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).
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.”