This 18th-Century Woman Convinced Doctors She Was Giving Birth to Rabbits

Every once in a while, you hear about a hoax that manages to fool a lot of people. You know, things like Sasquatch, or the Fox sisters' seances, or the guy who sold the Brooklyn bridge a couple of times. Sometimes you can make some sense of why they'd lie to the world — selling bridges is pretty profitable — but sometimes, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. In the case of Mary Toft, it's the latter.

Related: "Ghostwatch," a Modern Hoax

A Hare-Raising Tale

On September 27, 1726, a 25-year-old servant named Mary Toft of Godalming in Surrey went into labor. This was odd since she'd had a miscarriage a month earlier, although reports suggested that she still appeared pregnant since. With the help of her neighbor Ann Gill and her mother-in-law Ann Toft, she gave birth nonetheless. To something awful. The women withdrew a dead creature resembling a cat — with its liver removed. Disturbed, they called on a professional: obstetrician John Howard.

With Howard as a witness, the strange occurrences continued to get stranger. Over the course of the next month, Toft gave birth to more deceased animals (and parts of animals) — the legs of a cat, the head of a rabbit, and on one day, nine dead rabbit kittens. Howard sent off a series of letters to the greatest doctors and scientists of England, as well as to the secretary of King George I.

As word was spreading across the country, Mary was (apparently) still giving birth to more and more rabbits. The king dispatched one of the premiere anatomists of the time, Nathaniel St. André, who arrived at Howard's home office at the very moment that Toft was in labor with her 15th bunny. Several more followed on that very day.

St. André had seen all he needed to see. He knew that these miraculous births could cement his place in medical history, and he published "A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets." Suddenly, the ickiest hoax of the 18th century had legs.

Medical Opinions

The explanation, according to St. André, was "maternal impression." The theory, which carried some weight with medical experts of the time, claimed that a child could be deeply influenced by the experiences of the mother — but this was the first time that anyone had claimed that it could actually cause a human woman to give birth to an animal. Toft claimed that, while pregnant, she'd attempted and failed to capture two rabbits in the wild. Afterward, she'd been overcome with an insatiable hunger for rabbit meat. These two sensations, then, would explain why her body would produce rabbit corpses instead of human infants. André's story was amazing, but even the primitive medical establishment of the time was highly skeptical.

The German surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers, who the king sent to verify the claims of Howard, Toft, and André, was one such skeptic. He found some pretty compelling evidence against the claims: dung found inside one of the rabbits contained corn, hay, and straw, none of which was in Toft's diet. But André was committed to his theory. He had Mary Toft brought to London, where a crowd of physicians, including one very respected doctor, James Douglas, watched over her as she went into labor many, many times — but never produced a rabbit in front of that group of witnesses.

A few days later, a porter was caught attempting to smuggle a small dead rabbit into the room. He confessed to Douglas that a member of the Toft family had requested it. On December 7, about a week after she'd arrived in London, Mary Toft admitted that she, Howard, and her mother-in-law had been perpetuating the hoax since that first day in September.

The newspapers of the time had a field day. Broadsheets and even satirical comics lampooned even the skeptical doctors who had been associated with the affair for taking the claim seriously enough to attempt to disprove it. Still, Douglas, Ahlers, and others were able to recover their reputations. Even Howard, one of the perpetrators, was able to regain his livelihood in his rural medical practice. Mary Toft herself was imprisoned for only a few months, likely because a longer sentence would have drawn even more attention to the embarrassing incident. But the grandstanding St. André never recovered. We almost feel bad for him — but he really shouldn't have hopped to such a conclusion.

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There are lots more hoaxes to be found in the history books. "Hoax: A History of Deception" by Ian Tattersall is chock full of them. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 30, 2018

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