Karen Harvey’s book on the ‘rabbit-breeder’ Mary Toft teases out the painful emotional drama behind an 18th-century medical hoax
The remarkable case of Mary Toft, the young woman from Surrey who, in 1726, supposedly gave birth to rabbits, amused William Hogarth. The caricaturist’s portrayal of the scene depicts the poor woman prone on a bed in the centre of the frame, apparently in labour, her meaty forearms betraying her lowly status as a farm worker. A bewigged gentleman, labelled “an occult philosopher”, has his arm up Toft’s skirts. Behind him, a queue of other well-dressed men wait for their chance to do the same. In the foreground are the happy, hopping bunnies. Hogarth titled the print Cunicularii, a saucy pun on the Latin words for “rabbit” and “vulva”.
The case is indeed amusing, at least at first glance. That a woman like Toft could pull off such a hoax—fooling, at least for a while, some of the most eminent scientists of the day—was a tremendous source of entertainment for the 18th-century public. When Toft was brought to London and examined by King George I’s chosen medical experts, crowds gathered outside her rooms in Leicester Square, hoping to catch a glimpse of the “rabbit woman”. When the conspiracy was exposed, and Toft was imprisoned in the Westminster Bridewell, the excitement only increased. She combined two forms of celebrity guaranteed to provoke public interest, being both a notorious criminal, and a freak-show peculiarity.
But Karen Harvey, professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham and author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder, wants us to look at the case in a more serious manner. Her portrayal of the Toft case is at some distance from Hogarth’s. She uses the gory details—the blood and guts, quite literally—to explore medicine, politics and gendered authority at this moment in English history, and to tease out the intimate emotional drama at the centre of the scandal.
Of course Toft did not actually give birth to any rabbits, living or otherwise. Instead, she seems to have experienced an extended miscarriage, or possibly a rare form of uterine tumour. As Toft continued to expel strange, monstrous-looking chunks of flesh, teeth and hair, someone in her household—quite possibly her mother-in-law, Ann—had the bright idea to turn the incident to their advantage in the hope of making some money. Actual pieces of dead rabbit were inserted into Toft’s vagina and the local doctor (also in on the hoax) summoned medical men from London to observe the remarkable phenomenon. They rushed down to her unfashionable corner of Surrey with all speed.
Toft’s case seemed to offer an opportunity to test the controversial “maternal imagination” theory, inherited from Antiquity, which suggested that a pregnant woman’s emotional disposition might have some important effect on her unborn baby. Toft reported that, early in her pregnancy, she had seen a rabbit while working out in the fields and pursued it, hoping to catch and eat it. Could this event have wrought some strange and terrible effect on the foetus? Though the idea seems absurd to a 21st-century reader, we must remember that these were times when, as Harvey puts it, “women’s bodies, like all bodies, harboured secrets.” The cleverest people of the age believed that it could be true.
What is clear from Harvey’s telling of the case is that Mary Toft herself had an awful time of it. Recent commentators have ascribed “distinctly modern motives” to poor Toft, with one account describing her as “the Monica Lewinsky of the 1700s”. The picture that emerges from the transcript of Toft’s confessions, extracted under duress, is of a young woman driven to the point of madness by pain and distress, clearly “frightened of the people around her” and coerced into taking part in a foolhardy conspiracy. The most engrossing sections of Harvey’s book are those that describe the claustrophobic environment in which all of this took place: crowded rooms, filled with elite medical men and low-born women, all competing for access to Toft’s mysterious body.
Poor woman. She was, at least, allowed to sink back into obscurity after her release from prison, although her vulgar reputation was never quite shaken off. Hence the description of Toft in her burial record, from which Harvey takes her title, as “the Imposteress Rabbett Breeder”. The book’s neat and rigorous analysis provides a thought-provoking glimpse into the England of 1726. It is also, rightly, an effort to restore some dignity to the woman at the centre of the story.
The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England
By Karen Harvey
Oxford, 228pp, £19.99