Sarah Jacob: The Girl Who Starved to Death to Prove Herself

Apr 21, 2021 1 comments

There have been quite a few cases where people claimed to have survived without food. These people call themselves “breatharians” for they purportedly live on air and light alone. Breatharianism is a hoax, and it is impossible to believe in anything otherwise. The human body needs nourishment to survive, and many practitioners of breatharianism secretly eat food. Others have died attempting to follow a food-free lifestyle. One of the most fascinating and tragic of these cases date back to the time before breatharianism was a fad.

"Sleeping girl", a painting by the Armenian-Georgian artist Lazar Artasoff (1857–1924).

Sarah Jacobs was born on 12 May 1857 to Evan and Hannah Jacob on a farm just outside the village of Llanfihangel-ar-Arth in Carmarthenshire, Wales. Her father, Evan Jacobs, was a deacon in the local chapel. Sarah was known to be a healthy, energetic girl, with good intelligence and who ‘spoke English pretty well and read it pretty well’. In February 1867, a few months before her tenth birthday, Sarah fell gravely ill and slipped into a coma. When she recovered her consciousness one month later, Sarah had completely lost her desire to eat. The first few weeks, she ate a little rice, or oatmeal, or milk. Later, she seemed to survive only on a few pieces of fruit per day. Finally, she stopped taking food altogether. Sarah’s parents became upset about her illness but they did not force her to eat.

As the fasting went on Sarah became something of a local celebrity. Newspapers were full of the miraculous story of the girl who defied the laws of nature, and people came to see her from far away places, to touch her face, her hands as she recited verses from the books of Scripture. Her parents pimped her up for the audience, with trinkets and trappings, and “about her plump white neck a victorine with a wreath” and “books and flowers strewn about the coverlet.”

The people who came to visit her really believed they were witnessing a miracle, but Sarah was secretly feeding herself, unknown to her parents, perhaps slipping out of the bed at night when the house was asleep. What caused the child to refuse food has never been clear. Sarah was furiously religious and her actions might have had spiritual undertones, or she might have been a genuine case of anorexia. Whatever the cause, Sarah soon began to see the value in what she was doing.

As Sarah’s fame grew, suspicions arose and the vicar organized a vigil to see whether her family was feeding her in secret. The watch lasted two weeks, but not throughout the clock, so the findings were inconclusive.

In November 1869—by then, two years had passed since Sarah allegedly ate her last meal—a more thorough watch was proposed and agreed to by Sarah’s parents. Four trained nurses would sit with Sarah night and day to see whether she could really violate the laws of nature. The nurses were instructed not to withhold food from Sarah if she asked for it, but to observe whether she received nourishment of any kind.

Sarah felt trapped, but pride would not allow her to admit to fraud or lying. So she allowed the watch, hoping that somehow she would be able to pull off without eating for fourteen days, the intended duration of the fatal experiment. 

As the days passed, Sarah became weaker and weaker, but still she did not ask for food. Alarmed to see the girl dying, one of the nurses approached Sarah’s parents and told them to give her some food. But this only enraged Evan and Hannah Jacob. They asked the nurses to continue the watch but on no account should they give the girl any food. By the eighth day of the watch, Sarah was delirious. She thrashed her limbs about and fell into unconsciousness from which she ever woke up.

An inquest was held and the post-mortem examination showed that the sole reason of death was starvation. Sarah’s parents were charged with manslaughter. During the trail, the Lordship addressed the Grand Jury, dwelling upon the facts of the case:

It was the duty of all parents to supply food to their children of tender age, and this was the duty of the prisoners. They neglected their duty, and the death of one of their children was the result. There was no question whatever about the means of the prisoners to supply food, and it was clear that, up to the time the watching commenced, the child was in good health, having, indeed, all the appearance of a child enjoying excellent health. He should scarcely think it could be denied that the girl had been fed to the time that the watch commenced; and the question would naturally arise - ' By whom had she been fed ?' Both the father and mother had waited upon her, making her bed, and were continually about her person; and she appeared to have for some time slept in the same room with them. Assuming, then, that she had been fed, it would be for the jury to consider whether the parents were in any way cognizant of the feeding. If they thought they were, then,whether the parents themselves fed her. If they thought they were not, then whether anybody else fed her, and whether the parents knew anything about it. If they came to the conclusion that she had been fed previous to the commencement of the watching from which she died, then they would say whether the prisoners, by refusing to give her food during the watch, and thereby causing her death, had neglected a duty which the law laid down as paramount in reference to the relations of parents with children. If they were of opinion that there had been this neglect, then the jury would have to say to what extent there had been criminality.

Evan Jacob was sentenced to a year of hard labor and his wife jailed for six months.

Evan and Hannah Jacob.

There are many more examples of extreme fasting among young girls during the Victorian era. Mollie Fancher of Brooklyn was 17 when she fell off a trolley car, and her body was dragged along the streets for the length of a block. She broke her spine, lost her eyesight and became completely bedridden for more than fifty years. During her stay in bed, Mollie was reported to have gone without food, or little food, for extended periods of time. Mollie’s claims of abstinence from food was never verified, but there were others who were exposed of fraud. Ann Moore of Derbyshire claimed that she was unable to keep food down, and attracted great attention in the process. She claimed to have not eaten solid food for more than five years and had not drunk liquid for four years. Like Sarah Jacobs, Ann was subjected to two watches lasting sixteen days to verify her claims. But unlike Sarah, who starved herself to death, Ann was secretly fed by her daughter while the watchers were in the room by passing food from her mouth to her mother's in the pretext of kissing, and soaking towels with milk and broth and wringing them into her mother's mouth while washing her face.

Mollie Fancher

Ann Moore of Tutbury

A case similar to Sarah Jacobs happened not too long ago, during the 1990s. A prominent advocate of breatharianism, Jasmuheen, was subjected to a test by Australian television program 60 Minutes. After three days her condition became so bad that on her insistence, she was transferred from the hotel room, where she was confined, to a mountain resort, where she claimed she could better absorb nutrients from the fresh air. But still her conditions deteriorated, and on the fourth day 60 Minutes stopped the test in fear of being held culpable for her death.

Sarah Jacob’s watchers should have acted the same on moral grounds and ordered the parents to feed the child, or at least, walked away. But they did nothing to protect the child. On the contrary, the medical men and the nurses, through their surveillance, had pushed the child to her death. It’s a shame that the judge punished the parents but discharged the doctors from blame.

# Thomas Lewis, A Continuance of the Case of the Welsh Fasting Girl, British Medical Journal
# The Jacob Case, Welsh Legal History Society
# Sarah Jacob, the 'Welsh fasting girl', The National Library of Wales
# Phil Carradice, Sarah Jacobs: the fasting girl, BBC


  1. "In February 1967, a few months before her tenth birthday..." should be 1867.


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