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  • What Mary Toft Felt:Women’s Voices, Pain, Power and the Body
  • Karen Harvey (bio)

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Fig 1.

William Hogarth, Cunicularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation, Etching, 22 December 1726. Wellcome Library, London [17342i].

On Monday 10 October 1726, the Weekly Journal or British Gazeteer published the first newspaper notice about the case of Mary Toft:

From Guildford comes a strange, but well attested piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin, near that Town, who has an husband and two Children now living with her; was, about a Month past, delivered by Mr. John Howard, an eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife living at Guildford, of a Creature resembling a Rabbit. [End Page 33]

The notice provided what became the standard explanation for the deliveries until it was finally exposed as a hoax two months later. That explanation came from the mouth of Mary Toft herself:

The Woman hath made an Oath, That 2 Months ago, being working in a Field with other women, they put up a Rabbit; who running from them, they pursued it, but to no purpose: This created in her such a longing to it, that she (being with Child) was taken ill, and miscarried; and from that Time, she hath not been able to avoid thinking of Rabbits.1

This version was repeated by Mary Toft again in November, when she was questioned by one of the many doctors involved in the case. Nathaniel St. André gave his report of this exchange in the first of many pamphlets published on the case. Toft’s ‘account’ was given in response to his ‘several Questions’. She explained that on 23 April, she was weeding in a field with other women when she chased a rabbit and ‘this set her a longing for Rabbets, being then, as she thought, five Weeks gone with Child.’2 The women ‘charg/ed her with longing for the Rabbet they cou’d not catch, but she den’y it’.3 She then dreamt of rabbits and had a ‘constant and strong desire to eat Rabbets, but being very poor and indigent cou’d not procure any’. Seventeen weeks later (towards the middle of August), ‘she was taken with a Flooding and violent Cholick Pains, which made her to miscarry of a Substance that she said was like a large lump of Flesh’.4 Three weeks later (early September) she passed another substance, though she continued to exhibit ‘the Symptoms of a breeding Woman’. At this time, as she worked in a hop ground, milk ‘flow’d profusely from her Breasts’ though, she added, ‘as she had Children before, she thought she felt very differently from what she used to do’. Finally, on 27 September, she was taken very ill, sent for her mother-in-law (‘who is a Midwife, and a neighbouring Woman’) and finally ‘voided’ what she described as parts of a pig.5 Following the delivery of further animal parts, she was churched ‘and thought all was over with her’.6

Mary Toft continued to deliver rabbits throughout the autumn of 1726. In Godalming, and later in London, Mary Toft was attended by at least six different doctors, some members of the Royal College of Physicians or attached to the Royal Court, but no doctor declared the affair a hoax until Toft herself confessed on 7 December 1726. The case became a sensation and was reported widely in newspapers, popular pamphlets, poems and caricatures. There was a rich vein of prurience running throughout, but depictions of Mary Toft herself shifted quickly in tone from mildly sympathetic curiosity to indignant outrage. Most famous in this flood of print was William Hogarth’s 1726 engraving, Cunicularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (Fig.1). Hogarth stages the hoax as a drama performed by Toft to a group of elite men (including four of the doctors) with a supporting cast of her husband and sister-in-law. The engraving mocks the [End Page 34] doctors for their credulity.7 So whilst we might detect in Hogarth’s parody of the Adoration and Mary’s delivery of Christ some sympathy...


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