A Victorian Medical Mystery

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Mollie Fancher had one hell of a commute. June 8, 1865 was a very hot afternoon in Brooklyn, and after a day of shopping, Mollie was riding home on a crowded Fulton St. horsecar?a trolley pulled along railroad tracks by a team of horses. The missing link of mass transit.

The horsecar did about six miles an hour and regularly injured both pedestrians and riders. Michelle Stacey, author of The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery (Tarcher/Putnam, 336 pages, $23.95), notes that on June 8 "The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had published an irate letter to the editor...under the heading 'Dangers of Railroad Travel.'" Apparently the letter writer, who signed himself as a "sorely bruised Sufferer," was thrown from a DeKalb Ave. horsecar when it rounded a corner at top speed. The driver didn't stop.

Some victims weren't as lucky as "Sufferer." Stacey mentions another Eagle article from June 1865: a young girl died when she was run over by a streetcar. Again, the driver didn't stop. The streets of Brooklyn in the mid-19th century come off as a scary mix of Pony Express and teeming urban hustle, and the locals are afflicted with (at the very least) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a new illness that will go unnamed, undiagnosed and untreated for a very long time. The uniformly overwhelmed horsecar drivers apparently had the worst cases of ADHD. And Ritalin won't be available for at least another century, sir.

On that hot June day, Mollie had an armload of packages, and she was trussed in the only acceptable outfit for an 18-year-old middle-class lady: long sleeves, modest decollage, buttoned boots, a heavy skirt and gobs of crinoline. At her stop, she signaled the driver to halt and stepped to the street. Her crinoline (which Stacey refers to as "the cross borne by every fashionable lady of the Civil War era") snagged on a metal hook on the side of the car, and when the car lurched forward, Mollie and her packages were thrown to the ground. She was dragged along the paving stones for nearly a block before onlookers could get the driver to stop the horsecar. The unconscious Mollie was freed from the hook and carried to her home at 160 Gates Ave. Stacey takes this Edward Gorey meets Merchant Ivory scene and saddles it with portentous feminist metaphor: "[Mollie] would never leave that house alive again...[s]he kept the twisted rope of a skirt to the end of her days, a poor rotting symbol of her cataclysm."

Even if sista's crinoline shackles hadn't bound her into a life of complete house arrest that endured until she died a genteel old maiden's death in 1916, a series of tragic events occurring in Mollie's early childhood virtually guaranteed that she was going to be some kind of reclusive invalid, emotional or otherwise. When she was barely nine, her beloved mother died of a mysterious "wasting" illness. Mollie's father remarried a little over a year after his first wife's death and moved upstate to start a new family. Mollie and her two surviving siblings remained at the house in Brooklyn and were cared for by their maiden aunt Susan, their late mother's sister.

Sounds like your average shattered household, right? Not surprisingly, Mollie's suppressed grief manifested itself via a host of symptoms familiar to those of us who prefer to stuff our pain: exhaustion, sickliness, clumsiness and loss of appetite. It's hard enough to effectively treat depression now; I don't even want to think about what it was like for a bright, disturbed, essentially orphaned young female during the Civil War. This was a time when a bullet, chloroform and (if one was lucky) a shot of morphine were used to treat the symptoms of amputation.

In the spring of 1864, just prior to her graduation from Brooklyn Heights Seminary, Mollie's health deteriorated rapidly. She had fainting spells, headaches and was unable to eat. The diagnosis? Dyspepsia, or "nervous indigestion," brought on by what Michelle Stacey describes as "modern man's abuse of his body and nerves in pursuit of pleasure and self-advancement." In other words, dyspepsia was the proto-Epstein-Barr of mid-19th century urban America; it was also (and I bet Mollie thought of this as she lolled in bed, wasting away) her punishment for choosing to be an ambitious student at a prestigious school instead of taking the usual passive teenaged bride and mommy gig. Not that dyspepsia was all bad, especially for a young lady. "Some level of dyspepsia in an adolescent female?picky eating, stomach pains, loss of appetite?was almost the norm," Stacey writes. She goes on to quote a "popular health manual published in 1873" which described "this fashionable dyspepsia": "'To dine heartily would carry with it an extreme air of vulgarity...choice fruits, and tea always, is held to be the dietary range of an exquisite woman...'" That's exquisite, not exquisite, my dear. Mollie's "nervous" ailment was treated as a physical disorder, rather than a mental one. "Until late in the nineteenth century," Stacey writes, "nerves were still thought of almost solely as physical units that provided strength to the body...rather than as a metaphor for anxiety."

