The Sleeping Girl of Turville: A Real Life Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping-BeautySounds like the title to a bad Disney movie franchise, doesn’t it?  Well Snow White’s got nothing on Ellen Sadler – the first sleeping beauty.

It happened in 1871 in a small village named Turville, located in Buckinghamshire, UK.  At a mere 11 years old, Ellen passed into a deep sleep and didn’t wake for nine years.  But, alas, there was no prince charming to bring her out of it.

Ellen was a typical little girl, born to a large family of 12 children.  The Sadler’s were an impoverished farming family, and at age eleven Ellen was sent to work as a nursemaid, but soon after, she started experiencing bouts of drowsiness or somnolence and eventually took to seizures.  She was hospitalised for a brief time, but sent home when she was declared incurable.

Two days after her release from hospital, on March 17, 1871, she suffered a series of seizures and fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be roused.  Her mother, Anne Frewen – widowed by the death of her husband, Ellen’s father, when Ellen was a toddler – called for local doctor Henry Hayman, who was at a loss to explain the little girl’s condition.

Sleepy Cottage in Turville, Buckinghamshie, UK
Sleepy Cottage in Turville, Buckinghamshie, UK

As the days and weeks went by with Ellen slumbering in a seizure induced foetal position, word of her plight reached the press and the Sadler home (now known as “Sleepy Cottage”) became a veritable tourist attraction for medical practitioners, reporters, the religious and curiosity seekers.  As a result of the 19thcentury media circus, many descriptions of the girl’s condition exist, like this from Bucks Free Press[1]:

“Her breathing was regular and natural, the skin soft and the body warm, as in a healthy subject; the pulse rather fast. The hands were small and thin, but the fingers quite flexible; the body somewhat emaciated; the feet and legs like those of a dead child, almost ice cold … the aspect of her features was pleasant, more so than might be expected under the circumstances … her eyes and cheeks were sunken, and the appearance was that of death … but although there was no colour on her cheeks, the paleness was not that heavy hue which betokens death.”

No official diagnosis was ever achieved, doctors at the time were stymied and talk of a hoax was floated about the small community.  This was supported, apparently, by the fact that Anne, who remarried to Thomas Frewen, was accepting monetary donations from those who wished to view the little girl in her deep slumber.  Anne was also criticised for limiting medical professionals access to Ellen for fear that their poking and prodding was detrimental to her daughter’s health, such as it was.

Of course, when one falls into prolonged unconsciousness, several logistical issues begin to pop up, such as feeding.  Anne undertook to sustain Ellen by feeding her port, milk and tea, and when Ellen’s jaw eventually locked shut, Anne was forced into using small toy teapots, the spouts of which were inserted between two broken teeth, to feed her gruel and other liquid foods.

The cover page of The Police News, a paper that covered the death of Sarah Jacob
The cover page of The Police News, a paper that covered the death of Sarah Jacob

Skeptics began to cry foul and drew parallels between Ellen’s case and the case of Sarah Jacobs, a girl from Wales who allegedly was able to survive without nourishment due to divine intervention.  Jacobs died of starvation in 1869 and her parents were charged and convicted of manslaughter.  Some sceptics insisted that authorities step in and move Ellen to a hospital, most thinking that her condition could be confirmed and successfully treated, but it was decided that there was no legal basis for removing the girl from her home.

Anne Frewen died in May 1880, leaving her sleeping daughter to be cared for by her two married sisters.  But five months later Ellen mysteriously awoke and was fully recovered by November of the same year.  This miracle recovery further fuelled the sceptics, who claimed that Anne had either been hoaxing the entire illness or that she was suffering from Münchausen Syndrome and had deliberately exaggerated and exacerbated Ellen’s condition, a situation that obviously ended with Anne’s death, leaving Ellen the opportunity to recover.

Ellen went on to marry the son of a nearby neighbour and had five children of her own.  She never experienced the symptoms of her earlier illness again, and suffered only slightly stunted growth and a weak eye as a result of her long sleep.  As mentioned, no diagnosis had ever been made, and considering the state of medical knowledge at the time, it’s no wonder.  A modern diagnosis might be extreme narcolepsy, or possibly coma induced by epilepsy, but the lack of a thorough examination of her condition by qualified medical practitioners, means the true cause will never be known.  And of course the possibility that the whole thing was hoaxed will never go away.

Many of us view sleep as a sanctuary, a place of comfort and something to look forward to every evening, but what if you went into a deep sleep and for whatever reason, slept away the better part of a decade?  In Ellen’s case, the missing time would be much less of a shock, culturally and technologically, but imagine if you will, that this case had taken place in 1970 or later.  Imagine the extreme culture shock that those who recover from long term coma would go through upon realising the drastic changes that have taken place in the world around them, while they slept.

This world would be an alien and confusing place for someone whose been asleep for nine years, and as Arthur C. Clark said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

 


[1] Gurney, Rebecca J (2006). “The Sleeping Girl of Turville“. Origins (Buckinghamshire Family History Society).

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