In September 1726, in the small town of Godalming in England, a local obstetrician was called to the house of Mary Toft. A month earlier, Toft had suffered a miscarriage, yet despite being no longer pregnant, she had somehow gone into labor.
The obstetrician, John Edwards, was shocked when he helped Toft deliver several cats’ legs and nine dead baby rabbits. Yes, nine dead baby rabbits!
Puzzled by these unusual births, Edwards wrote to medical experts in London to advise them of the medical marvel and to seek advice. The amazing news reached all the way to King George I, who, wanting to find out more, dispatched his personal surgeon, Nathaniel St Andre, and the secretary to the Prince of Wales, Samuel Molyneaux, to Godalming to find out exactly what had happened.
When the two men arrived in the small town, Toft was amazingly still giving birth to rabbits. They arrived just as she gave birth to dead baby rabbit number fifteen, and this was followed by several more.
Toft claimed that she had been working in a field a few months prior and was startled by a rabbit. She ran after the rabbit but couldn’t catch it. Another rabbit appeared, and she chased that, but it also eluded her.
St Andre wrote:
“That same Night she dreamt she was in a Field with those two Rabbets in her Lap, and awakened with a sick Fit, which lasted till Morning; from that time, for above three months, she had a constant and strong desire to eat Rabbets, but being very poor and indigent cou’d not procure any.”
He concluded that while she was pregnant (with a regular human baby), her experience with the two rabbits and subsequent cravings for rabbit meat had somehow led her to develop rabbit fetuses. This was a theory called ‘maternal impression’ that was popular at the time and used as an explanation for any congenital disabilities.
Medical sense, of course, showed that this was impossible. There was no way that a rabbit could develop inside a human’s womb. Besides, one of the rabbits that were ‘born’ had clearly been cut in two. Despite this, both St Andre and Edwards were convinced these supernatural births were real.
A London viral sensation
A German doctor, Cyriacus Ahlers, was summoned to see Toft, and although he witnessed more rabbit births, he announced that it was a hoax. To prove this, he sent several of the bodies back to the King as evidence. Ahlers disputed the claims of Toft, Edwards, and St Andre. King George was still intrigued by the case and not ready to give up on the chance it was real, so he summoned Toft to London for further observation.
Word spread of the remarkable Mary Toft, and her story captured the imagination of the nation’s capital. Newspapers covered her story, and her fame spread. It was a time where “freaks” were exhibited, and people were willing to pay to see this mysterious woman. The whole city was abuzz with talk of the lady who could give birth to rabbits. Long before the internet, Toft had become a true viral sensation.
St Andre summoned doctors, physicians, and midwives from around London to witness the breeding phenomenon. Under strict observation from November 30 to December 3, Toft appeared to be going in and out of labor but with no results. Medical opinion was still divided over Toft during this time.
With national interest high and wanting sway opinion his way, on December 3, St Andre published a forty-page pamphlet of his theories and beliefs — Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets.
Unfortunately for St Andre, on the same day the pamphlet was published, a porter was found smuggling a rabbit into her room. Under questioning, the porter revealed Toft’s sister-in-law asked him to procure the smallest rabbit he could find for her.
A hoax revealed
On December 4, the doctors called a Justice of the Peace who took Toft into custody for questioning. Two days of intense investigation followed, but Toft admitted to no wrongdoing.
Doctors who were already very suspicious immediately asked to perform surgery on her to see if she had different reproductive organs from other women. Unfortunately, the surgery would be excruciating, and this caused Toft to consider her next move. Toft decided to finally confess that she had made the whole thing up, and it was a hoax. Wanting to earn money, she had come up with the scam and had gone to the extreme of shoving rabbits inside her, which she would later “give birth” to.
On December 9, Toft was charged with being a “Notorious and Vile Cheat” and imprisoned at Bridewell prison.
Many believed that St Andre was also involved in the hoax, and his reputation took a huge hit, especially with his just-released pamphlet. In fact, he took out an advertisement on December 9 in the Daily Journal where he attempted to salvage his pride and separate himself from the hoax and proclaim his innocence in the matter. He claimed never to have believed Toft.
St Andre’s reputation never recovered from the scandal. He lost his business and was embroiled in another scandal when Samuel Molyneaux died of poisoning, and soon after, St Andre married Molyneaux's widow. St Andre eventually died in poverty.
The medical profession was widely ridiculed for ever believing the hoax. Even doctors who were not involved at all felt the need to take out advertisements stating that they had never believed a woman could give birth to rabbits.
After a few months in prison, the charges against Toft were dismissed, and she returned to Godalming. However, she did give birth to a human child in 1728, which was announced in the local paper as her first child since her rabbit breeding. She was arrested in 1740 on charges of receiving stolen goods but was acquitted in a trial. Toft died in 1763.
Since Tofts claims, there have been no more reports of women giving birth to rabbits.
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