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It is better to believe a little than too much.
-The New York Times, December 15, 1878
There is very little as a matter of fact, in the great domain of nature, that we actually understand.
-Abram H. Dailey, Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn Enigma, 1894
ON JUNE 8, 1865, eighteen-year-old Mollie Fancher went shopping in Brooklyn, New York. Two months short of her nineteenth birthday, she was tall, well made, willowy, with light wavy hair and an oval face. Her features were regular, and a photograph made around this time shows eyes with a serious, direct gaze. Mollie was active and energetic, and on this day she took brisk, hearty steps along the bustling sidewalks of Fulton Street-named for the forward-thinking Robert Fulton, who in 1814 had established the first ferry service linking Brooklyn and Manhattan. Her arms were full of packages; her thoughts lingered on an impending journey to Boston, and on her recent engagement to a respectable young man, John Taylor. She was, at that moment, all that mid-Victorian convention could require of a teenage girl.
But on this hot, oppressive June day, amid the chaos of dust and horse traffic and noise that was Brooklyn-then still independent of New York City, and the third-largest city in the United States-Mollie's regular progress along the path of middle-class Victorian propriety was about to come to a halt. That path had, in the sophisticated yet also oddly provincial milieu of Brooklyn society, its accepted stations: graduation from the select Brooklyn Heights Seminary for girls; attendance at the Brooklyn Yacht Club regattas and various strawberry festivals and musical performances that enlivened summer days and evenings; marriage to a suitable young man; the bearing of several children; the grace of middle age. Mollie had already experienced interruptions in this progress, including the early loss of her mother and a horseback accident at fifteen, but now she was back on stride. When that stride was next broken, it would be permanently, and in a way that not only would change her life, but would affect the lives of hundreds, even thousands, of people she would never meet.
Mollie boarded a streetcar, a trolley-like vehicle pulled along railroad tracks by a team of horses. Most of the old horsecars, which would be replaced by electric streetcars in Brooklyn beginning in 1892, traveled, at their swiftest, at a speed of only six miles per hour over the stone-paved thoroughfares. Even so, they could on occasion be lethal. That very day, June 8, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had published an irate letter to the editor of the newspaper under the heading "Dangers of Railroad Travel." In it the writer, signing himself a "sorely bruised Sufferer," described his misadventures on a DeKalb Avenue car: He "managed to get a foothold on the rear platform" of a very full car, but when the vehicle rounded a corner at top speed, he "without any warning was suddenly landed in the street, to the detriment of his body, clothing, etc., and his watch thrown out of his pocket." The driver did not even stop the car after this unnamed "Sufferer" landed on the paving stones. And a week later, the Eagle reported that a young girl named Henrietta Cook had died of injuries received when she was run over by a streetcar. Again, the driver of the car did not stop after the accident.
Mollie Fancher climbed aboard one of these rollicking vehicles, laden with her packages, the lower half of her body encased in the full, cumbrous crinoline that was the cross borne by every fashionable lady of the Civil War era. When she was ready to descend to the street at her stop, she signaled the conductor. He rang the bell, the car was halted, and Mollie stepped from the rear platform to the pavement. The conductor rang the bell again for the car to move forward, turned away, and walked into the interior of the car. But Mollie had not fully descended, and she was thrown to the ground by the sudden movement of the car. Worse, her crinoline skirt caught in an iron hook at the back of the car, so that instead of simply being dashed to the paving stones she was then dragged over them.
For nearly a block Mollie was pulled behind the horse-drawn streetcar, her body turning around and around as her skirt twisted into a rope. She lost consciousness, as horrified onlookers shouted to the driver to stop. Finally his attention was gained, and Mollie's battered body came to rest. She was disengaged from the hook and carried into the nearest shop-a butcher's. "It was long before she could be removed to her home," wrote Abram Dailey in his biography, Mollie Fancher, the Brooklyn Enigma, published in 1894. Eventually, friends conveyed her to her house, at 160 Gates Avenue, and to the distressed care of her family. She would never leave that house alive again.
In that manner, the Fulton Street car fulfilled its destiny as an agent of careless destruction, and Mollie Fancher began to fulfill hers as a challenge to Victorian thought and belief. She kept the twisted rope of a skirt to the end of her days, a poor rotting symbol of her cataclysm.
