Mollie Fancher: the famous “Brooklyn Enigma”

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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8 Responses to “Mollie Fancher: the famous “Brooklyn Enigma””

  1. Bookpod Says:

    So interesting to read about thinness in our age of corpulence. (There is no end to how interesting your website continues to be.)

    • wildnewyork Says:

      Thank you. I barely had room in the post to explore the “fasting girl” angle of Mollie’s story. But there are several fantastic books that explain this Victorian-era phenomenon in more depth.

  2. Paul Says:

    I found a copy of the book at At 300 pages it’s a bit long but at least it has an index in the front.

  3. The Brooklyn Enigma | Teenage Says:

    […] more via Ephemeral New York and var addedComment = function(response) { //console.log('fbComments: Caught added […]

  4. A starvation stunt enthralls the 19th century city « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] as well as many people in the Victorian era, were fascinated by so-called “fasting girls” (we’d call them anorexics […]

  5. amy risotti Says:

    i saw the mysteries at the musem and the brooklyn engima could talk to the dead

  6. Elizabeth Says:

    I always believed that she had some sort of disease rather than suffering with anorexia.

  7. Judy Samford Says:

    Mollie Fancher is my grandmother’s aunt or great aunt. I grew up hearing stories about her clairvoyance. My opinion about Aunt Mollie is that, if she lived today, she would have been found to have suffered severe head trauma and PTSD. Her mother died when she was in her mid-teens; her father remarried and deserted Mollie, her siblings and their mother’s sister, who continued to care for them after their father left. Add to this emotional trauma, a head injury after a riding accident, and the very tragic fall from a horse trolley that resulted in her being dragged a distance over tracks and cobblestone streets. And, if you really want to get into it, the Victorian attitudes toward woman and fascination with anything unexplainable and weird. I, too, would have gone to bed for the rest of my life but not sure I would have been as productive as she was!

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