The Girl Who Cried Rabbits

On 10 October 1726, an intriguing story appeared in the weekly press. ‘From Guildford,’ wrote the British Gazetteer,

comes a strange, but well attested piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin, near that Town, who has an Husband and two Children now living with her was, about a Month past, deliver’d by Mr. John Howard, an eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife living at Guildford, of a Creature resembling a Rabbit.

The woman was 25-year-old Mary Toft, and over the course of several months she was delivered of not one but 17 rabbits in total. Her claim to fame was quirky but not unheard of. For centuries England had enjoyed a healthy output of sensational pamphlets describing the births of ‘monsters’, those of animal-human hybrids or children with too many eyes and mouths. What made Toft’s case more unusual was the audience she managed to attract. The men who travelled to Surrey to examine her included amongst their ranks Nathaniel St André and Cyriacus Ahlers, two surgeon-anatomists within the employ of the King; Samuel Molyneux, the secretary to the Prince of Wales; and Sir Richard Manningham, a highly sought-after London midwife. Her deliveries were sufficiently compelling that after the 17th rabbit St André brought Toft to London where he lodged her in a brothel.

While he waited for more rabbits to manifest, St André produced a pamphlet entitled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets in which he related this series of events and alleged that these seemed legitimate, if ‘preternatural’, births. But Toft, to his disappointment, did not produce any more rabbits. By this point she had begun to suffer genuine seizures – unsurprising, given the likelihood of infection – and within a week the porter of the brothel was found attempting to smuggle baby rabbits to her room. Ill, and frightened by Manningham, who told her to either confess to fraud or be subjected to a ‘painful experiment’, Toft admitted that the rabbits were a hoax. A number of accomplices, she told him, had been conveying animal parts to her – mostly rabbits, but also the body and claws of a cat – which she would insert deep into her vagina before feigning the pains and motions of labour.

This revelation, predictably, provoked a widespread sensation. The other surgeons and midwives implicated in St André’s pamphlet rushed into print with their dissenting verdicts, but the damage was done. London writers and illustrators went into creative overdrive, producing songs and mock-pamphlets ridiculing both the obstetric profession and the uneducated woman from Godalming. Rabbit-themed puns regarding Toft’s vagina frequently appeared, as did tongue-in-cheek accusations that the medical interest in her was sexually motivated – aided, no doubt, by St André’s choice of lodgings. The midwife John Howard, who was responsible for first drawing the court’s attention to Toft, was charged to appear in court for involvement in a conspiracy. Toft was charged with fraud.

To this day, the Toft hoax still amuses people. The BBC this year included Toft in an April Fool’s Day list of elaborate hoaxes in history, and her name often crops up in histories of monstrous births and strange-but-true tales. But if we read further into the background of the hoax, Toft emerges more as a figure of pathos. She pretended to give birth to rabbits on the advice of another woman who said she would no longer need to work to earn her living; there was ‘a very good livelihood’ to be had from such a scandal. Her husband was a cloth-maker, and they were poor. They probably intended to exhibit her as a curiosity or marvel to the general public. She even had told St André at one point that during her pregnancy she had ‘a constant and strong desire to eat Rabbets, but being very poor and indigent cou’d not procure any’.

St André included this remark in his pamphlet because he saw it as significant. A 16th-century treatise by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré listed a pregnant woman’s imagination as one of the most common causes of ‘monsters’, or physical anomalies visible at birth. In 1714 the physician Daniel Turner advocated for this same theory in his work A Treatise of Diseases Incident to the Skin, where he argued that birthmarks and congenital disorders could be transferred to a child in gestation by its mother’s fancy or longings. Joseph Merrick, who became more widely known as the ‘Elephant Man’ while part of an 1884 travelling showcase exhibiting human novelties, believed his enlarged facial features and prolonged health issues were due to his mother having been startled by a fairground elephant during pregnancy. Thus, in the wake of the hoax, medical men continued to debate the power of a pregnant woman to deform a developing foetus through her food cravings and heightened emotional responses. Few of the medical professionals who examined Toft were willing to say publicly, even after she confessed, that her claims were impossible; merely that they had turned out to be untrue. Certainly, they took her sufficiently seriously to warrant close monitoring, careful questioning, and extensive physical examinations. Nor did the opponents to this theory express their scepticism in particularly proto-feminist ways. The midwife John Leake argued in 1776 that women were so prone to emotional excess that, if the theory were true, ‘marks or monsters’ would be much more frequent.

To speak of Toft as a singular oddity, therefore, is to misconstrue the historical context in which she made her claims. The hoax was preceded by an enduring, centuries-old rhetoric that conceptualised wombs – and women by association – as essentially wayward and unruly, exacerbated by the tendency to speak of them synecdochally. Early modern texts refer to a condition called ‘the mother’, believed to be the womb mischievously shifting upwards and crushing the diaphragm, and characterised by a sensation of breathlessness. The medical name for this uniquely feminine condition was hysteria, a term that later evolved to refer to bouts of psychosomatic pain. A 17th-century guide to women’s health called The Sicke Womans Private Looking-Glasse asserted that the ‘evil quality’ of the womb was the source of epilepsy, fevers and palsies. Another early modern physician maintained that the inherent moistness of women – as evidenced by their menstrual secretions and their tears – was what made them stupid, their brains dampened by their feminine fluids.

