History is populated by many strange and wonderful people. There was Jeremy Bentham, who lives on today as a mummy in the University of London, per his last will and testament. Elmer McCurdy was a two-bit outlaw who only became famous when his mummy popped up in a carnival side show and was discovered while filming an episode of the $6 Million Dollar Man. Giovani Aldini and Luigi Galvani performed ghoulish experiments that advanced the human understanding of how bodies function and simultaneously helped inspire a work of horror that remains a genre staple even today.
Not every strange story from history is quite as entertaining as the ones mentioned above. Some are as odd as they are sad. Mollie Fancher, better known as the Brooklyn Enigma, would fall into the latter category. She was held up as an example of the paranormal acting in the real world by some, and as an example of a rare and little understood mental illness by others. Whatever the case may be, the story of Mollie Fancher remains one of the more mysterious to emerge from the 19th century.
‘a child of sorrow’
Mary J. Fancher, known as Molie, was born in Attleboro, Massachuesetts on August 16, 1848. She and her two surviving siblings moved with their parents, James and Elizabeth Fancher, to Brooklyn, New York in 1850. A few years later, she was enrolled in a private school. The first trauma in Mollie’s sad life occurred in 1855. Her mother died, and her father remarried and abandoned his children. Mollie’s aunt, Susan Crosby, took over care of the children.
Mollie suffered terribly during this time. She was described as ‘a child of sorrow’ before these traumatic events, and required special care, although it wasn’t clear exactly what her affliction was. Despite this, by all accounts she remained in good health until around age 15.
In 1864, Mollie was finishing her work at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Nearing graduation, she was looking forward to moving onward and upward with her life. She had looks to go with her brains–she was tall and slender, with a good complexion and an overall air of frailty that was the Victorian feminine ideal. Two months before graduation, this ideal of feminine frailty began to manifest in several health complaints, including nervous indigestion, weakness of the chest and frequent fainting spells. More seriously, she stopped eating and her already slight frame began to waste away even further. She was forced to drop out of school. Now, these types of complaints were not uncommon among Victorian women of a certain age and social standing, mostly because the frail, sickly role for women was reinforced by the culture of the time, including novels and plays. However, in Mollie Fancher these complaints were rooted in a deep seated mental illness that would only completely show itself after two accidents.
The first was minor only in comparison to what would follow. Mollie’s doctor prescribed horseback riding to cure her nervous indigestion. Horseback riding was commonly prescribed for all sorts of nervous complaints among women for centuries. If it seemed to work, it was probably because riding horses allowed women freedom and control they didn’t often get in their daily life. Whatever the case, Mollie’s prescription proved less than therapeutic. She was thrown from her horse in May 1864. She hit her head on a curbstone, knocking her unconscious. She also broke several ribs. For the next year, she suffered headaches and pains in her side. She might have recovered from this trauma and gone on to live a relatively normal life, if the second accident hadn’t occurred on June 8, 1865.
Mollie had agreed to a marriage prior to the second accident. On June 8, she was finishing up some shopping related to the coming wedding. She went to step off a street-car on her way home, The conductor signaled the coachman to move on, and when the car lurched forward she lost her balance and fell. Her dress was caught on a hook on the rear of the car and she was dragged a city block before anyone noticed her. She was unconscious when they found her, and her ribs were broken. She was put to bed to heal. Her suitor broke off the marriage plans, although it isn’t clear whether that had anything to do with her injuries. she would remain in bed for the rest of her life.
Bizarre symptoms and alleged clairvoyance
It was after Mollie took to bed that her case went from sad to plain bizarre. Her fifty-one years in bed were characterized by many varied and strange ailments that baffled observers and physicians alike. The symptoms that began shortly after her accident remained almost a constant for the rest of her life–namely, trances and violent spasms. Those early months were characterized also by lock jaw, vision problems, and fainting spells. She lived on remarkably little food, once reportedly going seven weeks without eating (although that should be taken with a grain of salt, because there were times she was force fed.) More modern doctors characterize the illness as a kind of hysteria. While that was a catch all term for any behavior deemed unladylike in Mollie’s day, today hysteria refers to conversion disorder, where strong pent up anxieties are converted into physical symptoms. This is similar to how the people in Mattoon believed they were the victims of gas attacks, and showed symptoms such as fainting, dizziness, and vomiting. Mollie’s was a form of motor hysteria, which was more common to pre-20th century societies where the belief in demonic possession and witchcraft were more common. One more modern example of mass motor hysteria was the Tanganyika Laughter epidemic, where a fit of laughter (among other symptoms) started in a girl’s school and spread throughout the country over several months.
