Pig-Faced Women and Learned Pigs



“The Pig-faced Lady of Manchester Square and the Spanish Mule of Madrid” caricature comparing reports of a London woman with a pig’s head and the appearance of Ferdinand VII of Spain, 1815 (via Wikimedia Commons)

February’s North Clare Local article. 

A pig-faced woman is not the punchline to some terrible mother-in-law joke; rather this was an urban legend that arose in northern Europe in the 17th century.  This legend persisted in the UK and Ireland longer than anywhere else; one English author references them as late as 1924.

Simply, these were women with human bodies, but pig faces. Sometimes they had trotters and could only communicate in grunts. Other tales told of completely ordinary women, apart from their porcine features and tendencies to eat from a trough.

Pig-faced women were generally of aristocratic birth. In the early days of the legend, the women were victims of a witch’s curse. Another common explanation was of the woman’s pregnant mother dismissing a beggar woman, usually referring to the beggar woman as a “sow” or her children as “piglets”. The beggar woman then curses the unborn child with a pig face.

One of the older stories is that of Miss Tannakin Skinker. She was the subject of a number of ballads in 1639. A Dutch noblewoman, her mother had insulted a witch while pregnant and so Tannakin was born with a pig’s face. Despite this, she was every inch the lady, and was a good and kind person. Her family consulted an “Astrologian” (the witch refused to lift the spell, even at the point of execution) who told them that Tannakin might be cured by marriage. Unfortunately she had difficulty finding a suitor, until she found a man who saw past her looks and into her personality. On their wedding night, Tannakin’s features changed and he saw her as a beautiful human. She then informed him that he had a choice; either she would appear as beautiful in public but pig-like to him, or pig-like in public and beautiful in private. In a rather lovely twist, the husband asked Tannakin what she would prefer. Tannakin replied “Now Sir, you have given me that which all women most desire, my Will, and Sovereignty; and know I, was by a wicked and sorcerous step-dame enchanted, never to returne to my pristine shape, till I was first married, and after had received such power from my Husband · And now from henceforth I shall be the same to you night and day, of that youth and lively-hood which you now see me; till Time and Age breed new alteration, even to the last period of my life.”  She then transformed into her true human form, and that way she remained.


Pamphlet on Tannakin Skinker (Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia Commons) 

Other famous pig-faced women included the Pig-Face Lady of Manchester Square in London, and an unfortunate lady in Paris whose bitter ex took out an ad in a newspaper labelling her as a pig-faced woman. She eventually had to move due to the public attention.

Closer to home, your heart must go out to Griselda Steevens. Sister of Dr Richard Steevens, she founded Steevens’ Hospital (presently an administrative office of the HSE, opposite Heuston Station in Dublin) under the terms of his will. Griselda was a kind-hearted, charitable woman, who routinely donated alms to Dublin’s poor. Unfortunately, she was also shy, and wore a veil in public due to an eye condition. Additionally, she often did not leave her carriage when doing her charity work. At some stage, the rumour flew around the city that Griselda had a pig’s face.


Toby, the learned pig (via Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, Griselda could upload a dozen selfies to Instagram and instantly prove the gossip wrong. Unfortunately, she lived in the 18th century. Despite commissioning a large portrait of herself and sitting out on the balcony of the hospital, most Dubliners preferred to believe that the portrait of a lady with a pig’s face in a city pub was the real Griselda Steevens. By the time of her death in 1746, she’d withdrawn from public life entirely. The rumour still continued afterwards; Dr William Wilde (father of Oscar) recalled being shown Griselda’s “trough” while training to be a surgeon.

Freakshows and fairgrounds were big business in the 19th century, and many circuses exhibited shaved, drugged bears as pig-faced women across the UK and Ireland.

Real pigs were also shown at fairs; these were “learned pigs”. Pigs, as mentioned last month, are intelligent animals, and can be trained in basic commands.


“The Wonderful Pig” by Thomas Rowlandson (via Wikimedia Commons)

The original pig could pick up cards in answer to simple mathematical and logic questions. It was trained by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, and exhibited in Dublin with great success. Learned pigs became a fad in Europe, and soon spread to America. One learned pig, Toby, wrote his memoirs with the “assistance” of his trainer Nicholas Hoare. Toby said he became so clever because his mother ate a book of classic literature.

Something to note when you next see a funny animal video on Facebook; there’s nothing new under the sun.

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