It’s one of the strangest stories to emerge from 20th century Cornwall – the rich, educated, young Russian woman who was known across the county as the “Lady Hermit of the Cornish cliffs”.
So unusual a sight was Jeannie Schmolivitz, who made her home in caves in west Cornwall and lived on blackberries, that she spooked many a local into thinking she was a ghost.
Jeannie became a media star of the day, with national and international newspapers reporting her story, which took in a broken heart, mental illness, arrests, incarceration, daring escape and a final “rescue” which took her from Cornwall back to Russia.
Jeannie Schmolivtz (her surname could also have been Schmulewitz) became a sensation as the 1900s dawned, though her story is now largely forgotten.
It appears she left her family in Russia in the late 1880s or early 1890s and travelled to the USA alone. She was from a highly educated family which had hit hard times in Shavel, which is now known as Siauliai in Lithuania.
In Philadelphia she had a love affair with a young man who cruelly jilted her for another woman. Her heartbreak was exacerbated when he died soon after marrying his new love. It appears Jeannie had a breakdown as a result.
Somehow she ended up in England in 1902, although she may have arrived much earlier, with news reports from the time describing her being fined for wandering without “visible means of support” on the streets of Arundel in Sussex.
The Russian émigrée was sent to Portsmouth Prison to serve a sentence of hard-labour for between 14 and 21 days.
She was described as being aged 34 with dark hair in a curly, short style, brown eyes and “good teeth”. She had a scar on her temple and gesticulated wildly while speaking broken English.
Jeannie’s manner was said to be “superior” to the other inmates at the institution. She ate using her fingers rather than using cutlery, but despite this still appeared cultured and ladylike. She was also in possession of a fair amount of money.
She told authorities she “had no name, no mother, no father and no friends”.
Mystery surrounds how she went from the Portsmouth area to Cornwall but in 1903 it appears Jeannie travelled as far west as it was possible to get, to the bleakest parts of west Cornwall, living in caves between the Lizard peninsula and the Penzance area, where she was interred in the workhouse.
A report in The Cornishman of September 24, 1903, stated that “the wandering woman of Land’s End, who escaped from Penzance Workhouse, to which she was remanded by the magistrates, and who has since successfully evaded the police in their efforts to secure her, has been seen by two lady cyclists. They had no exciting experience until within five or six miles of the Lizard, in which neighbourhood, it will be remembered, the mysterious Jeannie was first seen three weeks or a month ago.”
One of the women told the newspaper: “We stopped beside a gate and we were astonished to see a figure inside crouching down beside the hedge. Directly she saw us, she vanished. I said to my companion, ‘That is the missing woman from Penzance’ and we decided to look around.
“At the edge of the field was a mass of furze and bracken. I got down on my knees to look through, and I shall never forget the sight. Looking through at me from the other side were two piteous eyes protruding from a pale, wan face.”
“No sooner did our eyes meet then she darted up and leapt over the hedge at the back of the furze clump and disappeared.
“My companion and I talked the thing over. There was a policeman’s house within ten minutes’ ride. But after the piteous look of the woman we decided that we could not give information against her and we did not. She was looking so pale and haggard. Her lips were stained and brown, and I felt sure she had been living on blackberries.”
A few weeks later, she was seen travelling around Land’s End as well as the north coast cliffs of Cornwall. A few locals thought they were seeing a ghost as she flitted about the cliffs among the gorse and heather. Once she was spotted by miners returning home in the dark, while she was sheltering in a derelict tin mine at Levant.
Jeannie, or Jennie as she was called in a report in the Dundee Evening Telegraph (the eccentric story was now being reported widely), was arrested by the police on a charge of vagrancy. She told officers she slept in clefts of the cliffs and lived on berries and fruit.
The “gentle” woman pleaded: “I have injured no one, I am doing no harm, why do you arrest me?“
She angrily told magistrates: “Vy do you shut me up? I am veak, but when near the sea I become stron’. I have not done anysing and it is cruel, cruel.”
She was taken to the workhouse at Madron, near Penzance, and kept there for her own safety but the call of the wild was too strong for Jeannie and she escaped twice by knotting bed sheets and blankets together, climbing down from an upper storey window.
The second time – soaked to the skin, clothes in rags, barefoot, emaciated and near death after a week in the open – she was discovered in hiding by a farmer called William Henry Mann and his son near Gulval where they were cutting gorse. She pleaded to the farmer: “Take me away, let me rest, rest.“
Jeannie was returned to the workhouse.
Despite her disturbed mind and the precarious nature of her life, she had managed to keep photographs and papers hidden in a handkerchief, some of which were addressed to ‘Miss Jeannie Schmolivitz’. They bore Philadelphia post marks and were dated between 1895 and 1897.
An American naturalisation certificate granted to a Russian or Polish man in Philadelphia was also found on her. She was also carrying three raw turnips.
Here’s another report from The Cornishman, this time from November 5, which described that latest arrest. Her appearance had “changed terribly for the worse” with her raven black, curly hair now grey and straight. She was compared to the “women of Paris after the horrible siege, having endured the agony of terror”.
The pitiful story of the Lady Hermit of the Cornish Cliffs appeared to be heading to an inevitably tragic conclusion. However, there was an unexpected twist.
Members of the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation were able to trace Jeannie’s father who, sadly, couldn’t afford to travel the hundreds of miles to Cornwall in the days before flights and motor travel.
However, the generosity of locals in Penzance, as well as the Jewish community in his hometown, meant Mr Schmolivitz could make the emotional journey to be reunited with his tragic daughter.
Their first meeting was reported in The Cornishman of January 14, 1904: “The old man took his daughter in his arms and they sobbed on each other’s breast. The scene will long be remembered by those present as one of the most pathetic ever witnessed in that building.”
She was questioned in Russian but had completely forgotten her mother tongue and only spoke in broken English. However she was able to say that she wanted to leave with her father.
But the drama didn’t end there. She went missing at Berlin railway station on the journey home, though it was reported that she did eventually reach Shavel with her father. And then nothing…
The sad and eccentric tale of Jeannie Schmolivitz ends abruptly with no indication of what happened to her in Russia, though her hometown suffered a terrible purging of the Jewish community as ordered by the Tsar in 1914. Many drifted back in the ensuing years but, again, Shavel was cleared of its Jewish population by the Nazis in the 1940s.
Did the Lady Hermit of the Cornish Cliffs use her survival instincts to get through these terrible ordeals? We may never know.
Many thanks to David Wilson, whose research on his Cornish history blog forms the basis for this article.