Mary Jane "Mollie" Fancher was born on the 16th of August 1848 and appeared to be an ordinary middle-class 18-year-old on June 8, 1865. After a shopping trip not far from her home in Brooklyn, she got on a horse-drawn streetcar to go home. When it was her stop, she tried to step down from the car. However, her long skirts caught on the car, and the driver didn't notice. When the car started to move, Mollie was dragged behind the car for a block, becoming tangled in her skirts and eventually losing consciousness. Finally people's shouts at the driver got through, and he stopped the streetcar. Mollie was carried into the nearest shop, and later that day conveyed to her home.
Like many women of her era, Mollie had grown up being told that it wasn't ladylike to have a hearty appetite, and she had previously had periods of ill-health where she couldn't keep much food down -- at the time this was thought to be the result of too much stress at school (where she was a good student). Mollie had lost two young siblings and then her mother by the age of 8, and her father effectively left her everyday life when he remarried and left the children of his first marriage to be cared for by their aunt Susan. Hence, there may have been more long-term causes for Mollie's earlier illnesses. But she had generally been energetic, riding a friend's horse even after the former owner told her it had been trained for trick riding and wasn't suitable for a woman to ride.
After the streetcar accident, Mollie spent six weeks confinded to bed with broken ribs. Then she started to hobble around, leaning on furniture, so doctors thought she was on her way to recovery. Suddenly, though, her left side started misbehaving -- she couldn't use her left arm or put weight on her left leg. After that her eyesight started to fail and she started to cough up blood. Doctors said it was hysteria -- the catch-all diagnosis for women at the time. In February 1866, her condition was bad enough that friends and a clergyman were summoned to what was expected to be her deathbed. She alternated between periods of apparent trance which could last up to 14 hours, and uncontrollable spasms which Mollie later described this way: "My body and limbs were drawn together until I was almost a ball; then I leaped forward like an arrow and would have been killed but for the protection of friends and the wadded obstructions placed in my way." At times she was also unable to speak.
But what made Mollie's case famous was first recorded in her aunt's diary in fall 1866 -- that the only food Mollie had kept down from April to October was "four teaspoons of milk punch, two of wine, one small piece of banana, and a small piece of cracker . . . since the 6th day of August, the natural functions of the body for relief have not been exercised (a period of four months)." And Mollie seemed to go on like this, without food or even water. The treatments tried for her sound ridiculous in the modern world -- electric shocks, being wrapped in wet sheets, or covered in ice packs. (She got uncomfortable and angry enough to fire the doctor who advised the ice treatment.) In hopes of her absorbing nutrition through her skin, she was given baths in beef tea, and on a similar principle, given enemas of brandy or milk.
Particularly odd was the "trance" Mollie went into in June 1866. For nine years, a partially paralyzed Mollie functioned as well as she had since the accident -- even writing letters and doing needlework with implements wedged between her frozen-in-place fingers. But after nine years, she went into a month-long trance, at the end of which her physical condition was somewhat improved (she could unclench her hands) but she had no memory of anything in the last nine years, and did not recognize her 21-year-old brother (who had of course been a 12-year-old in 1866) or anything she had written or stitched in the last nine years. One modern thought on the case is that Mollie had Dissociative Identity Disorder and at least four "selves" other than the main one were active during this period; this also explains that Mollie could say she was not eating and be honest so far as the self who was speaking knew. However, others studying the case say the different "selves" were made up during conversations with friend Abram Dailey, who wrote a biography of Mollie in 1894 which is the source for information on these "selves."
