The story of the “Rabbit Woman of Godalming” began with an illiterate woman named Mary Toft who lived with her husband in the English town of Godalming. By all accounts, the Tofts lived in extreme poverty with only her husband’s meager income as a cloth-worker to support them. For reasons that would only become clear afterward, Mary Toft would claim to have given birth to various pieces of a rabbit in 1726. According to her story, she had seen a rabbit running in the field and her longing for it led to a maternal impression that led to her giving birth to rabbits.
A local surgeon and midwife, John Howard, testified that he had witnessed Toft giving “a creature resembling a Rabbit but whose Heart and Lungs grew without [outside] its Belly, about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 more; and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the 4th, 5th, and 6th instant, of one in each day: in all nine, they died all in bringing into the World.” It was Howard who publicized “the Rabbit Woman” and even managed to find her an even more powerful supporter, Nathaniel St. Andre. As the official surgeon of the Royal Family as well as chief surgeon of the Westminster infirmary, St. Andre seemed unlikely to be taken in by such a crude fraud. Still, when he traveled to Godalming to assist in the birth of, yet another, rabbit, he became one of Mary Toft’s chief supporters.
The news of Mary Toft’s miraculous births led to widespread panic (and a nationwide boycott of rabbit meat). For William Whiston, what was happening in Godalming seemed like ironclad proof that the end of the world was at hand. The commotion over Mary Toft was enough for King George I to dispatch a more skeptical medical doctor to investigate and to arrange Mary Toft’s move to London where she could be more closely watched. The two new doctors assigned to watch the Rabbit woman at work, Cyriacus Ahlers and Sir Richard Manningham, had difficulty testing Toft’s claims since she was suddenly unable to given birth to any more rabbits. Being under continuous watch meant that she was no longer able to arrange for rabbits to by smuggled in to her by her husband. After an investigation showed that her husband had been seen collecting rabbits around Godalming and one witness reported that Mary had attempted to have a rabbit smuggled into her room, the Royal court decided they had enough. Following a grueling interrogation (and Richard Manningham threatening to carry out invasive surgery to decide her case once and for all), Mary Toft finally confessed to the fraud. She had been sneaking in rabbit parts which she inserted into her vagina to “miraculously” give birth to them.
Mary Toft’s widely publicized confession led to her arrest and conviction for fraud. It also meant that Nathaniel St. Andre and the other doctors who had endorsed her claim were completely disgraced. Not that any of this deterred William Whiston from continuing his own public support of Mary Toft’s claims. Dismissing Toft’s confession as being the result of intimidation, he decided that John Howard’s original description of Toft’s delivery should be accepted as absolute proof. Since he view John Howard as “a Person of very great Honesty, Skill, Reputation in his Profession”, Whiston regarded Mary Toft’s pregnancies as another sign that the end of the world was at hand.
Having founded his own religious society, Whiston proclaimed the message of impending doom in his autobiography and assorted books. He also gave lectures across the United Kingdom, complete with a scale model of the Tabernacle of Israel as a visual aid while he lectured on Christ's imminent return in 1766. Since the notion of comets caused universal devastation was in vogue at the time (even Edmund Halley suggested that The Great Flood had been caused by a comet), Whiston's pronouncement that a comet would eventually shatter the Earth seemed less strange than it would today.
And so it was in 1736 that Whiston, who was still widely regarded as an eminent scientist despite being dismissed from Cambridge, publicly predicted that a comet would appear on Wednesday, October 14 which would result in the end of the world. Basing his prediction of the comet’s appearance on his calculations, Whiston stated that the comet would trigger a universal fire just as an earlier one had caused the Flood. When the comet appeared on schedule, there was widespread panic as people tried to avoid the doom he had predicted. A number of people in London climbed into boats and barges and set themselves afloat on the Thames hoping to avoid burning to death. One captain of a Dutch ship carrying gunpowder threw all his cargo overboard for fear it would be ignited. Perhaps more alarmingly as far as the government was concerned, stock in South Sea and India fell sharply and a run on the Bank of England forced the Bank’s director to issue a fire watch to protect their property.
As the comet panic was at its peak, a group of clergymen formally asked the Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake, to prepare prayers to mark the end of the world (none of the traditional prayers in the Anglican canon applied). Wake had to issue a public denial to calm the panic fears. As the comet came and went without the promised catastrophe, the panic subsided and Whiston found his reputation as a scientist suffering badly as a result.
Perhaps a final nail in the coffin of Whiston’s credibility came when Jonathan Swift published A True and Faithful Narrative of What Passed in London During the General Consternation of All Ranks And Degrees of Mankind shortly after the comet hysteria had peaked. Meant as a tongue-in-cheek look at Whiston and his apocalyptic movement, Swift’s book (which he attributed to “Mr. Pope and Mr. Gay”) described the 1736 hysteria from his own perspective. The cynical way in which the comet hysteria is described, including recording that "So great was the Faith and Fear of two of them, that they dropt Dead on the Spot; but I will not record their Names, lest I should be thought invidi∣ously to lay an Odium on their Families and Posterity."
By the time of his death in 1752, William Whiston was a virtual pariah because of his extremist religious views and his doomsday predictions. Perhaps because of the example he provided, later scientists would be more cautious about making sensational claims about universal destruction.
Or at least claims that were so easily disproven...