Night and day for three full weeks six well-dressed men would take shifts standing watch over Betsey Hays in her bed. They planned to stay with her two at a time in her one room cabin and make careful scientific notes. For Betsey, who spent most of her time tormented by uncontrollable bodily contortions and seizures, it was something she was used to.
Over the past two years, thousands of people had come to Chestertown in Northern Warren County to stand over her as she suffered.
From far and wide, the curious, the nosy, religious pilgrims, all mingled at the foot of her bed with probing, prying and inquisitive elite members of the medical profession and powerful religious leaders. Politicians, judges, hotelkeepers, newspapermen, and common travelers had come up the planked stage road from Lake George Village (then known as Caldwell). They came to her little building in the village see for themselves the prophetess, a self-proclaimed messenger of Jesus, and to see if she really did live without eating.
For a brief time in the late 1850s Betsey Hays, wife of Simeon Hays of Horicon was at the center of the nineteenth century battle between religion and science. According to widely reported newspaper accounts, the 28-year-old Betsey survived only on small amounts of liquid nourishment, mostly berry juice and lemonade. Even this she had trouble keeping down except during the short intervals between her constant seizures.
Betsey, her pastor A.D. Milne, and thousands of supporters attributed it to nothing less than an out-and-out miracle, but men of science from the city of New York, graduates of the finest medical schools in the country, declared her a fraud and she was mocked by the New York Times. This is what had brought the six well-dressed and respectable Warren County men to stand over Betsey Hayes for three weeks.
They were members of a vigilance committee, organized in March 1859 “for the purpose of ascertaining whether Mrs. Hays eats” – at least the third such committee to sit over Betsey in the past two years. When the men of the watch arrived, “the room and every article within, was carefully examined.” Nothing was discovered that would raise suspicions. They moved the bed to the center of the room and no one was allowed to enter, save for Betsey’s husband 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 and suffered terrible spasms 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, even talkative, and presumed it wouldn’t be long and she would confess her ruse and ask for food. Instead, she persisted in her fast, admonishing them with verses from the bible on the imminent arrival of Christ.
“On the fourth day the watch found, upon examination, that her bed was quite wet,” the committee later wrote, “on the eight 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 Betsy Hays was being administered laudanum, a popular tincture of opium.
For thirteen days they kept their vigil, all the while suspecting that somehow Betsey was deceiving them. She had to be sneaking food, perhaps somehow as she lectured them from her bed on the subject of religion. “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 Simeon and the children were no longer allowed to enter and Betsey and the entire room should be thoroughly searched again.
Betsey’s unusual case captured wide public attention in 1857 when Samuel C. Dickinson, clerk of the Chester Baptist Church and “a man of good judgment and undoubted piety” 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 in November 1854.
She was “taken with fits” and thereafter, during the few precious minutes between convulsions, Betsey was able to briefly speak and take a little 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 juice, and you have all the nourishment she had taken.”
The Warren County Superintendent of the Poor George Cronkhite visited Betsey to investigate and confirmed her story to the rival Glens Falls Republican. Cronkhite, “a man of well known veracity and candor,” reported that Betsey 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… she is now falling rapidly, and a short time will intervene before the sands of life will run out.”
Her situation was extreme and awful and all believed she faced death at any moment. “Surely, thought I, it is my lot to be present and behold this afflicted woman released from all earthly sufferings,” Dickinson had written, “for although I had seen many persons in fits, I never saw a poor human frame so long in such violent agitation.” “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.” But 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 children 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 members of Betsey’s church knew her well and took great interest in her case and in helping supply the family’s needs.
Betsey had joined the Chester Baptist Church at the age of fourteen during a revival brought on by William Miller of Washington County, NY. Miller was one of the earliest and most renowned proponents of what is now called Adventism – a belief held by the present 7th Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Adventists churches (including the one in Brant Lake) that the second advent (second coming) of Christ was imminent. Miller, and the Millerites who accepted his teachings, believed the world would end in about October 1844. This was based on mathematical calculations that Miller had done using bible verse, in particular Daniel 8:14 where it is reveal that “it will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.”
