Wonders of God: the strange phenomenon of fasting girls
In the 19th century, numerous young women on both sides of the Atlantic were alleged to be forgoing food and surviving on faith alone. Felicity Day uncovers the secrets of the so-called “fasting girls”, whose stories have inspired a new Netflix drama The Wonder
In December 1869, a treacherous experiment was underway in a small village in Wales. Sarah Jacob, her parents claimed, had survived without a single scrap of food crossing her lips for two years. Now, in the face of scorn from the scientific community, they were attempting to prove that their daughter really was a “miraculous faster”. But six days into the two-week round-the-clock watch, things weren’t going to plan. The nurses, keen eyes primed to detect any attempts at deceit, were growing worried about the 12-year-old. She was getting weaker and colder. In fact, it looked like she was starving to death.
Though newspapers across the nation were avidly following the “extraordinary case”, Sarah was not the first so-called “fasting girl” Britain had seen, nor was she the first to submit to such a perilous test. Europe had a long tradition of these miraculous maidens: young women who appeared to eat almost nothing at all, despite being otherwise in good health. Taking their lead from the devout Catholics of the medieval period, whose anorexia mirabilis was rooted in their deep piety, fasting girls had been attracting attention since at least the 16th century, their abstinence bringing them fame and fortune.
Feathers and raising
Even early on, they had divided opinion. To some, they were a “wonder of God” – evidence of his miraculous powers, and worthy of the crowds who flocked to gaze on them. Others were cynical: early modern physicians might not be able to state with any certainty how long a person could survive without eating, but at a time when famine was a bleak reality, the necessity of nourishment for the preservation of life was well-understood.
It was growing scepticism that had led to the very first watches. In 1600, King Henry IV of France sent his “best and chiefest” physician to determine whether it was “by deceit or not” that Jane Balan had conducted her three-year fast; and in 1668, the Earl of Devonshire arranged for surgeons to watch Martha Taylor, “The Famed Derbyshire Damosell”, who claimed to have fasted for 12 months, only occasionally wetting her lips with a feather dipped in water, or drinking the juice of a roasted raisin. The fact that duplicity was not detected in either case (nor in many others) meant that even as physicians were seeking alternative explanations – ranging from bodily make-up to the nutritive properties of air – the idea of miraculous or supernatural abstinence was kept alive.
Anorexia Mirabilis in the Middle Ages
The first references to fasting girls can be found in accounts from medieval Europe
Meaning “miraculously inspired loss of appetite”, the term anorexia mirabilis describes the religiously motivated self-starvation of women in late medieval Europe, some of whom allegedly went without food for months or years, claiming that they were physically unable to eat “earthly fare”. Like feasting, fasting was a central tenet of the Catholic faith, but the refusal (or inability) to eat was closely entwined with female piety. Women’s cultural association with food, and the nurturing of both their family and the poor, made it their most accessible resource for expressing their desire to share in Christ’s sufferings, and for achieving holiness through the service of others.
Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–80) remains one of the most famous adherents: until her death from a stroke at the age of 33, she was one of numerous women who reportedly lived on the Eucharist alone, pushing twigs down her throat to make herself vomit if she was forced to eat anything else. Her strict fasting she described as an infirmity, saying she prayed God would make it possible for her to eat. It did, however, enable her to avoid marriage and earned her a notoriety that facilitated her intervention in major political and religious crises.
Medical knowledge was obviously much advanced by the time Sarah’s fast came to the attention of the national press in February 1869. The vast majority of physicians were unshakeably convinced that surviving on air, or staying alive through the mercy of God, was utterly impossible: “a palpable absurdity, and in contravention of all known laws and experience”. Already, prolonged fasting – or the pretence of it – was considered a pathological behaviour: “a well-known phase of hysteria”. Conventional treatment for food refusal involved admittance to a hospital ward, where “by moral means” the patient would be coaxed into eating, or failing that, force-fed through a tube.
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Cases like that of Ann Moore – “the pretended fasting woman of Tutbury” – had done much to damage the credibility of apparently miraculous fasters, too. Despite avowing “that for six years I have taken nothing but once, the inside of a few black currants; [and] for the last four years and a half nothing at all” she had been exposed as a “vile imposter” after a watch in 1813, called off when it became obvious that “she was suffering severely from want” and had “lost weight rapidly”. It turned out that while making the tidy sum of £400 from exhibiting her person to visitors, Ann’s daughter had been feeding her all along: washing her face with towels made wet with gravy, milk or arrowroot, and passing food into her mother’s mouth when they kissed.
