Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Amusing Aftermath of the Toft's To-Do

Mary Toft - The Pretended Rabbit Breeder

           As the fingers started to point, the accusations started to fly and reputations started to crumble, it is hardly unsurprising that anyone and everyone involved attempted to put as much distance as was humanly possible between themselves and the whole sorry business. 

There were those who claimed that if only they had been consulted, then their expert eyes would have seen straight through the pretence and they would have exposed the fraud right from the beginning. 

There were those that claimed that it was only because of their involvement that the fraud had been exposed anyway. 

There were those who claimed that they weren’t the only ones to have been taken in, and wouldn’t it have been better if some of these so-called experts had said something about their suspicions in the first place. 

There were others who said nothing and hoped that if they kept their heads down and their mouths shut, then people would forget that they had been involved and it all might just go away. 

And then there were those who hadn’t had anything at all to do with it, but recognised an opportunity to settle a few scores, or just to stir things up a little, when it presented itself to them. 

Sir Richard Manningham - An Exact Diary - 1726

One of the first to get his retaliation in early was Sir Richard Manningham, the highly respected surgeon and obstetrician, who published his highly detailed An Exact Diary not long after the storm broke. 

Sir Richard Manningham - Artis Obstetricariae Compendium - 1754

He makes it quite clear that he recognises a fraud when he sees one; he names those who had been taken in by it and those who had, like himself, believed the case to be an imposture from the outset. 

The Anatomist Dissected - 1727

Nathaniel St André had gambled and lost. He had published his account early, and if the events had been genuine then he would have been a medical sensation; as it was, when the fraud was exposed, his credulity and lack of judgement were all too clearly exposed. He attempted to put things right by publishing a retraction that, if anything, made things worse. 

Much Ado About Nothing - 1727

In Much Ado About Nothing, a supposed confession by Mary Toft herself appeared, written in broken English, and satirising her alleged illiteracy. It is a cruel construction, but it does not limit itself to attacking Toft, as all the medical men involved are presented as if from Toft’s impressions of them. So, St André is described as 
“… a pritty Gentilman, hoo had a charmin rawbit, and more thon that plaid swetly on the fiddil, and cut capors as hy as ani think: He wood have jumpt the Lord noes ware; if he mowt hav hadhis will, and fhakt the powdar out of his wig; but I likt him the bettar for all that.” 
Manningham gets a pounding too – 
But the wurst of them all was a fine-faced, long-nofed Gentilman with a neck lik a crane; he was for purformin an oppurafhun, as he call’d it, and tawkt of infifhuns, and Cefariums, and the Lord noes wat: but the othur Gentilman wood not let him, for which I fhall alwas pray for um. 

The Rabbit-Woman's Confession - 1727

Much Ado is crude, but it was by no ways the crudest, as the subject matter was packed with the ideal fodder for the bawdy English humourists. Some were anonymous; some were published anonymously although their authors are known, and some aren't really fit to be quoted in a blog that your wife or your servant might read.
Such pangs, such convulsions, such gropings before, 
Were never endur’d by an honest woman or whore; 
For sure as St André was poison’d, not clapp’d, 
The bones of a rabbet in her uterus crack’d.” 
St A_d_é’s Miscarriage. 

The Doctor search’d both high and low, 
And found no rabbit there, 
But, peeping nearer, cry’d So! Ho! 
I’m sure I’ve found a HARE.” 
The Rabbit-Man Midwife. 

Pope and Pulteney - The Discovery: or, The Squire turn'd Ferret - 1727

Or how about this, by Alexander Pope and William Pulteney, 
The surgeon with a rabbit came, 
But first in pieces cut it, 
Then slyly thrust it up that same, 
As far as man could put it.” 
The Discovery: or, The Squire turn’d Ferret. 
Nor was the phenomena limited only to doggerel. William Hogarth was inspired to produce two engravings by the case of Mary Toft. 

William Hogarth - Cunicularii - 1726
The first, which is solely dedicated to the case, is Cunicularii: or, The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (1726), which depicts Mary Toft lying on a bed, surrounded by physicians, including St André, Maubray, Howard and Manningham, with a litter of baby rabbits dashing about the chamber floor. 

Hogarth - Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism - 1762

In another, Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism (1762), amongst other examples of popular delusions, Mary Toft lies on the chapel floor, with a stream of rabbits issuing from beneath her dress. 

Hogarth - Detail - Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism - 1762

You might be forgiven for thinking that after the initial furore had died away, that that would be the end of the matter and everyone went back to their gainful employment, but oh no, not by a long chalk. 

You might also be forgiven for thinking that the chap who took over from Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University would have had his head screwed on properly, (then again, if you believe Isaac Newton possessed sufficient sandwiches for a proper picnic, it may be that you need to read a biography of that crazy old scientist). 

Anyway, when Newton stepped down, his chair went to one William Whiston, mathematician, historian and theologian, who, among other things, produced creditable translations of the works of the Jewish historian, Josephus.  
William Whiston - Memoirs Part III - 1753
He was also of the opinion that Noah’s flood had been caused by a comet, but was at a loss to explain where the waters of the deluge had gone when the flood was finished and done with. Whiston was an advocate of Arianism, a heretical doctrine that held that since Christ was the Son of God, he must necessarily have been created after God, thus making him distinct from, and inferior to, the Father. 

These beliefs were enough from him to be relieved of his chair and professorship at Cambridge, and although he tried to form his own sect, little came of it. Whiston also believed that the Bible was a prophetic book, that an earthquake would kill 7,000 men in London and that the rest would convert, and that the Millennium, with the return of Christ to earth, would begin in 1766. 

Esdras II Book V Chapter 8

In Part III of his Memoirs, published in 1753 (the year after his death), Whiston turns his gaze to the prophecies in the biblical Apocrypha, particularly those in the books of Esdras. In Esdras II, Book V, Chapter 8, is found, 
There shall be a confusion also in many places, and the fire shall be oft sent out again, and the wild beasts shall change their places, and menstruous Women shall bring forth monsters.” 
So where, do you imagine, that Whiston looked for evidence of this bringing forth of monsters that was leading up to the imminent Apocalypse? Why, in amongst his others, is the case of Mary Toft, bringer forth of monstrous rabbits. 

William Whiston - Memoirs III - Esdras II - 1753

But Whiston is no naive fool, he has read all the literature about the case, including St André, Manningham and Douglas, and even though he acknowledges that 
The story has been so long laughed out of countenance,” 
he reviews the evidence and concludes that since Mary Toft was never brought to trial for her crimes, there must not have been any credible evidence that she was part of a fraud, and thus it all must have been true, because it is proof that the prophecies in Esdras are also true. And anyone who says otherwise is just another in the long line of scoffers, sceptics and unbelievers. 

Conspiracy theorists are not a recent invention.

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