In the later nineteenth century, modern urban existence was plagued by risks not altogether unlike those of today, despite that era's apparently slower and less alienated lifestyle. Danger, disease, random violent crime, plain bad luck-the newspapers of Mollie's youth are full of gruesome tales; only in some details is the passage of more than one hundred years discernible. In the Brooklyn of 1865, workmen fell from ladders, scaffolding, and riggings at the Navy Yard and at building construction sites, breaking arms, legs, necks, dying sometimes on the spot, sometimes later at the hospital. A surprising number of people were injured or killed by lightning. Heartbroken young people, men and women alike, committed suicide by arsenic poisoning or other means. Innocent citizens were burned by vitriol thrown on them by persons unknown to them-a puzzling, random crime that enjoyed a brief popularity. Horses did all kinds of damage: pulling wagons over people, especially children; throwing riders to the pavement, often to their deaths. For June 5 through 11, 1865, the week of Mollie Fancher's accident, Brooklyn city records list mortality from cholera, consumption (tuberculosis), typhoid, apoplexy, scarlet fever, premature birth, stillbirth, croup, bowel inflammation, and several other ailments and accidents, for a total of 109 deaths. It was merely a piece of luck that Mollie was not in that number, her death reduced to a three-sentence paragraph in the "City News and Gossip" column of the Eagle (perhaps below "Arrest of a Burglar" and above "Killed by Lightning": "Schoolgirl in Fatal Horsecar Fall").
What marks the difference between these nineteenth-century ills and today's is scale and intensity: twenty-first-century threats are bigger, faster, often deadlier. We are killed not by six-mile-per-hour horses but by seventy-mile-per-hour cars; not scalded by the random terror of vitriol but incinerated, by the thousands, in a massive act of high-rise, airborne, international terrorism. Victorians were beginning to get a hint of a new world, and that awareness gave misfortunes like Mollie's a peculiar resonance. Disease, heartbreak, accidents of childbirth-those were familiar dangers, age-old threats to health and happiness. It was the newfangled perils that frightened Mollie's fellow Brooklynites most; such perils produced a special brand of fear that was only beginning to be labeled or understood. Today we might call it generalized anxiety: a sense of dread, or worry, often brought on by an overload of demands on our abilities and our time, or by an underlying apprehension of our capacity for self-destruction.
The psychologist Rollo May argued at mid-twentieth century that the roots of the modern "age of anxiety" (as W. H. Auden christened it in his 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning poem) were planted one hundred years before, in the world that Mollie Fancher knew. "In the nineteenth century," May wrote in The Meaning of Anxiety, "we can observe on a broad scale the occurrence of fissures in the unity of modern culture which underlie much of our contemporary anxiety....The rapidly increasing mastery over physical nature was accompanied by widespread and profound changes in the structure of human society." Those overarching structural shifts were accompanied by rapid-fire transformations in the routines of daily life, especially for people living in cities-transformations that accelerated throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.
Consider just a short list of earth-shattering Victorian innovations, beginning with the patenting of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1837 (the Western Union company would complete a transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, putting the eastern and western coasts of the United States in instant communication for the first time). Chief among the intellectual challenges that followed was the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859; the work struck at the foundations of human belief in an all-powerful and benevolent deity who single-handedly created the world in the not-too-distant past, replacing that comforting vision with an unforgiving picture of brutal interspecies conflict and a godless, near-random universe. (To Victorians, the most insulting idea contained therein, of course, was the notion that noble man had actually descended from the ape.) In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, and three years later Thomas Edison brought forth the lightbulb-both auguring monumental shifts in the way people spoke, read, lived. A few years earlier, in 1869, the American transcontinental railroad was completed, transforming an arduous, months-long journey into a jaunt of seven days, coast to coast. Even travel within a single building changed, with the installation of the first passenger elevator in a New York store in 1852. How could one help being nervous in this mind-expanding universe, in which the emerging world threatened to change unrecognizably in the course of a generation? How could one avoid ambient fear of all the noise and speed and light and steam? Humans had never been exposed to such phenomena; they had not yet learned to tolerate them.
In Nothing Like It in the World, his study of the building of the transcontinental railroad, the historian Stephen Ambrose points out that a person born before 1829 came into a world in which President Andrew Jackson traveled no faster than had Julius Caesar, "a world in which no thought or information could be transmitted any faster than in Alexander the Great's time." Ambrose argues that of any people in history, before or since, the Americans who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century experienced the greatest, most fundamental changes: electricity, telephone, telegraph, railroad. "The locomotive was the first great triumph over time and space," he writes. Those two properties are the central means for how humans experience reality; to conquer them was almost inconceivable.
Today, we understand that change inevitably brings stress. In the mid-nineteenth century, all that people knew was that they sometimes distrusted and feared these new gifts, which were also sometimes monstrosities. And while inventions like the telephone and electric light were challenging and exciting to the mind, innovations like the railroad and even the elevator demanded an actual physical involvement, a tangible demonstration of trust. When that trust was betrayed, the mind sometimes rebelled. Some nineteenth-century physicians diagnosed a new condition, "elevator sickness," believed to be caused by the effects of high speed on internal organs. Another commonly diagnosed illness, "railway neurosis," was a broader concept based on the same basic premise: the collapse of the human body-and with it the mind-when it confronted the physical reality of technology.
