J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

“Extremely messy as documents”

In 1726, Mary Toft claimed to have given birth to rabbits.

This generated a lot of news coverage and debate in Britain. The episode continues to interest social historians.

Earlier this month Karen Harvey, author of The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England, wrote about her work on documents that seemed at once absolutely central to the event and very difficult to work with:
Mary Toft’s three ‘confessions’ were new to me. These were taken down by James Douglas, a doctor present on these three occasions that Toft was questioned by a Justice of the Peace. . . .

Reading these thirty-six pages was an absolute revelation. The writing jumped off the screen. In their form and their content, they were urgent, vivid and disturbing. They recorded Toft’s version of events in what appeared to be as close to a transcription as Douglas could possibly muster. They were also far richer than I had imagined from the fairly cursory discussions in existing scholarship.

But it also became immediately apparent why historians had not undertaken a thoroughgoing analysis of the confessions and placed this centre-stage in their accounts of the case. Not only were these extremely messy as documents – full of errors and deletions – but the narratives they offered were inconsistent and contradictory.
Before her book, Harvey wrote about the Toft confessions in this article for History Workshop Journal.

Her essay is part of a series from the University of Birmingham’s Eighteenth Century Centre on sources that historians have found powerful, including:

1 comment:

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Harvey + Rabbit = Pooka