In A Human Moment

Miscellany from the 19th century

Dr Tanner’s Fast

Dr Tanner, a local of Minnesota, travelled 1600 miles to New York City, to begin a fast on June 28 1880. Dr Tanner declared he would prove it possible to live, for forty days and forty nights without food and water. For the contemporary reader, the allusion to forty days and forty nights without food would not need explanation, a reference to the duration of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. No member of the regular profession of doctor’s, however, would concede any chance of his success – positing that the teachings of science are against the will of the average man and that they were awaiting, calmly, the inevitable ending; Dr Tanner’s death.

Within the space of a fortnight, Dr Tanner had lost 25 ½ lb but was said to be cheerful, weak and nervous. The Daily News writes, “Attempts to fast for a considerable time are of course no novelty, but of late years at least they have not been ostensibly voluntary. Fasting girls and such like persons have been represented as not desiring food rather than as deliberately purposing to abstain from it” (Saturday July 17 1880). Similarly, the Liverpool Mercury provides witness testimony that Dr Tanner, at the beginning of his fasting, was “full and pleasant faced” but now, after a few days appeared “emaciated and haggard. His eyes are sunk deep in their sockets and added to their sleepy depression is a bright glitter, which is terrible to look at. The man is not delirious and no symptoms of insanity have yet been noticed by the physicians, but a timid person would hardly care to be shut up alone with that glittering eye for company. His walks are less frequent day by day and when on his feet, though he does not stagger, his step sows a lack of firmness which all his skill and pains cannot conceal”.

The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald ran a story on Dr Tanner’s twentieth day of fasting, informing their readers “his pulse was 76, his temperature 98.405 and respiration 16. He drinks water copiously, and also takes long rides claiming that water and air will effectually nourish him”.

The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle flatters Dr Tanner writing, “Dr Tanner has seventeen more days to live on water and air in order to complete his task. Should he succeed, new hopes will be opened to the human race. Starvation will no longer decimate nations. There will be no necessity for hungry men to beg. Imagine the value of Dr Tanner’s discovery in Ireland at the present time. Irishmen living on water and air for forty days – why, Parnell’s occupation would be gone. Food, it seems, is a complete delusion, a bad habit, a tax upon the constitution Dr Tanner is showing the world how to wean one’s self from food”.

Reaching day twenty-nine, newspapers began reporting a loss of two inches in stature, water no longer revived him, he was beginning to sleep for large portions of the day and concerns were held for his mental faculties.

The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, and Yorkshire reports days later that Dr Tanner is feeling less and less refreshed after rest and is beginning to suffer from pains, unrelieved by imbibing water as he is unable to retain it in his system.

On July 30 1880, thirty-two days since Dr Tanner began his fast, correspondents from New York began writing dispatches indicating Dr Tanner was determined, that he would fight to the death, the bitter end, to complete his fast; supervising physicians no longer provided predictions of the outcome. The confusion for the doctors stemming from Dr Tanner’s weight gain of a quarter pound when only consuming small amounts of water, leading to the belief that food is being supplied to Dr Tanner in some way. In fact, the improvement seen in Dr Tanner, while positive and astonishing did not seem to impair the trust watchers had in his sincerity and his insistence that no external individual was sneaking food to him.

This improvement, however, did not continue long term as his weight is documented to have dropped two pounds in twenty-four hours and he presented as more enfeebled than the previous day.

On August 3 1880, the Daily News wrote, “Change is a remedy which doctors are fond of recommending to hard-worked people who are tied to desks and offices. Carriage exercise, billiards, champagne jelly and ortolans might in the same ay be prescribed for the mental and physical maladies of paupers… People may go to any one of the myriad German ‘cures’, may eat grapes as voraciously as Dr Tanner hopes to devour ‘a bully old watermelon’ may take baths in boiled dips of pine branches, may drink ill-flavoured waters,  and yet not really enjoy a healthy change… A man is wasted with the ‘worry’ of business. This is a malady, which, so teaches fable, will turn black hair white as suddenly as fear can do, or love, or remorse, or regret. Men have died and the worms have eaten them for nothing worse than worry”.

Reports on August 2 tell us that Dr Tanner remained confident of his success though his eyes are lustreless, his tongue furred, his face pinched and haggard. The papers report on August 7, however, that Dr Tanner had experienced his worst day, suffering violent attacks of vomiting.

“When the steam whistle blew to denote that his fast was over Dr Tanner jumped on a chair and swallowed a peach, notwithstanding the remonstrance of watchers. The crowd cheered enthusiastically, and many spectators embraced him outside the ante-room” (The Leeds Mercury Monday Aug 9 1880). At which point, Dr Tanner was weighed, the result pronounced as 120 ½ lb. “Dr Tanner immediately drank a glass of milk and called for water melon. The physicians remonstrated, but Dr Tanner voraciously ate several slices, rejecting the fibre, and swallowing only the juice. The physicians protested that he would kill himself, but Dr Tanner continued to eat the watermelon.

“During the afternoon he repeatedly ate slices of melon. After drinking an ounce of Hungarian wine, he ate half a pound of beefsteak, swallowing all but the tough parts. He drank another ounce of wine, and followed this with a slice of melon, then at an apple, and called for another steak, of which he ate half a pound. He then drank another ounce of wine. His stomach retained all the food that was taken and Dr Tanner suffered no nausea. He appeared to be in excellent spirits, and said he felt capitally, and would be ready for business by Monday. He retired at eleven o’clock apparently out of danger. The physicians were utterly amazed at the readiness with which his stomach digested the food. They had arranged a course of treatment, but Dr Tanner took matters in his own hand and startled them with his imprudence. He ridiculed them, and said he suffered no injury” (The Leeds Mercury Mon Aug 9 1880).

Papers reported later however, that Dr Tanner did experience some bouts of nausea and vomiting and needed assistance in exiting the room. Tanner then slept through the day when an estimated 2000 visitors came to visit him.

With most fame, or notoriety, another man was waiting in the wings to challenge Dr Tanner.

rival to dr tanner

Daily News (London, England), Saturday, July 17, 1880; Issue 10686.
The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald (Bury Saint Edmunds, England), Tuesday, July 20, 1880; pg. 7; Issue 5117.
The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, and Yorkshire (Lancaster, England), Wednesday, July 21, 1880; Issue 5051.
Liverpool Mercury etc (Liverpool, England), Thursday, July 22, 1880; Issue 10149.
The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, July 23, 1880; pg. 3; Issue 4046.
The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, and Yorkshire (Lancaster, England), Wednesday, July 28, 1880; Issue 5053
Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Friday, July 30, 1880; Issue 6885.
Daily News (London, England), Tuesday, August 3, 1880; Issue 10700.
Liverpool Mercury etc (Liverpool, England), Wednesday, August 4, 1880; Issue 10160.
Daily News (London, England), Saturday, August 7, 1880; Issue 10704
The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, England), Monday, August 9, 1880; Issue 13208.
Liverpool Mercury etc (Liverpool, England), Monday, August 9, 1880; Issue 10164.
The Dundee Courier & Argus and Northern Warder (Dundee, Scotland), Tuesday, August 10, 1880; Issue 8443


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