Today we look at an Interesting Person from Leesburg, Kentucky, Miss Penelope Stout, a minor fortean sensation in the 1840s, who was said to sprout hairs from her thumbs as witnesses watched. Not, perhaps, the most useful of talents, although a comic version of her story has the bristles being waxed and used in shoemaking, but still a minor medical anomaly. This account comes from a traveling minister, John Allen Gano. Judging from his stainless reputation, we can be reasonably sure that Gano was telling the truth as he saw it. Whether his observational skills were up to the task of either verifying an odd phenomenon or catching an adolescent girl in an imposture, is a question that probably cannot be answered.
Case of Miss Penelope Stout, of Leesburg Kentucky.
We have been furnished by Elder Gano, with the following statements in relation to the case of this young girl, from whose thumb hairs have grown out for some time. The testimony of intelligent and most reputable witnesses cannot fail to satisfy the minds of all, who can believe, “without seeing” themselves:
Having heard much about a singular phenomenon that had presented itself at Leesburg, on the person of a little girl, whose name is Penelope Stout, about thirteen years of age, the daughter of an acquaintance, I concluded to visit her and satisfy my mind as to the amount of truth there was, in the many rumors afloat concerning it. As well as can be recollected, it was on Monday, the 22d of November last, that I visited her. Up to last fall, I had been for ten years regularly laboring at Leesburg as a preacher of the Gospel and in each month with very few omissions, and had become well acquainted with the citizens who resided there. I consider them an intelligent and virtuous community; much more so than the citizens of small villages usually are. The family of Mr. T.H. Stout lived in the place at the time of my first acquaintance there. I have known it ever since, the family is respectable, and the parents, I believe, are truly pious and would scorn anything like deception or mean action. At the time of our visit above mentioned, I conversed with the citizens before I called at Mr. Stout’s, but one sentiment of belief, in the reality of the strange occurrence.
On entering the house, I found the little girl apparently well, an interesting child, the picture of artlessness and innocence and rather sprightly than otherwise. Every facility was afforded me for satisfactory observation of the phenomenon. She was seated in view of all present, and while her left hand was pendant, her right hand was held out with the thumb erect; several gentlemen with the members of the family present were seated around or standing by; I got her to change the position of her hand and person several times to relieve her, thinking she was fatigued, for me to set a considerable length of time, again having resumed her first position, my eye caught a very small hair on the ned of her thumb—not having seen it grow, I removed it and wiped the thumb with my handkerchief, soon after which, I discovered the end of a small hair presenting itself form the end of the thumb, some little distance from the nail towards the ball; observing it closely, I distinctly saw it grow or lengthen out; the entire length of the hair was not I think, half an inch; when its growth was complete, it stood on one end of the thumb until I took it off. I noticed that the end of the hair which came out last was the finest. I could see no apparent effect whatever produced on the skin; nor did it require the least effort to detach it. She informed me there was no sensation of which she was conscious produced by the growth of the hairs, and that she could not tell unless she saw them, that they were coming, that when they had to be drawn out, “they hurt a little.” I discovered through her thumbnail for about one third of its length, an appearance, as though a small splinter had been stuck under it and contracted; enquiring as to the cause of this, I was told that Mr. J. Wasson had drawn a large black hair form under her nail, that had grown out several inches and becoming stationary had to be pulled out.
