The Breatharian movement has been getting some ink lately, largely in thanks to this Seattle woman and this Sri Lankan man. People who follow the movement believe that humans don’t need food or water to survive, just “photons and light and vibrations and wind,” according to Breatharian Kirby de Lanerolle.
Despite the recent flurry of activity, people who claim they don’t need food to survive are nothing new. The Victorian Fasting Girls, young girls who supposedly stopped eating for months and even years at a time, were somewhat of a phenomenon from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Here are a few of their stories.
1. Therese Neumann
In 1918, when Therese Neumann (above) was just 20, she fell into shock after taking a particularly nasty tumble off of a stool while trying to put out a fire at her uncle’s farm. The fall, which resulted in a spinal injury, seems to have been the direct or indirect cause of a whole host of maladies that occurred shortly thereafter, including paralysis, gastric problems and even blindness. By 1926, a “blood-colored serum” oozed from Therese’s eyes and she began suffering stigmata during Lent. In 1927, Therese believed she had been visited by St. Therese of Lisieux, who told her that food and water were no longer necessary—just Holy Communion. She was diligently observed day and night for two weeks in July 1927, with doctors and nurses even measuring the amount of mouthwash she used so they could make sure that she hadn’t swallowed any of it when she spit it back out. By the end of two weeks, the medical team concluded that their patient never took or even attempted to take food. Though she lost weight at the beginning of the observation period, Therese apparently gained five or six pounds by the end of it. The attending physician even testified under oath that not a morsel of nourishment, save for one consecrated Host daily, had passed her lips while he and his team were watching.
Therese allegedly followed this devout “diet” until her death in 1962.
2. Mollie Fancher
When she was just 18, Brooklynite Mollie Fancher was the victim of a carriage accident that left her paralyzed. As she was exiting a carriage, her long skirt got caught on a hook. The carriage driver didn’t notice and dragged her for nearly a block before bystanders could get him to stop. A few months after the incident, Fancher confined herself to her bed and allegedly stopped eating for the next 16 years.
Observers claimed they never saw her consume food or drink, and at one point her stomach had “collapsed, so that by placing the hand in the cavity her spinal column could be felt.” She also went blind, but continued to produce intricate embroidery and detailed wax flowers. Oh yeah, Fancher also claimed to be clairvoyant. Doctors and spiritualists argued over whether “the Brooklyn Enigma” was a miracle or a fraud, but after a period of time it didn’t matter. By the late 1880s or early 1890s, she started eating in front of people again. Most of her other symptoms disappeared and she lived a rather unremarkable life until her non-starving-related death in 1916.
3. Sarah Jacob
Across the pond from Mollie lived “the Welsh fasting girl,” Sarah Jacob. After suffering from convulsions sometime in 1866, Sarah began eating miniscule amounts of food and spent her days in bed, writing poems. Her parents claimed that she completely stopped eating as of October 10, 1867. Word spread quickly and Sarah became a celebrity, with newspapers writing about her and people traveling from across the country to witness this supposed little miracle. Accounts noted that they had never seen a girl who was such a picture of great health—her eyes were clear, her cheeks were rosy, and she even began to gain weight.
While some were inclined to believe that Sarah was miraculous, others believed that her parents were in on the whole scheme, secretly feeding her when the public was gone. Some thought that her sister passed her food when they kissed, like a mama bird. Eventually doctors asked to monitor Sarah around the clock, and whether they truly believed that their daughter was existing on air or were just unwilling to give up the ghost, Hannah and Evan Jacob allowed it. Six nurses were brought in to watch Sarah around the clock and were instructed to give Sarah food if she asked for it, but otherwise do nothing. Sarah refused to ask for food, and after four or five days, she lapsed into unconsciousness. She starved to death on December 12, 1869. An autopsy found the bones of a small bird or fish in her stomach, proving that she had been eating small amounts of food when no one was looking. Her parents were convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison.
4. Josephine Marie Bedard
Also known as the Tingwick Girl, Josephine Marie Bedard is a prime example of how fascinated the public was with these girls who seemingly did not need to ingest anything even remotely resembling nutrition to survive. When the 19-year-old Bedard claimed she had gone months without eating, two different museums in Boston wanted to put her on display so people could observe her not eating for the low, low price of fifty cents, not unlike an uneventful circus sideshow. In 1889, however, a local physician said that she found a bitten doughnut in Bedard’s pocket. The same physician also claimed that she left a platter with “three pieces of fried potato” on it in Bedard’s presence, then left the room. When she returned, one piece was missing. Though the physician had no proof of any of this, the speculation quickly ruined Bedard’s “credibility.”