‘The weakest Woman sometimes may, the wisest man deceive’: Mary Toft and the pleasures of humiliation

Paper given at Georgian Pleasures Conference, 12-13 September 2013

Bath Spa University, Centre for History & Culture Lecture Series

Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Queen’s Square, Bath.Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath

Situated in Portugal Row, just to the south of Lincolns Inns Fields, once stood the Dukes Playhouse, later renamed the Theatre Royal, whose infamous neighbour John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, raised the bar for outrageous excesses soon after the restoration of the monarchy. It was from here on 9 December 1726 that the impresario Christopher Rich staged (and perhaps wrote and performed in) a sketch pantomime entitled The Surrey Wonder: an anatomical farce.

Lord Rochester would have delighted at such a performance ─ with all its rakish and libertine connotations, its bawdy wit, brutal malice, unwavering scepticism and frank sexuality The Surrey Wonder was, if nothing else, sensationalist. The pantomime recalled events of the ongoing affair of Mary Toft of Godalming who between October and December 1726 managed to cram live rabbits and bits of butchered dead rabbits into her vagina and forced them back out again at will. Her claim captured the attention of a raft of conversant, impulsive and misinformed individuals, all of whom travelled from far-and-wide to see her perform. The affair also gripped the imagination of a more pedestrian public whose insatiable appetite for lurid detail was catered for by the eager-to-please media journalists.

Yet, this case fiercely divided public and scholarly opinion because it pitted progressive notions of scientific logic against more established beliefs in religion, secular magic and superstition. This division was reported in Mists Weekly on the 19 November 1726, which read

‘People after all differ much in their opinion about this matter, some looking up on  them as great curiosities fit to be presented to the Royal Society. Others are angry of the account and say that if it be fact, a veil should be drawn over it as an imperfection  in human nature’.

Its fair to say that such confused rationality perpetuated from the top down ─the poet Alexander Pope wrote to John Caryll, 2nd Baron of Durford, saying ‘I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford … All London is upon this occasion … divided into factions about it’ while in a similar vein Lord Onslow of Clandon Park in Surrey expressed to the eminent scientist and collector Dr Hans Sloane, ‘[This affair has] almost alarmed England, and in a manner persuaded several people of sound judgment that it was true’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the pantomime never caught-on. Only two reviews have survived. The first, from Brice’s Weekly Journal simply reported on the comedy affected by newly delivered rabbits running wildly around the stage which, they wrote, raised ‘such a laughter as perhaps has not been heard upon any other Occasion’. The second, Mists Weekly, highlighted the more serious issue of reputational damage inflicted on those associated with the affair, who, after exposure of the fraud, it was reported, were ‘flinging their bitter pills at one another to convince the world that none of them understand anything of the matter’.

Before I look closer at the humiliation inflicted on the key witnesses to the rabbit births we need to understand the course of their individual actions.


About paul holden

Architectural historian working as a House and Collections Manager for the National Trust at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Author of 'The Lanhydrock Atlas' (Cornwall Editions,2010) and 'The London Letters of Samuel Molyneux, 1712-13' (London Topographical Society, 2011). Contributor to many scholarly journals and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
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