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Victorian Fasting Girls - Enforced Eating Disorders

Eating is an integral part of the human experience. It is so important because living beings needs nutrition to survive. This fact does not care about religious or spiritual beliefs. Everyone, and everything, must eat.

Fasting is the practice of foregoing sustenance as a way to appease a god or spiritual power. Usually, the devotee is allowed some nourishment at specified times. This protection is built in because death from ritual fasting is a bad look and would hurt the total number of congregants.

Mutual trauma is a fantastic way to deepen bonds in a cult. Creating binds between the believers that cannot translate to outsiders. This serves as both a way to bring cultists together, and to create a divide between them and everyone outside the group. Ritualized starvation is a form of shared trauma.

That's why organized religions generally avoid fasting, or at the very least have strict rules around the practice. Mealtimes are enforced, to ensure the longevity of participants.

What happens if a society comes to view uninhibited fasting as virtuous? If god can do it, then emulation should be seen as a form of flattery.

That's exactly what happened throughout the USA and UK in the 19th century. Girls and young women started claiming that they sustained themselves from nothing but manna from heaven. Often claiming to go months without food.

This is the story of the Victorian Fasting Girls.

Victorian Fasting Girls
Fill thy belly with the holy spirit, for I have no food for thee

Starving for God

The Christian belief that fasting was a sign of holiness came from the Middle Ages. Saint Catherine of Sienna was born in 1347. Among her many 'feats' of holiness, she reportedly fasted for long periods, and was a big supporter of new crusades against the Muslims. Very holy.

Saint Lidwina was another famous faster. After a bad fall while ice-skating, she was overcome by gangrene. The infection spread throughout her body, and soon enough she started having 'visions'.

Lidwina was a very sick woman, who suffered for 40 years from every ailment imaginable. Throughout her 'martyrdom', she avoided eating and made friends with the 'holy-men' of her time. Often asked to confirm that their own visions were holy. She was a very sick person, who had hallucinations brought on by severe infection, and she was used by the clergy for clout.

The earliest recorded Fasting Girl was named Jane Balan. Born in 1600s France. She claimed to have survived for three years without eating or drinking. People attributed her 'abilities' to an encounter with a witch in her youth. She had eaten a cursed apple, which, according to her doctor, had dried up her humors.

Jane "The Fasting Girl of Confolens" Balan was taken in by her doctor. He wanted to study her. In a move that will become a disturbing trend, he enforced her fasting. Jane fell ill, stopped talking, started vomiting, and paranoid.

Her doctor tried forcing her to eat, but Jane vehemently refused both food and drink. She died soon after entering medical supervision.

The Brooklyn Enigma

Mollie Fancher was born in 1848. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where she attended school and proved otherwise normal. At the age of 16, Mollie was diagnosed with Dyspepsia, which caused her great discomfort after meals. The condition is similar to the modern diagnosis of GERD.

Around the same time, she fell from a horse in Prospect Park. Her head hit the pavement, and Mollie would suffer from fainting and severe headaches for the next year. That's when things got even worse.

While riding on a trolley car on Fulton Street, Mollie tried to get off while the car was still in motion. Her foot got caught, and she was dragged for over a city block behind the trolley car.

Her spine was severely damaged by the accident. Doctors diagnosed her with a "deranged nervous system". She was left crippled, but still able to go about her daily life.

That is, until one year later. Mollie apparently let out a shriek at random, spun around on her toes, bent over, grabbed her feet, and started rolling around the kitchen like a hoop out of hell. She would never walk again.

By 19, word started going around that Mollie had gone seven weeks without food. She had been bedridden for a full year at the time. People would have written her off as little more than a passing curiosity, had she not also started making predictions.

Mollie Fancher became renowned for her eerily accurate predictions of the weather, and her ability to find lost objects. That, and the fact that she 'didn't eat' for prolonged periods.

The Welsh Fasting Girl - Death by Doctor

Sarah Jacob was born in 1857. Everything seemed normal for the first ten years of her life. Sarah was adored by her parents, and did well in school. She was the perfect Welsh child.

In February 1867, she started suffering from seizures that left her in a coma for a month. Her doctor was unable to diagnose her with anything. This is probably because there were no ghosts in her blood.

By October, little Sarah refused to eat. Her parents made a solemn vow to not force her to eat. Which is spectacularly bad parenting. They were likely trying to be supportive.

The local vicar, Evan Jones, got wind of the 'Fasting Girl' in his flock. Despite her parents wanting no publicity, he spread the story far and wide. Calling all doctors to come investigate the miraculous girl.

In 1869, a group of four 'observers' came to the Jacob residence. They got permission from Sarah's parents to keep the girl under watch for signs of secret eating.

Sarah Jacob claimed to not have eaten anything since 10 October 1867. According to court documents (the existence of which should give you some clue as to how this ends) the watchers reported:

‘4 watchers were appointed and did watch for the fortnight but during that time they failed to ascertain that [Sarah] ... partook of any kind of food whatever. The result of this watching was publicly announced in the County newspapers and caused strangers to flock in larger numbers’

Robert Fowler, a leading physician at the time, claimed that Sarah was eating secretly at night. His denunciations spurred the public to call for a serious investigation.

John Griffiths took up the call, and made a deal with the administration of Guy's Hospital. They would provide him a team of seven doctors and four nurses. He would then isolate Sarah in a room under the full control of his team. There they would keep the little girl under constant observation, giving her neither crumb nor drop.

Evan Jacob, Sarah's father, was called to a public meeting with John Griffiths. There he signed the agreement. According to the court documents, he did so with Sarah's knowledge and consent. Because ten-year-olds are capable of giving consent.

The doctors and nurses descended on Sarah's bedroom on 9 December 1869. Sarah was detained in her room until the 17th of December, when she died of starvation and dehydration.

The government wasn't particularly pleased with what happened to Sarah Jacob. They took her doctors and parents to trial for the wrongful death of the ten-year-old girl.

Evan Jacob, father of the century, was sentenced to one year of hard labor. Hannah Jacob was sentenced to six months in jail. All in all, not a particularly harsh sentence for starving your child to death.

Anorexia Mirabilis - Holy Hunger

Victorian Era doctors hadn't discovered eating disorders yet. They were still firmly in the 'belief' camp of medical theory. As a result, they misdiagnosed what was a clear case of Anorexia Nervosa as Anorexia Mirabilis.

The idea was that a person's appetite could be stricken from them by the intervention of God. Afflicted people were immune to the effects of hunger, and would suffer none of the consequences associated with starvation.

This belief came from the Middle Ages. Stories of Anorexia Mirabilis were associated with saints like Catherine of Sienna. They were also closely tied with Stigmata - the miraculous appearance of crucifixion wounds on the hands and feet of saints.

Be careful out there, and be kind to your body. Don't idolize the Victorian Fasting Girls.



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