By all accounts, Mollie's luck and health were on an upswing after she recuperated from a horseback riding accident. Obviously, Mollie's constitution was now much too exquisite for the rigors of school (or, perhaps more succinctly, the rigors of life after graduation), and she was permanently excused from classes. Did Mollie have the textbook anorexic's fear of growing up and out? It must be stated here that Stacey does an excellent job of combing through every fine tendril of Mollie's astounding pathology; and this book will turn every reader into an expert on Mollie Fancher and 19th century medicine's growing pains. Through the course of the book, we witness the evolution of mental health treatment: the barbaric practice of leeches and bloodletting (mental illness as bodily disease) to "it's all in your mind" (mental illness as neural malfunction), and finally, to the 21st century treatment of mental illness as a disease of body, and now of spirit as well.

Further credit to Ms. Stacey: The Fasting Girl arms me with a killer quote that Ms. Stacey exhumed from an 1882 ladies' advice manual called Eve's Daughters, where a fashionable young beauty at a dinner party blithely explains her non-appetite: "'The stomach is what Carlyle calls it?a diabolical machine.'" No one has to tell me that the stomach is a receptacle of burning sin, the seat of animal instinct, and if I could master its complaints and whisperings, well, I would.

Actually, I think I'm dyspeptic. I'm also wondering if anyone is interested in being my Aunt Susan/Submissive, should I completely give up on life and retreat to my childhood bed. My daily requirements would be simple: white sheets with a superlative thread count, laundered and changed daily (an invalid imperative; I learned the hard way during one of my soiled past attempts at extended futon rest), pin curls, pearly satin dressing gowns, Volvic spring water enemas and someone with tough hands to open my voluminous junk mail. Except for a couple of dense chapters giving background on two logic-drunk, self-important physicians (both of whom would become Mollie's chief detractors later on), The Fasting Girl avoids droning on like a medical text. And when Mollie's symptoms leave the realm of the medical text?that's when the going gets really bizarre.

By late 1865, months after the accident, Mollie suffered from trances and fits. Stacey (and this is one diagnosis she is comfortable making) believes these are classic symptoms of that good old-fashioned uterine-centric madness known as hysteria. At best, the study of hysteria in the mid-19th century can be seen as a precursor to the modern treatment of mental illness. Even back then, doctors were starting to get hip to the fact that this was a disease of the mind, not the womb. If 19th century doctors had catchphrases like "passive/aggressive" and "extreme codependency" at their disposal, they would use them to describe an hysteric. At worst, hysteria was scoffed at by irritated physicians who thought the illness was really a sneaky way for the caretaking weaker sex to get babied for the rest of her life. Today, the mere mention of hysteria as an explanation of feminine hyperfragility makes a feminist's mustache bristle, but 130 years ago, hysteria (as a diagnosis, at least) "was reaching close to epidemic proportions," according to Stacey.

Gradually Mollie lost the use of all five senses, but apparently she had some extra ones to make up for what she lacked. As she would later explain to her biographer Abram Dailey, who published Mollie Fancher, The Brooklyn Enigma in 1894, a speaker would have to yell up her nostrils, "'and in that way communicate with my brain, or organs of hearing.'" The ebb and flow of Mollie's trances and lucidities were carefully recorded by Aunt Susan. It was what Mollie ate (or didn't eat) that would cause the biggest ruckus later on. Between the spring and fall of 1866, Mollie had eaten only part of a banana. After that, Mollie apparently would not eat anything for the next 12 years. Aunt Susan's diary states that "'the natural functions of [Mollie's] body for relief have not been exercised (a period of three months).'" I feel sorry for Aunt Susan, who, at this point, should have been kicking herself for agreeing to care for her dead sister's kid.


Throughout 1866, Mollie was administered treatments for her spasms that seem more appropriate for a heretic than an invalid: her head was shaved and blistered, she was given electric shocks from a battery, she endured alcohol vapor baths, magnets, ice jackets, feng-shui (that term hadn't been invented yet, lucky them), and finally, in an attempt to get some nourishment in her, enemas of beef tea, brandy and milk punch.

Clearly this wasn't a happy time for Mollie. Still, she could give good quote: "I was, and still am, an enigma to myself." She was equally adept at baiting the press?by not talking to them at all.

It appears that Mollie's symptoms were linked to the fact that she probably had Multiple Personality Disorder (also known as Dissociative Identity Disorder) on top of everything else, a diagnosis "that was just emerging in the [19th] century." The woman might have been lolling in bed all day, but she certainly managed to keep abreast of all the hot afflictions. In the years following her recovery from an amnesic state (that apparently lasted for nine years), five distinct Mollies would emerge: Pearl, Sunbeam, Rosebud, Ruby, Idol?the usual racy little girl names that every collection of multiple personalities seem to have. Stacey is quick to add that MPD is one of the most controversial mental illnesses; many health professionals believe that the disorder is often fostered by overly-imaginative doctors and patients who are susceptible to "suggestibility."

On one particular visit to my local crisis center I learned about this firsthand when the young and addled caseworker asked me if I ever, um, had ever experienced memory loss? Was I hideously abused as an adolescent? Did I ever sense that there was more than one me?

