A Hairy Experience

The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives unit of Library Special Collections has acquired an unusual 1842 petition signed by 17 Harrison County citizens attesting to an unusual growth of hair on thumb and fingers of fourteen-year-old Penelope Stout and confirming that they knew the character of Penelope’s family.  Seven of the petitioners had actually seen the hair growth, ten others “never saw any hair But believe it upon the Confidence and Judgement I place in others.” Questioning a family’s character in this sense, typically meant they suspected her of devil worship or witchcraft.

The unusual phenomenon merited a full paragraph in Richard H. Collins’ History of Kentucky published in 1871. “Dr. Carson Gibney,” Collins noted, “a graduate of Transylvania medical school, practicing at Leesburg,

Petition acknowledging the mysterious hair growth on the fingers of Penelope Stout.

Harrison County, Ky., was called, Nov. 1, 1841, to see Miss Penelope Stout, daughter of Thos. H. Stout, of that place, a young girl of 13 years of age.  He was informed that for some days past, Miss Penelope had been giving off from the thumb of her right hand quantities of hair, varying in hue and thickness–portions of it occasionally appearing thick and harsh, and constructed precisely like hog-bristles; and again it would come long and soft and silky and beautiful as the hair on her head.  It would emanate most frequently from the end about the nail, but often about the thumb joints, leaving not a single trace on the surface of the skin to tell whence it had come.  When grown to a certain length the hair would drop off, creating at times no sensation at all, at others producing a numbness about the arm, such as is produced by the foot sleeping.  Some four or five inches in length.  This singular action or disease had been going on constantly for six weeks, when the account was published.  She was taken to Lexington, and other physicians were consulted to learn the cause of the phenomenon, but unsuccessfully.  Hundreds of citizens visited the wonder little stranger.  No charge was made for admission.”

The growth persisted for at least two years on Penelope’s right thumb.  The unwanted hair, did not hurt her marriage prospects nor result in exile.  In 1845 she married a merchant and county surveyor ten years her senior named Amelius Eggleston Ames.  She gave birth to her first daughter at age 16 and a second when she was 18.  She did not live beyond her youngest child’s second birthday and died in 1849.

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