The Disturbing Tales of the "Fasting Girls" in the Victorian Era
The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era

Shannon Quinn - November 29, 2022

Fasting is nothing new. There are many religions around the world that promote periods of fasting. Nuns have also fasted for centuries, and many saints were said to go prolonged periods without eating. From the 16th Century through the 20th Century, there was a phenomenon known as “fasting girls”. These were young women who claimed that they did not need to eat at all. They told everyone that they either received this miraculous gift from God, or by magic. Even some doctors believed that this could be possible, and believed that they may be medical enigmas that held the secret to eternal youth. Many of you may have even seen the film called The Wonder, which is based on the true stories of these girls. Here at History Collection, we’re going to dive into the true story of the fasting girls.

Trigger warning: Please note that this post discusses eating disorders. This post may be triggering to some.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
A still from “The Wonder” a 2022 Netflix film featuring the topic of the Fasting Girl phenomena. Netflix.

These Claims Were Anything But Miraculous

Years ago, there were many people who truly believed that these girls were chosen by God. But if it’s not already obvious to you modern readers, these claims were not actually miraculous. These girls would secretly sneak scraps of food for themselves to eat. In one case, investigators quickly found a doughnut hiding in a girl’s pocket. While it may be true that these people ate very little, they can’t survive on nothing at all. It’s medically impossible. People can only survive a few days without water. Different sources claim different amounts of time that people can survive without food, but it really depends on their fat reserves. Someone without much fat on their body may only survive 10 days without food, but an overweight person might last several weeks. While the amount of time changes from person to person, everyone will eventually die of starvation without food.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Fasting girls were often too weak to get out of bed. Credit: History Extra

Jane Balan, the “French Fasting Girl of Confolens”

One of the earliest written records of a “fasting girl” came from France in the 1600’s. Jane Balan, also known as the “French Fasting Girl of Confolens”. She claimed to have gone three years without eating or drinking. Just like a story in a fairy tale, there were people who believed that she received her “wicked power” when she was given an apple from an old woman who was secretly a witch in disguise. At the time, there was a medical belief in “humorism”. So one doctor claimed that this condition was due to Jane’s living drying up due to poor humors. When she was under medical observation, Jane came down with a fever, and started vomiting. She stopped talking, and became delirious,fearful, and “void of good sense”. They tried to force her to eat, but she refused all food and drink.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Mollie Fancher, a fasting girl known as The Brooklyn Enigma. Credit: Messy Nessy Chic

“The Brooklyn Enigma” Was a Fasting Psychic

One of the most famous fasting girl cases was known as “The Brooklyn Enigma“. Mollie Fancher spent nearly 50 years in bed. In 1865, she was in a tragic accident when she fell out of a horse-drawn trolley. Her body was dragged along the road, because her scarf got caught in the trolley. She lost her sight during the accident, but claimed that she gained psychic abilities in exchange. Mollie would put her hands behind her, and claimed that she could see out of the back of her head. She also claimed that she could “read” books just by touching them. Her story was published in Newspapers around the country. One of her new “abilities” was her claim that she no longer needed to eat or drink. She claimed to be “living on air”. On her gravestone, it reads, “Mollie Fancher knew the secret of life.”

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Illustration of Sarah Jacobs in her bedroom. Credit: The Daily Mail

“The Welsh Fasting Girl” Had Her Claims Put to the Test

Sarah Jacobs was a fasting girl who claimed to have not eaten anything in two years, from the ages of 10 to 12. Her case was widely publicized. Visitors came from all over to give Sarah gifts and monetary donations, because they believed she was miraculous. As time went on, doctors became skeptical of her claims. Her parents agreed to let doctors supervise Sarah at Guy’s Hospital in London. The nurses were not to deny Sarah food if she asked for it, but she never asked. They could see that she was dying of starvation. The doctors told her parents, and they still refused to force her to eat. They claimed that this was “normal”, and that they had seen these symptoms before, and that she was fine. But Sarah did, in fact, die of starvation. Her parents were convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to hard labor.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Doctors observing a fasting girl when she was weak and not eating. Credit: History Extra

