In Netflix’s new period drama The Wonder, an English nurse named Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) arrives in Ireland to attend to Anna O’Donnell (Kíla Lord Cassidy), an 11-year-old girl who claims she has been living on nothing but “manna from heaven”—meaning she hasn’t eaten in four months.
While The Wonder is not based on real people, it is rooted in real history. So-called “fasting girls” were a global phenomenon, primarily in the late 19th century, with cases reported across both the United Kingdom and the United States. The troubling trend, which was typically seen in pre-teen girls and often accompanied by claims of supernatural powers, was common enough that between 1870 and 1878, the British Medical Journal ran articles titled “The Welsh Fasting Girl,” “Another Fasting Girl,” and “Yet Another Fasting Girl.”
Saints and Sinners
But who exactly were these fasting girls and why were they starving themselves? As scholar Karen Hollis wrote in 2001, these young women were “uniformly poor, of humble backgrounds, living in relatively isolated rural areas, often Scotland or Wales, and ranged in age from 15 to 70.” They might say they stopped eating a few months ago or, in extreme cases, several years back.
Many of these women, who became minor celebrities for a time, developed an almost saint-like reputation, with some suggesting their survival on so little was the result of divine intervention. But these bizarre hunger strikes were often caused by traumatic accidents or medical emergencies. Hollis points to cases like that of Janet Macleod, who suffered a fit of epilepsy that locked her jaw, and Martha Taylor, whose neighbor struck her across the back with a board.
But perhaps the most famous case, which drew the attention of Emma Donoghue, screenwriter of The Wonder and author of the 2016 book upon which it is based, was Sarah Jacob. The Welsh girl supposedly began her fast in 1867, a few months after she suffered a series of seizures, which led to month-long coma. Once revived, she was bedridden and would not eat or drink.
News of Jacob's condition spread after a local vicar wrote to The Welshman in 1869, calling on medical professionals to investigate this “most extraordinary case” of a “little girl … who has not partaken of a single grain of any kind of food whatever during the last sixteen months.” Four nurses and seven doctors were later asked to observe Sarah for two weeks, and were reportedly instructed by her parents not to offer her any food. She died in the middle of this watch, on December 17, 1869. Sarah’s parents, Evan and Hannah Jacob, were later charged and convicted of manslaughter.
A Phenomenal Hoax
As the Jacob tragedy demonstrates, these cases tended to generate a good deal of publicity for the girls and their families. In Brooklyn, teen Mollie Fancher became the subject of much public fascination from the 1870s up until her death in 1916, with visitors pouring in to see the bedridden fasting girl. The New York Times printed letters from these observers, who told tales of testing her for supernatural “power” and taking home souvenirs. Otherworldly abilities or spiritual connection were often attributed to these girls, regardless of whether they claimed it themselves.
Fasting girls also naturally drew skepticism from the medical community—and with good reason. For many, it seemed to mark the beginning of an era of eating disorders that would eventually lead to anorexia nervosa. For others, the “fasting girls” phenomenon was nothing more than a hoax.
One of the most famous “fasting girls” was actually a middle-aged woman named Ann Moore, a villager of Tutbury, Staffordshire, England. Moore claimed she had not eaten in five years, for constantly changing reasons, including a revulsion stemming from her care of a sick patient with rotting sores. Her supposed abstinence from food gained so much attention that a wax figure of her was put on display in Boston, and a portrait of Moore currently hangs in The British Museum. But it was all a lie.
After doctors began to poke holes in her story, Moore admitted she’d made the whole thing up. She died soon after, becoming one of the most famous fraudsters of the early 1800s.