Ellie Cawthorne: In 1726, a woman named Mary Toft perpetrated an extraordinary hoax that lasted several weeks and captured the imagination of the British public. What did it involve?

Karen Harvey: Essentially, Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits – an extraordinary claim that was supported by several people for several weeks. It turns out, of course, that it didn't quite happen as described because, spoiler alert, women can't gestate rabbits.

The trigger for the whole hoax was an incident that occurred when Toft, a poor agricultural day-labourer, was working in a field near Godalming in Surrey. She spotted a couple of rabbits and decided to chase one. Although she failed to catch it, the idea of that rabbit wouldn’t leave her head. Toft was pregnant at the time and a short while afterwards, she reported undergoing what was clearly a miscarriage. This went on for some weeks, and when it was concluded, she experienced a seemingly ‘monstrous birth’ in which she began to pass strange animal parts. Various doctors examined Toft, and then transported her to London for further study. She stayed there for a few weeks, during which time she appeared to give birth to several sections of animal flesh.

Mary Toft's extraordinary claim was supported by several people for several weeks

The whole thing collapsed when a worker at the bagnio [a type of lodging house] where Toft was staying admitted he had been asked by her family to provide them with rabbits. Several witnesses then confessed that they’d had similar requests. It’s clear that those animals were killed, skinned, dissected and then used in the hoax.

Listen: Karen Harvey explores the unusual case of Mary Toft on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

What interested you about the case?

Historians have previously studied the rabbit-breeder hoax from the perspective of the doctors, the public debate it triggered or the satire it produced. They haven’t really asked why and how a woman like Mary Toft would become involved in this kind of event. I wanted to shine a light on the woman at the heart of the case. If you do that, I think you can start to unpick some of the social, political and cultural conditions of the early 18th century. Themes begin to emerge, such as social exclusion, unrest and political tension, and the position of women.

You argue that rabbits were an incendiary political symbol at the time – how so?

Yes, rabbits were highly controversial animals at this time. They had long been a symbol of the wealthy, and many were still the property of the elite, valuable for their fur and meat. They were also often a source of tension in communities, because landowners’ rabbits would escape their warrens onto common land and eat the crops that the commoners might be harvesting or grazing their animals on. Rabbits really are a pest if you don’t own them. But taking or killing them was tantamount to theft, and was harshly punished.

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Rabbits were highly controversial animals at this time. They had long been a symbol of the wealthy

As such, a number of protests across England at this time revolved around rabbits – as well as fish, deer and other animals – as a symbol of elite privilege. They were seen to represent the power of landowners as opposed to the complete lack of rights of the agricultural or rural poor, and became a focus for the grievances of those excluded from established forms of power-holding.

As well as providing some interesting background to the case, this is important context for Mary Toft’s family specifically. I discovered that her husband, Joshua, was actually involved in such a protest. Shortly before she hatched the hoax, Joshua took part in a mass trespass on a fish pond in Godalming with around 30 other men. I believe we can quite reasonably connect those two things. And I think contemporaries did.

Mary Toft described chasing the rabbit because she couldn’t afford to buy one, which suggests to me that she may well have been conscious of the political punch the hoax was going to have. In this society, a poor individual, particularly a woman, didn’t have many resources at their disposal to engage in politics and in public debate. One reading of the ‘rabbit-breeder’ hoax is that it was actually a very eloquent political protest on the part of an otherwise powerless poor woman, and I think there is evidence for that case.

Several notable doctors examined Toft. Why were they taken in by her story for so long?

The doctors involved in this case weren’t quacks. They were highly regarded and highly qualified: very reputable medical men, some of whom even had a direct link to the royal household. But the fact that they took Toft’s claims seriously for so long doesn’t mean they were ignorant. Instead, it’s a demonstration of the Enlightenment in progress. These doctors were invested in cutting-edge scientific method and open-minded debate, which meant that they didn’t want to discount anything until they could prove beyond doubt that it was a hoax. So they underwent a series of scientific steps, conducting experiments on the various animal parts Toft expelled. It was only once a mass of evidence had been brought together and a consensus had been reached that they felt able to dismiss it as a hoax.

It’s important to remember that the idea of monstrous births was still a live debate at the time. Many respected intellectuals believed in the theory of the maternal imagination: the idea that a pregnant woman’s emotional responses to something she saw or felt could imprint physically onto her unborn child. For example, a woman might think of a peach and her child would be born with a reddened birthmark. That’s quite different from saying that chasing a rabbit could turn a woman’s foetus into a bunny, but it’s on the same continuum.

What motivated Toft to undertake the fraud?

Now there’s an interesting conundrum. An easy answer might be that she did it for money. But the problem with that explanation is that no money appears to have ever changed hands. If the ambition of Toft and those around her was to get rich, then the scheme was a complete failure. I think if they were solely after money, they’d have set the whole thing up differently – large groups of people visited Toft both in Guildford and London, and her family could have charged for the privilege.

So we have to look elsewhere for an explanation. The closest thing we get to an insider’s account of the hoax are three statements Toft gave to a doctor called James Douglas. From these sources, I make the case that she was persuaded, perhaps even forced, to go through with this difficult series of fake births by the women around her. Pregnancy and childbirth were still very female-dominated processes at the time, and Mary was surrounded throughout by older and more authoritative women – most notably her mother-in-law. She was clearly intimidated by them, and in her final statement, when she was asked who had put her up to it, Mary’s answer was unequivocal: her mother-in-law.

Mary was a young wife and mother living with her husband’s family, and had suffered an awful miscarriage as the hoax started to develop. She had failed in her reproductive duty, and I think that might have been at the heart of this affair for the women around her. I think that this tells us something about women’s reproductive roles and the ways female-dominated social spheres operated at the time.

So Toft didn't have much control over how the hoax went?

Even though she was at the centre of this maelstrom, my take is that she had barely any agency over what was happening to her and her body. Just think about the physical nature of the hoax. Without going into too much detail, Toft had animal parts inserted into her body and those parts were forced out in a process that went on for several weeks. It was a painful, uncomfortable and very risky affair. I find it hard to believe that a woman would do that willingly, all by herself. The evidence suggests that she was frightened and felt pressured at every turn. Once you start to read the historical documents, you see that at the centre of this was a woman who was almost entirely powerless, which is incredibly sad.

What does the public clamour that surrounded Mary Toft tell us about 18th-century society?

I think it exposes an undercurrent of smutty, bawdy humour running beneath the polite gentility we often associate with the 18th century. The sensation around this seemingly miraculous event tells us that there was a tremendous hunger for the extraordinary. Even after Toft had been exposed as a fraud, people still went to see her imprisoned in the Westminster House of Correction.

The hoax exposes an undercurrent of smutty, bawdy humour running beneath the polite gentility we often associate with the 18th century

But there was definitely an unpleasant tenor to some of that interest. Mary became the focus of some unsavoury and rather nasty press, and there were incredibly prurient discussions around her body. The case was ripe for all kinds of innuendo – it provided great comedic ammunition for satirists, and the public lapped it up. This was partly down to blatant misogyny, but the fact that Toft was poor was also tremendously significant in the way she was treated by the press. When the hoax was exposed, they turned on her with vitriol. Where she had once been seen as a pitiable figure, now she was wicked. She was seen as a threat, both to the reputable doctors she made a mockery of, but also to the elites more generally – even to King George I himself. It was widely known that he’d had a real interest in the case, so its exposure posed a potential embarrassment for the monarchy.

Where did all of this leave Mary Toft? What happened to her after her deception was exposed?

When it all unravelled, public feeling against Toft turned vicious and she was imprisoned for imposture. She was eventually released without charge, and it’s very difficult to trace what happened to her after that. When she left the House of Correction she was reported to have been considerably weakened by the whole experience. Within a year she went on to have another child, but then she seems to have fallen back into a certain amount of obscurity. Interestingly, though, there is a remarkable entry on the parish register recording her burial. On a page where everybody else is just referred to by their name, Toft is named as the “Imposteress Rabbit Breeder”. This reputation clearly followed her, and even 40 years after the case there was an enduring memory of the hoax and her role in it.

If we look at early 18th-century Britain through the lens of the Mary Toft hoax, what kind of society is revealed?

The picture that I take away from this case is one of a society riven with inequality and social conflict. Part of that hinged on tensions between social ranks. But another set of inequities and hierarchies were also thrown into that already unequal world: gender.

In the rabbit-breeder hoax, we see all of these tensions played out between elite men (whether the doctors or those who represented the criminal justice system) and a poor woman. For me, it’s those social tensions that are really at the heart of this extraordinary affair.

Karen Harvey is professor of cultural history at the University of Birmingham. She has published widely on gender and the body in 18th-century Britain, and is director of Birmingham Eighteenth Century Centre

The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England by Karen Harvey (Oxford University Press, 224 pages, £16.99) is out now.

This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine