The Strange Story of Anna Kingsford

 [ illustrations ‘Cold Wind’ & ‘Fake it till you make it’  by Rovina Cai]

As the only Victorian medical student at the time to graduate without having experimented on a single animal, a theosophist, who believed in knowledge of God through spiritual ecstasy, a spiritualist who communed with Anne Boleyn, (her supposed ancestor), and a proponent of animal and women’s rights who fiercely denounced vivisection – Anna Kingsford, traversed all manner of Victorian debates. She is, however, surprisingly absent from academic scholarship.

As a child Anna spent her time in her father’s library, alternately conversing with flowers or with fairies; she was a ‘born seer…seeing apparitions and divining the characters and fortunes of people.’ Her psychic abilities became linked from a young age to her kinship with animals. Deborah Rudacille notes that as a child, Kingsford enjoyed foxhunting, until one day she had a vision of herself as the fox.

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Anna Kingsford 16 September 1846 – 22 February 1888

In order to escape unwanted suitors, when she was twenty-one she married her cousin, an Anglican clergyman named Algernon Kingsford, on the condition that she would continue to lead a fully autonomous life. Rereading their early courtship letters later in life she bemusedly notes ‘they are full of declarations that my chief reason for marrying was to be independent and free!’ Shortly after her marriage, after dreaming of a visit from Mary Magdalene, Kingsford converted to Catholicism. Her husband respected her independence and supported her in her choices, as well as in her later conversion to theosophy – on the grounds that it promoted gender equality.

In these years of spiritual conversion, Kingsford became a feminist and vegetarian; in 1872 she bought The Lady’s Own Paper, and took up work as its editor, becoming acquainted with the famous writer, feminist, and anti-vivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe.

In 1873 Anna enrolled for medical study in Paris in order to acquire the scientific knowledge to argue against vivisection and advocate a vegetarian diet. Her final thesis, L’Alimentation Végétale de l’Homme, was on the benefits of vegetarianism, published in English as The Perfect Way in Diet (1881).

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‘Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians’ by John Leech Punch (1852)

 

Kingsford wrote to her husband in 1874:

Things are not going well for me. My chef at the Charité strongly disapproves of women students and took this means of showing it. About a hundred men (no women except myself) went round the wards today, and when we were all assembled before him to have our names written down, he called and named all the students except me, and then closed the book. I stood forward upon this, and said quietly, “Et moi aussi, monsieur.” [And me, Sir.] He turned on me sharply, and cried, “Vous, vous n’êtes ni homme ni femme; je ne veux pas inscrire vôtre nom.” [You, you are neither man nor woman; I don’t want to write your name.] I stood silent in the midst of a dead silence.

In 1877, After listening to one of her instructors, Dr. Claude Bernard, exhorting slowly baking live animals to death in order to study body heat, Anna, flew from her seat, labeled her teacher ‘Murderer!’ and refused to return to the classroom. Sickened by Parisian animal experimentation, (she wrote of ‘trying vainly to shut out the piteous shrieks and cries which floated incessantly towards [her] up the staircase’ at night) Anna arranged for private tuition and refused to dissect a single animal. In an effort to ‘root this curse of torture’, she habitually volunteered herself for dissection so that the doctors would leave the animals alone.

Soon after her exchange with Dr. Claude Bernard, Anna records feeling as though she became ‘a spiritual thunderbolt’ who, with all her might, willed the doctor dead. Soon after this episode, and after fainting from the extent of her fury, Kingsford wrote to Maitland (her confidante and later biographer) of the doctor’s sudden death:

‘Woe be to the torturers! I will make it dangerous, nay, deadly, to be a vivisector. It is the only argument that will affect them. Meanwhile, thank God the head of the gang is dead!’

Spellbound by her extrasensory powers, Kingsford set her sights on Dr. Paul Bert, ‘the most notorious of the vivisecting fraternity’, a doctor known for keeping all who slept by his laboratory awake with the cries of semi-dissected animals. After Dr. Bert died in November 1886 Kingsford wrote again of her triumph:

I have killed Paul Bert, as I killed Claude Bernard; as I will kill Louis Pasteur, and after him the whole tribe of vivisectors – it is a magnificent power to have, and one that transcends all vulgar methods of dealing out justice to tyrants.

Fortunately for Louis Pasteur, Kingsford’s psychic homicide ‘took from [her] nervous force’; after being caught in rainstorm (whilst investigating Pasteur’s laboratory) Kingsford developed pneumonia, and later tuberculosis. She died on February 22, 1888 spending her final days, according to her friend Sir Richard Burton, ‘suffering in mind and soul’ ‘at the sights and sounds connected with Parisian vivisection.’


Maitland, Edward, Anna Kingsford: Her Life, Letters, Diary and Work, 2 Vols. (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2003)

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