Illustration by Peter Seward
For twenty-one days and nights six men would take shifts standing watch and making careful notes. They planned to scrutinize every detail of the experiment two at a time to keep each man honest about its results. They were members of a vigilance committee, organized in March 1859 “for the purpose of ascertaining whether Mrs. Hays eats.”
Mrs. Hays was twenty-eight-year-old Betsey Hays, wife of Simeon Hays, of Horicon, and the daughter of Joseph and Lydia Carpenter, of the town of Chester. According to her husband and all who had seen her, Betsey survived only on what small amounts of liquid nourishment they managed to feed her. Even this she had trouble keeping down. It was an out-and-out miracle, “the direct agency of the Almighty in attestation of her supernatural mission,” the New York Times reported in 1859.
When the men of the watch committee arrived, “the room and every article within, was carefully examined.” They moved the bed to the center of the room. Nothing was discovered that would raise suspicions. Throughout the watch no one was allowed into the room, save for Simeon and the children, who were kept at least six feet from their bedridden mother at all times. Each day the men gave her a complete examination, and although she did not eat, nothing unusual occurred until the third day. That was the day she raised herself up in bed and began talking to her inquisitors. They noted that she seemed perfectly rational, albeit talkative, and presumed it wouldn’t be long before she would confess her ruse and ask for food. Instead, she persisted in her fast, admonishing them with verses from the Bible.
“On the fourth day the watch found, upon examination, that her bed was quite wet,” the committee later wrote. “On the eighth day the bed was changed and found to be badly stained.” The watch committee attributed the stains to the presence of drugs in her system; to control her spasms and ease her pain, Betsey Hays was administered laudanum, a popular tincture of opium.
For thirteen more days they kept their vigil. “Our suspicions that she was deceiving us increased,” the committee wrote, “and that she practiced the deception under the garb of religion, which was her constant theme.” They tightened their grip on the situation and decided that her family was no longer allowed into the bedroom, and Betsey and the entire chamber should be thoroughly searched again.
Betsey’s unusual case captured public attention in February 1857 when Samuel C. Dickinson, member of the Chester Baptist Church, wrote to the Glens Falls Messenger after hearing “strange things about Mr. Simeon Hays’ wife.” Dickinson visited Betsey at her home, halfway between Brant Lake and Valentine Pond, and reported that she had not walked since she suffered paralysis of her legs and lower back on November 8, 1854, and “was taken with fits” in June 1855. During the few minutes between fits, Betsey was able to briefly speak and take food. “Now for the most mysterious part of the story,” Dickinson wrote, “from the 28th of June 1855, to the 28th of June 1856, she subsisted entirely on apple and berry juice, not averaging more than three to four spoonfuls per day. Since the 28th of June 1856 up to the 20th of February 1857, the day I saw her, all she has taken has been in the liquid state, consisting chiefly of lemonade . . . add to this 20 drops of laudanum, two teaspoonfuls of berry juice and one of current [sic] juice, and you have all the nourishment she had taken between the two dates above mentioned.”
In June 1857 Warren County superintendent of the poor George Cronkhite visited Betsey and confirmed to the Glens Falls Republican that she had not eaten solid food for the past two years following an onset of “epileptic fits,” one of which lasted for eighteen days. Since then “she has shown no signs of intelligence or recognition of her friends, and all the natural functions of her body have ceased their operations. . . . [S]he is now falling rapidly, and a short time will intervene before the sands of life will run out.”
Dickinson wrote, “Surely, thought I, it is my lot to be present and behold this afflicted woman released from all earthly sufferings, for although I had seen many persons in fits, I never saw a poor human frame so long in such violent agitation.”
The length of Betsey’s time in this world may have been disputed by those who already saw the hand of God at work in her, but no one doubted that her incredible and sensational story was not, well, really something. “In our opinion,” wrote the editor of the Glens Falls Republican, “it is the most remarkable case of endurance without food on record, and deserves more than a passing notice by the medical profession.”
Despite her dreadful condition, Betsey Hays still had plenty of sands of life left in her hourglass. Betsey’s husband, Simeon, struggled on his laborer’s wages to take care of their daughters: Mary, who was five when her mother was bedridden, and the younger Matilda, only three. Simeon “has to do the work both inside and out,” Dickinson reported, “yet everything looks neat and clean about the house.” And as though he had an inkling of what was to come, he added: “I hope others will take the pains to go and see, and enquire for themselves, and be sure to leave a little change, for they are needy.”
The Hayses were pious members of the Chester Baptist Church, which Betsey joined at the age of fourteen during a revival brought on by William Miller, of Low Hampton, in Washington County. Miller was one of the earliest and most renowned proponents of what is now called Adventism—a belief held by present Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses that the second coming of Christ is imminent. Miller, and the Millerites who accepted his teachings, believed the world would end in October 1843. One of the tenets of early Adventism was the notion that piousness required leaving behind evil habits such as tea, coffee and alcohol, eating only twice a day, and practicing vegetarianism and homeopathic medicine, along with other health reforms.
