In an article for Vice by Av Hani Richter from February of 2015, a Somali woman claims to have given birth to twins, one a boy and the other a snake. The woman was from the Afgooye district of Mogadishu and was shocked when she realized what she had delivered. She was expecting two human babies, after all. A family relative named Ali Muhammad travelled to visit the mother and new arrivals and was shocked to hear what had occurred. He said when he arrived that the mother told him the snake would only come out when she was alone and would otherwise hide under a bed or in the cupboards. Both the father and mother believed that the snake child was a miracle bestowed upon them by god himself. Of course, it’s more likely that the snake found its way into the woman’s bed and was mistaken for a delivered child.
This is not the first instance of human beings giving birth to animals. Of course, many of the documented occurrences from the 17th century involved deformities, babies born with extra limbs, fingers or toes, or without eyes. For example, a physician named Pietro Castelli stated that he had seen to two women who had given birth to “creatures.” One birthing what Castelli called “a monster” and one a “cyclops.” Castelli also claimed a woman had given birth to a “dog-like creature” in Sicily, Italy. Modern medicine has identified many deformities and defects and it’s more likely that these children fell into these categories.
A woman in Indonesia reportedly gave birth to a lizard. She exhibited every sign of pregnancy, but instead of birthing a human baby, she pushed out a lizard. The creature was covered in blood and mucus, I’m supposing they mean afterbirth, and there was no baby found in the womb. It is speculated that the woman had a miscarriage and the lizard happened to be underneath her at the time.
In the 18th century, a woman named Mary Toft gave birth to rabbits, seventeen to be exact, and for several months following this spectacle, the whole of the nation was mesmerized by the occurrence even King George I.
Hello ODD Balls, and welcome back to The ODDentity Podcast, your weekly foray into the weird, wonky, and sometimes downright spooky.
This week, I’ll introduce you to Mary Toft, an English woman from Godalming, Surrey, who in 1726 became the subject of considerable controversy when she seemingly gave birth to rabbits.
Shout out to Ed from Ontario for suggesting this one. Apologies that it’s taken so long.
And now…on with the show!
Let me begin by saying that scientifically, it’s impossible for human beings to give birth to hybrid creatures and it’s likely that the majority of cases in medical history can be explained by a severe deformation, causing the child to resemble a snake or a dog. But what about a woman who gives birth to actual rabbits? Floppy, hoppy, bunnies. Well, let’s start from the ground up and work our way back to this peculiar case, shall we?
Mary was born on February 21st of 1703 to John and Jane Denyer. At 17 years of age, Mary married Joshua Toft who was 18 at the time. It wasn’t uncommon for people to marry at a young age in the 1700s. Toft was a wool-cloth worker which essentially means he worked in the textile industry doing anything from the physical labor of carrying bailed wool or cotton goods in a mill to cleaning and fine-tuning machinery. There isn’t much information about John’s means of putting bread on the table, but it’s safe to say that the Toft’s were treading the poverty line at best. Mary was born into a poor and illiterate family, was employed as a laborer in a hop field, and her marriage to John likely gave her a slight step up in terms of income, but perhaps one that was hardly noticeable. That will play into her story, as well.
From What Mary Toft Felt: Women’s Voices, Paint, Power, and the Body by Karen Harvey, “Their first child Ann was born on 27 March 1723, though she appears to have died in July of that year. The birth of their son James followed twelve months later on 8 July 1724. Thus, at the time […] Mary had given birth to two children with one still living. A third and final child, Elizabeth, was christened on 4 February 1728 […]. Mary’s parents, John and Jane Denyer, had five children of whom Mary was the second eldest. She was, though, the oldest girl; this may be why she left home to marry so early, though it is also possible there may have been an earlier pregnancy. Her parents are entirely missing from the story of the case, typical of the severing of these connections when a woman married, though the absence of her mother is perhaps peculiar given the nature of events. Joshua Toft, Mary’s husband and senior by only two or three months, was the sixth of twelve children. Joshua was named after his father and also shared this name with his elder brother, his parents’ first son, who had died two years before Joshua (jun) was born. Such naming practices were not unusual and reflected the importance of lineage and the family community. Mary Toft’s miscarriage of spring 1726 and the animal births that followed thwarted the powerful impulse to reproduce this family. The early newspaper accounts of the case and the account given by Mary in St. Andre’s pamphlet were produced when Mary was in Godalming. She was subsequently moved to the town of Guildford and then to London, where she came under the closer observation of the doctors and also of men representing the criminal justice system.”
Before we delve into Mary Toft’s specific situation and the doctors who attended to her, let’s talk a little bit about false/phantom pregnancy or pseudocyesis. Nausea, fatigue, and swelling in the breasts are common while a woman is pregnant and all of these symptoms can also be present in a woman experiencing pseudocyesis. It’s an uncommon condition, but it can cause a woman to believe she is pregnant. In phantom pregnancies, there is no conception and no baby, but the symptoms can cause a woman to believe she’s expecting.
