Category: Weird Articles
Published on Tuesday, 04 February 2014 00:00
It was during the Autumn of 1729 that something very peculiar happened in England to a 24-year-old peasant girl. On 27 September 1726, a very pregnant Mary Toft was going into labor. Toft, who worked in hop fields of rural England, called out for her neighbor, Mary Gill, to assist her in the birthing process. Gill made haste to Toft's house to find her writhing in agony. Then like something out of a very bad horror movie, a monster started emerging from Toft's birthing canal.
The baby that Toft pushed out was stillborn and looked like a rotten concoction of different animal parts. It was indeed appalling. Gill who didn't know what to do with the deformed baby, rushed to find Toft's sister who was a midwife by trade and told her the grisly news. The family who was incredibly perturbed by this, sent the little corpse to a local surgeon, John Howard, a man with over 30 years of experience delivery babies. Howard inspected the remains, noting down that the baby monster had “three legs of a cat of tabby colour, and one leg of a rabbet . . . in them were three pieces of the Back bone of an Eel.”
Yes, all this actually really happened and is recorded in history. It is not an elaborate attempt at one of my distasteful jokes.
Howard was skeptical that Toft actually gave birth to this weird creature. However, he begrudgingly paid a visit to Toft. He wrote down that Toft is “of a very stupid and sullen Temper.” But then something else unnatural happened right before his eyes – Toft gave birth to a baby bunny. Like magic, except that instead of coming out of a hat, the rabbit came out of her you-know-what.
The outlandish news traveled far and wide, and Toft became a local celebrity. The strange happenings did not just stop there though. Over the next month, Toft gave birth to eight more baby rabbits, and there were more on the way.
The mystified doctor preserved all the bunny bodies in alcohol and sent letters to prominent physicians all over England about the freaky mystery. On November 9, one of his letters read:
“I have taken or deliver’d the poor Woman of three more Rabbets, all three half grown, one of them a dunn Rabbet; the last leap’d twenty three Hours in the Uterus before it dy’d. As soon as the eleventh Rabbet was taken away, up leap’d the twelfth Rabbet, which is now leaping. If you have any curious Person that is pleased to come Post, may see another leap in her Uterus, and shall take it from her if he pleases . . . I do not know how many Rabbets may be behind.”
One physician who received Howard's letter was Nathaniel St. André, the surgeon to King George I. When the King got wind of this, he immediately sent St. André to investigate. Big mistake. St. André was not a fan of scientific theories, he absolutely believed Toft's case even before meeting her. A little background story to St. André, this surgeon was not known for his medical prowess. The King only gave him the gig because he spoke German which was the King's native language. So when St. André visited Toft, he felt her belly and confidently proclaimed that the rabbits were forming in her right fallopian tube. The belief was reinforced when he personally helped Toft deliver a rabbit's head, which was her 15th birth.
Toft very quickly became a national sensation. On 9 November 1726, Mist's Weekly Journal reported:
“From Guildford comes a strange but well-attested Piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin, near that Town, was about a Month past delivered by Mr. John Howard, an Eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife, of a creature resembling a Rabbit . . . about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 more . . . they died all in bringing into the World.”
This affected the rabbit-meat trade very horribly. The public was so disgusted from the rabbit birthing news that rabbit stew was stricken from the menus of Britain's homes. “The public horror was so great that the rent of rabbit-warrens sank to nothing; and nobody, till the delusion was over, presumed to eat a rabbit,” James Caulfield recorded
Doctors and the public believed Toft’s story because of a popular pseudoscientific theory circulating at the time called “Maternal Impression
”. They believed that a mother’s emotions and imagination could cause birth defects and disorders. A pregnant woman who was startled by a rabbit, as Toft claimed, could easily pollute the fetus with her thoughts — leading her to pop out baby rabbits. (This wasn’t just a crackpot idea from the 1700s; it lasted until the early 20th century!)
The King followed this phenomenon very closely and he sent another surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, for further investigation. Ahlers was a man of science and he didn't buy into the whole maternal impression theory that his other fellow doctors believed. He dropped by Toft's house and was not impressed. Despite witnessing several rabbit births (the count had now reached 17), Ahlers remained skeptical.
On 29 November, Toft was taken against her will to London for a study. This is what you have to expect if you decide to let everyone know you are popping out rabbits. She was locked away in a bathhouse and observed. With almost all of King George's court ogling her in anticipation, she suddenly stopped having rabbits. What she did have however, was a high fever which caused her to slip in and out of consciousness. While the Dukes took shifts watching Toft, Ahlers dissected some of the preserved specimens in his lab. Something, he found, didn't add up at all. The rabbits appeared to have been cleaved with a knife, and one contained droppings full of corn and hay.
On 4 December, the truth came out to light. A porter was caught red-handed trying to sneak a baby rabbit into Toft's chamber. When questioned, he claimed that she had bribed him. A separate investigation was launched and it was discovered that over the past few months, Toft's husband had bought a suspicious number of rabbits from the town's rabbit merchants. Evidence was piling up that Toft and her family had just scammed the entire country. On 6 December, the court informed Toft that they would perform a painful, experimental pelvic surgery to see what made her so unique. On 7 December, Toft, shaken by the threat, decided to come clean and confessed that it was all a hoax.
It was a terrible timing for St. André. Just days before Toft's confession, he had published a 40-page booklet called “A Short Narrative of The Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets
”. He explicitly swore upon his name on the account's authenticity. When Toft's truth was born, his reputation came collapsing down like the Walls of Jericho. He lost his job and became the laughing stock of London.
So how did Toft manage to fool the King's medical team? Well, like magic illusions, it is all about slight of hand. Toft had actually been pregnant in the year (with a real human child) but had a miscarriage. While her cervix was still open, an accomplice stuffed in the body of a cat and the head of a rabbit – which her neighbor who was none the wiser helped deliver. As the ruse became more elaborate, Toft sewed a special pocket in her skirt where she would hide dismembered parts of rabbits. When the doctors aren't looking, she would swiftly pull them out from her pocket, tuck them into herself and feign labor. Nasty.
Many believed that she went through the repugnant act as a ticket out of poverty. In her own words, it was to “get so good a living that I should never want as long as I lived.” Back then, freak shows in circuses featuring human oddities were extremely popular ways to rake in the dough. Toft was certain one of these circuses would pay high price to showcase the lady who gave birth to rabbits.
Unfortunately for Toft, she didn't receive a single penny from her shenanigan. The con-woman was thrown into jail for five months and came back home as poor as ever. When she died in 1763, the parish epitah read: “Mary Toft, Widow, the Impostress Rabbitt”.