Freud diagnosed railway neurosis in himself in the 1890s as an anxiety or fear experienced simply from proximity to trains (self-attributed in his case, in classic Freudian fashion, to a childhood incident in which he thought he saw his mother naked while on an overnight train trip). Already for a decade or two before his description, railway neurosis had been a common medical and social phenomenon. Often it was triggered by a shock or trauma experienced on a train, and law books of the 1880s are full of suits brought against railroad companies for all manner of alleged injuries that led to fear and disability. Chief among the complaints were "railway spine" and "railway brain," in which neurological defects would appear; lawyers wrangled over whether the symptoms were genuine or faked.
In 1890 a young Kentucky woman named Mary Minogue sued Louisville Southern Rail Road, claiming that an accident on its line had caused a case of railway spine. Her lawyer argued that the impact of the collision had thrown Miss Minogue from her seat to the floor of the railway car, and that she had sustained external bruises and a great shock to her nervous system. None of her bones was broken, but after the accident she had been troubled with partial paralysis, or an insensibility in one leg from the knee down. Doctors who testified agreed that the railroad should pay Minogue damages, "since this was clearly a case of the railway spine."
Lawsuits were not limited to trains alone, or even to physical injury alone: horsecars and emotional trauma were considered equally potent. In Rochester, New York, Anne Mitchell brought suit against Rochester Railway for an incident in which she was preparing to alight from a train. As she stepped down, a horsecar was coming down the street. The team of horses rushing toward her turned at the last moment, and by the time they could be stopped, she stood right between the horses' heads. Mitchell testified that fear caused by the galloping horses made her faint and resulted in a miscarriage and subsequent illness.
It's easy to imagine that the very speed that railroad trains could reach might induce fear and anxiety in a species that had never traveled faster than a horse could run or trot; to see the landscape shooting by must have seemed like going to the moon. When one added to that the symbolism trains conveyed-the increased speed of everyday life, the personal demands of keeping pace with other denizens in a fast-growing city-even horsecars, loaded with that new breed, commuters, became threatening. Accidents were not uncommon; news stories about passengers thrown from cars or run over by them abounded. The Brooklyn Daily Times described in harrowing detail an 1866 incident in which a Greenwood horsecar was hit by a passenger car on the Jamaica Rail Road.
"The horse-car was badly crushed, and forced down the street at a fearful rate," wrote the reporter. "It was perfectly unmanageable, and intense excitement was created among the hundreds of people on that street. The passengers were terribly frightened." The story goes on, in cinematic style, with information supplied by a man who had been on the car that was rammed: "When the small car reached the corner of Fifth and Flatbush avenues, several persons, including two or three ladies, with a child, a poodle dog, two canaries in cages, two big carpet bags, and a man, got in; and several gentlemen subsequently took passage. At the Henry Street crossing someone called out, 'For God's sake look out for yourselves!' At the same time there were great shouting and screaming, both in and out of the car, and the harsh rumbling of a heavy car. On turning to see what was the difficulty, the passengers in the small car saw one of the large and heavy Jamaica passenger cars within a few feet, coming down with frightful velocity. The next instant it struck the small car, crushing in the rear platform, iron-work, brake, and top; smashing the wood into splinters, and glass into small pieces, and tearing the iron into fragments. Some of the passengers were thrown on the floor of the car, and the concussion hurled nearly all of them backwards." Although no one was killed, many were bruised, and several of the women on board fainted.
Another local paper, The Brooklyn Daily Union, described a horsecar accident later in the year that strongly evokes Mollie Fancher's disastrous encounter. In a brief entitled "Street Car Accident-Narrow Escape from Death," a reporter told how a servant, Catherine Powers, barely escaped being run over by a streetcar in front of her employer's residence. While crossing the street, holding a child by the hand, Powers tried to avoid an approaching horsecar and instead ran under the feet of a team of horses pulling another car in the opposite direction. The woman was knocked down and severely bruised by the horses' hooves. Her clothing was caught in the forward brake of the car, and she was dragged for some distance, receiving severe bruises and suffering a scalp abrasion. In Powers's case being dragged probably saved her life, because the brake kept her from being pulled directly under the wheels of the car. The child, meanwhile, was thrown to the pavement by the collision and badly bruised. Woman and child both survived, and no blame was attached to the driver.
