Just In Time for Easter

In the spirit of Tom Woodward’s Internet Detritus, I thought I would share this article that arrived in my inbox from The Public Domain Review. It seemed appropriate as it is “bunny” time of year: Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits:

In late 1726 much of Britain was caught up in the curious case of Mary Toft, a woman from Surrey who claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. Niki Russell tells of the events of an elaborate 18th century hoax which had King George I’s own court physicians fooled.

We live in an era of hoaxes often perpetuated by the use of Photoshop. But it isn’t digital technology that leads to hoaxes; it is people. And while there is much in this article that would not be appropriate for students, one important discussion point would be why would someone like Mary Toft do something like this? Niki Russell, Chief Library Assistant at Special Collections in the University of Glasgow Library, has her own theory:

As for Mary Toft, the case against her was dismissed, not for lack of proof of guilt, but probably because of the further embarrassment to the establishment that would ensue if the case were pursued any further. She spent a few months in jail then returned to relative obscurity. The question as to why she and her family went to such extraordinary lengths to convince the nation that Mary had the ability to give birth to rabbits is perhaps not too hard to answer. Monstrous or deformed people had been exhibited, at a price, all over Europe for hundreds of years, with poor and wealthy alike equally fascinated. Ironically for Mary, although the hoax was not successful, she did succeed for a while in becoming an object of curiosity.

Many eminent physicians and thinkers were taken in by Mary’s hoax and suffered for their gullibility. William Hogarth, the great satirical artist, had good fun at their expense.

If you haven’t checked out The Public Domain Review, you might want to browse its collections. The articles are written by scholars and the goal of the project is to bring the vast pool of public domain resources to the attention of, well, the public. They have lost their initial funding so I made a little donation to what seems like a worthy and well-done project.

 

 

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