The men from London arrived just in time to see Mary Toft give birth to her fifteenth rabbit.
It was the winter of 1726, and Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux arrived in the market town of Godalming in Surrey to meet Mary Toft, a short, stout peasant of “stupid and sullen temper” (per St. André’s later, embittered description). They found the country-woman waiting at the house of local man-midwife John Howard. She was lingering on the edge of a bed, stripped down to her corset. Howard assured the Londoners that they had come just in time.
Soon Mary Toft’s body began to twist and contort. Her throes could be so powerful that her clothes would fly off her body, and the woman would have to be held down in her chair. Sometimes the labors lasted up to a day and a half. Toft’s belly would “leap,” a phenomenon Howard thought was caused by baby rabbits jumping around inside Toft’s uterus. One was observed to hop like this for eighteen hours.
But that winter day, the labor was not prolonged, and soon Toft had delivered her child—the skinned torso of a small rabbit. The men from London started dissecting it right there on the floor. St. André—surgeon anatomist to the King of England himself—took a section of lung and put it in a basin of water. It floated, showing that the lungs had air in them, which suggested that the creature had breathed before it died. The rabbit’s anus was found to have feces in it, which meant that the small animal must have eaten something. There was no blood.
St. André then turned his attention to the mother, who had been waiting patiently by the fire. He found that one breast produced a thin, watery milk. After palpating Mary’s stomach, St. André found a hard lump in the woman’s right side. From this he concluded that the rabbits had been bred in Toft’s fallopian tubes, after which they had hopped down to her uterus, where they developed. With no prospect of another birth any time soon, the men retired.
In the evening Mary Toft fell into convulsions again—this time so violent she had to be held in her chair. “After three or four very strong Pains that lasted several minutes, I delivered her of the skin of the rabbet, rolled and squeezed up like a Ball,” St André wrote later. The rabbit’s head came soon after, complete except for one ear.
Satisfied, St. André and his companion Molyneux returned to London with some of Mary’s purported offspring, preserved by Howard in jars of alcohol. By the end of the year, all of England—even King George I himself—would know about the woman who had given birth to rabbits.
Mary Toft claimed that the trouble had started that October when she was working in the fields and saw a rabbit scampering by. That night she dreamed of rabbits, hungered after rabbits, became totally obsessed by rabbits. She wanted rabbit for dinner, but her family was too poor to afford it. For this reason, the dreams continued.
The following August she miscarried. But the symptoms of her pregnancy persisted. In late September a neighbor was called to the Toft’s house in Godalming to find Mary Toft in a painful labor. She was giving birth to a monster: the dismembered pieces of a small cat and the backbone of an eel. Someone summoned a midwife—baffled, she called for backup.
Backup came in the form of local man-midwife John Howard from the nearby town of Guildford. Howard examined Toft, and the woman promptly delivered more mangled cat parts. But Howard was not yet convinced. He told the Toft family that he would not believe the supernatural character of the births until the complete monster had been born. The final part of the monster dutifully came—the head—but it was not the head of a cat. It was the head of a rabbit.
In the weeks afterward, Howard returned to Godalming again and again just in time to view Mary giving birth to nuggets of rabbit. Howard became so distracted by Mary’s progeny that he was forced to move her to his home in Guildford, where he could study her without having to continually make the treks out to Godalming.
Mary’s story fit with the best medical thinking of the time. It was believed that a pregnant mother’s dreams, fantasies, and imaginations could become imprinted on a fetus. The influential physician John Maubray was convinced that if pregnant women sat on stoves they would give birth to small mouse-like abortions called sooterkin. In the first century A.D. the grandfather of natural history, Pliny the Elder, wrote of the Roman matron Alcippa who gave birth to an elephant. Dr. Thomas Bartholin, a seventeenth-century Danish physician who was the first person to describe the human lymphatic system, described a well-bred woman giving birth to a full-grown rat who, on being born, promptly scurried away. The cause of Mary Toft’s peculiar pregnancy was clear to a learned doctor like Howard: the power of Mary Toft’s obsession for rabbit flesh had transformed her fetus into rabbits. The rabbits were split into multiple pieces, appearing to be between two and four months old. Howard presumed that they had been dismembered by the powerful contractions of Toft’s vagina. Howard wrote of his discovery to “persons of distinction” in London and continued to document Mary Toft’s strange case while he waited for experts more eminent than himself.
