The Curious Case of Mary Toft Giving Birth to Rabbits
In 1726, Britain was enthralled with the story of Mary Toft, a woman of Godalming in Surrey, who claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. The news of Mary and her “birthing of rabbits” grew quickly and reached the court of King James I.
Mary was a 25 year old illiterate servant and the wife of Joshua Toft. In September of 1726, Mary gave birth to what appeared to be a deformed cat. The family called upon John Howard, a local obstetrician. When he arrived, he was presented with more animal parts which had been taken from Mary during the night. Over the next month, Howard recorded that she birthed a rabbit’s head, the legs of a cat, and in a single day, nine dead baby rabbits.
Howard sent letters to some of England’s greatest doctors, scientists and the King’s secretary regarding the miraculous births. The curious King sent his personal surgeon and the secretary to the Prince of Whales to examine the matter.
By now Mary Toft was a local celebrity. When the King’s men arrived, they were immediately greeted with the news that Mary was in labour with her fifteenth rabbit. The doctors examined the rabbits and were highly suspicious of the results. But one doctor was convinced her case was genuine and that the rabbits were the result of the supernatural.
As Mary’s story was quickly spreading throughout London, the King sent another doctor to investigate. The doctor took some of the rabbits back to London and found that the dung pellets from one of the rabbit’s rectum contained corn, hay and straw. He had proof that the rabbits did not come from Mary and he reported the fraud to the King.
Mary was finally caught. The final proof came when a porter was caught trying to sneak a rabbit into Mary’s room. He confessed that Mary’s sister-in-law had asked him to procure the smallest rabbit he could find. Mary was taken into custody but admitted nothing…until one of the doctors threatened to perform painful experimental surgery on her to see if she was formed differently from other women. Mary finally admitted that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina and then allowed them to be removed as if she were giving birth.
Mary Toft was charged with being a “Notorious and Vile Cheat” and was sent to Bridewell Prison. After just a few months, the whole case was dismissed and she was released. Not for lack of proof, but to avoid any further embarrassment to the establishment if the case were pursued any further. No more was heard of Mary or her strange rabbit births, but she will forever be remembered in the annals of bizarre and curious history.