Friday, February 11, 2005

The Rabbit Woman of Godalming

This is one of those snippets of forteana that you happen across from time to time. I think the first I heard of Mary Toft was in a short article about The National Dictionary of Biography which was published last year. Apparently she was in the new edition. I did some research...

In 1726 Mary was 25, married to Joshua Toft, a cloth worker in Godalming, Surrey, and already had two children, with a third on the way. On September 27th her family summoned the local surgeon, John Howard who, to his astonishment, arrived to find Mary giving birth to a stillborn rabbit with the legs of a kitten. Mary explained that she had been startled by a rabbit in pregnancy, and since that moment had craved roast rabbit, and had dreams about them. Some versions of the story say that she claimed to have encountered a six foot high rabbit which assaulted her in rather a personal manner, but most academic accounts prefer the former explanation; it seems to be a tale which lost nothing in the telling. Further births followed, until eventually she had given birth to fifteen rabbits. Word spread, and crowds began to gather at Mary’s home to see the mysterious offspring, who had all been preserved in glass jars.

John Howard lost no time in publicising Mary's amazing feat. The case of the Godalming Rabbit Woman soon became widely known and drew the attention of physicians attending George I. Nathaniel St. Andre was particularly impressed. On December 3rd 1726, she was brought to London for an examination. This was an exciting time for Mary; there was talk of a pension from The King, she was taken to impressive lodgings in Leicester Fields (later to be known as Leicester Square once the grassy area had been paved over) and received members of the nobility. There she was constantly monitored, and was mysteriously unable to produce any more rabbit offspring. The King’s physician, Sir Richard Manningham, was more sceptical and suggested to Mary that he perform an investigative operation to open her womb. This was in the days before anaesthetics and sterile environments; any operation would be painful and dangerous. Faced with this prospect Mary confessed. She had miscarried at five months. All subsequent births had been achieved by placing animal parts inside her and pretending to suffer labour pains. The whole family, hoping for fame and fortune, had complied.

It may seem strange to us that Mary was taken seriously at all. However, the idea of “maternal impression” was a common one at that time. Mothers who were scared by a particular animal during pregnancy would miscarry, or suffer children with deformities. This was a simple way of explaining the large number of miscarriages or still births in a society without sophisticated medical care, and in which interbreeding led to a raised number of birth defects. As late as the Victorian era Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, was advertised as being the result of his mother being scared by an elephant while pregnant. Merrick himself, an intelligent and perceptive man, believed this himself for a number of years. In 1726 midwifery was carried out by surgeons, who were all male. For the sake of modesty, they carried out much of the procedure from behind a sheet. Female midwives were available informally, but they invited being prosecuted as witches. Perhaps if the first rabbit birth had been attended by a down to earth female midwife, with children of her own, she would have had no truck with Mary’s nonsense.

Following her confession, Mary was taken to Bridewell and on Christmas Eve 1726 charges were brought against her for “An Infamous Cheat And Imposture”. Crowds of people gathered but were not allowed in; her family were only allowed in after being strictly searched. Eventually, in April, it was decided to quietly let the matter drop, possibly because the medical establishment preferred not to have the gullibility of some of its practitioners further publicised. The reputations of John Howard and Dr Nathaniel St Andre never recovered. A couple of years later, St Andre was charged with the care of Samuel Molyneux, the first astronomer of Kew. Some felt that he was not well cared for; it emerged that St Andre, although he had risen to the heights of anatomist surgeon in the royal household, was only qualified as a dancing master! Molyneux declined suspiciously rapidly and St Andre eloped with his widow. Little is known of what happened to Mary, but a few years later she was convicted of stealing some food. She leaves no record of her death.

She left a lasting legacy, however. There were many satirical references to the case, pricking the pomposity of doctors. Hogarth drew a famous cartoon depicting the naivety of the doctors in the case. Even street entertainers and conjurors wanted to get in on the fun. Magicians invented their own visual joke to depict The Rabbit Woman of Godalming by extracting a rabbit from a top hat. Wherever Mary might be, perhaps she takes comfort that in end of pier shows from Bognor Regis to Yarmouth, her drama is still being played out.

Many social commentators, particularly of the right wing persuasion, believe that we're becoming more and more depraved, voyeuristic and vulgar. But I'm struck by the fact that many people seemed to think a trip to Mary's to see her dead rabbit feotuses in jars was a good day out, maybe combined with the other major treat that Godalming used to offer: public hangings. Thousands used to gather. Makes two people shagging on Big Brother seem pretty tame!

OK, next major post, Mongolian Death Worms!


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