Folklore Friday: Mary Toft, The Mother of Rabbits
Today's Folklore Friday is all about a historical figure that I find so marvelous and amusing that I wrote a poem inspired by her. Her name is Mary Toft and she's known for being a human who gave birth to rabbits.
Mary Toft (1701-1763) was a normal English woman from Godalming, Surrey until 1726 when she convinced doctors that she was birthing rabbits like children. As an 18th-century English peasant, when Mary became pregnant in 1726, she was still stuck working in the fields. It was at this time that she spoke of a vision of a rabbit in the field. When it came time for her to give birth, she miscarried--but not a human baby. She miscarried animal parts--not even a complete animal corpse. Just bloody, random parts. Everyone was horrified and Mary's mother-in-law soon sent for a local doctor, John Howard.
John Howard looked over the birthed parts and flesh, and examined Mary fully, but didn't believe a word of it. Then, she went into labor again. According to accounts, over the next few days he helped Mary deliver,
"three legs of a Cat of a Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet: the guts were as a Cat's and in them were three pieces of the Back-Bone of an Eel ... The cat's feet supposed were formed in her imagination from a cat she was fond of that slept on the bed at night."
And for days she just continued and continued to produce rabbit parts.
One account was printed in the Mist's Weekly Journal, on 19 November 1726, citing:
"From Guildford comes a strange but well-attested Piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin [sic], 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 but whose Heart and Lungs grew without [outside] its Belly, about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 more; and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the 4th, 5th, and 6th instant, of one in each day: in all nine, they died all in bringing into the World. The woman hath made Oath, that two Months ago, being working in a Field with other Women, they put up a Rabbit, who running from them, they pursued it, but to no Purpose: This created in her such a Longing to it, that she (being with Child) was taken ill and miscarried, and from that Time she hath not been able to avoid thinking of Rabbits. People after all, differ much in their Opinion about this Matter, some looking upon them as great Curiosities, fit to be presented to the Royal Society, etc. others are angry at the Account, and say, that if it be a Fact, a Veil should be drawn over it, as an Imperfection in human Nature."
As the story spread, eventually it reached a member of King George I's court and from there it reached the attention of one of the royal surgeons. Howard had Toft moved to Guildford with him and routinely offered to deliver rabbits for an audience to prove it to any nonbelievers.
When that surgeon, Nathaniel St. André, arrived with a royal secretary, they witnessed Mary birth a couple rabbit torsos and other various parts and flesh. They believed her. The king was now considerably fascinated and wanted to know more so he sent another surgeon--but this one was doubtful.
When surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers arrived he noted that Mary seemed to keep her knees and thighs together, as if holding something there between them. He also found Howard suspicious as he wouldn't let Ahlers help in any of the deliveries. Ahlers eventually took samples back with him to London and found evidence that the animal parts had been cut with man-made tools like knives. He also found evidence of straw and grain in the rabbits' droppings. And so Toft was brought to London to be properly examined.
Toft was seen and studied by a number of physicians and surgeons--one being John Maubray. Maubray was a physician who believed in "maternal impression"--the belief that conception and pregnancy could be influenced by what the mother dreamt, or saw. This was completely in line with Mary's experience with the rabbit during her pregnancy and Maubray was thrilled to attend to her.
However, for every believer, there was one who doubted her. It also didn't help that while she was there, she didn't produce a single rabbit.
In the end, the truth came out.
An investigation found that Toft's husband, Joshua had been seen buying young rabbits and a man reported being bribed by Toft's sister-in-law to sneak a rabbit to her room. Mary denied everything at first, but when threatened with a painful operation to fully examine her internally, she gave in.
She explained that she had initially had a miscarriage and while her cervix still permitted access, an "accomplice" had inserted a cat and the head of a rabbit inside of her. They even made up the story about her seeing the rabbit as well. She blamed the whole scheme on her mother-in-law and John Howard--claiming it a plot for money.
Eventually she was discharged and returned home. In the end, the Toft family didn't make a single dime from the scam. Little is known about Mary's later life except that she was briefly imprisoned in 1740 for stealing. When she died in 1763, her obituary ran alongside aristocrats, as no one ever really forgot her famous hoax.