The Case of the Brooklyn Enigma (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part One

As a test of Mollie’s supposed psychic powers, Dr. Hammond issued a challenge in the New York Sun.  He would enclose a certified cheque for a large sum of money (at least $1000.00) in a single paper envelope and place it in Mollie’s bedroom.  While she would be allowed to touch the envelope, she would not be permitted to open it or examine it in any way.  If she could accurately describe the cheque, i.e., the amount, the date the signature and the bank from which it was drawn, Dr. Hammond would then donate the amount of the cheque to the charity of her choice or “otherwise dispose of it in accordance with her wishes”.    To ensure no cheating, the envelope would never pass out of the sight of the three validators- Dr. Hammond and two other members of the New York Neurological Society.    He also offered to publicly rethink the nature of modern science if he were proven wrong.   Mollie refused to take up Dr. Hammond’s challenge.  According to a New York Times interview with her friends, Mollie refused  to accept the challenge since she doubted the effectiveness of her powers in the presence of someone as “gross and materialistic” as Dr. Hammond.   

As for her claimed ability to go without food, there was even less enthusiasm to test that under controlled conditions given what had happened to Sarah Jacob.   While Dr. Hammond proposed another test to monitor her for thirty days under the watchful eyes of monitors from the Neurological Society (with the promised $1000.00 U.S. dollars as before), Mollie and her family never accepted this offer either.   Although he never met Mollie Fancher personally, Hammond insisted that she was a deliberate fraud (and that her fasting claims were due to “hysteria”).    Other doctors who dealt with “fasting girls” reported  similar suspicions, especially London physician Sir William Gull (who first coined the term “anorexia nervosa” in 1873).

Despite the suspicions of the medical community, Mollie Fancher had her defenders as well.   Professor Charles West, her former teacher,  insisted that she was a “medical anomaly”  and “a miracle”.  As far as he was concerned, the entire scientific community needed to know about her and he even proposed a  commission of some of the world’s leading scientists come to examine her claims.  Some of the names he suggested included John Tyndall,  Thomas Henry Huxley, and Louis Agassiz (he seemed unaware of the fact that Agassiz was already dead by that time).  West’s ambitious proposal  was rejected and a counter-proposal, that Mollie Fancher be formally evaluated by a panel of neurologists, was never accepted either.

All the controversy over Mollie’s case led to a vicious war of words.  According to William Hammond and his fellow neurologist, George Beard, Mollie Fancher was an outright fraud and her supporters were either gullible,  ignorant, or both.    In an interview with the New York Sun, George Beard  dismissed the physicians who had already assessed her by saying that “they are not experts and their testimony goes for naught”.   Charles West publicly denounced Hammond and Beard for insisting that only neurologists were actually qualified to evaluate Fancher asking “Do [physicians] know everything?  Have they universal knowledge?”

By 1881, the debate over Mollie Fancher and other fasting girls was at its peak.   Despite a vigorous debate over how long someone like Mollie could go without food (including a public fast by a Minneapolis physician to prove that humans could survive far longer than conventional  medicine acknowledged),  the arguing failed to produce any real conclusions.   As anorexia nervosa slowly became an accepted diagnosis, Mollie Fancher and similar cases stopped being seen as marvels and were treated by mental health professionals instead. 

Mollie Fancher’s case was slowly forgotten except for a credulous 1894 book by one of her defenders, Abram H. Dailey,  titled, “Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn enigma. An authentic statement of facts in the life of Mary J. Fancher”.   The book is made up of diary entries by her aunt, signed statements by her friends, and reprints of various newspaper articles written about her case.    Since the Dailey book failed to present any new evidence, only the true believers who credited her psychic powers were impressed.

Though she eventually began eating normally, Mollie Fancher remained bedridden for the rest of her life (since her muscles were too atrophied to allow her to walk).  She also continued experiencing epileptiform trances as well as her usual multiple personalities.   After her aunt’s death, she depended on paid attendants  but her cheerful invalid status didn’t prevent her from staying in contact with her various supporters.  Although she held a “Golden Jubilee” on February 3, 1916 to celebrate her fifty years of being bedridden, Mollie Fancher’s poor health took its toll and she died eight days later.   After a funeral attended by one hundred and fifty nine people, she was buried in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.

While the case of Mollie Fancher is largely forgotten today, the controversy that she inspired represents an important early example of the clash between 19th century science and spiritualism.   Throughout the 20th century there have been other reported cases of inedia and “breatharianism” including Wiley Brooks, Therese Neumann, and Ram Bahadur Bomjon  but none of them ever attracted the serious scientific attention that Mollie Fancher did.    

To a large extent, the long battle by skeptical scientists to disprove Mollie ’s claims and her eventual fade into obscurity is an object lesson in how extraordinary claims can persist over time.   This case also represents an important milestone in the history of the skeptical movement and deserves closer study by modern skeptics dealing with their own “enigmas”.



Related Stories

  • The Case of the Brooklyn Enigma (Part One of Two)
  • The Rumour Watchers (Part 2 of 2)
  • Alexander the Corrector (Part Two of Two)


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