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
) [more inside]
Book of the Month
is a feature that the University of Glasgow Library has been running for over a decade now. The format is simple, a single book is selected from their collections, written up and accompanied by pictures, maps and photographs scanned from the books. With over a 100 books to select from, it's hard to know where to start, but anywhere is good because they're all lovely. Still, here are a few, Charles Darwin's The Expression of the emotions in man and animals
, a beautiful 15th century illuminated copy of Livy's Roman history
, Treatises on Engines and Weapons
, Valentines and Dabbities
, The Birds of Australia
, Facts and Observations on the Sanitary State of Glasgow
, Ibn Jazla's The arrangement of bodies for treatment
and finally, The Curious Case of Mary Toft
, MetaFilter superstar
was the last woman to be convicted of witchcraft in Britain. This was in 1944. British authorities "were alarmed by reports that she had disclosed - allegedly via contacts with the spirit world - the sinking of two British battleships long before they became public." Her descendants still smart from the trial
and there is a campaign to pardon Mrs Duncan
, who some consider a martyred medium
who could regurgitate ectoplasm out of her mouth. More than a decade before her trial legendary psychic researcher Harry Price exposed Mrs Duncan as a fraud
in his essay The Cheese-Cloth Worshippers
. If you want to judge for yourself you can take a look at the photographs Mr Price took of a séance
performed by Mrs Duncan.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
is published today, in print and online: a biographical record of everyone who's ever been anyone in British history (50,000 individuals) and an astonishing feat of scholarly collaboration (10,000 contributors from all over the world). Access to the full database is fearfully expensive, but the official site gives you a good selection of sample entries
, with a new one added every day; and a feature in today's Times
gives you some more
, beginning with Mary Toft, the woman who gave birth to rabbits.