Peculiar personages from history

James Caulfield’s entertaining work: Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II: Collected from the most authentic accounts extant, 1819, does not disappoint. It is filled with a number of curious characters including: Blind Granny, an old blind soak with the party trick of licking her blind eye with her tongue, Blind Jack, who earned a living entertaining Londoners playing the flageolet through his nostril, and Mary Toft, a woman who claimed she had given birth to rabbits.

Blind granny2

Described by Caulfield as a ‘miserable, wretched drunken object, who blind of one eye, used to annoy the passengers in the streets of London, while sober, with licking her blind eye with her tongue, which was of a most enormous length and thickness; indeed, it was of a such a prodigious size, that her mouth could not contain it, and she could never close her lips, or to use a common expression, keep her tongue within her teeth.’

“He [Blind Jack] conceived a notion that, by performing on the instrument in a different way to that generally practiced, he should render himself more noticed by the public, and be able to lay larger contributions on their pockets.

Blind Jack1

The manner of Blind Jack’s playing the flageolet was by way of obtruding the mouthpiece of the instrument up one of his nostrils, and, by long custom, he could produce as much wind as most others with lips into the pipe; but the continued contortion and gesticulation of his muscles and countenance, rendered him an object of derision and disgust, as much as that of charity and commiseration.”

Mary Toft

Mary Tofts pretended rabbit breeder2

England was bewildered in 1726 by Mary Toft’s claims to have given birth to rabbits. Her doctor, Mr Howard, a well-regarded man who had practised medicine for over thirty years, backed up her claims, saying that he had personally helped her deliver at least eighteen rabbits. When King George I heard of this he was so intrigued that he sent his anatomist Mr St. Andre to investigate, and he returned convinced that Mary Toft had indeed given birth to rabbits, and recommended that she be awarded a royal pension.

Sir Richard Manningham, Fellow of the Royal Society and of London’s College of Physicians was sent to investigate. Manningham soon got to the bottom of the matter and got a porter to confess to supplying Mary Toft’s sister-in-law with a rabbit. Still Mary Toft refused to confess to the fraud and it was only when Manningham threatened to perform painful surgery on her to investigate whether her body was different from other women that she admitted to the deception. Mary admitted that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina after a miscarriage, subsequently allowing them to be removed as if she had given birth to them. Manningham published his account An Exact Diary of what was observ’d during a Close Attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbit-Breeder of Godalming in 1726.

full spread mary Toft

Cunicularii or the wise men of Godliman in consultation by William Hogarth, 1726, in ‘Mary Toft Rabbet Breeder, 1725-7’: Bay H 4.1 85

By Isabelle Chevallot, Assistant Librarian assisted by Lauren Davis, on work experience with the Lord Mayor’s Cultural Scheme.


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