The strangest stories about Mollie Fancher, who would come to be known as the Brooklyn Enigma, occurred in a nine year period from 1866-1875. During this time, she lay with her arm drawn up over her head, her legs twisted, and her eyes closed. Despite this, she managed to write 6500 letters, sewed fine embroidery, kept a diary, and made wax flowers. Quite a lot for a bedridden woman with one usable hand. She was also said to be able to read writing from great distances, read minds, and give prophecies. She became a sensation in a country obsessed with the supernatural. Spiritualism was in vogue in America and Britain at the time, and the belief in ghosts, spirit communication, and other supernatural phenomena were at an all time high. Mollie Fancher became something of a celebrity.
Many Mollies, but which one was real?
Doctors, then and now, dismiss the supernatural claims as so much hookum. But the psychiatric phenomenon at play was almost as strange, and as controversial in psychiatric communities, as the paranormal. In 1875, Mollie fell unconscious for a month, and when she awoke had no memory of the previous nine years. None of the letters or works of art seemed familiar to her, and she resumed conversations where they had left off nine years before. In Mollie’s mind, the works of those nine years were from someone else, someone dead. This mysterious person was dubbed “Madame X.”
Strangely enough, the trend continued. Mollie split into several selves. The Mollie who awakened after the nine year period and the month’s unconsciousness was dubbed “Sunbeam” for her rosy personality. Sunbeam was the primary personality. This was the Mollie that saw visitors and attempted to recreate the artistic feats of her previous, more clairvoyant alternative.
Four more Mollies would emerge in 1876, and they would remain with her the rest of her life. Sunbeam ruled the daylight hours, but her “sisters” emerged after 11pm. The transitions were not easy. They were punctuated by trances and fits, as if the personalities fought to take over control.
Idol was the first personality to take over at night. She was jealous of the daytime Molly, and had a habit of undoing her embroidery or otherwise sabotaging Sunbeam’s artistic efforts. The two personalities wrote letters to one another, in different handwriting. Idol’s experience seemed to constitute Mollie’s early childhood to the time of the first accident. Every night, she resumed her life right where she left off. Rosebud came after Idol, and couldn’t be more different than her more surly counterpart. She spoke and behaved like a seven year old child, and when asked claimed she was seven. She only remembered what happened when she was present, but unlike the other personalities she was more given to wandering. She appeared first in 1875, and only appeared intermittently until 1886 when she took up a more permanent residence. Personality three was named Pearl, and she was a sweetheart, presenting with an age of about 17 or 18. She remembered events in Mollie’s life up until about that age, but she couldn’t remember the accidents. Finally, Ruby was a more outgoing version of Mollie, with a quick with and robust energy. She couldn’t care less what daytime Mollie got up to.
Mollie’s case was, obviously, a very complex one. Today she is diagnosed as suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, an extremely rare condition where a person’s self fragments under extreme emotional strain. Less than 100 true cases have been diagnosed, and there is some debate in psychiatric circles as to whether it exists at all. Mollie’s case might have been a good candidate for study, had scientists of the day paid more attention. Unfortunately, the supernatural trappings made many in the growing field of psychology shy away from it, and so a great chance to understand the workings of the mysterious human brain was lost. As for Mollie, she and her various selves succumbed to illness in February 15, 1916, taking her secrets with her.
Stacey, Michelle. “The Puzzling Story of Mollie Fancher and Her Times.” Articles.ChicagoTribune.com. April 7, 2002. Chicago Tribune. September 18, 2014. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-04-07/entertainment/0204070098_1_invalid-stomach-eyesight
Walsh, Anthony A. “Mollie Fancher…the Brooklyn Enigma: The Psychological Marvel of the 19th Century.” (1978) Faculty and Staff-Articles & Papers. Paper 28. http://digitalcommons.salve.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1028&context=fac_staff_pub