The case of the Rabbet Woman (also known as Mary Toft) is a particularly interesting one. Toft, on the advice of an unnamed accomplice, decided to engage in a scam which would enter her into the annals of history: she pretended to give birth to a series of seventeen baby rabbits and three tabby-cat legs, apparently by pushing their dead corpses up her vagina when no one was looking. Over the course of her fraud, she managed to convince many of the leading scientific and medical lights of the day that she was, in fact, giving birth to these rabbits (and three tabby-cat legs), including John Howard
(pdf) (and more
, also pdf), Cyriacus Ahlers
(one of the King's surgeons), Nathaniel St. Andre (Anatomist to the King), Samuel Molyneux, and Sir Richard Manningham, male midwife to the Queen.
Sir Richard Manninghan (Man Midwife!), although originally taken in by the fraud, eventually discovers the truth when a porter admits that he had been going to the market to buy baby rabbits for Toft. His Diary provides a pretty good summary of the case.
When the fraud was discovered, Toft was charged, although the charges were eventually dropped; more lasting were the effects on some of the medical professionals, whose reputations were permanently ruined. You can read a nice summary in A Cabinet of Curiosities
The case of the Rabbet Woman took the English world by storm. Scores of pamphlets--in this case the 18th century equivalent to tabloids--circulated, as the public devoured case depositions, scientific publications, satirical doggerel, and semi-erotic prints of rabbits bursting forth from Toft's nether regions (sanitized prints here
(pay special attention to the comments), previously
The first record of Mary Toft's strange delivery comes in the Mists Weekly journal
, and there are plenty more periodical accounts from the era available
The line between sincerity and satire can seem blurred for a modern reader, with a preface to St. Andre's account of his experiences
with the rabbit woman commenting on contemporary childbirth procedures:
It may indeed be objected, that the poor woman was never delivered of a perfect complete rabbit; but nevertheless, if the legs were produced at one time, the head at a second, the body at a third, and the skin at a fourth; and the several parts together, would make up complete rabbits, it is all one; for how often are we obliged to bore the cranium of a child, and to squeeze out the brains, in order to reduce the head, or take off an arm or leg, to affect a delivery: all the difference here is, that nature did the violence here in this case (it being only a parcel of rabbits) which we are forced to do, when we handle our fellow creatures.
More from St. Andre here: The Deposition of Nathaniel St. Andre of the Parish of St. Martins, Chirurgeon.
(pdf). Various other depositions can be read here
After the con was revealed, medical professionals involved in the scandal rushed to insist that really, they knew it was fake all along. J. Douglas (MD) inadvertently reveals his lack of experience with female anatomy along with his attempts to clear his professional name
I began by declaring it to have always been my firm opinion, that this report was false; in the first place, because I never could conceive the generation of a perfect rabbit in the uterus of a woman to be possible, it being contradictory to all that is hitherto known, from reason and experience, concerning the ordinary, as well as extraordinary, procedure of nature, in the formation of a fetus: and in the next place, because I never could conceive it practicable, that any such substances, as were talked of, should be thrust up, through the narrow neck, into the cavity of that organ, that being repugnant to the structure of the part so well known from anatomy.
As well as such wonderful tautologies as "I added further, that the noise of snapping and breaking of bones, which he talked of, must certainly be a romance, nonwithstanding the number of the witnesses he appealed to; and that for the plain reason, among many others, because it is impossible for any such noise to be heard."
Even those normally noted for their dedication to critical thinking and even mockery of the silliness of contemporary medical practice, such as John Arbuthnot, were briefly taken in. He wrote "every creature in town, both men and women have been to see and feel her: the perpetual motions, noises, and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious; all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next productions."
He must have been even more embarrassed when his friends
weren't above taking a poke at the phenomenon, possibly not least because their old enemy Edmund Curll
was making a good deal of money selling said erotic prints, etc. (See, for example, Pope's "A full and true Account of a horrid and barbarous Revenge By Poison, on the body of Mr. Edmund Curll bookseller. WITH A FAITHFUL COPY OF HIS LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT
" (google books) for an example of the hi-jinx the Scriblerians got up to with Curll).
Alexander Pope, " " and author of such exciting page turners as The Dunciad
and The Rape of the Lock
, was also the (anonymous) author of, shall we say, some less elevated
lines satirizing the Rabbet Woman phenomenon in "The Discovery, or, The Squire Turn'd Ferret, an Excellent New Ballad, To the Tune of High Boys! Up go we; Chevy Chase; Or what you please
". You can hear a recording of the tune High Boys! (to different lyrics) here
and Chevy Chase here
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
, got in on the action as well
(pdf) under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver (surgeon and anatomist to the kings of Lilliput and Blefuscu, and fellow of the academy of sciences in Balnibari) though the few scholars who care think it was probably someone else who just liked Gulliver's Travels
Of course, the gold standard of Rabbet Woman parody is "Much Ado About Nothing: or, a plain refutation of all that has been written or said concerning the rabbit-woman of Godalming
And if you haven't had enough Rabbet Woman, maybe you'd enjoy watching "A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits" by C Denby Swanson, a live play retelling Mary Toft's story, with puppets. Semi-terrifying pictures here.
In the words of one reviewer
, "Let you not pass judgment over a women birthing rabbits until you've seen this show! Let you not dismiss rats' balls till you've seen this show! Let you not see another show till you see three puppet doctors sprouting out of a gargantuan pair of legs! Ladies and gentlemen, Salvage Vanguard Theater presents A Brief Narrative of an Extraordinary Birth of Rabbits!"**
* I had a professor with framed copies of some of the dirtier prints, but I couldn't find any on the internet.
**The author of this post has never seen the play. The author has no idea if it's any good or not.