minimize the long and protruding jaw.
- “The Pig-Faced Lady Helped Me Understand Why My Own Shifting Body Was a Source of Shame.” Megan Nolan, New Statesman, July 3, 2019.
- “Broadside on the ‘Pig-Faced Lady.’ ” British Library, undated.
- “The Hog-Faced Gentlewoman Called Mistris Tannakin Skinker.” Kathy Haas, Rosenbach Museum, October 26, 2012.
- “The Celebrated Pig-Faced Lady of London.” Geri Walton, September 25, 2014.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor