Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mary Toft, "Deliver'd of Rabbits": An Epic Hoax of 1726

Thursday, April 21, 2011
Susan reporting:

Whether alien abductions or miracle cures, hoaxes that aim at making the hoaxers rich and famous aren't a modern phenomenon. In 1726, all England was a-buzz over the news of a farm worker named Mary Toft (c.1701-1763), who claimed to have given birth to...rabbits.

While this seems like a preposterous claim in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, 18th c. Englishmen still believed in a good many superstitions regarding childbirth, and the idea of a pregnant woman who had chased a wild hare then giving birth to rabbits didn't seem entirely far-fetched. But what does seem astonishing was that several highly regarded physicians and anatomists examined Mrs. Toft, and willingly staked their reputations that she had in fact been delivered of both of nearly twenty entire rabbits as well as various rabbit parts over a period of days.

It was too sensational a story not to share, and the papers were quick to report the lurid details:
"From Guildford comes a strange but well-attested Piece of News. That a poor Woman...was about a Month past delivered by Mr John Howard, an Eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife, of a creature resembling a Rabbit...and about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 all nine, they died all in bringing into the World....People after all, differ much in their Opinion of this Matter, some looking upon them as great Curiosities, fit to be presented to the Royal Society, etc., others are angry at the Account, and say, that if it be a Fact, a Veil should be drawn over it, as an Imperfection in human Nature."
                                             –from Mist's Weekly Journal, 19 November 1726

Representatives of the Royal Court visited Mrs. Toft and were convinced, and before long she became a celebrity. Newspapers, pamphlets, and illustrations were printed, bawdy ballads written and papers presented, and Mrs. Toft and her rabbits were the talk of the country. The King ordered her brought to London for further study. People high and low came to view her, and touch her belly to feel what was believed to be the leaping of more rabbits.

But by early December, the hoax began to unravel. Her husband was discovered to have been buying rabbits, and others around Mrs. Toft admitted to be party to the hoax. Finally Mrs. Toft herself admitted that a mysterious "travelling woman" had taught her how to create the hoax, assuring Mrs. Toft that the scheme would make her rich: "that I would never want as long as I liv'd." She was charged with being "a vile cheat and impostor", and sent to Bridewell.

Having made the swift transition from famous to infamous, Mrs. Toft's story still fascinated. Her portrait (with likely a stand-in rabbit) was painted in prison by John Laguerre, above, and William Hogarth made the famously mocking print, below, that showed all involved with the hoax, and another, called Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, that featured a laboring Mrs. Toft with rabbits scampering from under her skirts. The careers of the physicians who'd believed the hoax were ruined, and the modern-but-ignorant man-midwives became a source of ridicule and derision among the public.

Ultimately Mrs. Toft was never punished. She was released from prison to return to her native Surrey, where she uneventfully gave birth to a normal daughter. If she'd hoped to become rich from the hoax, then she failed, for there are no records of the Tofts receiving any profits. But if she wished lasting celebrity and fame was her goal – ah, thanks to Mr. Hogarth, she certainly achieved that.

Above: Mary Toft, engraving based on a painting by John Laguerre, 1726
Below:Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation, engraving by William Hogarth, 1726

Update for our UK readers: via Twitter (thank you, @HalcyonVA), I've just learned that BBCRadio will be broadcasting a radio-play based on Mary Toft on 22 April. Wonderful coincidence! :)


The Dreamstress said...

Ah...if only "being a vile cheat and impostor" was a chargeable offense these days!

Anonymous said...

You think this sounds preposterous, until you consider some of the stunts that get the balley-hoo on cable news today. Good post.

Richard Foster said...

If only Mary Tofts lived now she'd be a millionaire with her own reality show on TLC-"Nineteen Rabbits & Counting."

Miss Kirsten said...

Guess she had a bun-ny in the oven, LOL! Happy Easter, everyone!

Sara Lindsey said...

I first learned about Mary Toft in Emma Donoghue's short story collection, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. Of course everyone is now buzzing about Donoghue's Room, but this short story collection contains some absolutely gorgeous prose and lots of interesting bits of folklore and pieces of history.

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