Observing Doctors Simply Let These Girls Pass Away in the Name of Science

Many of these girls were used as science experiments. They were often observed and allowed to starve to death without any intervention. A 21-year old woman named Lenora Eaton was yet another “fasting girl” who lived in New Jersey. Many people in Eaton’s town claimed that she was someone who “lived without eating”, and that she was a “special person and symbol of faith in the miraculous”. In 1881, doctors were sent to investigate her case. During the investigation, she refused to eat. Forty-five days later, she passed away. A similar case cropped up 5 years later when a 21-year old named Adeline Finch in New York refused to eat, this time for 86 days. An autopsy was performed on Adeline’s body, and she was perfectly healthy aside from the starvation. So they decided that this was caused by a “mental or nervous affection”.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Josephine Marie Bedard was caught with a bitten doughnut in her pocket. Credit: Shutterstock

The “Tingwick girl”, Josephine Marie Bedard, Was an Obvious Fraud

There are some cases of “fasting girls” that were obvious frauds intended on financial gain. A young woman known as “The Tingwick Girl”, Josephine Marie Bedard, claimed that she had not eaten for seven years. Two Boston venues, The Nickelodeon and Stone and Shaw’s museum, wanted to display Josephine as an attraction for paying customers. During her observation of Josephine Marie Bedard in 1889, Dr. Mary Walker was watching to make sure that she did not eat. She told the newspaper, “At the hotel I searched her clothing and found in one of her pockets a doughnut with a bite taken out of it…. On Fast day I had lunch served to me… I left a platter with three pieces of fried potato on it. I went there and one of the pieces was gone… after I accused her of it she broke down and cried.”

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
1812 engraving of Ann Moore by Anthony Cardon. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ann Moore Received Food Through Kisses

In one famous case, a woman named Ann Moore claimed to be a “fasting girl” out of pure desperation. After her husband left her, Ann worked as a housekeeper, and became pregnant by her employer. She was incredibly poor, and barely ate enough food to keep herself alive. When she was 45, it was known in her community that she apparently had no desire to eat at all. In 1807, she apparently tried to eat a piece of biscuit, and then immediately vomited up blood. In 1808, doctors decided to monitor her for 16 days. They declared that she was, in fact, a medical marvel. For the next few years, Ann Moore became famous. People visited her from all over, and they gave her money to live on. It was later discovered that her daughter was helping her eat by passing food through their mouths when she kissed her.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Overlooking the village of Derbyshire, England where Martha Taylor once lived. Credit: Early Modern Medicine

Martha Taylor, “The Derbyshire Damsel” Stopped Defecating

From 1668 to 1669, the case of Martha Taylor “The Derbyshire Damsel” attracted the attention of local doctors and clergymen, because she claimed to have not eaten anything except the juice of a roasted raisin. Starting at the age of 10, Martha apparently went an entire year without eating. Apparently, she had stopped urinating or passing stools. She was proclaimed a “wonder of the world”. A Protestant named John Reynolds, who was a member of London’s Royal Society of Physicians, set out to prove these claims wrong. He called all of the religious claims “miracle mongers”. Reynolds wrote about his own medical theories as to why he believed Martha could survive without food or water. There are no official records saying exactly when she died, so we’re not sure how long she was able to survive in her condition.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Kate Smulsley was sick for a long time, and became a public spectacle. Credit: Amusing Planet

Kate Smulsley, “The Fort Plain Fasting Girl” Was an International Celebrity

One New York Times article from 1884 reads, “Fort Plain, N.Y., Aug. 21.–Interest in the case of Kate Smulsey, the young girl who, for 163 days, has been involuntarily starving to death, is spreading throughout this section of the country with extraordinary rapidity.” According to Kate’s family, she had nothing to eat except a small piece of watermelon, as well as beef broth. After her story was in the news, over 1,000 people came to visit where she lived in a small cottage. Doctors were so fascinated by this story, that there were inquiries requesting to study her that came as far away as Japan. Her parents tried to get her to eat, but she refused, saying that food made her “turn purple and bloat”. When she died in 1885, she was just 75 pounds. Hundreds of people showed up to watch.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Some people believed the fasting girls were possessed by the Devil. Credit: Washington Post