Her parents in conversation then informed me that the hairs had been growing out about five weeks that they came irregularly; that for one entire week in the five, none appeared, and at another time none for a day or two; sometimes twenty or more would come out in a day. The hairs, they said, were of various sizes, lengths, and colours, a deep black, red, brown and pure white, with also different shades of these colors, varying in size from a coarse bristle to such as I had seen and finer; and in length from one, twenty-six inches to the shortest and finest visible down, of which there was much produced. They further stated that up to that time, they had seen none grown from any other part than her right thumb, from under the nail, on the end or inside. From her mother I learned their attention was first drawn to the strange occurrence in the following manner. On Sunday evening about five weeks previous to my visit she complained occasionally of her right thumb and said “it felt as though it was asleep, having in it a twinkling sensation.” On going to the candle to examine it, she exclaimed, “la! Mother if here isn’t a hair growing out of the end of my thumb.” Her mother threatened to slap her, if she did not hush talking so foolishly; by this time her cousin, whose attention had been drawn to it, said, “yes, aunt, it is the truth and you can see it growing.” That hair grew out to the length of some four or five inches and fell off and for several weeks the majority of the larger ones that grew out, fell off. Her mother said she disregarded the superstitious conjectures about it, made by many, but being unable to account for it, she had suffered much uneasiness of mind about the child; yet she said up to that time, her general health seemed good. I was further informed that she was going to school when this singular growth commenced and so much was the school interrupted by its occurrence and the frequent visit of persons to see her, she had to be withdrawn, and to the constant interruption of the family and the suspension of its business every day, she was visited by the curious and inquisitive. And however much her parents regretted the misfortune of their daughter, they wished to see visitors gratified, and though their circumstances are ordinary; from principle they would have scorned to make merchandize of their child’s affliction.
Of her visit to the Lexington and the treatment she received while there we have but little to say. Her parents were persuaded to let her be carried to that place, that by a fair and patient examination, scientific gentlemen might satisfy themselves as to the fact and then satisfy the public as to its philosophy. All that was charged any gentleman for a knowledge of the fact, was to explain it if he could. Little did they suppose their daughter was to be viewed by any one as a suspicious character and that there would be more effort to prove her a deceiver than to ascertain the fact and its nature. There are, however, among those who saw her in Lexington, many most honorable exceptions; some indeed who patiently examined and firmly believed, as we are informed. I have recently seen in the Western and Southern Medical Recorder, published in Lexington, a piece, “On the growth of hair in extraneous situations,” to be found in the fourth number of that work, and as this case is therein referred to, I request all who can, to avail themselves of its perusal. They will there find more light thrown on this strange affair, than can be obtained in the same number of lines from any other source known to us.
In order properly to ascertain the fact, in this case, the most important article required is good eyesight in an unprejudiced head, and I believe there is enough of this, about Leesburg, to establish a visible fact. I visited the subject of this narrative again on yesterday (Feb. 23) her parents informed me, the hairs still continued to grow, and have during the winter thus far; the growth for many weeks past has not been confined to her right thumb, but the hairs come out on both hands and from both thumbs and fingers, but invariably on the inside or from the ends or from under the nails.
She has been recently very ill, the seat of disease appeared to be in the region of the heart and lungs. She suffered much from difficulty of breathing attended with slight spasms. Since her recovery, M. B. Hearne informed me that a glutinous substance came out on the ball of her thumb all over, and when scraped off and taken between the thumb and fore finger, could, by gradually separating them, be drawn out to a considerable length without breaking; her father told me that some few days since, a hair grew out about the middle of her forefinger on the inside and not falling off, they attempted to extract it, and finding it more firmly set than usual, they called in several of the citizens to see it, and when finally it was drawn out, it raised the skin before it was loosened.
Soon after my first visit to see her, I addressed a private letter to Elder Thomas M. Allen of Missouri, in which I stated briefly what I had seen and heard about this little girl. There being no impropriety in so doing, he caused to be published in the Columbus newspaper, as much of that letter as related to this matter. He informs me recently that a publication or statement had reached there alleging that the whole affair was a hoax; we know the source from whence this report emanated, and deeply regret the gross injustice done the little girl and the family, and the violence done to truth and matter of fact. And it is this which now prompts us to present to the public the foregoing statements and the cloud of most respectable and satisfactory testimony which follows. [This testimony is omitted in the Courier and I have not found a version that includes any other accounts.]
John Allen Gano.
