Mary Luhorne, the Female Miser of Deptford; her Miserable Habits of Penury; her Love of Hoarding; her enormous Wealth—Elizabeth Wilcocks and her secret Hoards—The Misses Vooght, Three Female Misers of Amsterdam; a singular instance of Avarice as a Family failing—Joanna Horrel the Applewoman of Exeter; her sumptuous fortune, etc.
IT has been remarked, that when women become vicious they know no medium; they are good or they are very bad; and when once fascinated with vice, they are more difficult to reclaim than men. Certainly, in the cases which we subjoin of female misers, the passion of avarice appears in fearful strength, rendering the heart of its votaries callous to the call of duty, and insensible to the dictates of conscience.
In the month of August of the year 1766 there died at Deptford a wretched old woman, in her ninety-sixth year; she was the widow of Captain Luhorne, of the East India service. She survived her husband forty years, and during the whole of that period she lived in a most miserly and penurious manner. She not only denied herself the comforts, but even the most common necessaries and decencies of life. Her clothes were so tattered that she was almost in a state of nudity, and the rags which she hung upon her shoulders were so filthy, and so animated with vermin, that passengers took the precaution to keep at a distance from her in the streets. She was never known to have lit a fire in her room, and never indulged in the luxury of a candle; she wore no under-garments, and had no sheet to cover her at night; she eschewed all rules of cleanliness, and appeared never so happy as when surrounded with filth and loathsomeness. She would frequently wander along the roads to beg of passers-by, and always professed the utmost poverty. The demon of avarice was so strong within this covetous soul, that she was more than once detected in pilfering some trifling articles from her neighbours. One Tuesday the old woman was missed; she had not been observed to leave her room, and she had not been seen in her accustomed walks: Wednesday passed, and the neighbours began to suspect that the old miser must be ill; they knocked at her door, but no voice replied; they waited for the morrow; and when the day had far advanced, and she did not appear, they got in at the window. They found her in bed alive, but speechless: with attention she revived a little, but on Saturday the old woman died. Her relatives were sent for, who on opening her drawers and chests found securities and gold to the amount of forty thousand pounds, besides clothes of the most sumptuous make and texture, plate, china, jewels and linen. For years had she been surrounded with this wealth and possessed these luxuries, which if rightly used would have served to comfort her old age, and have been the means of relieving the miseries and wants of others; the remembrance would in return have proved a great solace to the bed of sickness and death. Yet although her drawers were thus crammed with costly apparel, which was slowly mouldering and rotting before the effects of time; that wretched object of penury chose rather to wear rags so filthy that it became the imperative duty of her relatives to burn them immediately after her death.
In a life so wretched—so devoid of purpose, so laborious, without an object, so self-denying and so debased—we have a striking example of the littleness of human wishes, and the ignobility of the human mind, when unguided by reason, and when swayed by the despotism of the passions. Her life is, indeed, a problem the philosopher will find some difficulty to solve. With forty thousand pounds, no fraction of which she would venture to enjoy—with none for whom affection would prompt her to save—here was a wretched being whose lust for gold, and whose propensity to hoard, was so overwhelming, that she would beg of strangers in the streets—pilfer whatever she could lay her hands upon; and although surrounded with an abundance, deprived herself of every enjoyment—of every hope and consolation—that she might gratify this most senseless propensity of her nature. When we think of the worthlessness of her life—of her avarice, as manifested in all its strength at the age of ninety-five, and of her lonely and comfortless death-bed—we are prompted to exclaim, with the psalmist, Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas! ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"–Ecclesiastes. 1.2)
In the year 1768, there died at Nether-Shuckburgh, in Warwickshire, an old maid, named Elizabeth Wilcocks, whose life presents a similar illustration of that love of hoarding, and that passion to acquire, which we have seen exemplified so fearfully in the case of Mary Luhorne. For many years before her death, she ate nothing but horse-beans or a few curlings: she had hardly any clothes, and had nothing but a bundle of straw and an old blanket to lie upon; yet, at her death, twelve pairs of sheets, and a large quantity of other linen, was found in her drawers. She hid her wealth in the most unaccountable places. In a pickle-pot, stowed away in the clock-case, was discovered eighty pounds in gold and five pounds in silver. In a hole under the stairs a canister full of gold: in an old rat-trap a large quantity of gold and silver, and in several other places similar hoards were discovered by her executors. In addition to all this wealth, this miserable old miser was possessed of an estate in houses and land producing a handsome revenue. She left the whole of her property to a very distant relative.
In an old newspaper, called the "General Evening Post," of the date December 21, 1779, there is an announcement of the death of Miss Maria Vooght, the female miser, of Amsterdam. She was the last of three singular and parsimonious sisters. Lest they should not be enabled to gratify their propensity to accumulate and save, they resolutely declined all offers of matrimony. They lived huddled together in one room—gloried, like true misers, in filth, and lumber, and vermin. They ate the coarsest food, and of that but sparingly, and they were never known to have bestowed a fraction in charity. There never, perhaps, were seen such miserable, dirty, and untidy old maids. In all three, the passion of avarice was equally strong: it appeared in them a family vice: they were not induced to become so parsimonious from the fear of any future want, for they had each a fortune which would have secured all those comforts and enjoyments it is in the power of gold to provide. Maria Vooght, the last of these eccentric characters, left at her death, a fortune of five millions of guilders, equal to five hundred thousand pounds. She died in-testate, and the money went to strangers.
About forty years ago, the overseers of Horncastle summoned a poor man, named Daniel Collwood, for refusing to support his wife. He was asked why he had not done so, and he stated, in reply, that his wife took all the money she could obtain from him; but instead of applying it to domestic purposes, hoarded it away, but in what place he was unable to discover. The overseers ordered a search to be made. On entering the house, the woman, as usual, pleaded the utmost poverty, affirming that she was almost starving with hunger, and that she had not a single farthing in the house. They, much to her consternation, commenced a search, and soon found hid in various parts about one hundred and thirty-four pounds in specie, carefully wrapped up in small bits of paper and folded round with old rags! Yet, whilst this miserable being had been accumulating this sum, she had destroyed the domestic peace of her husband by spreading about a report that he refused to allow her the necessary means of subsistence.
Many years ago, there used to sit in the streets of Exeter an old woman selling lemons and apples. In the very hottest day she did not flinch before the sun; and in the very bitterest of December nights she was sure to be found at her accustomed place. Now and then she did business in her little way, and took a few coppers from the urchins in the streets. Her appearance bespoke the utmost poverty, and her rigid habits of parsimony were regarded by the charitable as the shifts of indigence. She had been an old inhabitant of the city, but all her relatives were poor, and one of them had long been an inmate of the workhouse. There were but few who, knowing these circumstances, did not pity poor old Joanna Horrel, the apple-woman, of Exeter; and loose halfpence were often quietly dropped into her fruit-basket. These tributes of compassion were always carefully hoarded up, and however much she obtained by such means, she never altered her appearance, never lived more generously, never indulged herself in luxuries or comforts at home, and never once thought of her poor relative in the poor-house. In the year 1789, Joanna had grown old, and her span of life was at an end. Her relatives came to fulfil the last duties for the dead, and on searching her room, hid here and there in cracks and corners, behind bricks and under the flooring, they discovered a fortune of near ten thousand pounds.