Many Religious People Believed These Girls Were Possessed By the Devil

In multiple cases that we have mentioned thus far, there were several people who didn’t believe this was a gift from God. Many believed that it was actually the opposite, and that these girls were possessed by the Devil, who was stopping them from wanting to eat. In the case of Martha Taylor, Protestant Dr. John Reynolds scoffed at the idea that the Devil would even bother to possess a young girl. He believed that the Devil would go after bigger targets in seats of power. However, there are multiple Catholic texts that support this theory. Saint Prosper, of Aquitaine, speaks of a young girl possessed by a devil, and who went seventy days without eating. Notwithstanding this long fast, she did not become emaciated, because every night at twelve o’clock a bird sent by the devil took a mysterious nourishment to her.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Pale, frail women were considered to be very attractive in the Victorian era. Credit: Messy Nessy Chic

In the Victorian Era, Fasting Girls Were Considered Attractive

During the Victorian Era, there was an odd fascination with female fragility and death. If a woman was frail, pale, and looked like she was dying, it was considered to be attractive. For example, women with tuberculosis were considered to be the new beauty standard. The newspapers often described fasting girl’s physical attributes in a positive way. Mollie Fancher was described as a “tall, slender and graceful young lady, a decided blonde, and a universal favorite among her schoolmates.” Another described her, “She lay on a low bed in dainty white clothing […] her skin was wonderfully fair and smooth…” This fascination with morbidity is perhaps why these fasting girls became so popular in the first place, and why they had such a large fanbase of people who were willing to send them gifts and money.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Hypnotic séance. Painting by Swedish artist Richard Bergh, 1887. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Popularity of Fasting Girls Coincided With The Spiritualist Movement

During the Victorian Era, there was a huge rise in Spiritualism, a belief that mediums can communicate with the dead. So, when fasting girls would claim to have supernatural powers, it naturally attracted those who already believed in Spiritualism. However, many of these women, like Mollie Fancher, tried to separate themselves from Spiritualists. Mollie called herself an “earnest Christian” despite claiming that she was clairvoyant. At the time, many saw Spiritualism as a legitimate scientific endeavor. Members of the New York Neurological Society tried to put Mollie’s clairvoyance to the test. Their idea was to put a $1,000 check inside of an envelope on the table across the room from her. If she could identify the correct amount, the name of the bank, and the signature, she could keep the money. But Mollie refused to participate in the experiment.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Miss A remained under Gull’s observation from January 1866 to March 1868, by which time she seemed to have made a full recovery, having gone from 82 to 128lbs. Credit: The Daily Mail

Anorexic Women Were Sometimes Put in Mental Asylums

Not all of these anorexic women were treated as miracles from God. Many families could see it for what it really was- a disease that was preventing them from eating. At the time, no one had a medical explanation for what was going on. And many doctors decided that self-starvation was due to “hysteria” or a purely mental illness. The majority of women were taken care of by their families at home. But not all of them were so lucky. Because of the seemingly irrational thoughts that go behind fasting, some of these women were put into mental asylums when they refused to eat for prolonged periods of time. In the 1860’s, rectal feeding became a popular method in Germany to force-feed insane patients who refused to eat. Unfortunately, this was a violent and torturous method that did little to actually help the nutrition of the patient.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Sir William Gull. Casebook.

Queen Victoria’s Doctor Was The First to Identify Anorexia Nervosa

For years, even scientific-minded doctors wrote off these fasting girl cases as “female hysteria”. They believed that it was simply insanity. Many of these women were being put into mental asylums. In 1873, Queen Victoria’s personal doctor Sir William Gull published a paper of his findings of a medical condition which he called “Anorexia Nervosa (Apepsia Hysterica, Anorexia Hysterica)”. He took several patients with anorexia, and with treatment, he was able to help them get back to a healthy weight. Since he treated this as a medical problem rather than a mental illness, this proved that these women could be treated outside of a mental institution and experience a full recovery. Wood block prints of his patients documented their physical transformations before and after receiving treatment. His ‘Maudsley Method’ of treatment is still used to this day.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
By the 1970’s, the medical community finally understood what anorexia truly was. Credit: Shutterstock

