Posts Tagged ‘fasting girls’

A starvation stunt enthralls the 19th century city

November 6, 2012

In 1880, Minneapolis doctor Henry Tanner was obsessed with the idea that fasting could lead to better health.

Tanner, as well as many people in the Victorian era, had a fascination with so-called “fasting girls” (we’d call them anorexics today).

The eccentric MD wanted to prove that living on little or no food was not just possible but healthy.

So that June, Tanner came to New York to put himself on exhibit. He rented Clarendon Hall, at 114 East 13th Street, outfitted it with a cot and rocking chair, and stopped eating.

His stunt became the spectacle of the summer.

“By the eleventh day of the performance, hundreds of visitors were paying 25 cents to see the dehydrated Dr. Tanner, who mostly sat doing nothing, occasionally applying wet cloths to his head or reading through a pile of letters,” writes Sharman Apt Russell in Hunger: An Unnatural History.

On the 40th day, after losing 35 pounds, Tanner broke his fast. In front of an audience of thousands, he devoured a peach and a glass of milk, then dove into a watermelon and sirloin steak.

Tanner’s fast landed him fame. But doctors weren’t buying the idea that starvation had health benefits.

Tanner continued to hold his fasts around the country anyway, convinced that “The body is fed and nourished through the lungs . . . the stomach being only a secondary consideration.”

Mollie Fancher: the famous “Brooklyn Enigma”

January 31, 2011

Once an ordinary schoolgirl living in Clinton Hill in the late 19th century, Mollie soon became a Victorian celebrity—known for her supposed mystic powers and ability to survive without food for years.

It all started in 1865, when Mollie, 18—already frail (as Victorian-era young ladies were supposed to be)—was dragged by a streetcar on Fulton Street after her hoop skirt got caught on the back of the car.

Bedridden at her brownstone home at 160 Gates Avenue, Mollie began exhibiting bizarre behavior—blindness, spasms, and what’s described as a “nine-year trance.”

When she finally awoke, oddly in almost perfect health, she claimed to be a clairvoyant who could see through walls, read people’s thoughts, and was in touch with the afterlife. Molly also insisted she could exist without eating.

“By the late 1870s Fancher’s food abstinence was as allegedly as awesome as her clairvoyance,” writes Joan Jacobs Brumberg in Fasting Girls. “In one six-month period, her recorded intake was four teaspoons of milk punch, two teaspoons of wine, one small banana, and a piece of cracker.”

Newspapers gleefully reported Molly’s wild claims. Scientists and the public weighed in as well.

But since Mollie refused to be examined, her claims couldn’t be proven.

Was she a psychic or a fraud? A medical freak or anorexic? The truth went to the grave with Mollie when she died in 1916—after 50 years in her bed on Gates Avenue.


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