In time, one such eminent man did make the trip from London to Surrey. A member of King George’s Court visited Guildford and was impressed by Mary Toft, the jars of rabbit-parts, and the whole grisly story. When King George himself heard the story, he was intrigued, and sent Samuel Molyneux to further confirm the strange events. Molyneux was a capable astronomer and mathematician who had built one of Britain’s first telescopes at his home in Kew. But while his scientific credentials were impeccable, he was no doctor. He asked his friend and personal physician, the Swiss-born Nathaniel St. André, to help with the investigation.
The only thing people could agree on regarding St. André was that he was an unrelenting self-promoter. St. André placed bevies of advertisements in newspaper after newspaper, touting his close connections to the Court. He managed to turn a paper for the Royal Society describing a burst bowel into a story of his great skill as a surgeon and anatomist. He was supposedly poisoned in a dark London alley investigating a woman with venereal disease—and published daily dispatches from his sickbed describing his valiant struggle to hang on to life, full of name-dropping references to how his close friends at Court were very worried for him. The height of his career came when he was called to treat a minor ailment of the King. After the successful treatment, St. André was rewarded with a sword straight from His Majesty’s side. Unsurprisingly, St. André made this fact very well known.
After St. André and Molyneux brought Mary’s rabbits back to London, the King sent Cyriacus Ahlers, the surgeon from his German household, to Guildford for a second follow-up. When Ahlers was first admitted to Mary Toft’s rooms, the patient had just given birth again, this time to a roll of rabbit pelt. But when Ahlers examined Toft he could find no sign of pregnancy. He did notice that as Toft walked about the room, she kept her knees close together, as if she were afraid something was going to fall out of her.
Soon Mary’s labors began again. After three or four convulsions so violent Ahlers had to hold Toft’s chair to the ground, Ahlers prodded Mary Toft’s vagina and found “some broken bones” inside. A little further inside he felt “a fleshy body, which with the bones stood a little way out of the Orifice of the Vagina.” In moments Howard took over and pulled the front part of another rabbit out of Mary. It was her sixteenth birth. Ahlers collected the parts and returned to London, where he received word that rabbit number seventeen had just been born. But Ahlers remained skeptical.
St. André knew that if Ahlers publicly aired his doubts about Mary Toft, he would become a laughingstock—after all, he was the one who had presented the rabbit jars to King George I with his own hands. He needed support. He enlisted Sir Richard Manningham, one of the most sought-after man-midwives of England, member of the Royal Society, and walking Seal of Approval of scientific excellence, to provide the final scientific verification of Mary Toft’s births. St. André and Manningham made the trip to Guildford and went straight to Mary. Manningham noted that Mary’s breasts leaked milk slightly, though her stomach was soft. The eminent doctor searched her vagina “diligently” and found that the communication between the uterus and vagina was closed—a telltale sign that Mary Toft was nowhere close to giving birth to anything, rabbit or human. Manningham wanted to see some of those “leapings” which had been seen going around inside Toft’s stomach, but she hadn’t had any since the morning. Howard proffered that the rabbit inside her might have died. Manningham wrapped Toft’s belly in hot cloths in order to provoke the rabbit back to life—and as if on cue, Toft’s belly started to bulge and contort. The men waited for the rabbit to reveal itself. But no birth came.
Manningham and St. André waited in the town’s tavern. In an hour Howard came in with a piece of flesh wrapped in paper. It was a membrane, he said, that had been birthed by Mary Toft only minutes ago. The membrane, Manningham declared angrily, was nothing more than a hog’s bladder, and it reeked of pig urine. Howard insisted it was the chorion, the membrane which stretched between fetus and mother. To settle the dispute, a genuine unsupernatural hog’s bladder was fetched from the tavern kitchen. The two pieces of flesh were identical.
That evening Manningham returned to find Toft in labor again. He bent between Mary Toft’s legs and slowly prodded, feeling a piece of flesh inside her vagina. Then he removed another slice of hog’s bladder. Manningham said there was no way that it had come out of Mary’s uterus, because the opening between uterus and vagina was still completely closed. The membrane—or hog’s bladder—or whatever it was—had been inserted into Toft’s vagina from the outside, Manningham declared. He was certain nothing supernatural was happening at all. Rather, Mary Toft was a fraud.
Toft started to weep. Howard, Manningham, and St. André began to argue. But their discussion was cut short when Toft fell into labor again. Three hours of screaming, writhing, convulsing, leaping, prodding, and expectation produced nothing. Nevertheless St. André and Howard convinced Manningham to keep his reservations silent until Manningham could gather definitive proof of Mary Toft’s deception, and the next morning they returned to London with Mary, her eighteenth rabbit soon to come.