An Anorexia Diagnosis Wasn’t Fully Accepted Until the 1970’s

Even though the disease was identified by Sir William Gull in the 1800’s, it was still brushed off as a mental disorder, or simple female vanity. Many people didn’t consider it to be a real disease. It wasn’t until 1978 when it was more widely known. A psychiatrist named Hilde Bruch published a book called The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa so that more people began to understand the disease in the medical community. She also published books on childhood obesity as well. Bruch described problems in body perception, emotion processing and interpersonal relationships as core theoretical aspects of the illness. She also expanded on the suggested psychotherapy treatments that should go along with Gull’s “Maudsley Method”.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Nuns with Anorexia Mirabilis believed that eating the eucharist was enough to survive on. Credit: CLVT Nation

Anorexia Mirabilis, or Holy Anorexia, Was Common in the Middle Ages

Aside from Anorexia Nervosa, there is another separate diagnosis known as “Anorexia Mirabilis”, or “Holy Anorexia”. Most of the cases of this happened in the Middle Ages in Europe, especially among Catholic nuns. Both nuns and monks would purposely hurt themselves, because they believed suffering was a way to imitate the life of Jesus Christ, and the fact that he was tortured and died for their sins. While men typically saw celibacy, poverty, and physical pain as enough torture, women took it one step further. They would often abstain from eating for long periods of time. In some cases, these nuns claimed to receive spiritual enlightenment. Some said that they were able to feast on the “delicious banquet of God”. There are multiple cases of nuns who actually died of starvation.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
A painting of Catherine of Siena by artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Catherine of Siena Was a Famous Starving Saint

One of the most famous examples of a religious case of fasting came from the 1300’s. Catherine of Siena has been canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. She was known for fasting for long periods of time. On top of that, she was also known to put sticks down her throat to induce vomiting up her food. Leading up to her death, the only thing she agreed to consume was the consecrated Host given to her at mass. For those of you who don’t know, the Host is a small wheat wafer with very little nutritional value. But Catholics believe that by consuming the Host, they are ingesting the body of Christ. At 33 years old, she had stopped eating for so long, she lost the ability to walk and swallow. She died from her fasting. But soon after her death, she was quickly declared a saint.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Therese Neumann’s grave site is clearly still popular among visitors. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A German Woman Named Therese Neumann Claimed She Went Her Entire Life Without Eating

In one extreme case of Anorexia Mirabilis, a German woman named Therese Neumann claimed that she had gone her entire life without eating anything except the Holy Eucharist. In 1918, Therese claimed that she became paralyzed after falling off of a stool. She was later injured again, completely losing her eyesight and becoming bedridden. In 1923, Therese claimed that her eyesight was miraculously restored and her paralysis was healed the day that Therese of Lisieux was recognized as a saint. She also claimed to have formed stigmata- holy wounds representing the Passion of Christ. Even though she claimed to never eat, many noted her “stocky build”. A doctor and nurse observed her for 15 days. During this time, she lost 10 pounds, but then “mysteriously” gained it back again- obviously when she returned to eating and drinking.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
The beatified Columba of Rieti was nearly a saint. Credit: Colonial Art

Columba of Rieti Was Beatified For Her Fasting Piety

Originally born as Angelella Guardagnoli, Columba of Rieti was beatified by the Catholic Church. This means that she was not an official saint, but that she was guaranteed a spot in Heaven, and that people can pray to her similar to a saint. As a young girl, Columba made a vow of chastity, and cut off all of her hair to stop her parents from forcing her into an arranged marriage. She became a holy mystic, and many people would visit her because they believed she was a miracle worker. Just like many of these other women with Anorexia Mirabilis, Columba would fast for prolonged periods of time in the name of God. This eventually lead to her death in 1501, when she was just 34 years old.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Wilgefortis prayed to God to make her ugly so that she would not have to marry a man. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wilgefortis of Portugal, The Transgender Fasting Saint

Wilgefortis was a teenage noblewoman who had been promised to marry a Moorish king by her father. However, she wanted to take a vow of virginity. So she prayed to God that she would become ugly and undesirable to men. She also began to starve herself as a form of protest. In answer to her prayers, she supposedly sprouted a beard, which ended the engagement. Wilgefortis’s father was so angry about her defiance, that he had her crucified. While Wilgefortis was never officially made a saint by the Catholic Church, she has become known as a “folk saint”, because people began praying to her for her pious devotion to God, and the apparently miraculous beard she grew. In modern times, many people have begun to call her the “transgender saint”.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
The nurse who was sent to analyze the patient with anorexia mirabilis in Netflix’s “The Wonder”. Popsugar.

