The strange story of the British woman who 'gave birth to rabbits'

Hogarth's Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation
Bunny business: detail of Hogarth's Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation Credit: Alamy

Robert Leigh-Pemberton reviews The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder by Karen Harvey

Whatever else may have collapsed before the intellectual tide of the Enlightenment, a taste for the bawdy and the lewd appears to have survived, even thrived, alongside the triumph of reason in the early 18th century. It is therefore not surprising to see the great poet of the age, Alexander Pope, take an almost infantile glee in setting “to the tune of High boys! Up we go…” the extraordinary tale of Mary Toft and her claim, in 1726, to have given birth to rabbits. As Pope put it, “The surgeon with a Rabbit came,/ But first in pieces cut it;/ Then slyly thrust it up that same,/ As far as Man could put it…”

Pope’s childishness is shared with almost all of his Grub Street contemporaries. William Hogarth’s engraving of the scene entitled “Cunicularii”, itself a pun on “cony” and “cunny”, which no doubt brought its creator great joy, contains such humorous gems as a label above the unfortunate Samuel Molyneux – the courtier and amateur astronomer whose reputation would be forever tarnished by his credulity in the hoax, “an occult philosopher searching into the depth of things”.

But there is a more serious narrative to tell about Toft, one of social ferment, gender politics and exploitation. In The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder, a title taken from the Godalming parish register’s notice of Toft’s death, the cultural historian Karen Harvey returns her to the centre of her own story – and, through her, examines the place of poor women in the 18th century.

Toft’s story was certainly a remarkable one. She had lived all her life in the relatively small town of Godalming, and it was there and in Guildford, in the autumn of 1726, that all 17 of her recorded “births”, mostly skinned and unskinned parts of rabbits, but also part of a cat and possibly “a piece of Hog’s bladder”, took place. When the news arrived in London, it created a sensation. However ferociously the press later crowed about “an abominable cheat and imposture” (as one wag put it, “Here a wise Man would have smelt a Rat instead of a Rabbit”), the first reports were circumspect. Several eminent physicians and surgeons were dispatched, apparently at the direct request of the Sovereign, and Toft was soon brought to London and lodged in a “bagnio” in Leicester Fields. Here she was subject to a series of miserable torments at the hands of the king’s doctors, all more or less sceptical of her story, but, as Harvey argues, bound by their passion for empirical reason and the value of enquiry to dismiss nothing without justification.

Toft’s discomforts can easily be imagined, but it is the unflinching detail of the discussions that followed, so distant from the usual “polite” discourse of 18th-century society, that makes this such an extraordinary case. “Sullen and stupid” though she may have been, it is troubling to hear of her, utterly devoid of agency, dragged to London, her intimate person “diligently search’d”, and her body made a piece of public property. As another poetic commentator joked, so commonplace had such gynaecological conversations become that fashionable women “shortly intend to get figures in China/ Of the Diaboli Morsus, and eke the Vagina”.

'The Pretended Rabbit Breeder': A coloured engraving of Mary Toft Credit: Alamy

Despite the depth of Harvey’s research, it remains unclear who ought to be held accountable for the deception. Toft’s mother-in-law looms large and horrible in her own account, as does another shadowy figure, an itinerant knife-grinder’s wife, but Toft herself, having suffered by the very nature of the undertaking (she likened her pain to the “tearing of brown paper” or “pricking of bones”), suffered further when the hoax was exploded and a cry for punishment went up that, it seems, far exceeded the nature of the crime.

Fortunately, the prosecution for fraud was abandoned when it could not be proved that the deception was such that “a man of common prudence could not reasonably defend himself”. However, here Harvey leans heavily on the idea that Toft awoke graver concerns among the governing elite than one might imagine. This was a period of immense, if carefully controlled, social unrest, particularly in poorer rural areas like Toft’s, and although it is hard to countenance the suggestion that the humble rabbit was emblematic of landed privilege, and the hoax, intentionally or otherwise, some species of great social protest, the fact remains that a poor, rural woman came perilously close to making the very grandest figures in British society look ridiculous.

This is a fascinating but difficult story. We will never be quite sure why the hoax was committed (Toft seems to have made only a single chance guinea from the affair) or quite who put the poor girl up to it, and Harvey deserves credit for the immense amount of research that has produced what feels like a definitive account. Nonetheless, her learning is, on occasion, rather heavily worn. A cameo appearance from the Duke of Richmond prompts the remark that “the 26-year-old Duke… may have been wearing the blue velvet suit with silk lining, along with the ‘fine bever hat’, all ordered earlier in the year”. Moreover, the narrative is largely subsumed by Harvey’s analysis of the implications of Toft’s deception, leaving the details of the hoax itself vague.

And yet there is much to be said for the timeliness of this story about credulity and hysteria in the age of science. As the news broke of the Toft case, the Earl of Peterborough wrote to his friend Jonathan Swift that “strange distempers rage in the nation… Women bring forth rabbits and every man whose wife has conceived expects an heir with four legs. It was thought not long ago, that such confusion could be only brought about by the black art.” One wonders if he would be comforted by the knowledge that such distemper was to be a permanent feature of the newborn modern world.

The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder is published by OUP at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop