June 16, 2002, Sunday, Final Edition
Book Reviewed by Daniel Stashower
THE FASTING GIRL
A True Victorian Medical Mystery
On a warm June day in 1865, a young woman named Mollie Fancher
suffered a catastrophic accident aboard a horse-drawn
Brooklyn's Fulton Street.
"She was, at that moment, all that mid-Victorian convention could
require of a teenage girl," writes Michelle Stacey. "Two months
short of her nineteenth birthday, she was tall, well made, willowy,
with light wavy hair and an oval face. Her features were regular,
and a photograph made around this time shows eyes with a serious,
direct gaze." As Fancher made to descend the rear stairs of the
trolley at her stop, she
lost her footing and tumbled to the street, catching her crinoline
skirt on a protruding iron hook as she fell. For nearly a block she
was dragged over rough paving stones, suffering grave injuries
before the trolley could
be halted. It was some time before she was well enough to return
home, and even then her condition was so fragile that it was feared
she would not survive the coming winter.
In fact, though she never left her home again, Mollie Fancher lived
another 50 years. By the end of her life, her condition and its many
curious manifestations had made her "a lightning rod for some of the
largest intellectual storms of the time," and she came to be known
as "The Brooklyn Enigma." Chief among
her strange and controversial symptoms was that she seemed to be
existing almost entirely without food -- or "living on air,"
according to contemporary accounts, though she showed no signs of
emaciation. Over a period of six months, her entire food intake was
inventoried at four teaspoons of "milk punch," two teaspoons of
wine, a small banana and a cracker. In time, she claimed to have
gone almost entirely without food for 12 years.
Michelle Stacey, author of a previous book, Consumed: Why Americans
Love, Hate, and Fear Food, has much to say about the relationship
between Victorian women and food. As the Fancher drama unfolds,
however, it becomes clear that the facts cannot be explained away in
modern terms as an early, if remarkable, case of anorexia nervosa.
"Food, its intake or its avoidance, was only the beginning," writes
Stacey. The real story lay in what the young woman came to
represent: "Mollie stood at a crossroads between ancient belief and
scientific reason." That tension between the old and the new --
"between ancient, slow-moving ways and the modern rush of
civilization" -- is what Stacey seeks to illuminate.
In an era of "new-fangled perils," which saw the rise of such
ailments as "railway spine" and "elevator sickness," Mollie
Fancher's story appeared to embody the upheavals of a transitional
age -- all the more so, as Stacey demonstrates, as the patient's
catalogue of disorders expanded to include paralysis, spasms and
hysterical blindness. In time, her story would be taken up by
scientists and theologians in the larger post-Darwinian debate over
faith versus science. At one stage, Fancher lapsed into a trancelike
state lasting some nine years, only to emerge one day to pick up a
conversation where it had left off nearly a decade earlier. Stranger
still, the patient began to exhibit abilities that seemed to
transcend the normal range of the five senses. As the New York Sun
reported, "She has developed most astonishing powers, resembling
second sight or clairvoyance, reading with ease the contents of
sealed letters, describing articles in hidden packages, perusing
books while absolutely blind."
Needless to say, such claims galvanized skeptics, many of whom
dismissed Fancher as a hysteric. But there were also many
well-credentialed supporters, none of whom could be called overly
credulous. One doctor took to sneaking into Fancher's bedroom to see
if he could catch her eating on the sly, and even went so far as to
give her surprise emetics, hoping to discover food in her system.
Another doctor subjected himself to a grueling 40-day fast, even
renting out a public hall for purposes of exhibiting the effects of
his suffering, ostensibly in support of Fancher's reputation. "The
fact that some very prominent citizens actually believed her,"
Stacey writes, "was the impetus both for a fracas that encompassed
many of the ambient late-Victorian ideas about mind and soul, faith
and science, and for a fame that would virtually eclipse its human
subject. Fancher was, in fact, one of those most intriguing
historical figures: one whose prominence is powerful but brief, and
whose legacy lies not in what she herself accomplished but in what
With its mix of biography and cultural history, The Fasting Girl
does an excellent job of bringing the controversy to life. The young
woman at the center of the storm remains an enigma, as Stacey
readily admits, but the drama she inspired is an entertaining
Daniel Stashower's latest book is "The Boy Genius and the Mogul,"
the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television.