An 1866 newspaper article reported that Mollie had developed clairvoyant powers since the accident -- the ability to know what was in a letter without its envelope being opened, and similar feats. This article did not attract much notice, but in 1878 some of Mollie's needlework and the story of its maker attracted attention at a Buffalo crafts fair. The Buffalo Courier and the New York Herald both ran articles about Mollie's supposed clairvoyance and years without food (though both said it was 14 years when only 12.5 had passed since the accident). Dr. R. Fleet Spair, Mollie's personal physician, vouched for her lack of nourishment, adding that he had given her surprise emetics several times to check for food in her system. Charles West, headmaster of the school Mollie had attended, also investigated the case and said that "her throat was rigid as a stick. Swallowing was out of the question." She was nicknamed "The Brooklyn Enigma."
The New York Sun particularly pursued new information in the case, such as the fact that Mollie disliked clairvoyants and didn't want to be considered one; she is supposed to have burst into tears when a friend came to visit because she had divined that the friend had visited a clairvoyant and talked to her about Mollie. Later articles in the Sun spotlighted unbelievers such as former Surgeon General Dr. William Hammond, who offered a bet of $3000 that Mollie couldn't figure out the amount of a check he put in an envelope, and later a similar bet that she would be shown to be eating if she were watched day and night for a month by monitors from the New York Neurological Society. Hammond, in fact, published Fasting Girls: Their Physiology and Pathology in 1879, using Mollie and other women who claimed to live without food as examples. His position was that, bedridden and still, these people might require less food than normal, but it was impossible for them to survive on nothing. The condition of hysteria, he said, seemed to help them go without food and water for a while, but a month was the absolute longest one could survive without ingesting anything. Hammond and fellow doctor George Beard, who published an article on the Mollie Fancher case in The Medical Record, felt that to allow the public to believe these women's claims was to let superstition spread in place of science. Mollie's friends defended her in the newspapers, but Mollie herself avoided publicity and never commented on any of the challenges.
The idea of anorexia nervosa was first named and described in 1873, but no one seems to have ever thought of applying it to Mollie, perhaps because newspaper accounts say she did not appear emaciated. Many people were inclined to see Mollie as a fasting saint instead of someone seriously mentally and/or physically ill. Spiritualists felt that Mollie's fasting had allowed her soul to reach a level where it did not need bodily nourishment. Mollie did talk about her spiritual experiences such as speaking to her late mother while in a trance. However, for someone so spiritually preoccupied and supposedly uninterested in fame, it seems odd that the visitors' book at her house records more than 75,000 visitors between 1866 and 1894 when Dailey's biography published this information.
In 1880, Dr. Henry Tanner, who believed Mollie's fasting story, tried to support her by showing that it was possible to fast a long time. He started his own monitored and public fast, which was to last 40 days. On the tenth day, an admission fee of 25 cents was put into place to get into Clarendon Hall in Manhattan, where this was all taking place, and it was a fairly popular attraction. Tanner, however, eventually became emaciated (losing 36 pounds), irritable, and listless -- Hammond wrote to him that the fast had proved that "those alleged instances of fasting a month or more without the symptoms of inanition being produced are fraudulent and deceptive."
At some unknown time between Tanner's 1880 fast and the 1894 biography, Mollie started admitting to eating again. She was still bedridden (after all this time, her muscles were probably too atrophied to walk). She was cared for by her aunt Susan until her aunt's death, and after that by paid attendants. Eventually, she became willing to talk to reporters, and started planning a party for the 50th anniversary of the last time she had been out of bed. This was given some newspaper publicity, and the party went well -- she received 300 visitors in one day. "I think I should be the proudest woman in the world," she said to a friend. "Think of it! All these people come to see Mollie Fancher, and I have not left this bed for fifty years." However, four days later she was showing signs of some kind of bad cold or flu, probably caught from one of her visitors. Despite having an oxygen tank brought in, her heart gave out and she died seven days after her anniversary party. Mourners crowded her home for several days, and at least 150 people attended the funeral service. Indeed, pretty impressive for someone who hadn't left her house since the age of 18.
Stacey, Michelle. The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery.. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002.
Walsh, Anthony. Mollie Fancher: The Brooklyn Enigma. http://inside.salve.edu/walsh/mollie.html