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Mary Toft; or, the Rabbit Queen

Dexter Palmer


  Version Control

  The Dream of Perpetual Motion

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents, with the exception of some well-known historical and public figures, either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2019 by Dexter Palmer

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Name: Palmer, Dexter Clarence, [date] author.

  Title: Mary Toft; or, the rabbit queen / Dexter Palmer.

  Description: First Edition. New York : Pantheon Books, 2019. Includes bibliographical references.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2019013815. ISBN 9781101871935 (hardcover : alk. paper). ISBN 9781101871942 (ebook).

  Classification: LCC PS3616.A33885 M37 2019 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 | LC record available at​2019013815

  Ebook ISBN 9781101871942

  Cover image: Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, engraved by Thomas Cook, after William Hogarth (detail). Private Collection. The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images.

  Cover design by Janet Hansen



  But when a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense, is kicked out of doors; the first proselyte he makes is himself, and when that is once compassed the difficulty is not so great in bringing over others, a strong delusion always operating from without as vigorously as from within.

  —Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub



  Also by Dexter Palmer

  Title Page




  Chapter I. The Exhibition of Medical Curiosities.

  Chapter II. The Royal Touch.

  Chapter III. A Concerned Husband.

  Chapter IV. A Birth.

  Chapter V. Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

  Chapter VI. Mary’s Dream.

  Chapter VII. Foolscap.


  Chapter VIII. Nathanael St. André.

  Chapter IX. Confirmation of the Preternatural.

  Chapter X. The Seat of Imagination.

  Chapter XI. Some Unanticipated Visitors.

  Chapter XII. The Shearing Effect.

  Chapter XIII. The King and the Three Impostors.

  Chapter XIV. A Strange Celebration.


  Chapter XV. Mary’s Soliloquy.

  Chapter XVI. Moll Flanders.

  Chapter XVII. Dr. Lacey’s Bagnio.

  Chapter XVIII. A Coffee House Meeting.

  Chapter XIX. The Keepers of the Vigil.

  Chapter XX. Sects.

  Chapter XXI. The Proof.

  Chapter XXII. A Principle of English Law.

  Chapter XXIII. Leaving the Barn.


  Chapter XXIV. Hasenpfeffer.

  Chapter XXV. Manningham’s Plan.

  Chapter XXVI. Transverse Presentation.

  Chapter XXVII. Morning.

  Chapter XXVIII. Pamphlets.


  Chapter XXIX. Zachary and Anne.

  Chapter XXX. John Howard Returns.

  Chapter XXXI. Bridewell Prison.



  A Note About the Author




  The convoy of nine decrepit coaches and wagons that constituted Nicholas Fox’s Exhibition of Medical Curiosities rolled into the village of Godalming on a Friday in early September 1726, soon after sunrise. Its herald, careening headlong before the horses that pulled the lead coach, was a young blond girl whose face was half covered by a port-wine stain, one of her sky-blue eyes peering out of an inky blotch of burgundy. “Tomorrow, witness a series of physiological wonders of which I am the very least,” she proclaimed to passersby, the men and women trudging out of town to begin the day’s harvest of the hop fields. “For the meager price of sixpence, gaze upon the horrific consequences that occur when the Lord God stretches out his mighty finger and lays a curse on Man. Educational for the mind; edifying for the soul.” The windows of the coaches had their thick black curtains pulled, proof against stray glimpses of their passengers. Education and edification would not come for free.

  Zachary Walsh, at age fourteen the proud apprentice of Mr. John Howard, Godalming’s finest (and only) surgeon, stood before the window of his loft in the Howards’ home and watched the procession roll by on the street beneath him, imagining what grotesque secrets and horrors might stuff the carriages. Was it not his duty as an initiate into the surgeon’s craft to be medically curious? It was. Granted, even after four months of learning the trade, the sight of blood still turned his stomach. (Just last week he’d tasted bile at the back of his throat while watching Howard patiently stitch shut a gash in a farmer’s calf, laid open by the blade of a wayward scythe. Howard had punched the needle back and forth through the man’s torn flesh as easily as if it were burlap, seeing the blood and not seeming to care. “You’ll be as hardened to this as I am, soon enough,” he’d said, his voice infused with an unexpected melancholy that Zachary couldn’t understand.)

  But Zachary’s squeamishness did not preclude a love of mystery, and the drawn curtains of the coaches promised more profound alterations of the human shape than mere swollen stomachs or broken bones. Knowledge of strange, unknown anatomies, yes; sights to steel the spirit against sin as well. But also: nightmares. The most delicious nightmares, the kind that one has only after the wall between the mundane and the magical is breached directly before one’s eyes; nightmares that make you smile as you shiver in your sleep.