In an article titled False (Phantom) Pregnancy: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments by Jessica Timmons explains, “Some mental health professionals believe it’s related to an intense desire or fear of becoming pregnant. It’s possible that this affects the endocrine system, which in turn causes symptoms of pregnancy.
Another theory relates to wish fulfillment. Some mental health professionals believe that when a woman yearns to be pregnant, possibly after experiencing multiple miscarriages, infertility, or because she wants to get married, she may misinterpret certain changes in her body as a clear sign that she’s pregnant.
The third theory is related to certain chemical changes in the nervous system that are related to depressive disorders. It’s possible that these chemical changes are responsible for the symptoms of false pregnancy.
A false pregnancy often resembles pregnancy in every way, minus the presence of a baby. In all cases, the woman is absolutely certain that she is pregnant.
Physically, the most common symptom is a distended abdomen, similar to a baby bump. The belly can begin to expand just as it does during pregnancy when a developing baby grows. During a false pregnancy, this abdominal extension isn’t the result of a baby. Instead, it’s believed to be caused by a buildup of:
Irregularity of a woman’s menstrual cycle is the second most common physical symptom. Between one-half and three-quarters of women experiencing pseudocyesis reported feeling the baby move. Many women also report feeling the baby kick, even though there was never a baby present.
Other symptoms can be just as difficult to distinguish from those experienced during an actual pregnancy, and can include:
- morning sickness and vomiting
- tender breasts
- changes to the breasts, including size and pigmentation
- weight gain
- labor pains
- inverted bellybutton
- increased appetite
- enlargement of the uterus
- softening of the cervix
- false labor
These symptoms can be so believable that doctors can even be deceived.”
And, in Mary’s case, they were.
False pregnancies disproportionately occur in women who are experiencing psychological issues and it’s not uncommon for women in this situation to believe they’re pregnant. For example, Mary Tudor believed herself to be pregnant several times. The first false pregnancy in 1554 occurred when Mary was 38 years of age and likely distressed that she would not be able to produce an heir to the throne. Of course, women these days are conceiving in their 40’s, but Mary was already concerned about her biological clock and the stress of producing an heir likely sent her into a mental tailspin. There was also no way to tell that Mary was pregnant aside from the fact that she’d put on weight and her garments no longer fit her. The sheer panic she experienced when a child was not delivered several months after her due date likely added to her stress and Mary blamed the lateness of her child’s arrival on the protestant dissenters, leading to a round of executions, not the first round by a longshot. They didn’t call her Bloody Mary for nothing.
In September of 1726, King George I was informed of the birth of several rabbits by a woman located in Godalming, near Guildford, in Surrey. The woman, Mary Toft, had experienced a miscarriage only a month before (August of 1726) and still appeared to be pregnant. A neighbor, Mary Gill attended Toft during her labor and delivery of something resembling a cat with no liver. I’m having a hard time picturing what exactly that might look like. It was at this point that the family decided to contact John Howard, an obstetrician in Guildford. Upon his arrival at the Toft home, Ann Toft showed Howard the animal parts that she claimed Mary had delivered during the night. The day after, Howard helped to deliver more animal parts and continued to return and aid in the delivery of rabbit’s heads, the legs of a cat, and in one single day nine dead rabbit kits. Howard was flabbergasted by these events, having seen nothing like this before in his career in medicine, and sent letters to England’s greatest doctors. He also sent a letter to the King’s secretary informing of what he called “miraculous births.”
From The Monstrous and the Sportive Grotesque in the early Eighteenth Century by Ian David McCormick,
“The case is interesting because it displays both the danger of the female imagination and the tendency to deceive. Those who believed her story, as the account will show, were as much victims of a deception as of their own oppressive will to construct the female as an innately fanciful and monstrous construct. At the outset, Mary Toft claimed that she had encountered a hare during pregnancy and that this made an undue impression on her mind. Entering labour, she was delivered first of what was taken to be the guts of a pig; but when her labour began in earnest, it was found that she was apparently producing rabbits at an astonishing rate. […] The surgeon dealing with the case invited anyone to verify the evidence by attending a delivery. Meanwhile, nine rabbits were delivered and Mary was moved to Guildford. Mr. St Andre accepted a surgeon’s invitation to observe the case, and he verified the monstrous birth. Upon inspection, further evidence of the authenticity of the case was volunteered by Cyriacus Ahlers, Surgeon to His Majesty’s German Household.”
Nathaniel St Andre was a Swiss physician who, thorough an effort to teach fencing, was injured and became fascinated with medicine. He was impressed by the wealth of the surgeon who saw to him and decided to apprentice with a surgeon in London. Eventually, he was able to set up his own practice and gave lectures on anatomy and surgery. Eventually, St Andre examined the King and was given a sword in thanks. It was King George who sent St Andre to Howard’s aid, along with Ahlers and Samuel Molyneux (Secretary to the Prince of Wales), and also to return information to him regarding what was happening with Toft.