Among Millers earliest believers, a man who Miller described as his “best friend on earth” was Truman Hendryx. Hendyrx was pastor of the Chester Baptist Church and the man who baptized Bestey Hays. Letters between William Miller and Hendryx reveal a close friendship, and a firm belief the world would soon end with Christ’s arrival, albeit with some question as to whether they had the time of his arrival correctly calculated. Betsey’s pastor held an important place in the life of William Miller and in the development of his beliefs. When the first biography of the William Miller was written in the 1870s, it was largely reprints of the two men’s correspondence. Both men hold esteemed places in the history of today’s Adventist churches; the tenets of which they help lay the groundwork for.
One of the tenets of early Adventism was the notion that preparation for the second coming required cleanliness in body as well as spirit. Those expecting to be chosen to accompany Christ had to be free of evil habits such as tea, coffee, and alcohol. They had to hold strict dietary restrictions such as eating only twice a day. They should abstain from pork and embrace vegetarianism and raw foods. They should reject modern medicine in favor of homeopathy.
Out of early Adventist belief grew health reforms that found substantial support in Battle Creek Michigan where Adventists manufactured, promoted, and sold the wholesome cereals that gave rise to the Kellogg company. This is what made Betsey’s unique condition so remarkable – was she being kept alive by Christ without food as a demonstration of the way to salvation on his second coming? From her bed Betsey asked her husband to organize religious meetings in her room where she preached the Adventist message. She saw her sufferings as the work of God and others, respectable men and women in Chestertown and the surrounding towns, agreed and began to make the journey to her home to see for themselves.
The stories about Betsey that were then being printed in the Glens Falls newspapers were picked up by the Albany Evening Journal, the Troy Whig, the Newark Advertiser, the New York Times, and others. Skeptics from around the country responded by arguing that Simeon and Betsey were to be regarded with suspicion and called on science to prove there was a deception. They were quickly 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 the disbelievers that relied heavily on the fact that the witnesses were completely trustworthy.
Doctor L. Charrette of Warrensburg confirmed the reports about Betsey and Chester Justice of Peace W.J. Smith took sworn affidavits from Simeon and other observers, including a number of members of the Chester Baptist 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 Simeon’s wife were constant so “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.” The local businessmen of Chester must surely have been ecstatic; the New York Times reported that thousands of believers were traveling to the North Country to see this remarkable long-suffering woman.
There were requests from Albany and the city of New York to put Betsey on exhibition. Instead she was carried the eight miles to Chestertown on “a frame and bed, slung upon polls and borne by men” and placed in “a sort of exhibition looking building in [the] village.” 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 Andrew D. Milne, the pastor of the Chester Baptist when Betsey took ill and now publisher of the Adventist leaning Glens Falls Messenger, printed the 45-page tract trumpeting her story: The Woman That Lives Without Eating: Being an Authentic Narrative of Mrs. Simeon Hays. “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.”
Meanwhile, Betsey’s international notoriety rose and the publicity, the book, and her exhibition all 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. Her story came to the attention of Professor William Holme Van Buren, recently appointed Chair of the Anatomy Department of New York University.
Van Buren’s obituary records the life one of early America’s esteemed doctors. He was to say the least, a consummate professional, albeit in an era when medicine was only beginning to accept the rigors of the scientific method. He translated two of the most important French manuals on surgery in the 1850s and during the Civil War helped found the United States Sanitary Commission that staffed the war’s field hospitals. Doctor van Buren was, among other things, noted for his skill with a bone saw, a strong proponent of the scientific method, and a frequent visitor to the springs at Saratoga.
It was presumably on one of his regular trips to Saratoga that Doctor 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 and insanity was long considered by mental health officials as the cause of Millerism and other ecstatic religious movements. The very first American Journal of Insanity, published at the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica and predecessor of the American Journal of Psychiatry, declared that not only were the Millerites insane, they were flooding the nations asylums.
With the backdrop of the nineteenth century debate between science and religion, there came increasing pressure from the medical community to prove once and for all that Betsey Hays was committing a fraud in the guise of superstitious religious beliefs. And so it was that in 1859 the six men gathered in Betsey’s room, moved her bed to the center of the one-room exhibition building, and began their twenty-one day watch.
On the fourteenth day the committee banned Betsey’s husband and children from the room and conducted another search. With all the members of the watch 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.” Finding that Betsey ate pork was a significant development for the skeptics – early Adventists were avowed abstainers from swine.
Betsey in a rare moment between fits and paralysis declared her total ignorance as to how the raw pork had gotten into the bed and denied she was trying to deceive anyone. She asked for a Bible and began reading from the 10th Chapter of 1st Corinthians (The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle): “Moreover brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
It’s 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 writes, “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” Betsey, seemed to be saying the same thing – “I’m doing this for you! So you can be saved! Don’t question my motives!” She believed after all, that it was Jesus himself who was guiding her. On her own she knelt on the floor and prayed; afterwards she was helped back into bed.
The watch committee was skeptical and demanded that they search her again. She consented to allow them to search her from her shoulders to her hips, but refused to allow them to go further. They demanded, and she “positively refused to submit to further examinations, and ordered to the 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 two members of the watch returned to Betsey’s room and stayed through the next morning five more men and three women arrived. They had taken it upon themselves to learn the truth about Betsey, once and for all. They intended to conduct another complete search of Betsey and the room “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.”
Mr. Hays 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 again 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.” 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 in favor of science over magic and an imposter exposed. But at least one of Betsey’s neighbor’s was unconvinced. 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 $500 to anyone who could prove Mrs. Hays was lying. “The investigation, therefore,” the New York Times modestly proclaimed in evident disgust, “seems to settle nothing.”
Betsey had become a spiritual sideshow oddity, a freak of nature, unnatural, abnormal, a rallying point for the growing medical profession’s new scientific methods and the waning power of religious belief in the supernatural and ecstatic visionaries. Her story also became a wedge dividing the Chester Baptist Church, the oldest and most prominent of the area’s Baptist congregations.
The church that had been founded in 1796, had given birth to all the other Baptist congregations in the area, which had been the home to nearly a dozen annual meetings of the Lake George Baptist Association, split over whether or not to believe Betsey’s story. After the vigilance committee’s report was reprinted in the New York Times the majority of the congregation left to form their own congregation, the North Chester Baptist Church, and the old church was left “greatly decimated.” It never recovered, and was all but abandoned in the 1890s and torn down in 1912.
Betsey faded back into the Horicon woods as quickly as she had been carried out of them, albeit with still a small measure of local celebrity. In 1860 the census taker came by the Hayes farm on Pease Hill near Brant Lake. Next to Betsey’s name he wrote, “The woman said to have lived without eating for the last 4 years.”
Her name was no longer mentioned in the nation’s papers of record, but she suffered on another seven years until her death in April 1867. She was buried in the Hays family plot at the South Horicon Cemetery beside the Schroon River in Haysburg. Her stone makes no mention of her miraculous life or her former celebrity. Her husband Simeon, who never remarried, lived to be 84 and joined her there in 1905.
Illustrations, from above: 1858 map of Northern Warren County showing chesteertoown and Horicon (“S. Hays,” the home of Simeon Hays is shown near Round Pond); the original Adventist Battle Creek Sanitarium; Cover of “The Woman That Lives Without Eating: Being an Authentic Narrative of Mrs. Simeon Hays” (1858); and portrait of William Holme Van Buren.
Bob Meyer says
The story is very weird, but not unique to the town of Chester.
Nonetheless, thank you for the extremely entertaining read.
Wishing you both a belated merry Christmas and a healthy, happy and meaningful 2023.
Thanks, as always, for all you do to keep our history alive.
This is an interesting piece of our local history. I have learned that many cults formed in this part of NY state during that time period, most likely due to lack of personal Bible study whether from illiteracy or simple apathy. Boredom and a search for meaning in a troubled world probably made these sensations even more appealing.
Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.