Tuesday 8 December 2015

'I gave birth to a rabbit' - by Karen Maitland

I was giving a book talk recently when I made an off-the-cuff joke about have read a ‘true life’ magazine containing an article titled – 'My daughter gave birth to a hamster.’ Inevitably someone asked me if there really had been such an article and I had to confess I’d just invented that title to illustrate a point, but I should have known that whatever a fiction writer dreams up, they discover that at some time in history it has actually happened. And just a few days after that talk, I came across a wonderful account from 1726, in which a woman claimed to have given birth, not to a hamster, but to 15 furry rabbits. You won’t be surprised to learn it was an audacious money-making scam, and one that intrigued me, since many characters in my medieval novels are scam artists of one kind of another.

In 1726, a local male midwife, John Howard, reported that Mary Toft, wife of a journeyman clothmaker in Godalming, Surrey, had given birth to several animal parts including three legs of a tabby cat, and over several days between 1st November and 6th had given birth to four rabbits, born dead, but which had been seen leaping vigorously in her belly prior to birth. This account so fascinated King George I that he sent the court anatomist, Nathaniel St André to investigate.
Mary Toft

Mary had continued to produce rabbits since the report, and St André had arrived in time to watch her give birth to her 15th bunny or bunny-part (depending on which account you read), which the anatomist claimed to be full-formed and about the age of a normal four month old rabbit. Over the course of the next few days, St Andre ‘heard’ the rabbits leaping in Mary’s abdomen and witnessed the birth of several dismembered pieces of rabbit. Having succeeded in persuading St Andre, the midwife, John Howard, and Mary Toft then asked for life-time pensions from the King for their successful, if unorthodox method of rabbit production.

The king, a trifle sceptical, dispatched the royal gynaecologist Sir Richard Manningham, who, after the application of a hot towel, witnessed the violent jerking in Mary’s stomach, but this time Mary gave birth to part of a pig’s belly which was a birth too far for Manningham. He had the wisdom to move Mary to Mrs Lacy’s bagnio in London, where he could keep a close eye on her. A bagnio was a bath-house and women often there went to give birth because of the soothing effects of the hot water.

Unfortunately for Mary, the whole scam unravelled on 4th December when Mrs Lacy’s porter reported that she had asked him to buy a rabbit for her. Several villagers back in Godalming then admitted that they had supplied rabbits to her around the time she was giving birth, and she finally admitted she’d set up the whole thing to obtain money from visitors, as well as the hoped-for pension, though she blamed everyone one she could think of, including a gypsy and the midwife, for putting her up to it.
A contemporary cartoon of Mary Toft giving birth to rabbits

But the time the hoax was revealed, so many eminent physicians had become involved that as the reports of what this woman had seeming given birth to became wilder, the whole affair brought great ridicule to the medical profession, with sceptics like William Hogarth openly mocking their gullibility. Many professional reputations were ruined as a consequence.

It is interesting that Mary Toft chose rabbits which, in paintings, were sometimes depicted in the birth scenes of both Jesus and the birth of his mother. As well as being regarded as a symbol of fertility and the rabbit is also curiously a symbol of virginity and the mystery of the Incarnation, because rabbits can conceive a second litter while still pregnant with the first, so it was believed they could give birth without sex.
Vittore Capaccio - 'Birth of the Virgin Mary' 

Mary Toft might also have been inspired in her scam by the persistent rumours that had circulated for a few decades concerning the son of King James II who was born to his wife Mary of Modena in 1688. When she suddenly fell pregnant after years of childlessness, even the testimony of the 42 witnesses called in to verify the birth of the James Francis Edward in 1688 at St James's Palace, could not counter the rumours that the baby had been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan or through a secret door in the bedhead. King James and his wife claimed they had conceived thanks to the ‘magic waters’ at Holywell, but the boy never became king and William of Orange seized the throne shortly after.

It was certainly not the first time that such rumours circulated about noble or royal heirs, so perhaps we can’t entirely blame commoners for getting inspired to do a little birth-room smuggling of their own. Besides, you’ve only got to read Greek mythology and even English folktales to realise that legend claims women have given birth to some pretty strange creatures. Just imagine being Pasiphae and giving birth to the Minotaur. If Mary Toft had managed to fake that birth she might even have got her pension.
Pasiphae nursing the infant Minotaur

1 comment:

Clare Mulley said...

What a shame she did not get away with it! You would have thought the ingenuity were worth a pension... or at least the entertainment value of the story. If only she could have been a writer!