In this printed souvenir postcard, circa 1915, Giovanni Succi sits in his
"hunger booth" at a fair, advertising Becker's "Oxygen Water" and Lindener 
beer (Pilsener). Evidently he still drank while he starved.

Hunger Artists

"Fasting Wonders "


If the Hunger Artist is remembered at all in the United States it is perhaps only because of that great Czech writer, Franz Kafka. In his short story, A Hunger Artist (Ein Hungerkünstler), published in 1924, Kafka's performer finds himself performing at the circus in the twilight of his career. He discovers that the public is no longer interested in the art of starving oneself for the entertainment of the masses.

While the Belgian author, Ruben De Somer, writes in his article below that the first hunger Artist of the 19th Century was American, it appears that many of its most famous performers and largest audiences were European.

 

 

 

 

 

by Ruben De Somer: Fasting Wonders:

The Hunger Artist From the 17th Through 20th Century

Long before late-19th and early-20th century "Hunger Artists" like Tanner, Papus and Succi roamed the carnivals, fairs and Variety theatres, a slew of predecessors paved the way.

Most European countries had their own fasting wonder. Their main show activity was lying in a bed, slowly dying of hunger while the masses crowded around them. Most of these people claimed to have been fed by God.

In the U.K. Martha Taylor (17th century), Ann Moore (19th century) and the Welsh “Fasting Girl,” Sarah Jacob (19th century) earned their living, living on air. In Austria the 50 year old carpenter Wolffgang Gschaidter lay starving for more than 15 years (17th century) and in Switzerland Apollonia Schreiert fasted her life away (17th century).1. Bernard Cavanaugh reputedly fastened for more than 5 years until he was convicted for being a hoaxer and vagrant. Even in prison he didn’t eat: “the surgeon of the prison has signed a declaration that Cavanaugh has never touched, since the 29th of November in 9 days time, food or drink, despite this he stays healthy in body and mind.” 2.

Francisco Cetti (late 19th-early 20th century) was a Norwegian, 3. who exhibited himself in Berlin in 1887 but during this fasting session he quit after only 11 days. 4. A fellow Scandinavian was Mrs Christensen from Denmark who had to leave the London Royal Aquarium after 17 days instead of the 30 days she had planned.5.

The most well known fasting wonder and the main inspiration for the late 19th century revival was Dr. Henri Tanner, an American. 6. Another American was the wealthy Brooklyn resident Austin Shaw who did it because he wanted to-- he had read it in a book. 7.

The German fasting wonders also had a long history of survival on divinity. The oldest known case was the wonder girl Margarethe Weiss of whom a pamphlet exists from 1542. The “Daughter from Cologne” exhibited herself in a tavern in 1595. Another famous fasting wonder was Eva Vliegen (17th century). More recently there was Therese Neumann (20th century) with the final chapter in Germany told by "Heros," real name Willy Schmitz, who performed until the 1950's. His most famous feat was a performance in the Zoo of Frankfurt, where he stayed in a glass cage for 56 days. 8.

Belgium has had very few examples, though the most famous one was Louise Lateau who fasted for 12 years and then died in 1883.9. Earlier an 18th century woman was carried around on a carriage, forced to pray for mercy in front of the churches in Antwerp, Belgium.10. In 1886 a man from Brussels, Mr Simon also wanted to go for a world record of fasting but quit after a mere 12 days. 11.

In France there was Papus (19th-20th century)12., Alexander Jacques (early 19th-late 20th century), and Jeanne Balam (17th century).

Italy had three 19th century fasting wonders— Merlatti,14. Succi and Ricardo Sacco.15.

In Holland there were the performers Maria van Dijck(18th century), Barbara Kremers (17th century)16. and Engeltje van der Vlies(19th century). But of all the Dutch fasters, Engeltje van der Vlies was perhaps the most famous. Below we will look at her through the eyes of the contemporary press, and see her compared with many of her fellow hunger artists.


Engeltje van der Vlies

"Engeltje van der Vlies was born in Schiedam [Holland] on the 20th of August 1787 and is living in Pynacker near Delft, whose life has been dragging on without beverage and food since 1820, is currently very indisposed, several times the doctor has been forced to bleed her. Currently people think, more than ever, that her life thread will be severed, which when this has happened, will lead to weighty discoveries for scientific practices." (Gazette van Gent, Belgium April 11, 1847)

And another author, writing from Amsterdam several years later:

"For a long time people haven’t heard anything of Engeltje van der Vlies, from Pynacker near Delft, that most peculiar woman, who hasn’t eaten anything since 1818, and since March 1822 hasn’t drunk anything. Many think she has passed away. Meanwhile she has celebrated her 66th birthday and her continuous existence can be seen as a miracle. People will recall that in 1826, a report was made by a medical commission regarding her, the result of which was that Engeltje van der Vlies was watched for 4 weeks by 4 trustworthy persons around the clock, and they declared under oath that she hadn’t eaten anything, food nor beverages.

"Since the aforementioned research about 27 years have passed, and more than 35 years in which she hasn’t eaten and more than 31 years that she didn’t drink anything: but still the art hasn’t succeeded in explaining why she was able to maintain her life force in such a marvellous condition. With the lacking of one of the greatest pleasures of life, sick and poor, she’s most of the time cheerful and happy, and rests good-natured and resigned in her fate, the so-powerful support; her Christian religion gives to her true follower so spacious." (Gazette van Gent, Belgium, September 09, 1853)

And then appearing one week later in the same publication:

"Many persons have doubted the report that we’ve given a couple of days ago regards the girl, Engeltje van der Vlies, living in Pijnakker near Delft, in Holland, who hasn’t eaten for more than 32 years. We can insure our readers that the whole history is very true. A person who has even talked with this miraculous girl, gives us the following information:"

'She lived with the reverend of Pijnakker (an hour and a half from Rotterdam and the Hague) as a servant girl. Her brother, a deserter of the militia was caught by the gendarmes. As a result this shocked her so much that she stopped eating. At first they didn’t pay attention to it, they thought it was a natural result of her fear. However when it took several days in succession, they noticed it much more. Doctors were consulted all over the country without avail. None of them could explain where the remarkable condition of the girl came from; none of them could explain the change which had taken place in her organization.'

"For a couple of more years she could still drink." (Gazette van Gent September 16, 1853)

Another writes from Delft of van der Vlies:

"The famous Engeltje van der Vlies, who several newspapers recently discussed, as she allegedly had lived without food or liquid, has died yesterday in Pijnakker. As a result a medical examination took place, in company of several specialists, and so one says in supervision of the provincial commission of medical health research, the opening of the body has taken place of which the result is: at a certain height of the gullet (being the Cartilago Cricodea) a fleecy stricture was present, which wasn’t that hard, or lessening the workings of the gullet, that she couldn’t pass any solid food, she could certainly pass liquid food very easily in huge amounts. In the intestines newly freshly formed faeces was present and this was a clear proof that she had eaten recently, there were even food remains in the upper part of the intestinal tube(the microscopic and chemical research has to determine which food), and finally there were no deviations which could support the probability that no food had been used, or that the feeding had taken place in a supernatural way." (Gazette van Gent December 12, 1853)


Fraud, Religion, and Medicine: Motives of the "Fasting Wonders"

Why did they do it? Some of them probably really did it out of faith, but in most cases profit was the reason behind it all. If you wanted to visit such a miracle, whether it was in a tavern, a fair or at their house, you had to pay. "The Fasting Wonder of Tutbury," Ann Moore, for instance, managed to collect 400 pounds in the beginning of the 19th century. For a woman who used to be sustained by alms this is a huge sum.17.

The Belgian, Mr. Simon claimed he did it for humanitarian reasons. Simon explained that his fasting was as an example for miners who might be trapped in a mine cave-in— showing them that they could stay alive a lot longer without food. The fact that he would earn a nice salary of 5 Franc performing also helped things along.18. At one point in time Succi started a 40 day fast, saying his cash-flow was low, and he needed to acquire money and lots of it.19.

Not all miracle fasters had a religious background. Some did their deeds for reasons of health, and others did it because it was their job. The American Henri Tanner wanted to prove that one could keep on living without food for a long time and performed in Clarendon Hall in New York. For 14 days he lived without food.20. In a way he was a trendsetter because many followed his lead. His most famous contender was the Italian Succi.

The religious aspect of fasting was for a long time en vogue. Engeltje had been granted her powers for survival by divine intervention. She wasn’t the only one. The same was claimed by Martha Taylor, Eva Vliegen, Louise Lateau, Therese Neumann, and Wolffgang Gschaidter. 22.

In some cases the viewer was given a show, but most of the time the fasting wonder just lay there dying. However, most of the time the faster told his or her story to the visiting public. The Austrian Wolffgang Gschaidter was even promoted as the symbol of the city Innsbruck and the public was invited to come and see him at the local church and give an alm. (‘Makes me wonder about the weight of the people from Innsbruck’).