  As if sensing the turn of Zachary’s thoughts from a distance, the girl with the birthmark spattered across her face left her place at the head of the parade of vehicles and ran back along the train, coming to a stop beneath Zachary’s window. Standing in the street, the last dust clouds that trailed behind the convoy swirling about the hem of her pale yellow skirts, she impishly cast her gaze around her; then she looked up at Zachary, screwed her face into a grimace, and hissed at him as if he were a disobedient cat. “Sssst! Sssst!” Zachary involuntarily stepped backward, briefly fearing some kind of malediction, then feeling foolish because his fear had shown on his face, and she had seen it.

  Then, giggling, the girl scampered away, to announce the exhibition’s coming.

  * * *


  Zachary had first met his master John Howard last fall, when his mother had brought him to the surgeon as a patient: the boy had been suffering a constellation of troubles that included a throbbing headache, a throat so sore that each spoonful of porridge he
tried to swallow pricked at it with a hundred tiny needles, a voice that had gone half an octave deeper even as he’d become unable to pronounce most words with any clarity, and breath that smelled like the interior of a newly disinterred coffin. Howard listened to Zachary’s mother, Clara, describe the symptoms, then unceremoniously clamped his hand on Zachary’s jaw, commanded him to open his mouth as wide as possible, and peered down the dark tunnel of his throat, involuntarily wrinkling his nose at the dank odor rising from it. “Quinsy,” Howard said to Clara. “There: an abscess beside the tonsil. I don’t think I’ve come across a case like this in two years or more. It calls for scarification, immediately: it won’t disappear on its own. I hope your son is not given to nervousness.” Zachary had a strange pride in contracting a disease that was at least on speaking terms with mortal peril, with a name that had such peculiar music. “Kinthy,” Zachary said, and his mother wiped a glistening strand of drool from his lip with a handkerchief secreted in her sleeve.

  Howard dosed young Zachary with a small glass of gin from a clear, unlabeled bottle, instructing him to drink it quickly and pouring him a second as soon as he had forced down the first. It was Zachary’s first experience with strong liquor, and though he suspected that it would have stung his throat only slightly less were he not ill, the mellow fire in his stomach, and the cheerful light-headedness that ensued soon after, began to endear him greatly to John, and quinsy, and the medical profession.

  Fifteen minutes later, the boy found himself stretched out on the long, wooden table in the room in Howard’s offices where the surgeon stored his implements and practiced his art. Late-afternoon sunlight shone down on his face through a nearby window. “This will only take a few moments,” Howard said, bending over him, “but you must be still. Open your mouth as wide as possible, once more.” With his left hand, Howard inserted a thin piece of wood into Zachary’s mouth, pinning down his tongue; then, as the boy’s tongue involuntarily squirmed against its restraint, the scalpel in Howard’s right hand slipped past Zachary’s teeth and back farther still, deep into his throat, farther than it should have gone. Zachary felt himself trying to gag, wanting to struggle; he tried not to imagine the only tongue he’d ever had lopped out of his mouth by a clumsy slip of the blade, flopping mindlessly around on the floor like a fish just pulled out of the sea.

  “Be still,” Howard commanded in a low voice, and in the few seconds that Zachary was able to relax himself, Howard made three short, sure strokes with the knife. Zachary’s mouth flooded with the sour taste of pus. “Don’t swallow,” Howard said, withdrawing the blade and the stick and offering Zachary a small wooden bowl. “Spit.” Into the bowl went a thick, yellowish-white fluid, shot through with threads of crimson.

  “The worst is past, I think,” Howard said to Zachary’s mother, “but the disease may return, in which case the tonsil will have to be removed and the child will have to be bled. Now, Zachary, hold this in your mouth: don’t swallow, as much as you might wish to.” He handed him a third glass of gin. “Spit it out when you return home. Then, twice a day for the next two days, do the same with white wine. One shilling, please.”

  * * *


  Early one morning two weeks later, Howard heard a knock on his front door, faint and timid. He opened it to see Zachary standing there before him, alone.

  “I’m well,” Zachary said. “I did what you said, with the gin and the wine. My throat and my head don’t hurt.” His voice had returned to normal, with only an occasional warble that signaled an impending transition to adulthood.

  “Then the rarest of specimens darkens my door,” Howard said. “Neither ill nor in the company of the ill. Were it not for those two types of people, I and all my kind would be invisible.” He beckoned Zachary inside.

