Wednesday, September 3, 2014

True life Rapunzels! The Sutherland Sisters and their 37 feet of hair!

It has always been said that a woman's crowning glory is in her hair. This has never been more true than for the seven Sutherland sisters who became wealthy because of the incredible length of their hair. Together, their hair measured and incredible 37 feet in length. 

From the left: Sarah, Naomi, Fletcher, Grace, Victoria, Dora, Mary, and Isabella  

In the 19th century, married or mature women wore their hair up. So when hair was worn unbound and loose, it was considered erotic. 

The sisters were born into extreme poverty between the years 1851 and 1865 in Cambria, New York.
As a means of pulling his family out of poverty, their father, Reverend Fletcher Sutherland, tried to get them into theatres as singers. But it wasn't their parlor songs and ballads that gained them fame, it was their hair. The grand finale of their act was when they turned their backs to the audience and their father shouted, "Let down your hair."

But how did their hair come to grow so long, the public wondered? A rumor circulated stating that their mother had applied some form of concoction to enhance the growth. Whether that was true or not, their father soon created a special tonic made from 56% witch-hazel water, 44% rum, salt, magnesium, and hydrochloric acid, and marketed it. With the seven sisters used a proof the product works, and the fact that their father was a respected preacher, the product was highly successful and the family suddenly found themselves comfortably wealthy. From tonics, the company expanded into numerous other lotions and cosmetics. 

Actual bottle

The sisters played to sold out crowds in theatres throughout the United States. They became huge celebrities and millionaires. But mismanagement of their wealth resulted in each of the sisters dying  destitute. 

Sara Sutherland
1845 - 1919

Although Sarah's hair wasn't the longest, she was the sister who managed the group's singing and dancing acts in the various theatres. She was the President of their company. 


Grace Sutherland
1845 - 1946

Grace boasted the longest hair. A beautiful auburn color, it was five feet long and a source of great pride to her. She never married and died a spinster in 1946. 

Dora "Kitty" Sutherland
1858 - unknown

Dora was the Vice-President of the company. She was one of the younger sisters and has an alto voice. Her hair was abundantly thick and about five feet long. 

Isabella Sutherland
1852 - 1914

Isabella's hair was one of the longest at 6 feet. Of the sisters, she married twice. 

Mary Sutherland
unknown - 1939

Mary's dark brown hair was thick, heavy, and long at 6 feet. Mary suffered from mental problems her entire life. 

Naomi Sutherland
1858 - 1893

Although Naomi's hair wasn't the longest, it was the thickest and could cover her entire body. She was married to Henry Bailey, the son of Barnum of Barnum and Bailey. It was Henry who officially formed the Sutherland Sister's Corporation and helped create and sell the special hair tonics associated to them. 

Victoria Sutherland
1849 - 1902

Of all the sisters, Victoria was the most beautiful of the sisters and the one with the longest hair at 7 feet. This lovely cougar married a 19 year old when she was 45 years old!

Loosely based on their history is the novel, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric. 

Back Cover Blurb

It’s rural Ireland in the second half of the nineteenth century, the age of the Pre-Raphaelites, when Europe burns with a passion for long, flowing locks. So when seven sisters, born into fatherless poverty, grow up with hair cascading down their backs, to their ankles, and beyond, men are not slow to recognize their potential.

Soon, they’re a singing and dancing septet: Irish jigs kicked out in dusty church halls. But it is not their singing or their dancing that fills the seats: it is the torrents of hair they let loose at the end of each show. In an Ireland still hungry and melancholy with the Great Famine, the Swiney hair is a rich offering. And their hair will take dark-hearted Darcy, bickering twins Berenice and Enda, plain Pertilly, gentle Oona, wild Ida, and fearful, flame-haired Manticory—the writer of their on- and off-stage adventures—out of poverty, through the dance halls of Ireland, to the salons of Dublin and the palazzi of Venice. It will bring them suitors and obsessive admirers, it will bring some of them love and each of them loss. For their past trails behind the sisters like the tresses on their heads and their fame and fortune will come at a terrible price.

Rich in period detail, peopled by a bewitching cast of characters, The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a tale of exploitation and celebrity, illegitimacy and sibling rivalry, love triangles and financial skullduggery, of death and devilry. And a very great deal of hair.


Told through the eyes of Manticory Swiney, one of the seven Swiney sisters, and the one with the vibrant auburn hair, the reader is swept into Harristown, Kildare, at the height of the great Irish famine. Starving and destitute, the sisters live a desperate hand to mouth existence. Their long hair is plagued with lice, and their bodies are emaciated from hunger. Each of the girls possesses a different hair color, from black, to red, to blonde.

Tired of poverty, the eldest is shrewd and strong-willed enough to place her sisters on a stage and demand they perform. Their claim to fame is not their acting, dancing, and singing, rather, it is their courage to break free from the social restrictions regarding bound hair. At the end of each performance, when the sisters turn their backs and let loose a cascade of hair, the audience roars!  Like a feral cat ready to pounce, an antagonist named Eileen O’Reilly does her best to thwart the sisters at every turn.

The novel is richly written and based upon the true life story of the Sutherland sisters in the USA during the 19th century. It is a rags to riches to rags story that I found myself completely absorbed by. Each of the sisters was depicted with plenty of faults and qualities, which added to my interest in this fascinating tale. It is a roller coaster ride that takes the reader to joy, love, despair, and tragedy. This is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it to book clubs as there is an avalanche of material that will lead to many a lively discussion. A lovely book into the odd and unusual lives of these fascinating women. 


Michelle Miller said...

Thank you for this interesting history of the sisters. I had never heard of them. I have several of Lovric's books so this one is definitely going on the wishlist.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

You are welcome, Michelle. It was fun putting this post together. I very much enjoyed the novel. It is written in such a way that there is constant conflict and struggles between the sisters. Do let me know what your thoughts are when you finish it.

QNPoohBear said...

I am willing to bet not all that hair was their own. I can tell you from experience that a)hair stops growing at a certain point and b)it hurts to wear it up like that. No wonder they were happy to let their hair down. They probably had constant headaches.

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

It is a bit hard to believe. I recall singer Crystal Gayle had long hair like that too.

I wouldn't be surprised if Barnum and Baily had found a way to make their hair seem longer. Weren't they famous for tricks like that?

Penny Price said...

I'm curious to know what the ethnicity was of the sisters. I was wondering about native American lineage

Anonymous said...

Amazing story. I belive it was all their hair and I am interested in the tonic. It is also sad that they lived in such poverty.