Yet despite all that, the fasting girl became something of a Victorian phenomenon. At a time of friction between new scientific fact and traditional religious faith, many ordinary people remained open to the idea that a medical miracle might occur. Not everyone thought it impossible that despite the “mere mention of food” bringing on a fit, Sarah’s health could actually be improving. Press coverage led to a steady stream of Britons making pilgrimages to the Carmarthenshire home of the “Welsh Fasting Girl”, following the entrepreneurial schoolboys who waited for them at the local railway station. Upon entering the bedroom in which Sarah laid all day, every day, her bed strewn with ribbons, flowers and books, they might be permitted to touch her hands or her face – and, of course, to leave gifts.
The majority of physicians were convinced that surviving on air was utterly impossible
So, while the medical community had been reluctant to see an old-fashioned observation conducted on Sarah, fearful of lending credibility to what they believed were ludicrous claims, the experiment to authenticate her fast had been sanctioned. One more rigorous watch, many thought, would prove to the public that it was impossible to survive without sustenance. Four nurses had been sent from London’s Guy’s Hospital for the purpose, and the Jacobs’ home diligently searched for hidden food. Sarah’s parents had also agreed not to make her bed, nor let her sister sleep alongside her.
Unfortunately, the experiment cost Sarah her life. As she lay in bed, her pulse quickening, her body increasingly cold and restless, and her mind delusional, the doctors had urged her parents to withdraw the watch so that she could begin furtively eating again – as it was painfully clear she had been doing all along. But either from pride, their own delusion or, as they repeatedly said, a promise they had made to Sarah, they refused; and she slipped away on 17 December. The post-mortem categorically confirmed that their assertions that she had taken no food or drink for 26 months were untrue. Amid public outcry, they were both found guilty of manslaughter.
“It would,” thought one US neurologist, “be perfectly possible to re-enact in the City of New York the whole tragedy”, since Americans were proving just as receptive to the claims of their own fasting girls. The most famous was Mollie Fancher, who had initially come to the public’s attention in 1866 after going “seven weeks without food”. By the 1870s, the “Brooklyn Enigma” was apparently eating and drinking little more than a small banana and a few teaspoons of milk punch in a six-month period, and, like Sarah, receiving nationwide attention. Naturally, some of it was highly sceptical – at least one neurologist tried (unsuccessfully) to get Mollie to agree to a 30-day observation – but not all of it. Mollie was offered (and accepted) a lucrative endorsement deal from a company specialising in invalids’ prosthetics; and PT Barnum attempted to recruit her for his show. President Woodrow Wilson even sent her a letter to mark her “Golden Jubilee in Bed” in 1916.
Just as other fasting girls were seen and reported on in Britain – like “Strathaven Fasting Girl” Christina Marshall, who “completed her eighteenth week without food” in 1881 – so were they found across the US, especially in places where supernatural causes were still given credence. In the mid-1880s, over 1,000 people came to visit Kate Smulsey, the “Fort Plain Fasting Girl” who had apparently not eaten for over a year. Maine’s Josephine Marie Bedard, meanwhile – said to have “no more desire to eat than other people would have to chew iron” – was fought over by two rival promoters keen to exhibit her as a curiosity.
Why exactly Mollie Fancher, Sarah Jacob and those like them began to refuse food (or to eat in secret) has never been clear. Sarah had done so after a mysterious illness involving convulsive fits; Mollie while recuperating after an accident. One Dr Fowler, firmly convinced that hysteria lay behind Sarah’s behaviour, thought that “the oft expressed wonderment and surprise” of her parents as to the very little food she lived on in the wake of her illness had encouraged her fasting. The “cultivation of this habit” had in turn brought rewards, leading her into “simulation and deception”.
She apparently ate and drank little more than a small banana and a few teaspoons of milk punch
Very rarely were either of their names connected with anorexia nervosa, defined for the first time in the early 1870s and linked then to the psychological dynamics of middle-class family life – in which parents were increasingly attentive towards children – and to Victorian attitudes about female self-restraint when it came to food. Instead, discussions around headline-hitting fasting girls were usually confined to exposing the fraud behind their claims of near-total abstinence, or to a hysteria diagnosis, deceptive behaviour being one of its core symptoms.
Even more recently, historians have been wary about labelling them anorexics. Symptomatic continuities such as fasting and secret eating can be misleading according to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of the 1989 book Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa: “just because a behaviour occurs across cultures or time does not necessarily mean that it has the same cause or that it is biologically based.”
What is clear is that the Victorian age was a pivotal period, transforming fasting girls from sources of fascination to sufferers; and their lengthy periods of abstinence from possible miracles to medical symptoms.
Felicity Day is a journalist specialising in British history and heritage. Her first book, The Game of Hearts: The Lives and Loves of Regency Women, was published by Blink Publishing in September 2022
Felicity Day is a journalist specialising in British history and heritage