originally published May 23, 2013
Next time someone calls you pig-headed, you’d best confirm whether they’re referring to your stubborn nature or likening you to a seventeenth-century mythical medical mystery. Remember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer was convinced he’d seen a pig-boy in the hospital? It turns out that was actually a folklore reference to historic Dutch, French and English stories from hundreds of years ago.
I’m sure if you look into the historical origins of shrinkage, you’d find the same allegorical influences.
There is no single story of the Pig-Faced Woman. From what I can tell, this legend popped up over and over again in various places, kind of like that tired idea of two people switching bodies in a movie. Except the pig-faced women were spoken of as fact. And not one of them was played by Judge Reinhold.
At some point in the late 1630’s, stories about pig-faced women seemed to simultaneously emerge in Holland, France and England. A Dutch print from about 1638 gets credit for being the first, telling the tale of one Jacamijntjen Jacobs, an Amsterdam woman with far too many consecutive consonants in her first name. The story goes that Jacamijntjen was approached by a female beggar, kids in tow, asking for a handout. Jacamijntjen’s response was something like, “Take those filthy pigs away from me! Don’t you realize how many consonants I have to contend with here?”
Anyhow, the beggar snapped back with, “You callin’ my kids pigs? May God give you pigs like mine then! You ain’t all that!” Jacamijntjen’s daughter was thusly born with the head of a pig, and spent her childhood grunting nonsensically and eating from a trough. This is how most of the early pig-woman stories began, with someone pissing off a beggar who just happens to have magical powers. It seems to me that a beggar with magical powers might want to use them to snag some food or something, but I suppose if they were savvy beggars they wouldn’t be beggars.
Author/publisher Robert Chambers speculated in 1864 that perhaps some unlucky kid was born with a birth defect that someone observed to be somewhat porcine-like, and the legend grew from there. I don’t buy it. Back then, people believed in ‘maternal impression’, the belief that thoughts of pregnant women could influence the appearance of their offspring. This topic can be loosely tied to Mary Toft, that lady who crammed a bunch of dead animal parts into her nether regions so she could pretend to give birth to rabbits. People believed anything back then.
Tannakin Skinner is the first legend to circulate around England. Here’s the thing – while the story of a pig-faced woman provoked a little ripple of interest in France and Holland, people kept poking the water in England and allowing that ripple to keep on ripplin’.
One early form of the story linked the phenomenon to witchcraft. A man was faced with the decision of having his new bride appear to him as a pig but beautiful to everyone else, or as a pig to everyone else but utterly beautiful to him. Only when the man tells his bride that the choice is hers is the enchantment broken, and she is beautiful to everyone.
There was the story of the Christian man who converted to Judaism. His first child born post-conversion was apparently a girl with a pig face, which he deduced was God laying a smack-down for his having strayed from the flock. Legend has it, when the guy and his daughter converted back to Christianity, the baptismal water washed away her pig features and left her human. Seems legit.
By the 1700’s, the stories flitting about Great Britain dropped the magical angle, and simply became reported as fact, like Bat-Boy or that love child of Elvis Presley and Adolph Hitler who pops up every so often in the Weekly World News. Like the tale of Griselda Steevens, the sister of a wealthy doctor in Dublin. Griselda used to walk around wearing a veil due to an (alleged) eye condition, and it was suspected by some that she actually had a pig face. Griselda forsook an impressive fortune to build a hospital, so maybe she should get a pass.
In 1814-15 there was a rumor of a pig-faced woman who lived in Manchester Square in Marylebone. One guy took out an ad in the Times, offering to be the pig-woman’s suitor. The paper went on record as believing the rumor to be full of crap, but all that did was prompt their competition to take up a campaign to defend Pig-Lady’s honor, and to encourage her would-be companion. The story died out in 1815, but was still mentioned from time to time over the next few decades.
Shortly after the Manchester Square story, another rumor of a Pig-Lady showed up in Paris. This time, the woman’s address was published – she was allegedly a lonely woman with a great personality, just looking for someone who’d love her despite her hideous appearance. It turned out to be a hoax, put on by some guy who just got dumped by the lady who lived at that address. The woman was apparently so bombarded by attention from the story, she had to move.
These poor pig-faced ladies. They get no respect.
In the 1800’s, pig-faced ladies were starting to appear in freak shows at travelling fairs. Except they weren’t pig-faced and they were certainly not ladies. Evil showmen would get a bear insanely drunk, then shave it and strap it into a chair. The audience would wander in and watch this creature feed on apples, gruel and beer from a trough. They could ask yes/no questions, and someone would poke the bear from behind to cause one or two grunts as a response for yes or no. This was seriously a thing. One such exhibit in Plymouth ended badly when the audience yanked off the bear’s wig and hat, then attacked the showmen.
The last published pig-faced-lady-as-fact story popped up in ghost-hunter Elliott O’Donnell’s book, Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful in 1924. And sure, a stillborn baby was recorded in 1952 as having pig-like features, but no child – at least none we officially know of – has survived with a pig face.
We live in too cynical an age to believe in silly hoaxes like the pig-faced lady. We need facts now, and something tangible to secure our trust. Of course, some folks only need a photo and a good story. And we also live in an age when photos can be tweaked and stories of strangeness can almost seem true. Still, I suppose it’s possible that somewhere in the world you can find one of these: