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Mystery of Mollie Fancher, ‘The Fasting Girl,’ and Others Who Lived without Eating

Joe Nickell, PhD, is a former mentalist and magician, detective, and author, now well into his fifth decade as an investigator of strange mysteries.

Can people live for years without food? Some have claimed to, including certain holy persons.

One nineteenth-century marvel in Brooklyn alleged not only to have lived without sustenance but to have experienced a nine-year trance state, possessed clairvoyant abilities, and recovered from paralysis and blindness. She was Mollie Fancher, a woman whose well-nourished body made her seem to some even more remarkable (see Figure 1). I came across her name years ago at a spiritualist village where some of the embroidery she produced while supposedly entranced is displayed (Figure 2). Revisits there prompted me to look further into the bizarre world of the fasting enigmas, particularly Mollie herself, and to assess the authenticity of her many claims.

The Fasting Phenomenon

Extreme fasting has been practiced since ancient times in a variety of cultural forms. Here is a brief overview of some of the main types of self-starving people.

The visionary. In Biblical times, those seeking holy visions typically went into the wilderness to fast. According to Matthew 4:1–11, Jesus “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” where upon he “fasted for forty days and forty nights.” Then he experienced encounters with the devil, after which “angels came and ministered to Him.”

The hermit. In the early Christian Gnostic era (the first few centuries ce), hermits—mostly male—practiced asceticism, leaving civilization and subsisting on bread and water while contemplating the world’s end.

The fasting saint. Spanning the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries, a fad of lengthy religious fasting developed, attracting women, the most notable example of whom was Caterina Benincasa, later Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380). She joined a Dominican order at sixteen, practiced flagellation, imagined torture by demons, and experienced visions. She exhibited the stigmata at age twenty-eight, though the marks conveniently disappeared, and she was left only with the pain of her “invisible” wounds (Nickell 1993, 225–226). In his book Holy Anorexia, Professor Rudolph M. Bell (1985) attributes Catherine’s suffering to “an eating/vomiting pattern typical of acute anorexia.” Being vainglorious, he says, she “starved herself to death.” She was subsequently canonized. (See also Anorexia Mirabilis 2017.)

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