Can people live for years without food? Some have claimed to, including certain holy persons. One nineteenth-century marvel in Brooklyn alleged not only to have lived without sustenance but to have experienced a nine-year trance state, possessed clairvoyant abilities, and recovered from paralysis and blindness. She was Mollie Fancher, a woman whose well-nourished body made her seem to some even more remarkable (see Figure 1). I came across her name years ago at a spiritualist village where some of the embroidery she produced while supposedly entranced is displayed (Figure 2). Revisits there prompted me to look further into the bizarre world of the fasting enigmas, particularly Mollie herself, and to assess the authenticity of her many claims.
The Fasting Phenomenon
Extreme fasting has been practiced since ancient times in a variety of cultural forms. Here is a brief overview of some of the main types of self-starving people.
The visionary. In Biblical times, those seeking holy visions typically went into the wilderness to fast. According to Matthew 4:1–11, Jesus “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” whereupon he “fasted for forty days and forty nights.” Then he experienced encounters with the devil, after which “angels came and ministered to Him.”
The hermit. In the early Christian Gnostic era (the first few centuries ce), hermits—mostly male—practiced asceticism, leaving civilization and subsisting on bread and water while contemplating the world’s end.
The fasting saint. Spanning the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, a fad of lengthy religious fasting developed, attracting women, the most notable example of whom was Caterina Benincasa, later Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). She joined a Dominican order at sixteen, practiced flagellation, imagined torture by demons, and experienced visions. She exhibited the stigmata at age twenty-eight, though the marks conveniently disappeared, and she was left only with the pain of her “invisible” wounds (Nickell 1993, 225–226). In his book Holy Anorexia, Professor Rudolph M. Bell (1985) attributes Catherine’s suffering to “an eating/vomiting pattern typical of acute anorexia.” Being vainglorious, he says, she “starved herself to death.” She was subsequently canonized. (See also Anorexia Mirabilis 2017.)
A very late example of this type was Therese Neumann (1898–1962), who had a surprising variety of claims: exhibiting the stigmata, weeping bloody tears, experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary, undergoing miraculous cures, and avoiding all food and drink except daily Communion. Suspicious Catholic authorities, however, found that blood would only flow from her wounds when an appointed observer was persuaded to leave the room. Tests of her urine gave expected results for the period of her monitoring but then returned to normal—consistent with resuming intake of food and drink. She refused to undergo further surveillance (Nickell 1993, 223, 227–228).
The starving wonder. The nineteenth century saw a number of supposed prodigies who claimed to have lived for years without food. Albeit religious, they were presented more as wonders than as holy persons. They included Ann Moore, “The Fasting Woman of Tutburg,” who allegedly did not eat from 1807 to 1813, but who was later exposed as a fraud and confessed, and Sarah Jacob, “The Welsh Fasting Girl,” who at the age of about fourteen was briefly a celebrity but then submitted to an investigative watch by a medical committee and actually starved to death in December 1869 (Stacey 2003, 205–216).
The “living skeleton.” Another nineteenth-century phenomenon was represented by sideshow artists, the prototype of which was Isaac Sprague, featured by P.T. Barnum. These skin-and-bones men, or “living skeletons,” as they were often styled, became common in the latter part of the century but declined in the next. They were invariably male and like their counterparts, the fat ladies, made their living by an extreme response to food (Nickell 2005, 101–105). Franz Kafka featured one such skeleton man in his 1924 story, “A Hunger Artist.”
The anorexic. First described scientifically in 1868, anorexia nervosa is a “persistent lack of appetite and refusal of food resulting from emotional conflict” (Goldenson 1970, 83–85). Once rare, half a century after flappers made popular a boyishly thin figure for women, cases of the disorder increased.
The breatharian. In 1980, one Wiley Brooks founded a cult that espoused reverting from carnivorism to vegetarianism, thence to fruitarianism, liquidarianism, and finally to breatharianism—ending eating and drinking altogether. The health cultists’ faith in Brooks was badly shaken when he was discovered slipping out at night to buy junk food (Stang 1988, 33).