Well, one time in a blackout I whined like a panicky seven-year-old, I offered. Don't hurt me don't hurt me. At least that's what my friend said I said. And I swear to God, the broad uncapped her Sharpie and dutifully squeaked MPD? onto her pad. If I had insurance, maybe my MPD would have become a solid diagnosis; the hospital could have billed my Matty, Shaquoia, Penny and Clownie as well. Everybody understands the idea of MPD; it's the physiological equivalent of channel surfing.

Meanwhile, back in June 1866, Mollie was starting to make the dailies. A story in the Eagle about the stressfulness of the city made the first mention of Mollie. She was left anonymous in the piece, but her miraculous powers that set in after her blindness were described in detail. According to the Eagle reporter, she could read unopened letters, and by using her powers of astral projection, she could keep up-to-date on the secret gossip of the neighborhood. Those close to Mollie, namely Aunt Susan, her doctor and her biographer, also believed she could see through the top of her head and fingertips. You can imagine how this article affected the city folk of the late 19th century who witnessed the birth of electric light, locomotion and wire communication. God was a bit old hat, and He was too lazy to change the fact that horseback and carriages had been the only methods of human transportation for thousands of years. Within a half a century, the modern world of convenience was created. A so-called clairvoyant who managed to fool otherwise intelligent, logical people was further proof that hysteria was a contagious disease.

In early October 1878, a feature in The Buffalo Daily Courier mentioned the beautiful embroidery and waxwork made by a blind girl in Brooklyn and on display at a national arts and crafts exhibition that was being held in Buffalo. Gossip and curiosity about Mollie's life started to seep into Buffalo, and later that month the Courier published a piece exclusively about her. The story portrayed Mollie as an artist/heroine ("'so romantic'") who had somehow mastered the demands of her handicap and her stomach.

Up until then, New York City newspapers had been treating the Mollie Fancher revival with cool contempt?after all, this was a 12-year-old story about a bedridden young woman who didn't eat and didn't do much of anything at all, and, according to the city's Evening Post, "'for a great part of the time her condition scarcely can be called that of life.'" However, the Buffalo article put a fresh spin on Mollie's story, and The New York Herald took it all the way with a big story that was pure brain candy: "The Laws of Life Defied...A Sad and Romantic History" gasped the subheads. And of course, the headline "Life Without Food" is an evergreen; scary, thrilling, and inconceivable to the middle-class urbanite.

"The Fancher tale took hold in a new way," Stacey writes. "Fasting itself, rather than clairvoyance...now took the lead." Enter the media in a feeding frenzy; every day there was a new scoop, a new anonymous source, new information from Mollie's doctor, new secondhand vignettes about her fasting, her clairvoyance, her miraculously unstarved beauty. When Doctors Hammond and Beard, two of the most respected and outspoken physicians of their day (and the fun-wreckers in the saga), elbowed in and accused Mollie of being an attention-hungry fraud with snacks hidden in her bed sheets, the Spiritualists jumped to her defense and the topic only got more volatile.

In the chapters called "Feeding On Air" and "Pure Hunger," Stacey examines anorexia mirabilis (divine starvation) and anorexia nervosa (starvation as a result of mental illness) and how the two diseases intersected in the 19th century. Mollie's case, Stacey observes, seemed to exist right at that intersection.

Mollie was by no means the first woman who had the ways and means to get plenty of food and chose to starve. Stacey tells the story of St. Catherine of Siena, "the undisputed queen of the fasting saints," who, drunk on mommy love, God and vomiting up her sins, certainly sounds like a little shit afflicted with a solid case of holier-than-thou-ism. Catherine lived at her parents' house until she died of malnutrition in 1380, at the age of 33.

Stacey is quick to draw parallels between Catherine's anorexia mirabilis and Mollie's abhorrence of food. If Mollie had anorexia nervosa (which had been "discovered" in the 1860s), at no point did she have that creepy emaciation associated with the disease. To be sure, Mollie had a tragic upper-middle-class upbringing, which is a major prerequisite for anorexia. Any anorexic, be it St. Catherine or the 15-year-old girl who routinely has half a Saltine for breakfast, has an attachment to that big perfect empty in her gut. To the ascetic (and most teenaged girls go through an ascetic phase, usually during the horse phase and right before the aptly-named crush phase), the big empty is a steady state. To master the base needs of the stomach is to be in control of instinct and life.


And so Mollie stayed in bed. She didn't need anything from downstairs. I can only imagine that after the horsecar accident, she simply gave up and renounced the modern rat race just as it was getting started. The world was already moving too fast for her. Her affliction was the late-19th century.

My great-grandmother also kept to her bed for many years. Like Mollie, she was dressy and precious, like a little doll. Her bed was by the window and she was content to simply gaze out the window. Once I asked her how long she had been inside.

"Years," she told me.

"Don't you miss it?" I asked incredulously. Even then, I wasn't sure what "it" was.

Apparently she knew what I meant. "No, child," she said wearily. I don't think she knew my name. "I don't miss it at all."

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