These were propounded by Sylvester Graham, father of the graham cracker, and found substantial support in Battle Creek, Michigan, where later Adventists manufactured, promoted and sold the wholesome cereals that gave rise to the Kellogg Company. Millerism and the Adventism that evolved from it formed the backdrop of the Hayses’ religious beliefs. When Betsey was first bedridden she asked her husband to organize religious meetings in her room. It was probably about this time that she began to see her sufferings as the work of God; “It was her constant theme,” one witness reported.
Stories about Betsey appeared in a half-dozen regional newspapers. Unbelievers responded quickly, arguing that the Hayses were deceiving their visitors. One writer called on science to prove there was a deception. He was promptly rebuked by Dr. J. L. Stoddard, an Adventist homeopathic doctor from Glens Falls. “A fact is a fact, in spite of all the theories and logic in the world,” Stoddard wrote in a long missive to skeptics. Dr. L. Charrette, of Warrensburg, confirmed the reports about Betsey, and Chester justice of the peace W. J. Smith took sworn affidavits from Simeon and other observers, including a number of members of their church who were constantly at her bedside. Rumors raged, including one reported in the Albany Evening Journal, that Betsey had died, “and that from her body was taken a snake or serpent, five feet long and half an inch thick!”
The comings and goings of the witnesses and observers of Betsey were constant. The Reverends L. N. Boudrye, H. M. Munser and S. P. Williams visited to confirm the wondrous workings of God. Then, “in order to secure more comfort to Mr. Hays and family and give access to those from abroad who might be interested in the case, it was thought, by physicians, proper and safe, to remove the woman to the village of Chester.” There were requests from Albany and New York City to put Betsey on exhibit. Instead she was carried the eight miles to Chestertown on “a frame and bed, slung upon polls [sic] and borne by men” and placed in “a sort of exhibition looking building in [the] village accessible to Caldwell by a plank road.” The New York Times reported that here “thousands of people flocked to see her.” The Newark Advertiser’s medical correspondent noted, “Mr. Hays, the hotel keepers, and [toll] gate-tenders find their incomes and business increased.” Mrs. Hays, it was reported, was now known “throughout the United States and other countries as ‘The Woman That Lives Without Eating.’” Reverend A. D. Milne, publisher of the Adventist-leaning Glens Falls Messenger, printed the forty-five page tract The Woman That Lives Without Eating: Being an Authentic Narrative of Mrs. Simeon Hays, of Chester, Warren
Co., N.Y. “In the following pages we shall not advance any opinion of our own, touching the cause or nature of this woman’s singular disease, but simply collect, arrange and present what others have advanced,” Milne wrote. “We may say, however, that we have been for many years acquainted with all, or nearly all, whose names appear in this narrative, and pronounce them entirely reliable in every respect, though testifying to a case that may have no recorded parallel.”
Milne was only half right. Betsey’s case, although special in the length of her abstinence from food, was not unique. Young women abstaining from food is a phenomenon that stretches back at least five centuries and in Betsey’s time was more than a passing curiosity. Betsey was, perhaps, the earliest American example as she ushered in a virtual craze of what became known as “fasting girls”: young women, usually in their teens and early twenties, who seemed to live, as Milne alleged that Betsey did, “without taking any solid nourishment . . . or any nourishment whatsoever . . . [while] retaining her usual amount of flesh and healthy appearance of the skin.”
But Betsey was of a particular breed of fasting girl whose fame resulted in part from her attributing her survival to divine influence. To many in the nineteenth century this seemed perfectly reasonable, albeit unusual. Historian Michelle Stacey, in her book The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery wrote, “Moses, after all, had fasted an unimaginable forty days before he received the Ten Commandments, Jesus forty days before his enlightenment. Medieval saints (most of them women) fasted to demonstrate their purity, their holiness—and if their fasting appeared to continue far beyond normal human bounds, it was proof of God’s grace.”
According to Stacey, the most famous of these was Saint Catherine of Siena who, in the fourteenth century, confined herself to a small room, devoting most of her time to prayer, allowing herself very little sleep or food. She cut off her hair and began flagellating herself. When she did sleep, it was on a bed of sharp stakes, her body wrapped in a tight chain. Each day she made herself vomit and ate at first only uncooked vegetables and bread and then only the sacramental wafer. When her family and confessor pleaded with her to eat more or she would die of starvation she replied, “What does mealtime mean to me? I have food to eat of which they know nothing.” Like Betsey Hays five hundred years later, Catherine said that her nourishment came from heaven above.
In Betsey’s case, “Soon after she ceased to eat common food,” Dickinson wrote to the Glens Falls Messenger, “she said that in her, God would show to the world that he had the power to keep people alive without eating or drinking.” The statements of citizens of character notwithstanding, some locals still refused to believe the story and “met to
appoint a Vigilance Committee to watch and determine conclusively whether food is taken or not.”