The story of Mary Jane “Mollie” Fancher (1848–1916) properly begins on June 8, 1865, when the eighteen-year-old suffered a streetcar accident. On a shopping trip in Brooklyn, she stepped from the horse-drawn trolley only to have her crinoline skirt get caught and thus be dragged for almost a block over paving stones. The accident occurred just when Mollie was on the brink of marriage, and it may have been just the excuse she needed to avoid it. She had earlier been diagnosed with “dyspepsia,” a catch-all term that described a variety of ills from nervous indigestion to hysteria (Dailey 1894, 14–17, 29; Stacey 2003, 17–21).
Now, although recovering from her injuries and being cared for by the maiden aunt who raised her, Mollie began to experience a textbook’s fill of ailments: various pains, contraction of leg muscles, a weak arm, failing eyesight, and spasms alternating with coma-like “trance” states that lasted for hours. In addition, she suffered fainting spells, loss of appetite, and even vomiting when food or medicine was taken. Eventually, she experienced near deafness, “blindness” (while seeing “clairvoyantly” to embroider and to read books), bouts of paralysis, and so on.
When Mollie eventually came to the public’s awareness, she said that she had been in a trance for nine years during which she had no recollections. Meanwhile she had undergone remarkable transformations: in addition to developing eyeless sight, she could supposedly converse with the dead and abstain completely from food. Less well known was another trait: she exhibited multiple personalities—from no fewer than five different individuals, each with their own name. In addition to a version of Mollie herself, called “Sunbeam,” they were Idol, Rosebud, Pearl, and Ruby (Dailey 1894, 18–79; Stacey 2003, 44–56, 63–70).
Mollie’s broader fame really began in 1878 when some of her embroidery became part of an art loan exhibition in Buffalo, New York. She was singled out by the New York Herald as “An Invalid Lady Who for Fourteen Years Has Lived Without Nourishment”—although it was actually twelve and a half years according to family and friends. Her personal doctor told the Herald that Mollie had had no solid food since her horsecar accident. He had of course been suspicious, but he could never catch Mollie secretly eating (Stacey 2003, 81–87). Not everyone was quite so easily persuaded, however, and soon the story of Mollie Fancher became a lively debate between believers and skeptics.
By modern standards, Mollie Fancher was not anorexic—that is, did not suffer from anorexia nervosa since she was not obsessed with being thin. I would put her in the earlier-mentioned category of “the starving wonder.” Thus she was “emblematic of other neurotic girls of her era,” as well as a harbinger of succeeding fasters (Stacey 2003, 185).
Toward a Diagnosis
Dr. William A. Hammond (1879), a neurologist, regarded such “fasting girls”—those who claimed to live without food—as suffering from hysteria. He thought that condition, in Mollie Fancher’s case, was brought on by her accident and its aftereffects. Another critic, George Beard (“the father of neurasthenia”) essentially agreed, attributing her condition to nervous exhaustion with “attacks of ecstasy, which, like catalepsy, is but another term for one of the many phases of trance” (Beard 1878). More recently, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology, Charles Ford, concluded that Mollie likely had conversion disorder (what used to be called “hysteria”), coupled with dissociative identity disorder (the new name for having multiple personalities) (Stacey 2003, 279–284).
Hammond and Beard had also sought to rule out trickery. That, I am convinced, should be our modern view. The evidence suggests that Mollie Fancher engaged in malingering and other deceptions—probably to opt out of reaching maturity. Her accident at nearly nineteen came just in time to keep her from a marriage she may have sought to escape. Carried to her home in Brooklyn, she never left the house again—appearing in retrospect to have been claimed by neurosis—and continuing to be cared for by her guardian, her late mother’s sister, Susan E. Crosby. Thus, she avoided responsibilities as well as becoming the subject of much attention and interest—by doctors, clergy, and the public. And she invented various ways to keep her life exciting (Stacey 2003, 5–70, 284–288).
