It happened in 1871 in a small village named Turville, located in Buckinghamshire, UK. At a mere 11 years old, Ellen Sadler passed into a deep sleep and didn’t wake for nine years. But, alas, there was no prince charming to bring this sleeping beauty out of it.
Ellen was a typical little girl, born to a large family of 12 children. The Sadler’s were impoverished farmers, and at age eleven, Ellen was sent to work as a nursemaid, but soon after, she started experiencing bouts of drowsiness and eventually took to seizures. She was hospitalised for a brief time, but sent home when she was declared incurable.
Two days after her release from hospital, on March 17, 1871, she suffered a series of gran-mal seizures and fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be roused. Her mother, Anne Frewen – widowed by the death of her husband, Ellen’s father, when Ellen was a toddler – called for local doctor Henry Hayman, who was at a loss to explain the little girl’s condition.
As the days and weeks went by, with Ellen asleep in a seizure-induced fetal position, word of her plight reached the press and the Sadler home (now known as “Sleepy Cottage”) became a veritable tourist attraction for medical practitioners, reporters, and curiosity seekers alike. Many descriptions of the girl’s condition exist, due in part to the 19th century media circus; such as this from Bucks Free Press:
“Her breathing was regular and natural, the skin soft and the body warm, as in a healthy subject; the pulse rather fast. The hands were small and thin, but the fingers quite flexible; the body somewhat emaciated; the feet and legs like those of a dead child, almost ice cold ... the aspect of her features was pleasant, more so than might be expected under the circumstances ... her eyes and cheeks were sunken, and the appearance was that of death ... but although there was no colour on her cheeks, the paleness was not that heavy hue which betokens death.”
No official diagnosis was ever achieved, doctors at the time were stymied, and talk of a hoax was floated about the small community. This was supported, apparently, by the fact that Anne – who remarried to Thomas Frewen – was accepting monetary donations from those who wished to view the little girl in her deep slumber. Anne was also criticised for limiting medical professional’s access to Ellen for fear that their poking and prodding was detrimental to her daughter’s health, such as it was.
Of course, when one falls into prolonged unconsciousness, several logistical issues begin to crop up. Such as feeding; Anne undertook to sustain Ellen by feeding her port, milk, and tea, and when Ellen’s jaw eventually locked shut, Anne was forced into using small toy teapots, the spouts of which were inserted between two broken teeth, to feed her gruel and other liquid foods. (It isn’t known whether her teeth were already broken, which is possible and even likely, given the era, or if they were damaged in this effort.)
Onlookers soon began to cry foul though, and drew parallels between Ellen’s case and the case of Sarah Jacobs; a girl from Wales who allegedly was able to survive without nourishment due to divine intervention. Jacobs died of starvation in 1869 and her parents were charged and convicted of manslaughter. Some insisted that authorities step in and move Ellen to a hospital, most thinking that her condition could be confirmed and successfully treated, but it was decided that there were no legal grounds for removing the girl from her home.
Anne Frewen died in May 1880, leaving her sleeping daughter to be cared for by her two married sisters. But five months later Ellen mysteriously awoke and was fully recovered by November of the same year. This miracle recovery further fuelled the skeptics, who claimed that Anne had either been hoaxing the entire illness or that she was suffering from Münchausen Syndrome and had deliberately exaggerated and exacerbated Ellen’s condition – possibly with poison – which obviously ended when Anne passed away, leaving Ellen the opportunity to recover.
Ellen went on to marry the son of a nearby neighbour and had five children of her own. She never experienced the symptoms of her earlier illness again, and suffered only slightly stunted growth and a weak eye from her extended slumber. As mentioned, no diagnosis had ever been made, and considering the state of medical knowledge at the time, it’s no wonder. A modern diagnosis might be extreme narcolepsy, or possibly coma induced by epilepsy, but the lack of a thorough examination of her condition by qualified medical practitioners, means the true cause will never be known. And of course, the possibility that the whole thing was hoaxed will never go away.
Many of us view sleep as a sanctuary, a place of comfort and something to look forward to every evening, but what if you went into a deep sleep and for whatever reason, slept away the better part of a decade? In Ellen’s case, the missing time would be much less of a shock, culturally and technologically, but imagine if you will, that this case had taken place in the modern era. The pace at which technology and culture changed between, say, 1970 and 1980 would have served to transport a girl like Ellen Sadler forward through time, and into a world scarcely recognisable to her eyes. Still yet, imagine the extreme culture shock that those who recover from long-term coma would go through upon realising the drastic changes that have taken place in the world around them, while they slept-away the years.
This world would be an alien and confusing place for someone who’s been asleep for nine-plus years, for as Arthur C. Clark said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”