Read CHAPTER IV - THE BROOKLYN CASE of Fasting Girls Their Physiology and Pathology , free online book, by William Alexander Hammond, on

For several years past there have been rumors more or less definite in character that a young lady in Brooklyn was not only living without food, but was possessed of some mysterious faculty by which she could foretell events, read communications without the aid of the eyes, and accurately describe occurrences in distant places, through clairvoyance or whatever other name may be applied to the influence.

Finally, in the New York Herald of October 20th, 1878, appeared an account, headed “Life without Food. An Invalid Lady who for fourteen years has lived without nourishment.” As this account is apparently authentic, and as the statements made have never been contradicted, I do not hesitate to quote from it. Some of the letters which have appeared in response to a proposition I offered, and to which fuller reference will presently be made, have accused me of dragging the young lady before the public. It will be seen, however, that her friends and physicians are responsible for all the publicity given to the case.

Leaving out of consideration for the present the alleged marvellous endowments of this young lady, as regards seeing without her eyes, second sight, etc., I quote from the Herald the essential points relative to her clinical history and abstinence from food:

“In a modest, secluded house at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and Downing Street, Brooklyn, lives an invalid lady afflicted with paralysis, with a history so remarkable and extraordinary that, notwithstanding it is vouched for by physicians of standing, it is almost incredible. It is claimed that for a period of nearly fourteen years she has lived absolutely without food or nourishment of any kind. The case has been kept by the family of the patient a well guarded secret, it having led them to a strict seclusion as the only means of protection against the visits of the curious and incredulous.

“The name of the remarkable person is Miss Mollie Fancher. To the half dozen medical gentlemen who have seen and attended her, her case is inexplicable. To learn the history of the strange case a Herald reporter yesterday called on several persons familiar with the facts. The first person seen was Dr. Ormiston, of N Hanson Place, Brooklyn, who attended her. He said: ’It seems incredible, but from everything I can learn Mollie Fancher never eats. The elder Miss Fancher, her aunt, who takes care of her, is a lady of the highest intelligence. She was at one time quite wealthy, and she has at present a comfortable income. I have every reason to believe that her statements are in every detail reliable. During a dozen visits to the sick chamber I have never detected evidence of the patient having eaten a morsel.’”

After interviewing a lady intimate with the family, the reporter sought out Dr. Speir, the attending physician of the patient, and thus details his experience with that gentleman:

“Dr. Speir was found in his comfortable little office, and the errand of the writer made known:

“’Is it true, Doctor, that a patient of yours has lived for fourteen years without taking food?’

“’If you refer to Miss Fancher, yes. She became my patient in 1864. Her case is a most remarkable one.’

“‘But has she eaten nothing during all these years?’

“‘I can safely say she has not.’

“’Are the family also willing to vouch for the truth of this extraordinary statement?’

“’You will find them very reticent to newspaper men and to strangers generally. I do not believe any food that is, solids ever passed the woman’s lips since her attack of paralysis, consequent upon her mishap. As for an occasional teaspoonful of water or milk, I sometimes force her to take it by using an instrument to pry open her mouth, but that is painful to her. As early as 1865 I endeavored to sustain life in this way, for I feared that, in obedience to the universal law of nature, she would die of gradual inanition or exhaustion, which I thought would sooner or later ensue; but I was mistaken. The case knocks the bottom out of all existing medical theories, and is, in a word, miraculous.’

“‘Did you ever,’ asked the reporter, ’make an experiment to satisfy your professional accuracy in regard to her abstinence?’

“’Several times I have given her emetics on purpose to discover the truth; but the result always confirmed the statement that she had taken no food. It sounds strangely, but it is so. I have taken every precaution against deception, sometimes going into the house at eleven or twelve o’clock at night, without being announced, but have always found her the same, and lying in the same position occupied by her for the entire period of her invalidity. The springs of her bedstead are actually worn out with the constant pressure. My brethren in the medical profession at first were inclined to laugh at me, and call me a fool and spiritualist when I told them of the long abstinence and keen mental powers of my interesting patient. But such as have been admitted to see her are convinced. These are Dr. Ormiston, Dr. Elliott and Dr. Hutchison, some of the best talent in the city, who have seen and believed.’”

And then the following account is given of the accident from which the young lady suffered, and to which the remarkable phenomena she is said to exhibit are ascribed:

“The story of Miss Fancher’s accident and its melancholy consequences is quite affecting. It is collected from the various statements given by half a dozen friends of the family to the Herald reporter. Interwoven with it is a thread of romance, a tale of early love and courtship, of a life embittered by a cruel accident, of patient waiting, and a final release of the suitor from his engagement to marry another.

