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Georgian Mayhem! The Curious Tale of Mary Toft, ‘The Impostress Rabbit Breeder’

Updated: 7 days ago

To round off April (with its Fools’ Day) and welcoming the month of May, Jemima Hubberstey explores a particularly curious Georgian hoax.


Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation

By William Hogarth, etching and engraving, December 1726

(Metropolitan Museum, New York) Credit: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932


Mary Toft (née Denyer, 1703-1763), claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits! How did Mary manage to convince England’s most prominent physicians of her extraordinary ability? How did the case even catch the King’s attention?


The scenario

Born in 1703 to a labouring family at Godalming, Surrey, Mary was married aged just 17 to Joshua Toft, a journeyman clothier. The couple had three children. Sadly, Mary miscarried in August 1726, but reportedly continued to show all the signs of pregnancy. On 27 September, Mary went into labour – and attended by her mother-in-law, Ann Toft and a neighbour, Mary Gill – she gave birth to various animal parts. The family called on the help of a Guildford obstetrician, John Howard. He arrived the following day and helped Mary to deliver another assortment of strange quadruped pieces. Over the next month, Howard returned to observe Mary and recorded that she had also given birth to a rabbit’s head, the legs of a cat and nine dead rabbits.


The tale she told

Mary Toft’s explanation of these strange births was that earlier in April that same year, she had been weeding in a field and was startled by a rabbit. She and another woman tried to catch it, but it managed to escape them. They spotted another rabbit and tried to catch that too, but in vain. Accounts relay that this had a profound impact on her:


"That same Night she dreamt she was in a Field with those two Rabbets in her Lap, and awakened with a sick Fit, which lasted till Morning; from that time, for above three months, she had a constant and strong desire to eat Rabbets, but being very poor and indigent cou'd not procure any."


Mary Toft (Tofts)

Mezzotint by J. Faber, 1726/1727, after J. Laguerre

Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. Source: Wellcome Collection


Celebrity beckoned

Eager to monitor her more closely, Howard moved Mary from Godalming to Guildford. News of the extraordinary incident spread fast, and she quickly became a local celebrity. For a poor family like the Tofts, the hoax was a real opportunity to make money and capitalize on public fascination.


Word even reached the court of King George I. Curious to discover whether the rumours were true, he sent two officials to investigate the case. They were Nathaniel St. André, the Swiss-born surgeon-anatomist to the King; and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales. When the pair visited Mary at Guildford on 15 November, they witnessed her give birth to yet another litter of rabbits.


Convinced that the case was genuine, St. André took some of the rabbit specimens back to London for presentation to the King and the Prince of Wales.

Glimpsing the Georgian mind

It may sound implausible to us, but many Georgians believed the story, thinking it proved the medical theory of ‘maternal impression’. This was a belief that if a pregnant woman saw something that greatly moved or affected her, the experience would alter the child’s appearance. John Maubray outlined this theory in his 1724 work, The Female Physician, explaining that:


“For the Longing of a Woman that has conceiv’d, acts apparently upon Another’s Body, when it marks the Infant in her WOMB with the Figure or MARK of the Thing long’d for…”


To believers of this theory, it seemed perfectly logical that if Mary Toft really had such a strong longing to catch and eat a rabbit, this in turn might have caused her to give birth to rabbits.


A domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus)

By George Edwards, watercolour, 1736

© The Trustees of the British Museum


The King’s scrutiny

But not everybody believed the tale, and it quickly started to unravel. The King decided to send a German surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, to investigate the matter further. Ahlers was less convinced than his predecessors. On examining the rabbits himself, he found that dung pellets inside one contained corn, arousing his suspicions of the hoax. On 21st November he reported his doubts to the King.


More doctors attended Mary. Sir Richard Manningham observed her, and after she gave birth to what he believed was a hog’s bladder, remained sceptical. However, by this point, both Howard and St. André were concerned about protecting their reputations and assured Manningham that there was no fraud. Now Manningham wanted to investigate further.