In London, Mary Toft was quartered in Lacy’s Bagnio, a public bathhouse in Leicester Fields which sometimes doubled as a maternity ward. St. André invited the toast of London scientific society to watch the impending birth of the eighteenth rabbit. It was said that every man, woman, and child in London visited Lacy’s Bagnio to see Mary and her miraculous rabbits. Newspaper writers kept up a steady stream of breaking news reports on the progress of rabbit number eighteen. The birth, they assured the news-reading public, was imminent.
Over the next few days, Toft’s belly leaped and convulsed in contraction after contraction. She suffered from a severe vaginal infection, possibly due to the incessant medical prodding. One fit left her insensible for two whole hours. The eighteenth rabbit would not budge.
Back in Godalming, the Surrey Justice of the Peace started an independent investigation of the Toft affair. It turned out that at the same time Mary Toft’s rabbits were being born, Mary’s husband Joshua Toft had been going to farmers and butchers, buying up every rabbit he could find—dead or alive, and the smaller the better. Further doubt was cast on Mary Toft when the porter at Lacy’s Bagnio was found trying to smuggle a rabbit into Mary’s room. When confronted with this, Toft said she was just hungry.
Manningham now had the evidence he needed to convince the world that Toft was a fraud. He teamed up with another man-midwife, James Douglas, and began to interrogate the sullen Toft. They knew that she was lying, they said, and all they wanted her to do was to swear that she was lying so that the whole affair could end, she could go back home, and London life could go back to normal. Mary stubbornly insisted that she was actually pregnant with rabbits. The crowds came. But no rabbit was born. This lasted for days. Finally Manningham told Mary that since her births were so strange, he would have to conduct a very painful experiment on her in order to fully understand her condition. Under the threat of medical torture, Mary finally confessed.
She hadn’t given birth to the rabbits, she admitted, or the cat with the eel spine, or the bladder, or anything besides her three living children. It was all a sham. She had heard that the King had given pensions to freaks and prodigies, so her mother-in-law had devised a plan for Mary to come into the monarch’s notice. Earlier that year, another freak, Peter the Wild Boy, a young child who had spent his formative years in forest and could do little more than scamper around on all fours, had become the talk of all England. Yet where generations of misshapen births, frauds, freaks, and amazements had achieved pensions, Toft had become the subject of doubt.
The hacks of Grub Street, London’s notorious thoroughfare of workaday writers, produced reams of satire, parody, mezzotints, poems, and purported confessions to fulfill the gawking curiosity of London. The legendary artist William Hogarth produced a humorous comic strip lampooning the gullible doctors and the rabbit-birthing peasant. Even gullible Lemuel Gulliver, fictional star of the 1726 book Gullliver’s Travels, got in on the action, publishing a complaint that all the Mary Toft mania was hurting the sales of his own book. Scholars today are uncertain whether the actual author of the tract was the still-famous Jonathan Swift or some other wit.
Only three people were not laughing. One was Mary Toft who, accused of being a “Notorious and Vile cheat,” was put in Bridewell Prison, where members of the still-curious public visited her cell to stare and jibe. Another victim was St. André, the man who had done so much to publicize Toft. The whole affair had damaged his standing at Court. Fed up, he requested a meeting with the King, who was so furious at St. André’s impertinence that he banned him from ever setting foot in the palace again. His patients deserted him. His high-living lifestyle soon reduced him to poverty. Supposedly he never ate rabbit again.
St. André’s friend, Samuel Molyneux, fared better. While people might titter at him as they served rabbit for dinner, he married an heiress and acceded to a seat in Parliament. In 1728, however, his promising career was cut short when he mysteriously suffered a fit on the floor of the House of Commons and died at the age of 38. The death may not have been accidental. Suspicion fell on Molyneux’s personal physician—Nathaniel St. André. The suspicion thickened when later on the same night, Molyneux’s new and wealthy widow eloped with St. André to Europe for a shotgun wedding.
When Mary Toft was released from prison she returned home to Godalming. In February, two months after the debacle in London, she gave birth to a daughter—a human daughter—which meant that throughout all the proddings, probings, and insertions, she had actually been pregnant. A local aristocrat, the Duke of Richmond, sometimes displayed her at dinner parties to the amusement of his guests. When she died in 1763, her obituary was carried in the most prestigious London newspapers, alongside those of the great and powerful—Mary Toft, the supposed rabbit-birthing woman of Godalming.