In the 1960’s, A Woman Named Jane Tried to Become a Saint Through Starvation

One of the more modern cases of Anorexia Mirabilis happened to a girl named Jane from Chicago. She began to restrict her eating at the age of 13 in hopes of becoming a nun and later, a saint. Jane did eventually become a nun, but her weight worried those at the convent and she was dismissed from her religious training at 21 years old and told to seek psychiatric help. Her malnutrition caused amenorrhea, an absence of a period. This completely affected her physical development, and caused her to be infertile. She grew to be only 5” tall. This behavior continued her entire life, and at her highest weight, she was still only 92 pounds. At the age of 66, she weighed only 60 pounds and shrank to 4’10”. Despite trying all her life, Jane did not become a saint.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
1913: Emmeline Pankhurst with Nurse Catherine Pine on her release from prison and hunger strike. Credit: Museum of London

Suffragettes Went on Hunger Strikes as a Form of Protest

Not many people truly appreciate all that Suffragettes went through to get women the right to vote. Whenever women were arrested and sent to jail for their protests, they would often go on hunger strikes. In many cases, these women would fast for several days. Jailers would become so afraid that the women might die, that they would decide to set them free so that they would stop their fast. Eventually, they stopped letting women go when they fasted, and decided to force-feed them down their throat or nose instead. Doctors and nurses would hold these women down and force the tube into them. Struggling Suffragettes could suffer broken teeth, bleeding, vomiting and choking as food was poured into the lungs. These women would later describe the experience as “torture”.

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Women on hunger strikes were force-fed through their nose or throat. Credit: Museum of London

Many Suffragettes Had Medical Issues and Even Died Because of the Forced Feeding

There were serious consequences for the Suffragettes who went through forced feeding while they were in jail. One woman named Elsie Howey was arrested and went on hunger strikes several times. In a letter to the Suffragette Fellowship, Elsie’s mother wrote that her daughter required four months of medical treatment to recover from force feeding. She wrote, “her beautiful voice was ruined.” In another case, a young woman named Mary Clarke was released from jail after being force-fed during her hunger strike. Three days later, a blood vessel burst in her brain, and she died. Some believe that the violence Mary endured during the forced-feeding was the cause of the burst blood vessel, and she was called “the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause.”

The Disturbing Tales of the “Fasting Girls” in the Victorian Era
Irom Chanu Sharmila after her 16 year hunger strike. Credit: BBC

Irom Chanu Sharmila Went on a 16-Year Long Hunger Strike

Sometimes, people will fast as a form of “hunger strike” to prove a point or try to enact some sort of social change. Gandhi was famous for taking multiple hunger strikes in the name of non-violence. But one woman named Irom Chanu Sharmila also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” is an Indian civil rights activist. In the year 2000, she started a hunger strike to end India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. This law allowed the Indian government to search houses without a warrant, and even use deadly force. Her fasting lasted for 16 long years. She was forced-fed in jail through a nasal tube, which is the only reason why she survived for so long without eating. In India, attempted to commit suicide is considered a crime. This is why Irom was arrested over and over again, because starving herself was seen as suicide.

 

How did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. Joan Jacobs Brumberg. 2000.

Who were the fasting girls? Messy Nessy Chic. Francky Knapp. 2020.

The Wonder. Emma Donoghue. 2017.

The Welsh Fasting Girl. Varley O’Conner. 2019.

The strange case of Josephine Marie Bedard, a young lady, stout and active, who has eaten nothing for seven years. Webber C.H. 1889.

Advertisement
Advertisement