Studying Mollie’s background we see that she had many traits associated with what is now called a “fantasy-prone personality.” Such persons are sane and normal but may possess several of some thirteen associated characteristics, including (like Mollie) having a rich fantasy life, supposedly possessing psychic powers, experiencing vivid dreams and apparitional encounters, receiving messages from higher entities, having alternate identities, being highly suggestible, and so on (Wilson and Barber 1983; Baker and Nickell 1992).
Mollie appears to have had an extraordinary impulse to fantasize, and fantasizing does not preclude deception; indeed the two are frequent companions. For instance, consider the case of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, who is included in a list of historical fantasizers (Wilson and Barber 1983, 372) but who was also a notorious charlatan (Nickell 2013, 277–283).
There are strong indications that Mollie did, in fact, deceive. Using my background as a magician and mentalist, I have read accounts of Mollie’s feats with interest and conclude that some of her tricks were so simplistic they could have fooled only the gullible.
Consider Mollie’s claim that she never slept, her “trances” being the only rest she obtained. How convenient that those could be as brief as a catnap or as long as twenty-four hours (Dailey 1894, 192).
Then there was her “blindness,” sight being one of the senses, along with speech and hearing, she supposedly lost for a time—although we may well suspect she was malingering. So far as we can tell, she simply acted as if she could not see and did it convincingly enough to allay the suspicions of her mostly credulous visitors.
On this apparent pretense she built her claim for clairvoyant vision. To convince others she really could not see, she closed her eyes tightly. However, it was usually “quite dark where she lay,” which probably did more to keep people from seeing that her eyes only appeared fully closed than it did to retard her sight. (When someone came close, she might well have shut them firmly.) Thus she would describe the person’s appearance or draw her thumb over a page of text and say the words as she allegedly “saw” them with “second sight” (Dailey 1894, 31, 126, 187, 208).
Often one had to take her word for some accomplished feat. For instance, someone entering her room and finding her apparently idle might ask her to explain. “Oh, I am reading such and such a book,” she would say.
“Well, where is it?”
“Under the bedclothes, here,” whereupon she would produce it and speak knowledgeably of its contents (Dailey 1894, 194). Of course, previously, she had likely read the pages in the normal way.
Her stunts are not generally described well enough to deduce exactly how she did them, but she was obviously in control of certain situations and took advantage of opportunities. When, for instance, Mollie divined the contents of a supposedly just-received letter to her—while it was held still sealed, eight feet away—one could suspect the help of her aunt, Miss Crosby, who had fetched the letter (Dailey 1894, 211). Mollie could have secretly opened and studied the letter earlier, with Crosby then merely pretending it had just come. There is little doubt she coddled her niece, and aiding Mollie in her deceptions could have been part of that.
As to Mollie’s astonishing claim of inedia—the alleged ability to forgo nourishment (Nickell 1993)—that was palpably false. Photographs (again, see Figure 1) show her plumpness, which gave the lie to her claims. Miss Crosby should have been aware of food missing from the household larder, and I suspect she willingly bought whatever her spoiled charge favored.
There is further corroborative evidence at hand. Mollie’s nemesis, Dr. Hammond—anticipating James Randi by a century—challenged her to tests. Regarding her “second sight,” he proposed to have her divine the number, date, bank account, and signature of a check that would be sealed in an envelope and kept in sight. And he intended to prevent her eating by having his fellow neurologists conduct a round-the-clock watch for one month. Revealingly, though not surprisingly, Mollie refused (Stacey 2003, 120–121).
Hammond was derided by Mollie’s friends and fans. One letter read: “I style it abuse and insult for any human being to propose to invade the privacy of the afflicted lady’s sick room for one month, to watch her every movement day and night and give her one thousand dollars if, at the end of that time, she is not proven to be an impostor. . . . To be an impostor one must have some motive, and Miss Fancher certainly can have none,” the letter writer said naively. When one reporter queried Hammond as to how Mollie could have deceived the very learned clergymen who came to support her, Hammond bluntly responded: “Oh, that’s nothing. Clergymen are the most gullible men in the world!” (Qtd. in Stacey 2003, 123.)