February 24, 1842
Charleston [SC] Courier 15 April 1842: p. 2
A shorter version of the observations above was published in Boon’s Lick Times [Fayette, MO] 18 December 1841: p. 3
I cannot seem to pin down who examined the girl in Lexington and how they arrived at their conclusions. This next author, in a lengthy piece on the horrid and out-of-place locations that hairs can grow in the human body, says that Penelope was imposing on her public, but no proof is given. This is the introduction to a series of unrelated case histories.
FACTS IN RELATION TO THE GROWTH OF HAIR
IN EXTRANEOUS SITUATIONS.
BY THE EDITOR.
A girl, about thirteen years of age, was, some weeks since, brought to this city, from the ball of whose thumb, it was said, hairs frequently issued. These, it was stated, were various in length and texture — some being very fine, and others almost as coarse as hogs bristles. She inspired so much interest, that to gratify curiosity, hundreds visited her, amongst whom, were several very respectable medical gentlemen. This continued for several days, and in the mean time, very extraordinary rumours were afloat in the community in regard to the length and rapidity with which the hairs emerged from the prolific part. In this, doubtless, there was much exaggeration. We did not visit her until after it had been said, that she had been detected in placing hairs under her thumb nail; and then we called upon her, but for a very different purpose, than that which had prompted the hundreds who preceded us.
Many of those that visited her, and kept her under the strictest surveillance, for hours, and who are, doubtless, qualified to give testimony in regard to so simple a fact, declared in the most positive manner, that they had distinctly seen hairs issue, not from under the thumb nail exclusively, but from various parts of the ball of the thumb, and that it was impossible for them to have been deceived. Such was the testimony of more than a dozen highly intelligent men.
When, therefore, we were told that the girl had imposed upon the public credulity, and that too, to an extent almost without a parallel amongst the tricks of the most dexterous jugglers, we shall be believed, when we say, that we were perfectly astounded that so many intelligent men should have been cheated by a trick, so gross and palpable, that the most careless observer should have, in an instant, detected and exposed it.
Finding that this case had excited a degree of interest to which we did not think it entitled, and not wishing it to go abroad that we considered it a perfectly unprecedented affair, we slated to the medical class, that we had not seen the girl — that we knew nothing personally of the issuing of hair from her thumb, and, therefore, we could not vouch for its truth; but that if true, it was not of so extraordinary a nature as to entitle it to the interest it had inspired, or the importance which the public had attached to it; and further, that there was but little sense or science in declaring, as some, in earnest, did, that it must necessarily be an imposition, as such a thing as many professed to have witnessed, was anatomically and physiologically impossible. In proof of the above assertions, we quoted many cases of the growth of hair in accidental and unnatural situations, and although we did not adduce one precisely of the character of that which it was said, was then exhibiting in this city, we succeeded in establishing the fact, that the formation, of hairs in uncommon situations, is one of the most frequent anomalies that occurs in the animal economy.
Immediately after these statements were made to the medical class, I believe the very same day, it was reported that the imposition had been detected. This maybe so; but to say the least of it, the proof of its truth is unsatisfactory and inconclusive. The Western and Southern Medical Recorder Vol. I, 1841
Now, as medical anomalies go, this is less than compelling stuff. One wonders why it so captured the local imagination. The fictional story hints that some viewed the abnormality as a sign of evil. Is there a name for this kind of hair growth? [Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.] The rapidly-sprouting hairs and their different colors suggest, but do not parallel exactly the difficult and polarising disorder known as Morgellons Disease or Morgellons Syndrome, over which there has been heated controversy over diagnoses and treatments. This article gives something of a summary.
The comic version of Penelope Stout’s hirsute misadventures (one of several vignettes) is called “The Colonel, at Home, in Sonoma County,” Laura Lyon White, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, edited by Bret Harte, February 1891
I am damning and blasting my library for “upgrading” the format of historic census reports, which makes them more difficult to use, but our Penelope does not seem to appear to have been counted. Her father, Thomas, is found in the 1840 report, which only lists heads of households by name. In an ideal world, she would die young and, years later, when her coffin was being moved, it would be found to be full of hair.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murdereress Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.