“Mary’s parents live in a sumptuous dwelling on Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, and were reported to be wealthy. Their favorite daughter Mollie, as she was called, was sent to Prof. West’s High School in Brooklyn at an early age, and here developed many brilliant qualities of mind and heart, which augured well for her future. At seventeen she was pretty, petite and well cultivated. As a member of the Washington Avenue Baptist Sunday School, she met and learned to love a classmate, named John Taylor. An engagement followed the intimacy of the Sunday School class, and the young people looked forward with buoyant spirits to the bright life so soon to dawn upon them.

“But fate decreed differently. While getting off a Fulton Street car one day in 1864, on her return from school, the young lady slipped and fell backward. Her skirt caught on the step unseen by the conductor, who started the car on its way again. The poor girl was dragged some ten or fifteen yards before her cries were heard and the brake applied. When picked up she was insensible and was carried, suffering intense agony from an injured spine, to her home near by. Forty-eight hours afterward she was seized with a violent spasm which lasted for over two days. Then came a trance, when the sufferer grew cold and rigid, with no evidence of life beyond a warm spot under the left breast, where feeble pulsations of her heart were detected by Dr. Speir. Only this gentleman believed she was alive, and it was due to his constant assertion of the girl’s ultimate recovery that Miss Fancher was not buried. Despite the best medical help and the application of restoratives, no change was brought about in the patient’s condition until the tenth week, when the strange suspension of life ceased and breath was once more inhaled and breathed forth from her lungs.

“To their dismay the doctors then found that Mollie had lost her sight and the power of deglutition, the latter affliction rendering it impossible for her to swallow food or even articulate by the use of tongue or lip. Previous to her trance a moderate quantity of food had been given her each day; but since then she has not taken a mouthful of life-sustaining food. Spasms and trances alternated with alarming frequency since Miss Fancher was first attacked. First her limbs only became rigid and disturbed at the caprice of her strange malady; but as time passed her whole frame writhed as if in great pain, requiring to be held by main force in order to remain in the bed. She could swallow nothing, and lay utterly helpless until moved.”

In the Sun, of November 24th, 1878, a fuller account of this young lady was given, mainly however, in regard to her “clairvoyant,” or “second-sight” power. Relative to her abstinence from food, I quote the following conversation between the reporter and Dr. Speir.

“’Is it true that she has not partaken of food in all these thirteen years?’

“’No: I cannot say that she has not; I have not been constantly with her for thirteen years; she may have taken food in my absence. Her friends have used every device to make her take nourishment. Food has been forced upon her, and artificial means have been resorted to that it might be carried to her stomach. Nevertheless, the amount in the aggregate must have been very small in all these years.’

“’You have considered the case of such extraordinary importance as to take many physicians to see it?’

“’I have, and it has excited very much of attention. I have letters about it from far and near, and the medical journals have asked for information.’”

And this with Dr. Ormiston:

“Dr. Robert Ormiston, who has been one of Miss Fancher’s physicians from the first, who has seen her constantly in all the different conditions of her system, said yesterday that he was convinced that there could be no deception. He could find no motive for it, and he did not believe that she had attempted it. As to her not partaking of food, he had with Dr. Speir made tests that satisfied him that she ate no more than she pretended to, and in the aggregate it had not, in all these years, amounted to more than the amount eaten at a single meal by a healthy man. Dr. Ormiston narrated many curious incidents of the girl’s illness, and verified the facts of her physical condition as narrated elsewhere.”

In order that no injustice may be done to these gentlemen, I quote the following from the Sun of November 26th:

“Dr. R. Fleet Speir, one of Miss Fancher’s physicians, smiled last evening when the Sun reporter asked him what he thought of Dr. Hammond’s opinions on the case. ’I probably have just as high an opinion of Dr. Hammond’s opinions as Dr. Hammond has of mine,’ he said. ’My opinion on the case of Miss Fancher I have always refused to give to any one. When I first took the case, years ago, I told the family that I would not give them an opinion on it; that I would do what I could with it, and that I hoped to bring about a cure. I do not believe in clairvoyance or second sight, or anything of the kind. I think I stand with the most rigid school on that subject.’

“‘But do you think Miss Fancher deceives or endeavors to?’

“The Doctor smiled again. ’Now I do not want you to interview me on that. My theory has along been to do nothing to irritate my patient; I humored her, and have endeavored in that way to get her confidence, to get complete control of her, if possible. In that way I may get her mind diverted, and by and by get her out of bed. I have hoped to see her cured. I do not see what earthly good a scientific investigation would do her. On the contrary, it would harm her. Put a relay of physicians to watch her, and she would undoubtedly do her best to beat them. She would hold out against them, and likely as not die.’

“Dr. Robert Ormiston said that he thought that the Brooklyn physicians knew quite as much about the case as their New York brethren, and that their opinions were of as much weight. ’It has become a most interesting case from a medical standpoint, because during her long illness, she has gone through all the different phases of hysteria that have heretofore been observed in many different cases. I think I am correct in this statement.’”