Much of this is of course nonsense. But the hoax, and older medical texts in general, represent an enduring tendency to characterise reproductive bodies – bodies that menstruate and gestate and lactate, bodies we are accustomed to gendering as feminine – as inherently unstable and abject. And it is a rhetoric that has persisted. Menstruation is associated with displays of moodiness and irrationality. Pubescents are socialised to buy tampons and pads covertly, to think of their bleeding as shameful and speak of it in euphemism and coded terms. Magazines targeted to newly menstruating adolescent readers are full of stories and questions about embarrassing bodies: visible tampon strings, stains on clothing, bleeding and pain during sex. Letters ask, ‘Am I normal? Is this normal? How can I stop this; failing that, how do I hide this?’

Intertwined with this is the more insidious assumption that the male body is the prototypical body, anything other than this deviation. In her book Inferior (2017), Angela Saini writes that for decades in pharmacology almost all test subjects in drug trials were men, and so women were being sold pharmaceuticals that had not been tested for their use. The decision to exclude them from testing was not made with sinister intentions. It was rationalised that an experimental drug might pose a risk to women who were unknowingly pregnant – understandable in light of the serious damage done by the prescription of thalidomide to pregnant women in the 1950s. But there is a danger in assuming that what’s good for men is also good for women, and that the male body is normality’s barometer. Pain and disease that are primarily or exclusively the province of women’s experience, that are rarely or never experienced by men, or that mark the female body as different from the male ‘prototype’ remain chronically misunderstood and under-researched.

The older medical texts were right in one sense: the womb and its associated processes can be a cause of health problems. But the taboo nature of its processes makes it more likely that pain associated with it will be subject to self-censorship. We are becoming slowly aware, for instance, that conditions such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome are incredibly common. Endometriosis affects an estimated one in ten women, but many women – and men – have no idea what it is. It is a condition where the cell tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in places such as the abdomen and pelvis. It reacts to the menstrual cycle each month by disintegrating and bleeding, but outside of the uterus there is no outlet for it to exit the body, causing inflammation and chronic pain. Although endometriosis is as ubiquitous as diabetes, it takes an average of seven years from the first appearance of symptoms to reach a diagnosis. There is no known cure, only ways to minimise the disruption it causes. There are also obstacles to obtaining a diagnosis: it requires invasive surgery, and the symptoms can resemble other common conditions such as sexually transmitted diseases or irritable bowel syndrome. But pain perceived to be just part of the universal female condition is also more likely to be dismissed as an unfortunate biological inevitability rather than a symptom of something pathologically wrong.

Pain is an inherently subjective experience. Treatment relies heavily on self-reporting measures, measures that fail if someone in pain is discouraged from disclosing it, or if their description of their pain is perceived to be hyperbolic or otherwise incorrect. The premodern tendency to see women as excessively emotional is not so outdated. It is perhaps still the most prevailing feminine stereotype. In their study ‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’ (2001), Diane E. Hoffman and Anita J. Tarzian found numerous ways in which women with the same medical conditions as men had to jump through more hoops to have it treated, and when they received treatment it was approached differently. Women who reported pain were more likely to be seen as faking or inflating it. Women who attended a specialised pain clinic for chronic pain were more often referred by a specialist whereas men were sent by their GP. They were more likely to be prescribed sedating agents where men were prescribed narcotics. They were seen as anxious rather than in actual physical pain, the pain being all or in part in her head.

Leslie Jamison discusses this study in her essay ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, addressing the dilemma of how to represent female pain without fetishising or erasing it. Parts of it feel reductive. For all its posturing about being ‘tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it’, it still used the aesthetic of female pain to perform essentially a literary dance. It alludes to Tori Amos singing ‘Why do we crucify ourselves?’; Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’; Stephen King’s menstruating telekinetic Carrie. But it is right in its concerns about female pain becoming a cliché, to point out that the fascination with representations of female pain is by necessity preceded by the existence of women who are actually in pain.

The Toft hoax could not have gained momentum were it not for the relative opacity of reproductive anatomy and its associated processes during the early 18th century and the hundreds of years preceding it – a world without X-rays or ultrasound technology. It is understandable that the men who became involved in the hoax demonstrated uncertainty about Toft’s anatomy. She may look like a ludicrous figure, but her claims would not have had credence without an enduring anti-women rhetoric within 18th-century medicine: one that was happy to hold women responsible for their ‘monstrous’ or otherwise complicated or fatal births.

If the Toft hoax shows us anything, it is the potential pitfalls of regarding reproductive bodies, and the women they belong to, as inherently alien or foreign. We need to resist the idea that pain is somehow essential to womanhood, to let go of the prevailing assumption that says that women are, by nature, more emotional, more fragile, more at the mercy of biology. A person’s ability to be an advocate for their own health is very much affected by how they see their own body. People who grow up thinking their bodies are just inherently more prone to inexplicable, untreatable pain, are going to struggle more to understand their pain and to fight to have it recognised and treated. We would like to think of medicine and healthcare today as objective and enlightened. But remnants of premodern medical misogyny persist into the modern period. The lack of research or awareness surrounding feminised conditions, and the degree of scepticism with which female pain is interpreted, is indicative that the female body is in some respect just as opaque. Female pain is rendered invisible, and with this opacity comes suffering.