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The True Stories of 4 Victorian Fasting Girls

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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


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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


Welsh Legal History

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.”

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

Pete LaMotte, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

Marcin Wichary, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Visit Mississippi, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

sporst, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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