Weird Suffolk: The curious and grisly tale of a family who lost their feet

St Nicholas Church, Wattisham. Picture: S Pye

St Nicholas Church, Wattisham. Picture: S Pye - Credit: S Pye

In a redundant church in the village of Wattisham, an 18th century stone tablet bears witness to a story which gripped villagers in the mid 1700s: the curious and grisly tale of the family of six from Judgement Farm who all lost their feet.

At St Nicholas church, the tablet reads as follows: “This inscription serves to authenticate the truth of a singular calamity which suddenly happened to a poor family in the parish of which six persons lost their feet by a mortification not to be accounted for. A full narrative of their case is recorded in the parish register…”

In January 1762, 16-year-old Mary Downing was taken with a sudden pain in her left leg which within hours had spread to her foot and toes. The next day, black spots appeared on her foot and then the foot became swollen and black: the poor girl said it felt as if dogs were gnawing at her leg.

The rest of the tale is not for the faint-hearted, look away if you are easily shaken.

Gradually, the putrefaction crept towards poor Mary’s knee and her flesh began to peel from the bone and then – horrifically – her foot came away at the ankle, leaving her leg bone bare.

First illustration of rye infected by ergot. Picture: Wellcome Collection

First illustration of rye infected by ergot. Picture: Wellcome Collection - Credit: Wellcome Collection

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In the days that followed, her other foot and leg became affected in the same way, then her thighs became swollen, an abscess

formed and despite the best efforts of doctors, who removed both

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her legs at the knee, after a few weeks of terrible suffering, Mary died.

As the family struggled to cope with the tragedy, Mary senior – who was grieving her daughter’s death – felt the same kind of pain under her left foot and then in her other foot and leg – she lost both feet at the ankle and her hands and arms became numb and withered. Unlike her daughter, however, Mary made a full recovery, albeit her life altered by disability forever.

The next to fall victim was Elizabeth, 14, who became ill on January 11 – her leg and foot were affected but for three weeks one leg remained untouched until that too became afflicted, the unfortunate child ultimately losing one foot at the ankle and the other near the knee.

Ten-year-old Sarah lost a foot at the ankle, seven-year-old Robert lost both legs at the knee, four-year-old Edward lost both feet and the youngest member of the family, who had been taken from its mother’s breast as soon as she became ill and sent to a wet nurse, died within two months, its feet and hands turning black post mortem.

Father John, who had watched his family devastated by an unnamed horror lurking his household, took three weeks to succumb – his hands became numb, withered and then blacknened, he lost some fingernails but miraculously survived with all limbs intact.

The plight of the family touched the hearts of villagers who rallied to raised £500 to help them, enough to gift them a small annuity to live on.

But just what had caused a family to be struck down in such a devastating fashion? Was black magic at the dark heart of the putrefaction? Had the family been afflicted by a deadly virus? Was an unnamed bogeyman spreading decay in the quiet streets of Wattisham?

In a letter from physician Charlton Wollaston to Thomas Birch, secretary of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in November 1762, Wollaston wrote: “I have taken all the pains I could to enquire into the cause of so remarkable a disorder; and Mr Bones, the minister of the village, who knew the family before this misfortune happened to them, and has ever since been indefatigable in his attention and tendernesse to them, has also made all the enquiry in his power; but we have not been able to find, that there was any thing particular either in their diet or manner of life, to which it could be attributed.

“The corn, with which they made their bread, was certainly very bad: it was wheat, that had been cut in a rainy season, and had lain on the ground till many of the grains were black and totally decayed; but many other poor families in the same village made use of the same corn without receiving any injury from it.”

But, it turns out, a bogeyman had been stalking the village: fungus the bogeyman.

Ergot is a fungus which grows on rye – in the Middle Ages, ergotism, an extreme reaction to ergot-contaminated food such as rye bread, was commonplace and known as St Anthony’s Fire.

It was believed that a visit to St Anthony’s shrine – which happened to be in a ergot-free region of France – could cure the horrific symptoms and ergot was also believed to have played a role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, where it is thought that some of the peculiar behaviour noted at the time was due to people eating ergot-contaminated food.

The nasty bug can cause painful seizures and spasms, diarrhoea, parenthesis, itching, mental effects including mania or psychosis, headaches, nausea and vomiting and additionally can lead to gangrene and the death and loss of affected tissue. The mortification written about in stone was, in fact, the effect of the black rye used to make bread – that more people didn’t succumb to the fungus is little short of a miracle.

For more Weird Suffolk stories click here.

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