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Interview with Karen Harvey author of 'The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder'

Karen Harvey's new book The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder tells the outlandish story of one Mary Toft, a local woman from Godalming, Surrey who in September 1726 came to national attention after claiming she had given birth to live rabbits.

Such was the furore caused by this 18th-century media scandal that was reported in newspapers nationwide, George I sent his own doctors to examine Mary Toft to verify her claims. These extraordinary births prompted not just public curiosity and scientific investigation but also a vicious backlash.

The new book is based on extensive archival research and is the first detailed history of this astonishing story. As well as telling the story of a little-known Georgian scandal, the book shines a light on the huge cultural, social and political shifts taking place in Georgian Britain. This was a time when social hierarchies were shaken, relationships between men and women were redrawn, and knowledge of the body was remade.

To mark the publication of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder, published by Oxford University Press, HISTORY spoke to Karen Harvey Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham about her latest work.

This is a fantastical story, how did you come to hear of Mary Toft?

I had known about the case for years. Like many historians I thought it was a curious case that was certainly important for the history of medicine. I decided it would make a good case study for a class I was teaching, but quickly realized that the case would allow me to expose the social, political and economic history of the early eighteenth century. It also struck me that no one had tried to examine Mary Toft herself.

Can you set the scene, who was Mary Toft, what was her background, what did she claim?

Toft lived in the town of Godalming, in Surrey, and was married with one child. She and her family were poor. She worked as an agricultural day labourer for a paltry daily rate if that work was available; her husband was an unskilled clothworker. In autumn of 1726, she claimed that she had started to give birth to rabbits after she had seen some rabbits running away from her in a field. She explained that she was already pregnant when she saw the rabbits, and that thinking about them ever since had caused her to miscarry and then subsequently to produce rabbits.

Did doctors really believe she was giving birth to rabbit parts?

At least one certainly did (Nathanael St. André). Most others were highly sceptical. It’s easy to think they did believe because they didn’t denounce her straight away. But they delayed not because they thought the rabbit births might be possible, but in order that the truth could be established through scrupulous investigation. They didn’t want to simply deny the monstrous births but apply high standards of empirical investigation to prove they were false.

What does the case tell us about contemporary attitudes towards female physiology and reproduction?

Above all, it shows the widespread public investment in reproduction and childbirth. So much about early modern lives took place in communal or public settings, and reproduction and childbirth were no exception. A family’s future and that of the entire national community depended on the reproduction of the next generation. For women especially, producing children was a social (as well as a religious) duty. While the science of reproduction was developing very quickly from the mid-seventeenth century, conception and pregnancy were invisible and shrouded in mystery. The combination of a profound interest in reproduction but the sense that women’s bodies were unknowable produced considerable anxiety.

How did George I become involved in the case?

The first London doctor who went to see Toft – St. Andre – had a position in the King’s household as a surgeon, and he was quickly joined by another Royal surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers. Newspapers reported that the King had sent them, along with the physician Richard Manningham. So George I evidently had a personal interest in the case. We know he was interested in curiosities, such as Peter the Wild Boy. But he may have also been driven by the undercurrent of protest that arguably rumbled beneath the surface in this case.

How did the media of the time react to the story?

Very often with misogynist hostility. As a poor woman, Toft’s apparent audacity was simply offensive to many. And of course, there is ample potential for humour in a story about a woman giving birth to rabbits: grub-street writers didn’t hold back with their vicious satires about both Toft and the many elite men who she had apparently duped. There was another strand to the media interest, though, and that explored the causes and implications of the case. What did it mean, writers asked, if our country is one where stories like this take hold? For some journalists, it signified the chaos of their society and the failure of those in power to govern effectively.

How much was the Mary Toft case a product of the time, of early 18th century England's incendiary political culture?

Well, there are other exceptional cases of alleged monstrous births before. But the particular tangle of factors around this case is particular to the early eighteenth century, in my view. The political elite felt embattled and social and political protests that centred on animals were stoking up their anxieties. Toft’s husband was involved in one of these. At the same time, there is evidence that women were becoming an ever-greater concern within the criminal justice system, certainly in this southern part of England. The lightning-fast circulation of news in newspapers added political journalism into the mix.

What was Mary Toft's ultimate goal with this hoax?

I’m not convinced she had a goal. To the extent that she had any agency in these events at all, my hunch is that she was placating those around her by being an obedient young wife and mother. The people driving the case were most likely family and neighbours and I suspect their motivations were a complicated mix of factors. Yes, they may have wanted money, though no gains are recorded in the historical record. The rabbit-births most likely also functioned as a surreptitious protest against the social inequalities experienced by people of their rank, using the rabbit as a longstanding symbol of elite privilege. I also think there was something about the case that was targeted at Toft herself. It really was an awful process she was put through.

How did you go about researching Mary Toft and her life?

I began with the many printed books and pamphlets on the case. But then I very quickly became preoccupied with the three ‘confessions’ that Mary Toft gave during the criminal investigation into the case. There are around 40 pages of notes, very rough and in places difficult to read. The way they are constructed shows that they record her words quite faithfully. And they make for difficult reading because Mary Toft described her agony throughout the whole process in such frank and arresting terms. But the most surprising thing I uncovered was the Quarter Sessions document that shows Mary Toft’s husband, Joshua, taking part in a protest at a fish pond. That really was an exciting day in Surrey!

What is Hogarth's involvement in the story?

Hogarth issued a wonderful engraving of the scene in the London bagnio where Toft was questioned by the London doctors, called Cunicularii (1726). It shows her on the bed surrounded by family and a string of elite men, one of whom – Richard Manningham – has his arm under her skirts. The fluffy rabbits in the foreground are a whimsical touch – all the rabbits involved in the case were dissected. This print was released as a pair with another, The Punishment of Lemuel Gulliver, a satire on the prime minister Robert Walpole’s circle. In conversation, these two prints suggest a link between the credulous and foolish doctors around Toft and the ministers around Gulliver. It is brilliant eighteenth-century political satire.