Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Toft, Mary

TOFT or TOFTS, MARY (1701?-1763), ‘the rabbit-breeder,’ a native of ‘Godlyman’ (i.e. Godalming in Surrey), married in 1720, Joshua Tofts, a journeyman clothier, by whom she had three children. She was very poor and illiterate. On 23 April 1726 she declared that she had been frightened by a rabbit while at work in the fields, and this so reacted upon her reproductive system that she was delivered in the November of that year first of the lights, and guts of a pig and afterwards of a rabbit, or rather a litter of fifteen rabbits. She was attended during her extraordinary confinement by John Howard, the local apothecary, who had practised midwifery for thirty years. Howard is said to have felt the rabbits leaping in the womb, and, being himself completely deceived, he wrote to Nathanael St. André [q.v.], who was then practising as a surgeon to the newly established Westminster Hospital. St André posted to Guildford with his friend Samuel Samuel Molyneux [q.v.], secretary to the Prince of Wales. On 28 Nov. St. André drew up a narrative in which, amid a mass of medical jargon, he described how he himself had delivered the woman of two rabbits (or portions thereof), and expressed his entire belief in the reality of the phenomenon (‘A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets … published by Mr. St. André, Surgeon and Anatomist to His Majesty,’ London, 1727, 8vo, two editions). The news spread like wildfire. Lord Onslow, in a note to Sir Hans Sloane, remarked that the affair had ‘almost alarmed England, and in a manner persuaded several people of sound judgement that it was true.’ ‘I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford,’ wrote Pope to Caryll on 5 Dec. 1726; ‘all London is divided into factions about it.’ Many believers were found at court, in spite of the gibes of the Prince of Wales. The excitement was probably aided by some marvel-mongering passages in Dr. John Maubray’s ‘Female Physician’ (1724). George I ordered Cyriacus Ahlers, surgeon to his German household, to go down to Guildford and investigate the matter. Ahlers removed a portion of another rabbit, but Howard stigmatised his treatment of the patient as bearish, and the surgeon consequently withdrew from the investigation, of which he gave a guarded account to the king (cf. his subsequent account, entitled Some Observations concerning the Woman of Godlyman … by Cyriacus Ahlers, London, 1726, dated 8 Dec.)

The matter still seemed in suspense and the king accordingly despatched Limborch and Sir Richard Manningham [q.v.], one of the chief physician-accoucheurs of the day, to report upon the case. Manningham promptly satisfied himself that the woman was an impostor, and that the foreign bodies were artfully concealed about her person. On 29 Nov. she was brought to London and lodged in Lacy’s Bagnio in Leicester Fields. On 3 Dec. she was detected in an attempt to clandestinely to procure a rabbit, and having been severely threatened by Sir Thomas Clarges, a justice of the peace, she made on 7 Dec. a full confession of her imposture, in the presence of Manningham, Dr. James Douglas [q.v.], the Duke of Montagu, and Lord Baltimore. She was committed for a short time to the Bridewell in Tothill Fields, and she was ordered to be prosecuted under the statute of Edward III as a vile cheat and impostor; but the trial was proceeded with, and she returned to Godalming. She underwent a term of imprisonment in 1740 for receiving stolen goods, and died at her native place in January 1763.

The imposture gave rise to a torrent of pamphlets and squibs, many of which were highly indecent while several have repulsive illustrations. Hogarth lashed the temporary craze in the second version of his plate lettered ‘Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism’ (1762), and also in his early engraving ‘The Cunicularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation.’ Voltaire gave a pleasant account of St. André’s doctrine of ‘générations fortuites’ in his ‘Singlarités de la Nature’ (chap. xxi., Œuvres, Paris, v. 819). William Whiston revived the memory of Mary Tofts when in 1752 he declared that she had clearly fulfilled the prediction in Esdras that monstrous women should bring forth monsters (Memoirs, ii. 108). A portrait of Mary Tofts was mezzotinted by Faber after Laguerre.

[The following are the chief of the contemporary pamphlets upon the imposture: An Exact Diary by Sir R. Manningham, 1726, 8vo; A Short Narrative, 1726 and 1727, 8vo; Remarks on A Short Narrative by Thos. Braithwaite, 1726, 8vo; Some Observations by Ahlers, 1726, 8vo; The Several Depositions of Edward Costen, &c., 1727, 8vo; The Sooterkin Dissected, 1726, 8vo; The Anatomist Dissected … by Lemuel Gulliver, 1727, 8vo; Advertisement occasioned by some Passages in Sir R. Manningham’s Diary, by I. Douglas, 1727, 8vo; Much Ado about Nothing, or the Rabbit Woman’s Confession, 1727, 8vo; A Letter from a Male Physician, 1726, 8vo; The Doctors in Labour, or a New Wim-Wam in Guildford (12 plates), 1727; The Discovery, or the Squire turned Ferret, 1727, fol. and 8vo; St. André’s Miscarriage, 1727; The Wonder of Wonders, Ipswich, 1726. Bound in rabbit-skin, sets of these tracts have frequently sold for from ten to fifteen guineas. For good modern accounts of the fraud see British Medical Journal, 1896, ii. 209; and Catalogue of Satirical Prints in British Museum, ed. Stephens, ii. 633-50. See also Lowndes’s Bibl. Man; Anecdotes of Hogarth ed. Nichols, 1833; Dobson's Hogarth, pp. 247, 284; Gent. Mag. 1842, i. 366; Mist’s Weekly Journal, 21 Jan. 1727; London Journal, 17 Dec. 1726; Noble’s Contin. Of Granger, iii. 477; Witkowski’s Accouchements chez tous les peoples, Paris, 1887, p. 249; Sketches of Deception and Credulity, 1837; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

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