A fasting girl was one of a number of young Victorian girls, usually pre-adolescent, who claimed to be able to survive over indefinitely long periods of time without consuming any food or other nourishment. In addition to refusing food, fasting girls claimed to have special religious or magical powers. Was it for money? Fame? The Fasting Girls did receive gifts from the public, but they came from pretty well-off, middle to upper-class families and didn’t really need money. As public interest in the women grew, the Nickelodeon and Stone and Shaw’s Museum tried to figure out ways to make the Fasting Girls part of their playbill.
In 1889 Josephine Marie Bedard, a French girl of 15 born in St. Hubert, Quebec living in Tingwick, Quebec was reported in the newspapers to have eaten nothing for seven years, and was still alive. When Josephine’s mother Marie Houle died, the young daughter mourned to such an extent it made her seriously ill. Josephine, however, being of strong constitution recovered, but she refused all food and took only a small quantity of warm water each day in the way of nourishment.
When the family was at the table she left the dining room as the sight of food displeased her. Despite the long fast, the girl seemed to be in good health, and certainly was rosy cheeked and well developed for one of her age. Her father was something of a spiritualist, and thought he saw visitations of the hand of God in her case. The case baffled the best physicians and experts in Canada.
One would think that such a daughter would be a great relief to her father the newspapers said, particularly to a father like hers. Ambrose Bedard, who had nine other children, two by his first wife who he said now slept in the little churchyard of the parish at home in Canada. A new wife produced seven children and Mme. Bedard, was in charge of their little farm, the store and the family, while her husband was down in Boston looking out for Josephine Marie and his brother-in-law.
Mme. Bedard’s brother Joseph had crossed over to the states a long time ago, and the letters which came from him told that he was doing great in the little business he had established in Lewiston, Maine.
Ambrose decided to visit his brother-in-law and see what chances there were for him. He decided to take little Josephine too so that she might see something of the world. This matter of Josephine’s non appetite was not thought of in connection with the journey, beyond the fact that no lunches had to be prepared for his daughter. When others would eat she would chew gum. When Josephine stopped eating years ago it was a decided relief to him, as now it was one little less Bedard to feed.
In fact everyone in the family had stopped worrying about the girl a long time ago. She could dance with the best of them on village celebration days, and was quite a belle among the farmer boys. If she didn’t care to eat it was her own affair, and they simply showed their attentions in some other way than in buying sweets.
While she was in Lewiston visiting the story of her odd way of living somehow got into the papers. A gentleman came to her father, who wanted to take her to a hall, promising what seemed like a fortune if she would go upon exhibition.
Josephine felt terribly about it, and cried when her father, tempted by the money which would go back home, tried to persuade her. While this first offer was pending, a letter came from another museum manager in Boston offering the bewildered father $100 a week if he would bring Josephine to Boston.
Another offer came of 2,000 francs a week which was more than his whole farm, house, store and all put together were worth. Neither Ambrose nor Josephine could speak a word English. They found it a strange mixed up language which the museum people and others in the strange country talked. Brother-in-law Joseph settled it all out, but not like he thought. He made a mistake of signing her up to two museums at the same time and of course a court case went all the way to the *Supreme Court. In the case of Josephine Marie Bedard, two different Boston-based enterprises, the Nickelodeon and Stone and Shaw’s museum, competed in court for the right to “exhibit the girl” publicly. Court case or no court case a biography for Josephine suddenly appeared in the newspaper.
Her biographer says she was born at St. Hubert, province of Quebec, in April, 1871, lost her mother when three months old, moved with her father’s family to St. Paul when five years old, where the beginning of her long fast took place, and returned to Tingwick, Canada, where she now lives in the family of her father, who is a farmer and country storekeeper.
The Boston Globe
20 Jan 1889, Sun • Page 11
As they say on Project Runway:”– ‘One day you‘re in and the next day you‘re out !” In 1889 the gravy train began to run out for Josephine.
The Boston Globe ran a story in 1889 called: “Who Took the Cold Potato? Dr. Mary Walker Says the Fasting Girl Bit a Doughnut.” Dr. Walker reported that Josephine Marie Bedard, known as the Tingwick girl, was a fraud. The evidence was circumstantial: “At the hotel I searched her clothing and found in one of her pockets a doughnut with a bite taken out of it…. On the last day I had a lunch served to me… I left a platter with three pieces of fried potato on it. I went there and one of the pieces was gone. When I returned, Josephine had her handkerchief to her mouth.” Asked whether that was all the evidence, she said, “after I accused her of it she broke down and cried.”
In order to obtain both sides of the story the reporter went to William Austin, the owner of the Nickelodeon, “The Tingwick girl speaks not a word of English”, said Mr. Austin, “but I will tell you all that I know about it. Sunday I took breakfast at the hotel, and one of the waiters, said to me. ‘Dr. Walker says that your fasting girl eats.’ I went at once to the doctor and she would say nothing, saying she would explain all when she gave her lecture Monday. You have heard what she has to say”.
Josephine explains that when she went into the office she kicked the doughnut which was on the floor. Upset, she picked it up and tried to hide it from the doctor. She was afraid she would accuse her of having eaten some so she put it in her pocket. She was confused and acted rashly. The doctor had no other proof, the story of the potato was not holding water, and at best one small piece was lost off the platter.
Mr. Austin concluded, “I offer Dr. Walker $12,000 to go into a room and remain there for 12 weeks with the Tingwick girl. But she won’t. Dr. Walker has announced that Josephine has not eaten in 12 days. If she is a fraud I want to know it. But I want evidence that will stand a decent test. But remember, she has not seen her eat anything in 12 days”.
Because fasting girls were such a curiosity in the Victorian era, many companies and individuals rushed to put them on display. Still, even as she was used for blatant commercial gain, there was also an element of scientific inquiry in regarding Bedard as a medical phenomenon. While a modern institutional review board would not have approved the violation of privacy for these young women for commercial gain, the practice was allowed in the Victorian era. So in the end Josephine went home and what happened? Well wax figures were involved….
The Boston Globe
25 May 1890, Sun • Page 11
The Court Case *
The Boston Globe
08 Feb 1889, Fri • Page 8
Read more: The Victorian Fasting Girls- Thanks to Dennis Riggs