Response Paper: Why believe Mary Toft
In the 1720s, a number of authors took part in a pamphlet disagreement over the power maternal imagination had on the outcomes of a pregnancy. Some of these authors were James Blondel and Daniel Turner. Turner agreed with the traditional conviction that the imagination of a woman with child could be reflected in her unborn child, imprinting the resulting fetus with numerous deformities. Blondel, however, did not see how this would happen, and, as a result, tried hard to refute this argument with anatomical and rational arguments (Wilson 63-85). The issue that sparked this argument and brought it to a new level was the matter of Mary Toft, and her claims of birthing rabbits. Mary Toft was a pregnant woman who lost her child in a miscarriage. The woman managed to convince a number of physicians including the surgeon to the King that she had given birth to various body parts of a rabbit and a cat. The woman craved fortune and fame, which she eventually achieved from her, accounts (The several depositions of Edward Costen 6- 10).
Mary’s story came up in 1726, and King George the first was the king then. The woman was aided by her accomplices to insert the body parts of a rabbit and a cat in her womb after her miscarriage and summoned John Howard, a local surgeon to witness the events. The surgeon was completely fooled and was convinced that he had participated in an extraordinary medical occurrence worthy of widespread fame. Eventually, the events that followed made the king sent his surgeon St. Andre to investigate what was happening. Toft told them of her story and how she had given birth to rabbit parts after she became obsessed with the animals. She told the king’s surgeon and secretary how she craved of rabbit meat; how she dreamed of them and the time, she spent trying to catch them in the garden (The several depositions of Edward Costen 6- 10).
To fully carry out such a hoax apparently did not require a lot of technicalities just immense ingenuity, and the ability to act, on the part of Mary. She kept on lying even after she was brought to London for further examination, but eventually she admitted to her lies and was later sent to prison for lying and fooling people (The several depositions of Edward Costen 6- 10). Though this is a strange and an extraordinary story, one is inclined to believe in it. There are numerous reasons as to why one might be inclined to believe the story of Mary Toft.
For instance, Mary managed to fool medical professionals who also became convinced that the woman had conceived and given birth to rabbits. Howard, the local surgeon was the first to see the woman giving birth to body parts of a rabbit. He later reviewed this in his letters in which he wrote that he had delivered the woman of other three rabbits from the fourth instance to the sixth. He claimed that the last of the rabbits leapt in the woman’s belly for about 18 hours before it died and that after it was taken away, another was struggling for birth (Saint André 9). Though the act of a human being giving birth to a rabbit is utterly unlikely, one is likely to believe Mary’s story because the rabbits were coming out of her womb as if she was giving birth to them. She gave birth to rabbit parts. Another reason why we are inclined to believe her story is the fact that the authorities let her go without prosecution after a short while. She was not prosecuted for her crimes, and for this one might argue that the authorities would not have let her go if there had been any reason to prosecute her. These two arguments show how one might be tricked into believing Mary’s story.
Saint André, Nathanael. A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets, perform’d by Mr. John Howard surgeon at Guilford. Published by Mr. St. Andre. The second edition. London: Printed for John Clarke, 1727. Print.
The several depositions of Edward Costen, Richard Stedman, John Sweetapple, Mary Peytoe, Elizabeth Mason, and Mary Costen; relating to the affair of Mary Toft, of Godalming in the county of Surrey, being deliver’d of several rabbits. London: Printed for J. Pemberton, 1727. Print.
Wilson, Philip K. “‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind?’ The Daniel Turner-James Blondel Dispute Over the Power of the Maternal Imagination,” Annals of Science 49.1 (1992): 63-85. Print.
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