Foiled in Leicester Fields

He took Mary to London for further examinations. There she resided at Lacy’s bagnio in Leicester Fields, public baths that some women used for their lying-in. There, most of the Town was curious to see Mary for themselves. The political writer, John Hervey, reported to his friend Henry Fox that, ‘Every Creature in town both Men & Women have been to see & feel her’.


However, the game was soon up. A porter at the bagnio was caught trying to smuggle a rabbit into Mary’s room. Though she insisted that she in fact intended to eat the rabbit, Manningham needed no further convincing: this was a hoax.


Reality returns

Mary was taken into custody for questioning. She admitted nothing at first, until Manningham threatened to perform a painful operation on her. At that point, she cracked and revealed that it was all a hoax, claiming that other women and her neighbours had forced her into it.


After spending four months in Bridewell prison, Mary returned to Surrey and slipped back into relative obscurity.


Nathaniel St André

Line engraving by R. Grave (Graves)

 Wellcome Collection. Source: Wellcome Collection


The aftermath

After the curious case of Mary Toft, the medical profession was a laughing stock. Concerned for their reputations and careers, many of the doctors printed their own accounts of what had happened, hoping to vindicate themselves.


For most of the doctors connected to the case – despite the temporary embarrassment – their standing did not suffer. However, for the eminent Nathaniel St André, who had once held high position at court, the Mary Toft case spelled the end of his career. He lost favour with the court and his customers were quick to follow. At the end of his life, St André was struggling in poverty.


Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism

By William Hogarth, etching and engraving; second state of two, March 15, 1762 (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Credit: Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891


William Hogarth famously satirised the tale in Cunicularii or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (1726) and Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762). George Vertue produced a similarly scathing etching in The Surrey-wonder: an Anatomical Farce (1726).


Since then, this extraordinary Georgian hoax has continued to fascinate and puzzle, intriguing us to this day.


The Surrey-Wonder, an Anatomical Farce as it was Dissected

at ye Theatre-Royal Lincolns- Inn-Fields

After George Vertue, engraved by James Vertue, published by John Clark, 1726

 © The Trustees of the British Museum


Further reading:


Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities London, 1997


Lisa Cody, ‘The Doctor’s in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford’ in Gender & History 4.2, 1992 pp. 175-196


Karen Harvey, The Impostress Rabbit-Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England Oxford, 2020


Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England Chicago & London, 1995


YGS Development Casework

from Casework Officer Rebecca Burrows

 

18-19 Colliergate, York

24/00309/LBC LPA link & 24/00308/FUL LPA link


18-19 Colliergate, York

By Rebecca Burrows

Internal and external alterations and change of use from offices to residential dwellings, and commercial use.

 

18-19 Colliergate is a Grade-II* listed building 1259174 located within the York Central Historic Core Conservation Area, built no later than 1748, although subdivided in the 1830s.  The construction of the property for Ralph Yoward, an attorney and receiver of the Archbishop of York’s rents – as well as its location within the historic core of York – gives historical value to the building. Its extant Georgian features, both internally and externally, are of particular architectural importance. The building is a Georgian conversion of early 16th-century dwellings and this, alongside subsequent alterations, means it embodies significant historical evidence.

 

The proposals would require the partition of the building on the first, second, third, and fourth floors, as well as the division of the rear courtyard. However, proposals also include the conservation and restoration of numerous historical features, both internally and externally. These will enhance the building’s significance, and allow appreciation of its Georgian features. A comprehensive Heritage Impact Assessment provided a number of proposals to mitigate harm to heritage, such as repairs to an historic gable end and leaded lights on the third floor. We noted that part of the basement was not accessible and further information on the significance of these spaces should be provided as a condition of the works.

 

We therefore offered our support for the works, having considered the balance between interventions and enhancements to be acceptable.


Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre, 17 Blossom Street, York, YO24 1AQ

24/00085/LBC LPA link


By Bar Convent, Blossom Street, York

By Stephen Richards, CC BY-SA 2.0,


External alterations including roof re-covering, joinery repairs to window and doors, brickwork re-pointing and stone repairs.

