An 18th-Century Birthing Scam

Dexter Palmer’s third novel, about a fantastical medical hoax, doubles as an exploration of the age-old desire to believe the unbelievable.


Last year, I briefly got hooked on scam stories. I wasn’t alone. Reporters, TV and podcast producers, critics, and readers all trained their eyes on hoaxes and hoaxers ranging from the fake German heiress Anna Delvey to the would-be inventor Elizabeth Holmes to the fraudster Billy McFarland, whose failed Fyre Festival provided fodder for two separate documentaries. The New Yorker, meanwhile, ran a 12,000-word exposé of Dan Mallory, a book editor turned novelist who rose through the ranks of publishing by apparently falsifying his background. As I consumed these accounts, I started worrying that I liked listening to Holmes’s sales pitch and reading about Delvey’s exploits too much. I suspected that I was testing the bounds of my own gullibility. I wanted to see how able I was to believe a scammer’s story.

The writer Dexter Palmer mines this curiosity in his vivid, sensitive third novel, Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen. In it, Palmer retells the real-life story of a woman who, in England in 1726, began pretending to give birth to dead, dismembered rabbits. Palmer places this strange narrative within the literary tradition of novels about fakers and cheats. Patricia Highsmith’s identity thief in The Talented Mr. Ripley is perhaps the icon of the grifter genre; the Philip Roth impersonator in Roth’s novel Operation Shylock merged scam fiction and metafiction to fascinating effect. It’s easy to understand why novelists might be drawn to such protagonists: Fiction, after all, is a constant deception. Writing a novel, like running a con, is an extended act of pretending to be someone else. But Palmer’s Mary never tries to become another person. She simply presents an impossibly interesting, potentially miraculous version of herself: a woman whose gift or curse is to mother rabbits.

In his previous novels, Palmer used fictionalized technologies to explore humanity’s relationship to science; in Mary Toft, he homes in on the particular cadences of medical history. Mary’s scam would be impossible in the 21st century. In the 18th, gynecology was still shaky enough that it briefly worked. Keeping his modern audience in mind, though, Palmer never introduces the possibility that Mary might be telling the truth. Nor does he try to explain why she and her husband, Joshua, would perpetrate such a weird hoax. His interest lies with those who fall for it—or who decide to fall for it. Nobody in Mary Toft gets purely suckered. Palmer’s omniscient narrator roams between characters, watching them debate whether Mary is a liar or a miracle. The novel lingers on those who are most torn; those who, like me, want to test their capacity for belief. These confused characters, especially Mary’s “man-midwife,” John Howard, become vehicles through which Palmer asks the novel’s central question: Why would anyone believe a woman who claimed she was giving birth to rabbits?

Throughout Mary Toft, John serves as Palmer’s wavering spokesman for trust. He’s a well-trained surgeon who could have a glitzy London career, but instead is devoted to providing good medical care to the citizens of his small town. In 18th-century England, this means deploying advanced technology like gynecological forceps; it also means inviting the local cleric to join him at patients’ sickbeds. The two often butt heads, but John accepts that in his patients’ eyes, “mere medicine is not enough to save our souls.” Confronted with Mary’s first rabbit, John, too, begins wondering whether medicine is not enough. Scientifically speaking, he knows she couldn’t possibly have been pregnant with a rabbit—but divinely speaking, who knows? If the Virgin Mary could give birth to Jesus Christ, why can’t Mary Toft give birth to a rabbit? And if that’s a possibility, then how can John call her a liar?

John’s openness to religion—and his fundamental faith in the goodness of human nature—pushes him toward trusting Mary. Thus, he refuses to accept his wife’s laughing analysis of Mary’s case: “Good Christ, love, the husband’s cutting a dead rabbit into parts and shoving them up her before you arrive.” Rather than see the odd, gruesome hoax for what it is, John endeavors first to remain in existentially torturous doubt, then becomes her first true believer. His comfort with ambiguity and his sympathy for his patient combine to render him a dupe. Rather than mock John’s credulity, though, Palmer treats his “man-midwife” with respect. John’s willingness to venture away from reason is a virtue in Mary Toft, and his ultimate ability to return to it is both his and Mary’s saving grace.

John may deviate from scientific logic, but his plotline displays critical thinking without self-interest—an ability the novel’s other doctors lack. John writes to London’s medical community for help and, soon, celebrity surgeons descend on Mary’s bedside, sidelining John as they aim to profit off the Rabbit Queen. As John’s skeptical apprentice Zachary observes, the London doctors treat Mary as “her body’s hostage, rather than its owner.” Before long, Zachary is convinced that the London doctors “desire the woman’s illness, want it to be prolonged, want its renown to grow.” Palmer sets up this selfish hope for Mary to suffer as a crucial counterpoint to John’s pained efforts to cure her. The London doctors’ capacity to believe Mary stems from self-interest, not sympathy or curiosity; their gullibility is the product of sheer greed.

The doctors take Mary to London, hoping King George will turn up at her bedside, and her story quickly captivates the public. The city’s residents start gathering outside her window and Palmer’s narrator flits through the crowd, giving readers a taste of how simple it is for these lookers-on to accept Mary’s rabbit births as fact. For John, trusting Mary triggers wracking doubt in his own education, intellect, and considerable medical experience. For London’s eager public, trusting her is a far more positive experiment in belief. She offers them what seems like proof that “God works wonders” and gives them a low-stakes, entertaining opportunity to demonstrate their own access to faith.

The real-life Mary Toft may have fascinated people nearly three centuries ago, but today’s scammer stories hold a version of the same pleasure. Reading about Elizabeth Holmes gives me the experience of faith without emotional or financial strings attached—and with the knowledge that whatever doubts I may have will soon be validated. Palmer treats this desire for risk-free conviction with respect, but his greatest interest lies with John Howard, who chooses wrongly to take Mary’s word. John is Mary Toft’s hero, if also its fool: He spreads Mary’s scam to London because he wants the “precious comfort” of other doctors trusting his choice. Ultimately, though, the novel gives John redemption for his credulity, and credit for his kindness. Palmer seems to argue that to reach for belief, on any level and with any margin of error, is human. There’s merit in an open mind.