The Brooklyn Enigma

June 16, 2002, Sunday, Final Edition

The Washington Post

Book Reviewed by Daniel Stashower


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 trolley on 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 she ignited."

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 surprise. *

Daniel Stashower's latest book is "The Boy Genius and the Mogul," the story of Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television.



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