  Howard had found himself unoccupied so far that morning—though a calamity was surely due by soon enough—so he had been keeping himself occupied by struggling with a particularly thorny chapter of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Like many men in England who fancied themselves of a certain class and intellectual capacity, he owned a copy; like most of those copies, the majority of the signatures in his had never been split by a blade. Sitting on his shelves, the volume had come to seem to him over the years like a fraudulent prop. It squatted there in accusation; it called him a pretender.

  And so as of late he’d taken up the habit of working his way through a paragraph or two each morning, before his first patient arrived. For all Locke’s stated love of clarity, Howard found his prose to be a challenge, with his winding sentences and invented definitions—his “simple modes” did not seem simple at all. But Howard felt as if he was at last getting somewhere with it: his own mind, at least, occasionally seemed as if it were making more sense to itself, which justified the labor and the boredom.

  Nonetheless, Zachary’s arrival was a welcome distraction, though Howard had no idea what to say to him, or what Zachary might want. Howard’s conversations in his role as a surgeon usually followed a predictable pattern—the description of the symptoms; the identification of the illness; the sure performance (one hoped) of a quick and effective remedy—and so this situation left him at a loss. There was a small room just off the main hallway of the house where Howard offered consultations, with a few comfortable chairs and shelves that held a few dozen volumes necessary to the practice of the surgeon’s craft; he ushered Zachary inside. Zachary sat in a chair placed against a wall; as Howard sat in the larger chair behind his desk, he could see Zachary leaning over slightly, to peek through the doorway at the operating room directly across the hall.

  “Well,” said Howard, leaning forward with his hands clasped together on the desk in front of him, “state your business. I hope you’re not nosing around here for another cheering dram of Madam Geneva—that’s only for my special guests.”

  Zachary hesitated, and Howard feared that his attempt at levity had come off more stiffly than he’d intended. Then Zachary said, quietly, “The quinsy.”


  “The thing in my throat. What was it like?”

  Of course: no child visits a surgeon expecting to have a knife slipped down his gullet. He was still disturbed by the experience; he needed reassurance. “It wasn’t a bad thing at all,” Howard said. “Perhaps two hundred years ago the consequences might have been more dire, but medicine has much advanced since then. If you are feeling well by now, you almost certainly have nothing further to worry about.”

  Howard was puzzled by Zachary’s reaction—he and his wife had not been blessed with children of their own, and so to him the behavior of the young was often a cipher. But he suspected that Zachary felt he was not getting what he had come here for, whatever that was. At the news of the positive prognosis the boy had slumped in his chair slightly, and was now staring at the floor as his cheeks bloomed red.

  “It might have been worse,” Howard said tentatively, making a first careful guess.

  Zachary looked up again, a light dawning in his eyes, and Howard considered the matter.

  “If you had not come to me when you did,” Howard continued, more sure of his direction now, “and if you had let the abscess be, it might have turned gangrenous.”

  The corners of Zachary’s mouth twitched, as if he was attempting to restrain a smile.

  “Then,” said Howard, “the incisions I made would have wounded you further, instead of providing relief. For your mouth would have begun to rot from the inside. Your tongue would have turned black and threatened to choke you; you would have suffered unbearable pain, followed by a numbness even worse than pain. And death often comes on gangrene’s heels. I have seen such cases.” Though only in books, Howard added to himself.

  “That would have been awful!” Zachary said gleefully. “You must have seen all manner of completely awful things!”

  This may be good fortune, Howard thought.

nbsp; Leaning back in his chair, he steepled his fingers. “Just this past week, a drunkard was carried in here by two of his colleagues, his arms slung across their shoulders. The toes on his right foot had swollen to the size of sausages; they’d turned lovely shades of green and violet. The foot—”

  “Yes?” Zachary was close to jumping out of his chair.

  “It had to be amputated.”

  Zachary breathed in sharply.

  “I can amputate a foot in three minutes,” Howard said. “Faster, if I have an assistant.”

  * * *


  Howard sent Zachary home with what would become the first of several loans from his library: a heavy, well-thumbed copy of A General System of Surgery in Three Parts, luxuriously appointed with plates that depicted wide-eyed boys with harelips, and tools whose ends had blades and knobs and bulbs, and corpses of women whose skin was flayed from throat to navel, peeled back to reveal the organs packed neatly beneath. The biblical mysteries with which Zachary’s cleric father Crispin attempted to entrance his son were feeble competition; for Zachary, the medical texts were just as enchanting as tales of donkeys speaking or flesh transforming to salt, and the lists of body parts in Heister’s Compendium of Anatomy had all the beauty of a psalm. Crispin was soon forced to put an end to his dreams of the Gospel becoming a family business.