Another important element was that many invited doctors to prove the public that their “wonderous condition” was real. This the fasting wonders shared with many other types of “exhibited people”.

Engeltje, Henri Tanner, Succi, Martha Taylor, Sarah Jacobs, Francisco Cetti all were examined by the medical profession. Mr. Simon had both a dentist and a medical Doctor at his side during his performance, as well as 45 other people who had to watch that he didn’t do anything fraudulent. The only strange thing is that Cetti gained weight during his performance and was exposed as a fraud which brings us to following paragraph.

Just like many other exhibited people, fraud was a common feature of the performance. Engeltje, about whom we've just read, got her food through a small hatch which was hidden behind her bed, and through which her accomplice kept her nourished. Barbara Kremer was exposed by the Dutch doctor Johannes Wier (1515—1588). The Antwerp woman had to visit several churches and pray for forgiveness. The famous French magician and occultist Papus was also unmasked during one of his performances in Germany.23. Succi as well as Tanner were also accused of fraud during their long careers.24. Sarah Jacobs died before they found out the truth.

Many exhibited freaks and human oddities were the result of "Maternal Impression" according to literature and advertising which accompanied their exhibition. In the case of Engeltje it was her mother's fear resulting from the capture of her brother.25. It is not known whether other fasting wonders used the "Maternal Impression" explanation to highlight the reasons behind their condition. However such a miraculous shock did add to the attraction of these performers and could help explain to the audience in a "scientific" manner why the act chose to take this path.

The fasting wonders also sold pamphlets just like many other exhibited people. Martha Taylor, for example, had Thomas Robbins, a balladeer, write and publish a pamphlet about her claiming that she had fasted for more than 40 weeks through divine intervention.26.

Did they really eat or drink nothing? In most of the cases they did drink. Succi for instance used a special potion which probably contained some kind of narcotic.26. If you look at the postcard on top of this page you will see that he promoted some kind of “sauerstoffwasser” or oxygen rich water called Ozonin. Other were real frauds, and others only drank water to avoid drying out. Especially those who exhibited themselves for medical purposes.


Conclusion

Looking back at our miraculous brethren and sisters, we can say that most of them were people who were in need of attention, whether it was for financial reasons, religious or medical.

This need for attention is an important incentive, as we turn on the television and discover that the fasting wonder still exists. Gandhi as well as many other used it as a way to attract attention, and to gain their political goals. Yesterday (April 6, 2005) when I turned on the my televison I heard the story of 30 Kurds who had barricaded them in a church and were fasting. How little has changed?

 

REFERENCES:

1. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.
2. (Gazette van Gent 12/10/1841)
3. http://tdplata.tripod.com/historia/, Cetti was in a later stage in his career also an aeronaut, being a airballoonist at one time in Buenos Aires
4. Gazette van Gent, 03/26/1887
5. Gazette van Gent, 10/14/1888
6. Gould, G,.M., W.L., Pyle, Anomalies and curiosities of medicine, New York, Julian Press,1956.
7. Gazette van Gent, 07/3/1905
8. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht. museum dr guislain, Gent, 10/24/1991 - 01/19/1992.
9. Didry, M., Wallemacq A., Levenschets van Louise Lateau, de wondendraagster van Bois d’Haine. Leuven, Nova et Vetera, 1921

10. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.
11. Gazette van Gent, 12/1-2/1886 and 12/13-14/1886
12. Gazette van Gent, 11/22/1896
13. Gould, G,.M., W.L., Pyle, Anomalies and curiosities of medicine, New York, Julian Press,1956.
14. Gould, G,.M., W.L., Pyle, Anomalies and curiosities of medicine, New York, Julian Press,1956.
15. Gazette van Gent, 03/06/1906
16. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.

17. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.
18. Gazette van Gent, 12/1/1886
19. Gazette van Gent, 03/18/1886

20. http://www.br-online.de/wissen-bildung/kalenderblatt/juni/kb20000628.html
21. London Illustrated News, 1880, p. 133-134. or L’Illustration Européenne 09/4/1880
22. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.
23. Gazette van Gent, 05/13/1904
24. Gould, G,.M., W.L., Pyle, Anomalies and curiosities of medicine, New York, Julian Press,1956.
25. Gazette van Gent September 16, 1853
26. Allegaert,P., Cailliau (red), Vastenheiligen, wondermeisjes, en hongerkunstenaars, Een geschiedenis van magerzucht.

27. A mocking report of this potion, which could be bought by everyone, was published in “L’Illustration” from 4/06/92, p. 486.


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Last update: 6/4/05