Mary Toft's Rabbits

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History has a long culture of hoaxes, and perhaps one of the most bizarre is the monstrous births of Mary Toft.

Mary Toft with one of her 'children'
In 1726, in Goldiming near Surrey Mary Toft went into labour. She was 25 and illiterate, working as a servant and married to a clothier and has suffered a miscarriage a month earlier. nevertheless she still seemed to be pregnant and, as she struggled through the labour, she apparently gave birth to something resembling a liverless cat.Apparently confused, her family asked the local obstetrician John Howard to attend Mary and it became clear that she had given birth to yet more animal parts. Things came to a remarkable head when, in one day, she claimed to have given birth to nine baby rabbits.

Howard was stunned and sent out word to England's greatest doctors and scientists and even to the King to ask for assistance in investigating the seemingly miraculous case. Intrigued, the king sent out some of his best men and the infamous hoax of Mary Toft's rabbits began in earnest.

Why on Earth did people believe it?

Monstrous births and miracles had been a culture in of itself since time immemorial. Monstrous births could be items of horror or entertainment which could produce a profit but also act as portents from God. Science - proper empirical science - was still in its infancy and, in Mary's case, the idea that rabbits (and dead animal parts) could be generated in the womb was not one that was entirely fanciful. It was believed, for example, that the emotions and imaginings of the mother could be transferred to the foetus and this had in the past been used to explain monstrous births or in cases where a child developed a unexpected genetic trait, such as babies with darker skin when infidelity was ruled out of the equation. As in the case of the 'mooncalf', it was even thought that the moon itself could affect the development of the foetus. 

Mary's story for the births, which took place after a miscarriage a month earlier, was that she had been working in the fields and was startled by a rabbit. When she and a friend tried and fail to catch it and another rabbit she returned home and, when she went to bed, dreamt that she was sat with those two illusive rabbits in her lap. When she woke she fell ill and, for some months, had a very strong desire to eat rabbits, which she could not afford. For the science of the time, it was entirely possible that such a strong maternal impression could influence the development of the foetus, and Mary made sure to physically 'give birth' to more dead rabbits in the presence of scientists to secure her story. So it was, on the whole, taken seriously.

When Mary handed over the dead rabbits as evidence it was here that science started to

make some in-roads to exposing the hoax. King George himself sent the German surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers and Mr.Brand to investigate, and on investigation of the rabbits, Ahlers found that dung pellets still inside the rabbits contained corn, hay and straw. Clearly these had not been created inside the womb. The eminent Midwife Sir Richard Manningham and Sir James Douglas were also called to attend her 'births' and observe them in controlled settings, and also had serious doubts. The reputations of all of the doctors involved were on the line for even entertaining the idea of this being true, but opinions were divided.

The whole situation came to a head when finally Toft's accomplice was caught trying to sneak a rabbit into her room. The doctors waited to see if Mary would incriminate herself and sure enough she went into a dramatic labour that produced nothing. Mary was finally taken into custody and, being threatened with painful medical experimentation, finally admitted to the hoax, explaining that she had inserted dead rabbits into her own birth canal and allowed them to be removed as if she was giving birth. The hoax was exposed, Mary's fame only increased and, despite spending a small amount of time in custody Mary was largely pardoned and was released to avoid further attention and embarrassment. For a long time afterwards the medical profession as a whole was mocked for its gullibility.

-The curious case of Mary Toft (University of Glasgow Special Collections)
-Mary Toft and her extraordinary delivery of rabbits (The Public Domain Review)
-Notes of Karen Harvey's presentation of 'Rabbits, Whigs and Hunters: Rethinking Mary's toft's Monstrous Births 1726' (10 Dec 2014)
-Mary Toft Image

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