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Mary Toft tricked English doctors into thinking that she gave birth to rabbits

Tijana Radeska
Mary Toft

The curious case of Mary Toft is an infamous medical hoax of the 18th century. In 1726, the news about a woman giving birth to rabbits reached the king’s office.

The king sent Nathaniel St-André, a Swiss surgeon who worked at the Royal Household, and the surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers to investigate the case.

Cyriacus Ahlers remained skeptical but St André later claimed that he helped with the delivery of fifteen rabbits.

Hogarth's Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (1726). St. André described Toft (F) as possessing a "healthy strong constitution, of a small size, and fair complexion; of a very stupid and sullen temper: she can neither write nor read", and her husband (E) as "a poor Journey-man Clothier at Godlyman, by whom she has had three children".

Hogarth’s Cunicularii, or The Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation (1726). St. André described Toft (F) as possessing a “healthy strong constitution, of a small size, and fair complexion; of a very stupid and sullen temper: she can neither write nor read”, and her husband (E) as “a poor Journey-man Clothier at Godlyman, by whom she has had three children”.

Mary Toft was a 24-year-old woman from Godalming, Surrey, married to a journeyman clothier named Joshua Toft. They had already three children when Mary Toft became pregnant with the fourth.

Unlike with the other three pregnancies, she was supposed to work in the fields but she started complaining about severe pains early in her pregnancy. She had a spontaneous miscarriage, egesting several pieces of flesh.

Mary Toft, in an engraving based on a painting by John Laguerre in 1726

Mary Toft, in an engraving based on a painting by John Laguerre in 1726

However, just a month later she went into labor again. Her neighbor and mother-in-law were present and witnessed the birth of something that looked like a liverless cat.

So the mother-in-law, Ann Toft, reported the situation to the local obstetrician John Howard, who visited Mary the next day and helped her deliver more animal parts.

According to Howard’s data, over the next month he delivered a rabbit’s head, the legs of a cat, and then nine dead baby rabbits.

King George I was fascinated by the case.

King George I was fascinated by the case.

It was then that Howard informed doctors and scientists all around England and the news got to the King who sent his two best surgeons. St. André and Ahlers arrived within a month in Godalming and began their investigation.

Even though the examination of the rabbits confirmed that they weren’t developed in a human’s womb, St. André was still convinced that the case was genuine and went back to present the case to King George I and the Prince of Wales.

St. André was so fascinated with the case that he staged a demonstration in London in order to present how it was possible for a woman to give birth to a rabbit.

He even brought Mary Toft to London and published a paper, A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits. 

But a few days after Mary’s arrival in London, independent investigators claimed that the case was a hoax, after which Mary herself confessed that she herself put the animal parts and the newly born rabbits in her body.

A satirical drawing of St. André receiving a French visitor. Following the scandal, St. André apparently never ate rabbit again

A satirical drawing of St. André receiving a French visitor. Following the scandal, St. André apparently never ate rabbit again

 

Hogarth's Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, published in 1762, ridiculed secular and religious credulity

Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, published in 1762, ridiculed secular and religious credulity

After this, St André lost his job in the Royal Household, being refused an audience with the king. Later he only managed to keep the position of court anatomist. As for Mary, she and the local doctor Howard were brought to court where Howard was fined £800 (£107,000 today).

Mary was  imprisoned as a fraud. Doctor Howard returned to Surrey and continued his practice and died in 1755. Mary was discharged because it wasn’t clear what could be actually done against her.

She gave birth to another child in 1727 and reappeared in the media after she was imprisoned for receiving stolen goods. She died in 1763.

St André depicted in a satirical engraving of 1726

St André depicted in a satirical engraving of 1726

 

A contemporary popular broadsheet satirised St. André, showing him dressed as a court jester.

A contemporary popular broadsheet satirized St. André, showing him dressed as a court jester.

The case was very popular in the English media, especially since it brought into question the professionalism of many surgeons who lost their status and jobs just as St. Andre did due to this case.

Like strange stories? Here’s another one from us: The man who was stuffed and displayed like a wild animal

Alexander Pope and William Pulteney published an anonymous ballad in 1716, The Discovery or, The Squire Turn’d Ferret, which starts with the following verse:

Most true it is, I dare to say,
E’er since the Days of Eve,
The weakest Woman sometimes may
The wisest Man deceive.