From all that can be ascertained therefore, it appears that the young lady in question received a severe injury to the spinal cord, in consequence of which she became paralyzed in the lower extremities, in which members contractions also took place. It is probable also that the great sympathetic nerve and brain were involved in the injury.

Confined to her bed, her bodily temperature being low, and passing a good of her time in trances or periods of insensibility, the requirements of the system as regarded food would necessarily be limited. But this is the most that can be said. She did breathe, her heart did beat, she required some bodily heat, and the various other functions of her organism could not have been maintained without the expenditure of matter of some kind. During abstinence from food the body itself is consumed for these purposes, and there being no renovation, no supplies from without, it loses weight with every instant of time until death finally ensues. An emaciated person can withstand this drain less effectually than one who is stout and fat.

Again, it is said that the food taken by Miss Fancher was at once rejected. That it was all rejected, is in the highest degree improbable; a portion remained, and this portion, small as it was, did good service when very little was required.

Another point: that Miss Fancher was hysterical admits of no doubt. Hysteria is a disease as much in some cases beyond the control of the patient as inflammation of the brain or any other disease. A proclivity to simulation and deception is just as much a symptom of hysteria as pain is of pleurisy. To say, therefore, that she simulated abstinence and deceived us to the quantity of food she took, is no imputation on her honesty, or questioning her possession of as high a degree of honor and trust, as can be claimed by any one. Other women naturally as moral as she, have under the influence of hysteria perpetrated the grossest deceptions, and they are not unfrequently manifested in the very same way that hers apparently are. Her case is by no means an isolated one; it is not such as has never been seen before; it does not “knock the bottom out of all existing medical theories, and is in a word miraculous,” as one of the physicians is reported to have said. On the contrary, similar ones are often met with as we have seen, and the following which I quote from Millingen, is so like it in many respects, that the two might have been formed after a common model, as in fact they were, just as two or more cases of pneumonia follow a well defined type.

“Another wonderful instance of the same kind is that of Janet McLeod, published by Dr. McKenzie. She was at the time thirty-three years of age, unmarried, and from the age of fifteen had had various attacks of epilepsy, which had produced so rigid a lock-jaw that her mouth could rarely be forced open by any contrivance; she had lost very nearly the power of speech and deglutition, and with this all desire to eat or drink. Her lower limbs were contracted towards her body; she was entirely confined to her bed, and had periodical discharges of blood from the lungs, which were chiefly thrown out by the nostrils. During a few intervals of relaxation she was prevailed upon with great difficulty to put a few crumbs of bread comminuted in the hand, into her mouth, together with a little water sucked from her one hand, and, in one or two instances, a little gruel, but even in these attempts almost the whole was rejected. On two occasions also, after a total abstinence of many months, she made signs of wishing to drink some water, which was immediately procured for her. On the first trial the whole seemed to be returned from the mouth, but she was greatly refreshed in having it rubbed upon the throat. On the second occasion she drank off a pint at once, but could not be prevailed upon to drink any more, although her father had now fixed a wedge between her teeth. With these exceptions, however, she seemed to have passed upwards of four years without either liquids or solids of any kind, or even an appearance of swallowing; she lay for the most part like a log of wood, with a pulse scarcely perceptible for feebleness, but distinct and regular. Her countenance was clear and pretty fresh; her features neither disfigured nor sunk; her bosom round and prominent, and her limbs not emaciated. Dr. McKenzie watched her, with occasional visits, for eight or nine years, at the close of which period she seemed to be a little improved.”

This account, like that given of Miss Fancher, tells us nothing definite in regard to the fasting abilities of the young woman. It simply, with the other, may be accepted as indicating that hysterical women are able to go for comparatively long periods without food, and that fact we already knew. It will be observed that it is stated that she “seemed” to go four years without food or drink.

In regard to Miss Fancher, the evidence is a little conflicting. First we have Dr. Speir reported as saying, in answer to a question as to her having lived fourteen years without food:

“’Yes, she became my patient in 1864. Her case is a most remarkable one.’

“‘But has she eaten nothing during all these years?’

“‘I can safely say she has not.’”

This in the Herald.

But about a month afterward we find the following conversation, reported as taking place between the same physician and another reporter, this time of the Sun:

“’Is it true that she has not partaken of food in all these thirteen years?’

“’No, I cannot say that she has not; I have not been constantly with her for thirteen years. She may have taken food in my absence.’”

In which opinion all physiologists will join.

As I have said, hysterical women certainly do exhibit a marked ability to go without both food and drink. I have had patients abstain from sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both, for periods varying from one day to eleven, and this without much, if any, suffering, for as soon as the suffering came they did not hesitate to signify their desire to break their voluntary fasts. Real suffering is a condition which the hysterical woman avoids with the most assiduous care.