Mary Toft: The English Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits


It was on September 27, 1726, when a 23-year-old peasant by the name Mary Toft went into labour at Godalming, Surrey which is about 40 miles from London, England’s capital. This was odd to Toft’s
neighbours as she had just had a miscarriage in August a month earlier,
even though rumours flew around of her still being pregnant.
However, Toft who was born Mary Denyer in 1703 in the same Godalming, gave birth on
that fateful day in September with the help of her neighbour and her
mother-in-law. The product was awful. With fright, the women withdrew a dead
creature with four limbs from Toft and quickly summoned John Howard, a
professional obstetrician. When Howard arrived, the situation got worse and over
the next one month Taft had given births to nine dead rabbits. Alarmed, the
obstetrician sent a deluge of letters to the most skilled scientists and doctors
all over England and of course to King George I through his secretary.
But, how could a 23-year-old able-bodied woman give birth to dead animals? We shall know more right after this. As the news kept flying all over England,
Toft was still giving birth to more and more rabbits. Quickly, the king sent one
of the most famous anatomist of the time, Nathaniel St. Andre, who arrived when
Mary Toft was giving birth to her 15th dead rabbit. Saint Andre had seen
everything he needed to see. To his knowledge, this weird, miraculous birth
would give him fame and stop his name in medical history. In haste, the anatomist published a paper, “A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery
of Rabbits”. In the manuscript, Saint Andre explained what he termed “maternal
impression”, that a child could be influenced by the thoughts and
experiences of the mother which could cause a human to give birth to an animal.
Mary Toft also claimed that while she was pregnant, she had failed to capture
two rabbits when she went hunting. As a result, she felt a hunger for rabbits
meat and it would explain why she was giving birth to dead rabbits instead of
a human child. Saint Andre was ecstatic as he wrote
these words even medieval medicine would have been skeptical of this occurrence.
Not satisfied, King George sent a German surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers to verify the claims of Saint Andre, Howard, and Toft. But the surgeon found some new disturbing facts. Ahlers discovered that dung from inside
one of the rabbits contained hay, stray and corn,
none of which was eaten by Toft. But Saint Andre stood his ground and was
committed to his theory. However, Ahlers had Toft brought to
London where a gathering of physicians, including the respected Dr. James Douglas,
watched over her as she went to labour many times.
Interestingly, Toft never gave birth to a single rabbit
in the presence of these people. This continued for some days, until a porter
was caught trying to smuggle a small dead rabbit into the room. He confessed to the doctors that Margret Toft, Mary’s sister-in-law, had asked him to look for
any rabbit he could find. On December 7, 1726, a week after she arrived at London, Toft finally confessed that she, her mother-in-law and Howard had been
conniving together to perpetrate the prank since that fateful day in September. Only
a few were surprised with the confession. But for Saint Andre, his career suffered
as he had just published his thrilling discovery on December 3rd, 1726,
just four days before Toft’s confession. It was the end of a medical career for
him and the newspapers of the time had a field day. So, how did Toft give birth to
these dead rabbits? In 18th century England, rabbits were
widely available symbolising the negligence of the upper class who built
dens to sell their meat and fur as elite goods. These rabbits then escape to the
lower-class’ gardens who saw this creatures as pests. Although the rabbits’ births were ticklish, the pains Mary Toft suffered were real. With an alibi, she
placed the dead rabbit inside her body; difficult, dangerous, and painful.
In fact, these rabbits were often delivered with your sharp nails intact.
It was a miracle Toft did not die of a bacterial infection. In the end, Mary Toft was in prison for only a few months as a longer sentence would have
drawn even more attention to the embarrassing events. Can you tell us other
tricks that have happened in history? Kindly let us know in the comments
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