 

This scheme was reviewed at the February Conservation Area Advisory Panel (CAAP) meeting. We welcomed the proposed works to this Grade-I listed building 1259503 complex within the Historic Central Core Conservation Area. A comprehensive schedule of work appeared to be appropriate and sympathetic, grounded in conservation best practice. The Panel considered the Design, Access & Heritage Statement, in particular, to be exemplary and this application won our support.


The Old Residence, 6 Minster Yard, York YO1 7JD

23/02312/LBC LPA link


The Old Residence, 6 Minster Yard

By Rebecca Burrows


Internal and external alterations including installation of solar slates, installation of new balustrade to side external staircase, repairs to roof timbers and removal of chimney stack.

 

We reviewed these proposals at the March CAAP meeting, with a presentation from Oliver Caroe, of Caroe Architecture. The building is Grade II* listed 1257256 and is within the Historic Central Core Conservation Area.

 

Currently occupied by a childrens’ nursery, the building now urgently needs a number of fabric repairs. The proposal is to provide a warm roof system, complete with solar slates; upgrade the rainwater goods; and to improve the airtightness of the structure. A warm roof system is considered to be the most suitable for the long term retention of the existing roof. To improve the effectiveness of the solar slates, the removal of a large freestanding chimney is proposed (it would cast a shadow on a large area of slates).

 

We welcomed the proposed works, and were particularly pleased to see a ‘whole-building’ approach to retrofit, and energy efficiency measures being taken. There was a discussion about the appropriateness of solar slates verses solar panels, the former of which have a shorter lifespan and would require replacement of the roof covering. We also questioned the removal of the chimney, as the date and significance of this feature has not been fully established. On balance, we decided that the benefits of the scheme outweighed its removal, and offered our support to the scheme.


Read about more Casework in What we do here


May Event


The New Terrace Walk, York by Nathan Drake (c. 1728-1778)

Credit: York Museums Trust


York and the Georgian City: Past, Present and Future: 18 May 2024


Some places are still available for our first joint conference with the Centre of Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of York. We meet at King’s Manor, York on 18 May 2024, 10.15am to 7pm for what promises to be a fascinating day. The focus is to what extent York can be described as a ‘Georgian’ city. Is that label relevant or meaningful today?

 

Keynote lectures are Rosemary Sweet, Professor of Urban History at the University of Leicester and Madeliene Pelling, historian, writer and broadcaster.


Conference Programme


10.15 Registration/coffee

 

10.50 Introduction

Charles Martindale (University of Bristol) and Jim Watt (University of York)


11.00 -12.00 First keynote

Chair: Charles Martindale

Rosemary Sweet (University of Leicester): ‘When did York become Georgian? 


12.00 -1.00 First panel: University of York student papers

Chair: Jon Mee

12.00 Rachel Feldberg: ‘Sense and Sociability: Jane Ewbank’s critical engagement with Georgian York’

12.15 Constance Halstead: ‘Different cities, different sensibilities: The Influence of social milieu on Anne Lister’s discussion of her journal’

12.30 Discussion


12.50 - 2.00 Lunch


2.00 - 3.00 Second keynote

​Chair: Adam Bowett

Madeleine Pelling (historian, writer, and broadcaster): ‘Writing on the Wall: Graffiti, rebellion and the making of 18th-century Britain’ 


3.15 - 4.15 Second panel

Chair: Jim Watt

Matt Jenkins (University of York): ‘An archetypal Georgian city?: Contradictions and conformity in eighteenth-century York’

Jon Mee (University of York): ‘Manchester College, York, 1803-1840: an outpost of rational dissent in an Anglican city’


4.15 Tea


4.45 - 5.15 Roundtable

Chair: Charles Martindale

Panel: Rosemary Sweet, Madeleine Pelling, Adam Bowett, Peter Brown (formerly Director of Fairfax House)


5.30 - 7.00 Reception

 

Tickets: Students £5; YGS Members and UoY Staff £15; Public £25






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