March 10

28 comments

The Fasting Girls of the Victorian Era

Hello, again, my dearies!

Our relationship with food is complex, and every woman I know has at some point in her life, questioned herself and others about what she is eating – is it too much, too little, too fatty, too sugary, not healthy enough?

As it seems this is not a first! During the Victorian Era,
fasting girls - captured the admiration and attention of the public due to their miraculous ability to live without food. Can you imagine that?

Fasting girls were usually young, pre-adolescent girls who claimed to be able to survive without any kind of nourishment over long periods - even forever!

A famous fasting girl could be a financial boon to a struggling family, as people would pilgrimage to them and leave monetary offerings.

Misunderstood and misdiagnosed, the Fasting Girls may have been the undiagnosed victims of anorexia nervosa during the Victorian era.

Here are a few of their stories. If you are interested in learning more then, my dears, keep reading! 🙂

The Brooklyn Enigma

In 1865, Mollie Fancher or The Brooklyn Enigma, as they used to call her, was seriously injured when her skirt got caught on a carriage wheel and she was dragged down the street for nearly a block.

Miraculously she survived but she suffered brain damage and slipped in and out of consciousness. She claimed to have lost her sight but gained a connection with the kingdom of spirits. Oh my!

Although she had lost her sight, she claimed that she could see from the back of her head just by putting her hands behind her. Also, that she could read, even without her eyes, and predict the future. She created beautiful wallpapers despite the fact that her hands were paralyzed.

“I am sometimes conscious of what others are not,” she said and explained how she stopped eating. “I rejected it. My doctor thought I was insane, but, as a matter of fact, I had never been more rational in my life.”

She stated that she had no need to eat or drink and that she was able to survive for unlimited periods of time without food. She stayed in her bed for the next 48 years.

Fancher was just one of the many
Fasting Girls of the Victorian era that fascinated the public, while something much darker, something yet unnamed, was screaming for attention.

Welsh Fasting Girl

Sarah Jacobs, the Welsh Fasting Girl, claimed that she stopped eating at the age of 10.

Her vicar said she was a gifted child and she enjoyed a long period of publicity, during which she received numerous gifts and donations from people who believed she was miraculous.

But doctors were becoming increasingly skeptical about her claims and eventually proposed that she be monitored in a hospital to see whether her claims about fasting were true.

Under the constant surveillance of nurses, Sarah began to starve herself. When her parents refused to let the nurses feed her, as they claimed that they’d seen her in this state before, she died at the age of 12. 

The subsequent legal proceedings, which culminated in her parents being convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned, give an insight into more than simply a tragic local incident but also highlight the competing claims of Victorian science and popular religion.

Other Fasting Girls

Another tragic case was that of Lenora Eaton, a respectable girl from New Jersey, who was examined in 1881 for allegedly living without food. After investigators arrived at her home to survey her case and doctors were sent to help her, Eaton continued to refuse to eat and died after forty-five days.

In 1889, The Fasting Girl
Josephine Marie Bedard, of Tingwick, Quebec, was also revealed to be a fraud with a derogatory title in the Boston Globe: “Who Took the Cold Potato? Dr. Mary Walker Says the Fasting Girl Bit a Doughnut.”

Thérèse Neumann claimed that after 1927, nothing but the Eucharist had passed her lips. In 1954 Bergen Evans wrote: “The most famous of contemporary non-eaters. The number of ecclesiastical and medical dignitaries who have vouched for the truth of her claims is impressive... Millions of sober, sensible people believe beyond doubt that this woman does not eat or drink. The Roman Catholic church has never, officially, recognized her claims as true.”

The interesting thing about these girls was that they received gifts from the public, but they came from wealthy, middle and upper-class families, and thus needed no money.

Anorexia Nervosa

Nowadays, all this sounds like eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa - which was barely understood at the time. It was not until 1873 that it was designated by one of Queen Victoria's personal physicians, Sir William Withey Gull.

That same year, a French doctor published a document with other cases, the De l'Anorexie hystérique, but in the second half of the 20th century, the disease became widely known.

Anorexia Nervosa always depends on many factors: biological vulnerability, psychological predisposition, as well as the home environment and culture in general.

The same thing happened in 1870, a time when the ideal woman was trying to become a living porcelain doll. Without knowing it, she poisoned her eyes with drops of Atropa belladonna to make them look big and shiny. Women had a fainting couch. Many would go vegetarian "because the meat was a hot food associated with lust”.

Thus, upper-class Victorian girls who decided to eat - or not - on their own terms, gained radical and persistent control over their lives, even if the messages they sent were mixed.

Unfortunately, these cases almost always resulted in tragedy and did not elicit a progressive public response. My friend, Olivia Bennet has written an article about those Deadly Traps of the Victorian era.

There have always been eating disorders.

In antiquity, there were descriptions of religious fasting dating back to the Hellenistic era, while in the Middle Ages fasting was common practice because of women's belief in religious piety and purity.

St. Catherine of Siena and Mary the Queen of Scotland are believed to have suffered from the disease.

Well, my dear, this is it!

Thank you for reading my article…I hope you found it interesting and that you have learned a lot!

I would love to know your thoughts on today’s topic so please leave a comment below!

You’re fantastic 🙂

Written by Scarlett Osborne

Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • I was surprised to learn that anorexia existed that long ago, but one can see how it would, since the 17″ waist was the ideal. Since women were expected to be so thin and wore those very tight corsets, not eating probably was almost a necessity!

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  • This is a very informative article and to think women have been starving themselves all in the name of beauty or a poor image of self

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  • I do enjoy these articles! One thought as I read the Anorexia Nervosa piece–society still is taking in toxins today, just different ones. Smoking, would be a good example…..

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  • Very interesting. Just shows “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Had no idea this all existed to the degree it did even in an era when being rail thin wasn’t considered fashionable, though a tiny waist was highly valued, guess that might have led to some of this but I guess disorders of the psyche have been with us forever. Thanks for the interesting article.

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  • Thank you for such a fascinating article. We tend to think that some things are of only modern invention, but they existed through time. Thanks again.

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  • Enlightening, as always Scarlett. Thank you for this article. It’s strange how we always think we are the first to invent or discover something but when we look back through history, we are proved wrong and someone else has been there before us!!

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  • No wonder so many young women died young. The corsets they wore were horrible looking devices no wonder they could not eat with them on. The disorder anorexia was probably made worse by it. Thanks for the article.

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  • Gosh! Starving oneself voluntarily sounds quite drastic & I often thought that adolescent girls, & boys too, were so sensitive to many pressures brought to bear in their lives that the only way to control this whirling dervish of life events was to starve oneself otherwise called anorexia nervosa. I also thought that this affliction was seen in the late Princess Diana due to her inability to control her life within the Royal Family. So sad for all of the victims.

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  • A rather strange story about women who did not eat at all but they must have had some food it was very difficult to take it in

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  • Hi Scarlett,
    Thank-you for an interesting article. The more things change the more they stay the same.
    Or as they say history repeating itself.
    Sam

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