Wednesday, June 28, 2006

June 28: Margaret M'Avoy (1800-1820)

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is literally full of kings and queens and Nobel Prize-winners and such. But then there are the other folks who get a listing....
M'Avoy, Margaret (1800–1820), impostor, was born at Liverpool of respectable parentage on 28 June 1800. Of sickly constitution, she appeared to become totally blind in June 1816. Her case attracted considerable contemporary attention from the readiness with which she was alleged to distinguish, by touch, colours of cloth, silk, and stained glass. She could also accurately describe the height, dress, bearing, and other characteristics of her visitors, and even decipher letters in a printed book or manuscript with her fingers' ends, so as to be able to read with tolerable fluency. Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist, asked William Roscoe of Liverpool to investigate; Roscoe concluded that M'Avoy could see, and that her demonstrations were an elaborate fraud. She died at Liverpool on 18 August 1820.

[by] Gordon Goodwin, rev. H. C. G. Matthew
The dictionary entry gave only a few sources on M'Avoy, all from the 1820s and 1830s. So I looked around elsewhere online, for more recent commentary about her. She's apparently mentioned in Anna Krugovoy Silver's Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge UP 2002), as an illustration of the other "spectacular behaviors exhibited by adolescent girls" in the nineteenth century; and in this 1999 conference paper on Harriet Martineau's contemporaries, but that's about it. Amazon mentions two older, related publications, Remarks on Joseph Sandars's 'Hints on Credulity,': On the Subject of Miss M'Avoy's Blindness by "Scrutator"--looks to be a 19c. pamphlet, 64 pages; and the original 69-page work by Joseph Sandars, too, Hints to credulity! or, An examination of the pretensions of Miss M. M'Avoy, occasioned by Dr. Renwick's "Narrative" of her case.

So now that gives me two more names, Joseph Sandars and Dr. Renwick (and 'Scrutator' too, of course). Sandars seems pretty easy to track down: a Joseph Sandars was a prominent Liverpudlian, a Quaker corn merchant, backer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, coalmines, ironworks, and limestone quarries. If it's the same man, then why he was writing about Margaret M'Avoy remains unclear. There was a Dr. Renwick who reported one of the first cases of the cholera epidemic that his Liverpool in 1832, as mentioned in this 2005 journal article on the epidemic; might be the same doctor, or a relation. Re-reading the Oxford DNB entry...her case came to the attention of the Joseph Banks, longtime president of the Royal Society? The William Roscoe that Banks asked to investigate M'Avoy's claims wasn't a scientist or a doctor--he was a historian, writer and editor.

But none of these threads seems likely to answer the obvious questions about Margaret M'Avoy. How did she hit upon faking blindness (or more precisely, claiming to see colors and read printed text with her fingers) as her particular 'spectacular behavior'? How was she treated by her older, male examiners, and what fate awaited when she was declared an impostor? Why did she die the summer of her 20th birthday?

Just riffing on a too-short biographical note, on the occasion of Miss M'Avoy's birthday.


Kevin said...


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freefun0616 said...



Vorpal said...

She has an entry in a 19th century book on extraordinary people by Henry Wilson.

Skeptics have shown various methods on how modern finger readers are able to get a peak. James Randi is probably a good source.

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