Throughout the late 19th century, she was known as "America's Most Famous Invalid" and "The Brooklyn Enigma." Though skeptics denounced her as a fraud, spiritualists and curiosity seekers still came in droves to see the bedridden woman whose paranormal claims hreatened to upturn many of the most firmly-held beliefs about the limits of human endurance and the laws of physics themselves.
Born Mary Fancher in 1848, she was the eldest of five children and her early childhood in Attleboro, Massachusetts seemed uneventful enough despite her mother’s unexpected death. After Mary's family moved to Brooklyn, New York and her father established himself as a prominent merchant, the woman who be known to the world as Mollie Fancher found her life even further disrupted by her father’s remarriage and the deaths of two of her younger siblings. Although her unmarried aunt moved in to their Brooklyn home to establish herself as a surrogate mother for the surviving children, Mollie’s life would never be the same. Even though she was fairly popular due to her good looks and pleasant manner, everything seemed to change when Mollie’s health began failing at the age of sixteen. The actual symptoms are still unclear although available information suggests what we would now call anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia (both diagnoses were unknown at the time). Along with nervous indigestion, Mollie Fancher experienced frequent fainting spells and she wasted away due to lack of eating
Despite her doctor diagnosing Mollie’s problem as indigestion and recommending that she take up horse riding for exercise, these medical problems were aggravated further by two accidents in 1864. Shortly after a relatively minor horse riding accident, she was injured after falling off a streetcar and being dragged for a full block before anyone noticed. Although she had been engaged to be married at the time, Mollie’s injuries and the need for a lengthy recuperation forced her to cancel her wedding plans. Whatever the proper diagnosis, Mollie Fancher invalid status would keep her bedridden for the next fifty-one years of her life.
Along with her inability to keep down food, Mollie showed a range of bizarre medical symptoms, including blindness, deafness, and the claimed loss of all of her remaining senses (likely conversion disorder). Desperate for an answer, her father brought in a range of medical practitioners which, given the state of 19th century medicine, included homeopaths (who tried to force pills and tonics down Mollie’s throat), and hydropaths (who treated her with cold baths as well as freezing her spine with ice). Not only did Mollie fail to improve but the extreme medical treatments almost certainly made her condition worse.
While her medical condition was considered a family matter at first, everything changed with a lengthy article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 7, 1866. Describing Mollie as “A Remarkable Case”, the article also reported that she had gone for “seven weeks without food” as a result of “nervous prostration” . Since other cases of “fasting girls” were already being reported in the medical literature both in the United States and Great Britain, the reporter writing the article was quick to suggest that Mollie’s case was part of a nationwide trend in girls suffering from “overstimulation” (as opposed to the usual Victorian diagnosis of “hysteria”).
Mollie’s case made her a media celebrity, not only for being a “fasting girl”, but also for the mysterious “powers” her condition supposedly gave her. By her early twenties, she was making fantastic claims of being a mystic and clairvoyant who could somehow “see without use of eyes” and hear despite her apparent deafness. Various stories spread about her miraculous ability to tell the exact time by passing her hand over a watch or reading a book by rubbing the cover (a psychic gift I wouldn’t mind myself, come to think of it).
Along with her bizarre medical symptoms (including strange contortions of her arms and legs), she was also one of the first recorded cases of multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) with alternate personalities known as “Rosebud”, “Pearl” and “Ruby”. Her friends and family members learned to identify the original personality as “Sunbeam” to distinguish her from her other selves.
According to Mollie’s own claims, she could read sealed letters placed under her pillow and predict when her own front doorbell would ring. Along with her psychic skills, she often went into trances and reported visiting her mother and other deceased people in Heaven. The Eagle article described these various claims with no attempt at skepticism and suggested that Mollie Fancher was “what would be termed spirituelle”.
Ironically, while the flourishing Spiritualist movement of the time happily embraced her case as proof of their claims, Mollie herself never cared for the Spiritualist label. She insisted on staying true to her Methodist roots and regarded herself as “an earnest Christian”. She also denied being a spirit medium and publicly feared “being classed in any manner with clairvoyants or second sight seers or spiritualists” . Although there were any number of female mediums who offered psychic services to the public, Mollie refused to be paid for her readings.
By the 1870s, Mollie Fancher had become a national celebrity, both for her food abstinence and her supposed psychic powers. Thousands of people came to her home at 160 Gates Avenue in Brooklyn hoping to catch sight of the “Brooklyn Enigma”. During one six-month period, her recorded food intake was four teaspoons of milk punch, two teaspoons of wine, one small banana and a piece of a cracker. Ever since the “Welsh Fasting Girl”, Sarah Jacob, starved to death in a London hospital in 1869, doctors became less inclined to allow female patients to go without food. As a result, her doctors took extreme measures including forced-feedings. Despite theseefforts however, Mollie failed to return to eating normally. According to one New York Sun article, “she refused food when offered to her saying it made her sick” .
Mollie also developed a bizarre paralysis which left her completely confined to her bed with one arm being completely immobilized and her left hand clenched shut. She also experienced strange episodes in which she became completely comatose for weeks at a time. Following one episode in 1875 which lasted for one month, she reported being unable to remember anything that had happened for the previous nine years.
Not surprisingly, Mollie’s celebrity status drew in hucksters eager to exploit her fame . While she still turned down money for her readings (and an offer from P.T. Barnum to have her go on tour with his circus), she did agree to endorse a line of prosthetic aids and also sold elaborate wax flowers that she made by hand in her second floor bedroom. A Harvard professor even developed a special knife for her handicrafts which she could hold in her clenched left hand. Numerous visitors came just to see “The Brooklyn Enigma” and to marvel at how she was able to work on her wax flowers and crocheting despite her paralysis. These handicrafts were available for sale to any visitor who wanted “some memento of their visit”.
Mollie’s flamboyant claims of being able to live without food and to overcome the limits of her body were especially irritating to those medical specialists who were increasingly skeptical of her “illness”. One of her most outspoken critics was Dr. William Hammond, former Surgeon General of the United States and founder of the New York Neurological Society. Upset over the media preoccupation with “fasting girls”, including Mollie Fancher, Dr. Hammond wrote that it was “strange to say the ability to live on the Eucharist and to resist starvation by diabolical power, died out in the middle ages and was replaced by ‘fasting girls’ who will continue to amuse us with their vagaries”.
As the battle lines were drawn, testing Mollie Fancher's claims became more important than ever.
To be continued.