Mary Jane Fancer was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, in 1848. Her family and friends always called her Mollie, and it is as Mollie Fancher that she went down in history. Her paretns died when she was a child, and at the age of two she moved into the home of her spinster aunt, Susan Crosy, at 160 Gates AVe in Brooklyn. She lived at the address during her entiere life some 60 years. Her early youth was quite ordinary. She attended Brooklyn, Heights seminary, where she was known as a highly strung but well-mannered, amiable and rather undistinguished student.
shortly after her 17th birthday mollie suffered a fall from a horse. Her head struck a curbstone, and the resultant injuries kept her in bed for months and left her with failing eyesight. Then, barely recovered she had another accident that eneded her normal existence and reduced her to what one of her doctors called “a half-creature”.
In June 1865, she was stepping down from a horse-drawn streetcar when her voluminous skirts caught on a hook as the vehicle moved off. Mollie was dragged for nearly a block over the rough pavement. She sustained severe spinal injuries, broke both legs, and cracked two ribs. But the physical damage was the least of it. Something also happend to the girls brain and psyche something for which doctors have not yet found a name.
After receiving very brief treatment in a hospital, Mollie was put to bed in her room at Miss Crosby’s house. She never left that room again for the rest of her life!
Instead of mending, her physical injuries seemed to trigger a ghastly chain reation of disorders that horrified experienced medicos, and nearly drove her aunt out of her mind. Mollie went into sudden spasms of frenzy during which she howled like a mad dog, whirled in her bed for hours, took huge leaps that sent her crashing to the floor, tore out fistfuls of her own hair, but chunks of fleash from her own arms, and rammed her head against the wall.
The slight, gentle girl displayed such strength during these outbursts that it took two doctors and her aunt to restrain her and strap her to the bed. The spasms were followed by periods of unconsciousness lasting for days. Then her body became stiff and cold lke a corpse, her pulse almost unnoticeable, her skin waxy as in death.
During these blackouts she underwent an inexorable crippling process that left her more grotesquely deformed and helpless with each awakening. First her right arm became paralyzed in a weird position that kept her hand locked at the back of her head. Next her eyesight failed completely, leaving her blind. Her hearing went. Her legs instead of setting, bent double and twisted behind her so that she resembled a dward figure in bed. Finally her jaws locked in a permanent cramp and could not be pried apart, rendering her incapable of speech and unable to eat any food.
Doctors who visited her daily realised that she was even more unusual than they suspected. For one thing the amount of nourishment she took in should by all the rules of nutrition have had her die of starvation within a couple of weeks. During a period of nine years the quantity of food which she took in to her stomach was so little that it was a matter of great astonishment how life could be sustained.
The medical term for this state of prolonged starvation is inedia, but although Mollie Fancher was by no means the only such case reported, medical science has never accepted the full validity of any of them.
This, however, was merely the start of the Fancher phenomenon. She claimed to have powers that involved her being able to predict events as well as to read without the ability of sight. Particularly astonishing was the “trance” Mollie went into in June 1866. For nine years, a partially paralyzed Mollie functioned as well as she had since the accident, even writing letters and doing needlework with implements wedged between her frozen-in-place fingers. But after nine years, she went into a month-long trance, at the end of which her physical condition was somewhat improved but she had no memory of anything in the last nine years, and did not recognize her 21-year-old brother or anything she had written or done in the past nine nine years. One modern thought on the case is that Mollie had Dissociative Identity Disorder and at least four “selves” other than the main one were active during this period.
In 1866 a newspaper article reported that Mollie had developed clairvoyant powers due to the accident — the ability to know what was in a letter without its envelope being opened. This article did not attract much notice, but in 1878 some of Mollie’s needlework and the story of its maker attracted attention at a Buffalo crafts fair. The Buffalo Courier and the New York Herald both ran articles about Mollie’s clairvoyance and years without food. She was nicknamed “The Brooklyn Enigma.” An estimated 75,000-100,000 visitors trooped through her bedroom over the course of the next three decades.
For 50 years Mollie Fancher stayed in bed and wrote thousands of letters, produced countless pieces of embroidery and wax flowers, and spent much of her time in social conversation. Mystic, hysteric, anorexic, or freak, Fancher was only one thing for sure: The Brooklyn Enigma.