The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England

ISBN : 9780198734888

Karen Harvey
224 ページ
135 x 135 mm
  • Based on extensive new archival research
  • The first in-depth micro-history of this extraordinary case
  • Uncovers new evidence of Mary Toft's experiences, her husband's political activity, and the criminal and political context of the case
  • Explores the motivations of medical men and considers why the case attracted the attention of the King and powerful figures in government
  • Exposes huge social and cultural changes in English history


In October 1726, newspapers began reporting a remarkable event. In the town of Godalming in Surrey, a woman called Mary Toft had started to give birth to rabbits. Several leading doctors - some sent directly by King George I - travelled to examine the woman and she was moved to London to be closer to them. By December, she had been accused of fraud and taken into custody. Mary Toft's unusual deliveries caused a media sensation. Her rabbit births were a test case for doctors trying to further their knowledge about the processes of reproduction and pregnancy. The rabbit births prompted not just public curiosity and scientific investigation, but also a vicious backlash.
Based on extensive new archival research, this book is the first in-depth re-telling of this extraordinary story. Karen Harvey situates the rabbit-births within the troubled community of Godalming and the women who remained close to Mary Toft as the case unfolded, exploring the motivations of the medics who examined her, considering why the case attracted the attention of the King and powerful men in government, and following the case through the criminal justice system.
The case of Mary Toft exposes huge social and cultural changes in English history. Against the backdrop of an incendiary political culture, it was a time when traditional social hierarchies were shaken, relationships between men and women were redrawn, print culture acquired a new vibrancy and irreverence, and knowledge of the body was remade. But Mary Toft's story is not just a story about the past. In reconstructing Mary's physical, social and mental world, The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder allows us to reflect critically on our own ideas about pregnancy, reproduction, and the body through the lens of the past.


I: Surrey
1: The town: 'peaceable neighbours who are willing to live quietly'
2: The women: 'they workt for me'
3: The births: 'a Fact of which there was no Instance in Nature'
II: London
4: The bagnio: 'several persons of distinction'
5: Confession: 'I was loath She should touch me'
6: The punishment: 'some judge very hard of ye poor woman'
III: The public
7: The press: a 'filthy story at best'
8: Body politics: 'the beautiful uniform Order'
9: Afterlife: 'The Impostress Rabbett breeder'

Karen Harvey is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. She studied at the University of Manchester and Royal Holloway, University of London and is the author of several works on eighteenth-century Britain. Her books include The Little Republic Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain(OUP, 2012), and Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture (CUP, 2008).

"A fantastically rich and beautifully executed book" - Helen Berry, author of Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London's Foundlings

"Harvey uses the famous rabbit birth fraud to train a light on country, town and city, social divisions, female touch and patriarchal power, medicine, the law and politics-and at the heart of it all a piteous woman testifying to her bodily sufferings and visceral losses. A detective story in the noble tradition of Natalie Zemon Davis' The Return of Martin Guerre." - Amanda Vickery, author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England