Meanwhile, Betsey’s notoriety rose and the publicity, the book and her exhibition combined to bring the controversy to a head. More than a few considered her claims to be fraudulent if not the outright rantings of the insane. After the initial reports emerged in June 1857, she came to the attention of Professor William H.Van Buren, chairman of the anatomy department of New York University. The respected Van Buren had translated two of the most important French manuals on surgery in the 1850s. He was esteemed for his skill with a bone saw, was a strong proponent of the scientific method and frequently traveled to the springs at Saratoga. Van Buren visited Betsey and declared her to be suffering from hysteria “in its most aggravated form. . . . Little food is required in such cases, and this little unquestionably administered.”
The diagnosis of hysteria was a common feature of health care for women in the nineteenth century. Stacey, in her description of another faster, Molly Fancher (known throughout the world as “the Brooklyn Enigma”), provides symptoms of hysteria offered by Pierre Briquet, a French doctor who compiled detailed data on 450 patients diagnosed with the condition at a hospital in Paris from 1849 to 1859. “Briquet observed a consistent progression,” Stacey writes, “the onset was marked by paleness, leading to loss of appetite and loss of weight.This was often followed by sensations of pain, especially headaches and epigastric pain, and aches in the left side, spine, and abdomen, which caused a sense of strangulation. Fits or spasms were the next step.”
Because religion was in conflict with an emerging medical profession’s penchant for the hysteria diagnosis to explain unusual phenomena among women, there came increasing pressure to prove that Betsey Hays did not live without eating. And so it was that in 1859, the year Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species formally challenged the idea of an all-powerful God, six men gathered in Betsey’s room, pushed her bed to the center of the chamber and began their twenty-one-day watch.
Their goal was nothing short of proving that God had nothing to do with it. On the fourteenth day the committee conducted another search. With watch members in the room, “the bed was again examined and changed; found to be very wet, much stained. Several rags that appeared to have been used to conceal food, and a small piece of raw pork, wound in a rag, were found in the bed,” the committee later reported.
“During this day she got out of [bed] (with assistance) and sat in a chair. While she was up, another piece of raw pork was found in the bed.” Betsey declared her ignorance as to how the meat had gotten into the bed and denied she was trying to deceive anyone. She asked for a Bible and began reading from the First Epistle of Paul the Apostle, a long chapter admonishing followers to be faithful to Jesus, and to be righteous and unquestioning of their motives as long as they are good. “Even as I please all men in all things,” Paul wrote, “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” On her own she knelt on the floor and prayed; afterward she was helped back into bed.
The watch committee demanded a search of her body. She allowed them to search from her shoulders to her hips but “positively refused to submit to further examinations, and ordered to them persons present [the watch] to leave her, which they did about 5 pm on the 15th day, being the 16th of the month, believing that she had food concealed about her person.”
On the evening of the next day, Abijah Davis, of Caldwell (now Lake George Village), and John Rozell, of Fort Edward, returned to Betsey’s room and stayed through the next morning when more watch-committee members arrived. They had taken it upon themselves to learn the truth about Betsey. They intended to conduct another search of her and the chamber “to satisfy themselves whether any article of food was concealed in the room, or about the person of Mrs. Hays, and if nothing was found they intended to continue the watch.”
Simeon allowed this new examination to begin, but Betsey “positively refused to submit to such an examination, and said she would rather not convince any person than to be searched any more.” She swore she was not lying, but after some struggle with her this new committee “proceeded with as little force as possible, and resulted in finding * * * a cracker, about two inches in diameter, which was broken in places in extricating,” committee-members reported. (The stars were used to censor the apparently socially inappropriate place the cracker was found.) “Her watchers caught her in the act of eating,” the New York Times later exaggerated in an editorial,“ in fact, they saw her regaling herself on meat and crackers!”
The New York Times editors may have figured that the mystery was solved, an imposter exposed, and the backward superstitions of Adirondackers trumped by science. But at least one of Betsey’s neighbors remained loyal. A piece of a single cracker was found in the bed, her unnamed defender declared, and besides, the member of the committee who found the cracker was a close relative of a man who had offered five hundred dollars to anyone who could prove Mrs. Hays was lying. “The investigation, therefore,” the New York Times then concluded, “seems to settle nothing.”
In 1860 the census-taker came by the Hays farm. Next to Betsey’s name he wrote, “The woman said to have lived without eating for the last 4 years.” It was the last census to count Betsey still among the living—she died in 1864. Had she lived a little longer her case may have been mentioned in a series of medical papers written, in 1873, by Frenchman Charles-Ernest Lasègue, who described the symptoms of a disease that occurred in young women which resulted in dramatic emaciation and was in extreme cases accompanied by the extraordinary symptoms Betsey had suffered. He named it hysterical anorexia. Later that year English doctor William Withey Gull gave it the name by which we know it now—anorexia nervosa.