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Toadies

Andrew Allen looks at one of the bizarre fairground attractions of Georgian England and the fate of its practitioners.

A witch feeding her toad-imps in a 1630 woodcut.No fair in 17th or 18th-century England was complete without a toad-eater or 'Toady': a man who swallowed live toads for his living. Toad-eaters, for the most part, were ill-paid hirelings who travelled from village to village, fair to fair, and market to market in the retinue of a mountebank or itinerant quack doctor 'swallowing live toads, popularly supposed to be poisonous, in order to make their employers effect seemingly miraculous cures'.

After the toad-eater had swallowed a toad, slumped to the ground or to the boards of the mountebank's stage in a theatrical faint, had a dose of the quack's cure-all forced through his dying lips and come back miraculously from the threshold of death, the triumphant mountebank would make his way through the gaping, gawping, gullible crowd doing good business selling little vials of his marvellous remedy with its proven powers against poison. The operation could, it seems, be a lucrative one for the mountebank, if not necessarily for his toad-eaters, witness this entry in the diary of the East Hoathly (East Sussex) mercer Thomas Turner:

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