Hammond had written admirably in his earlier critical book, The Physics and Physiology of Spiritualism (1871): “Man has learned to doubt, and therefore, to reason better; he makes experiments, collects facts, does not begin to theorize until his data are sufficient, and then is careful that his theories do not extend beyond the foundation of certainty, or at least of probability, upon which he builds.” He went on to write in his book Fasting Girls: Their Physiology and Pathology (1879):
If Miss Fancher has lived fourteen years without food, or even fourteen months, or weeks, she is a unique psychological or pathological individual, whose case is worthy of all the consideration which can be given to it, not by superstitious or credulous or ignorant persons, but by those who, trained in the proper methods of scientific research, would know how to get the whole truth of her case, and nothing but the truth.
Mollie Fancher continued her deceptions. She made an arrangement for Abram H. Daily of Brooklyn, an ex-judge and spiritualist who defended exposed mediums (Kontou with Willburn 2012, 264), to write a book with the elaborate title, Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn Enigma. An Authentic Statement of Facts in the Life of Mary J. Fancher, the Psychological Marvel of the Nineteenth Century. Unimpeachable Testimony of Many Witnesses (Dailey 1894). Except for publishing costs, the rights and proceeds went to Miss Fancher who sold copies along with a book company. A copy in our CFI libraries, which Director Tim Binga entrusted to me, bears her autograph on the title page.
By the time of Dailey’s book (1894, 215), Aunt Susan was deceased. But the Fancher house parlor continued as “a shop for the sale of souvenirs to pilgrims.” It had done a “thriving business” in wax flowers that Mollie crafted, along with her needlework, according to the Chicago Tribune (Collins 1938). Miss Crosby, the paper said, “was suspected of nothing more than participation as an accomplice in Mollie’s mind-reading acts.” Following the aunt’s death (the paper continued):
Mollie’s physical condition was notably improved. Her five personalities had assembled into one; her blindness was no longer total; she could use both arms and move her waist; she had found an appetite and gained in weight and strength. With these physical improvements her psychic powers had waned.
Another way of looking at the transformation is that Miss Crosby’s absence meant Mollie no longer had an accomplice for her pretenses or someone to indulge her perpetual adolescence. She herself died on February 11, 1916, and was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery on February 15—that date sometimes being incorrectly given as her death date.
- Anorexia Mirabilis. 2017. [The term means “miraculous lack of appetite.”] Available online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anorexia—mirabilis; accessed August 4, 2017.
- Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics & Other Mysteries. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- Beard, George. 1878. The scientific lessons of the Mollie Fancher case. The Medical Record 14 (November 30): 446–448. Quoted in Stacey 2003, 148.
- Bell, Rudolph M. 1985. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. Quoted in Nickell 1993, 226–227.
- Collins, Charles. 1938. The strange case of Mollie Fancher. Chicago Tribune (March 13).
- Dailey, Abram H. 1894. Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn Enigma: An Authentic Statement of Facts in the Life of Mary L. Fancher, the Psychological Marvel of the Nineteenth Century. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Eagle Book Printing. This is an essential source for claims about Fancher.
- Goldenson, Robert M. 1970. The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, vol 1 (of 2 vols). Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
- Hammond, William A. 1871. The Physics and Physiology of Spiritualism. New York: D. Appleton. Cited in Stacey 2003, 123.
- ———. 1879. Fasting Girls: Their Physiology and Pathology. New York: G.P. Putnam’s. Cited in Stacey, 2003, 130.
- Kontou, Tatiana, with Sarah Willburn, eds. 2012. The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and Occult. New York: Routledge.
- Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- ———. 2005. Secrets of the Sideshows. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
- ———. 2013. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- Stang, Rev. Ian. 1988. High Weirdness by Mail. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Stacey, Michelle. 2003. The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. I have relied heavily on this source for background.
- Wilson, Sheryl C., and T.X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application, ed. by Annes A. Sheikh. New York: Atria Wiley, 340–390.