Not only were horsecars and railways frightening and dangerous, but riders quickly discovered that mass transit could be noxious as well. In newspaper editorials and letters to the editor in the 1860s, writers sounded a modern note, familiar to New York straphangers of later eras. In "The Infelicities of Local Travel," an editorial published in The Brooklyn Daily Times in the mid-1860s, the writer praised and damned the new technology. Street railroads had undoubtedly contributed to the growth and prosperity of Brooklyn, he observed, yet there was still plenty of room for fault-finding. "On most of the lines of city railway, accommodations are totally inadequate, the cars are inconvenient, dirty, badly ventilated, and always overcrowded. The consequence is the great discomfort of all who use them. Is there no way to remedy these defects, and make the public accommodation accord with the interests of the companies?"
An inventive feature-writer for the New York Herald (anonymous, as was usually the case in nineteenth-century newspapers) in December 1878 contributed a long front-page story that gives the flavor of traveling on yet another innovation on the rapid-transit scene, the elevated railroad. In a lighthearted piece, "Rapid Transit: Serio-Comic Aspect of Elevated Railroad Travelling on the East Side/Crowded Trains and Irate Passengers/Merchants and Clerks Fighting Their Way to Hot Dinners," the writer first set the scene in its history-making context: "The establishment of the elevated railways has given rise to scenes of a novel and striking character-scenes that would make even Rip Van Winkle himself open very wide his sleepy eyes at the changes that have come over this city. When the Herald urged the building of these roads many people declared they would never pay and that people would never ride upon them. Now, when they have been running only a few months, it is already found that they are inadequate to meet the requirements of public travel."
The most remarkable scenes of overcrowding, this writer went on, occurred between five and seven in the evening, when the cheaper, five-cent fare prevailed. The wildest venues during these hours were the downtown stations of the East Side road in Manhattan, where there was as yet only one narrow stairway from the first landing up to the platform. When a crowded train arrived from uptown, the disgorged passengers would rush down the stairs-or they would have rushed down, had they not been wedged between the masses of passengers, many of them with bundles under their arms, who were trying at the same time to fight their way up to catch the same train. "The ticket agents' arms fairly ache from the frantic manner in which they have to throw the five-cent tickets through their little windows. And still the people come-black masses of hurrying, bustling men, scurrying home from business, with a stray woman or child in their midst, whose courage in venturing into such a dense, struggling multitude must be admired."
But the hardest part was yet to come. Once the hungry businessman, anxious for his dinner, had pushed his way through the obstructing arms and elbows and safely climbed up to the platform, he still had to get himself onto a train. The platform was long and narrow, placed between two tracks, and crowded with hundreds of people straggling from one end of the platform to the other. The questions uppermost in everybody's mind were: Where, precisely, will the train stop? Where shall I stand to be nearest one of the platform gates? Everyone knew that the cars filled up rapidly, and people who were not close enough to the gates would be left behind. As the minutes passed, the jostling and struggling and even fighting intensified for the best places-those, the reporter explained, "nearest the edge of the platform, where the opportunities for tumbling down upon the track are excellent, but are coolly disregarded by the eager passengers."
Then perhaps a train would come, but it would be going only as far as Grand Central Depot; this news would be received with a general groan of disappointment by the crowd, most of whom were going farther north. Five or ten minutes might pass before a through train arrived-and often that train would be full and would rattle by nonchalantly without deigning to stop, while someone on the platform spied a cubic inch of space as it passed, and cried out, "It's a damned shame! There was plenty of room in there!"
By the time the desperate crowd got its chance at the next train, there was such a wild onset on the gates, and such a wedge of human bodies, that at first nobody could enter. The train, the reporter concluded, "is packed like a box of sardines and, by dint of hard fighting, the conductors and brakemen succeed in shutting the gates, while some enterprising passenger, who refuses to be left behind, tries to climb over them, and succeeds in being taken along, because to push him back now, when the signal has just been sounded, would endanger his life. Off goes the train, and the weary 200 passengers who have been left behind gnash their teeth."
These were scenes of complete novelty, and despite the writer's light tone, they were also scenes of daily social stress made even more stressful by the element of unfamiliarity. When one was faced with the real prospect of being accidentally flung on the tracks in front of an oncoming elevated train by the weight of the crowd, developing a fear of trains was not unreasonable. The forces, the very machinery, of rampant civilization could seem fearful unto themselves, exerting as they did an unrelenting pressure to change, adapt, learn new skills (such as how to squeeze oneself brazenly into a commuter train simply to get home for dinner). Railway spine or railway brain, writes one historian, "stands forth as the classical Victorian neurosis, that is, a psychocultural illness in which the human psyche collided with the changing nineteenth-century environment and gave birth to an epidemiclike neurotic illness whose form and severity are rooted in the Victorian era."
--from The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery by Michelle Stacey, Copyright © March 2002, J.P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.