All of the men who witnessed the births were convinced of its authenticity. St Andre even went on to publish A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets [sic], a 40-page document outlining his experience.
St Andre begins by outlining the situation in which he finds himself and gradually moves into the purpose for his writing, including letters from John Howard to His Majesty for his evaluation.
“Since I wrote to you, I have taken or deliver’d the poor woman of three more rabbets, all three half grown, one of them a dunn rabbet; the last leap’d twenty three hours in the uterus before it dy’d. As soon as the eleventh rabbet was taken away, up leapt the twelfth rabbet, which is now leaping. If you have any curious person that is pleased to come post, may see another leap in her uterus, and shall take it from her if he pleases; which will be a great satisfaction to the curious: if she had been with child, she had but ten days more to go, so I do not know how many rabbets may be behind; I have brought the woman to Guilford for better convenience.
I am, Sir,
Your Humble Servant
Alexander Pope, a poet and satirist, wrote to John Caryll on December 5th of 1726 asking for more information on the case. He asked, “I want to know what faith you have in the miracle at Guildford; not doubting but as you past thro’ that town, you went as a philosopher to investigate, if not as a curious anatomist to inspect, that wonderful phenomenon.”
By this point, Mary was quite the local celebrity and she was monitored closely by Howard in his residence. St Andre took the time spent with Mary to document what occurred, aiding Howard in conducting examinations on the lungs and internal workings of the rabbits. It was through these examinations that the doctors realized the rabbits probably didn’t develop inside Mary’s womb and some of the specimens were sent back to the Kind and Prince of Wales. Each time Mary gave birth, Howard would pickle the rabbit and place it on a shelf in his study.
From the Curious Case of Mary Toft, “Ahlers examined Mary and witnessed several of her rabbit births; however, he was not convinced. On examination of the rabbit parts he had taken back to London, Ahlers found that the dung pellets in the rectum of one of the rabbits contained corn, hay and straw, which proved that it could not have developed inside Mary. Ahlers reported back to the King on November 21st that he suspected a hoax with Mary Toft and John Howard in collusion and showed these rabbit specimens as evidence. Sir Richard Manningham (1690-1759) – an eminent doctor and midwife among upper class society in London – was contacted by St André to attend upon Mary Toft. After observing her and seeing her give birth to what he believed was a hog’s bladder, he also seemed unconvinced. But he was persuaded to keep his doubts to himself by Howard and St. André until there was proof of any fraud. Howard and St. André were trying to save their reputations in the light of what Ahlers had concluded.”
Once Mary’s rabbits came to the attention of the press, it caused a sensation. In the mid-18th century, interest in monstrosities was high and people were willing to pay to see them. A poor family like the Toft’s likely saw this as a way to make money. Monsterous or deformed individuals were already being showcased all across Europe and had been for hundreds of years at this point. Poor and wealthy people alike were fascinated by such things and would happily open their pocket books for the chance to see a monstrosity like Mary’s.
It is also likely at this point that Mary, having spent all this time fabricating rabbit pregnancies and now having the interest of the King himself, became petrified by what might become of her if she came clean. Howard had taken her into his home and, being of the poorer class, she was likely enjoying all of the attention and care. Toft wove detailed narratives, at least as detailed as she could manage, stating she’d been startled by a rabbit while working in the field and found herself constantly craving rabbit, though she was too poor to afford them.
At the time, maternal impression was a popular theory used to explain deformities in birth. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, explained his condition in a similar manner, stating his mother was startled by an elephant while she was pregnant. There were also different defects associated with the different signs and phases of the moon.
McCormick writes, “The uncertain status of reason and science was no more evident than in the validity, for some observers, of astrological proofs for such monstrous occurrences. William Whiston, who had served as Professor of Anatomy at Cambridge, for instance, attributed the Toft case to a prophecy in the apocryphal book of Esdras. It was, of course, considered dangerous to conceive under the sign of Cancer: Author of monstrous shapes! uneven set, Of tumors, wens and members incomplete! Hence. apIsh forms, and ugly births began, And gIbbous dwarfs, beneath the strain of man. Capricorn, meanwhile, Deforms the face, and blisters all the skin.”
St. Andre needed no further convincing that Mary Toft was the real deal, but the other doctors had their doubts. It is at this point that Mary is moved to a bath house in London so that other doctors, as many as 10 at a time (all men), could examine her. Their opinions were divided. Mary continued to appear to go into labor, but didn’t produce any more rabbits. She had developed a terrible infection and seizures that would sometimes cause her to lose consciousness.
Karen Harvey writes, “She gave birth to no more rabbits, and also seems to have taken quite ill. But it was during this time that a porter was caught sneaking a rabbit into Toft’s room. He explained […] that Toft’s sister-in-law, Margaret Toft, had asked him to obtain the smallest rabbit he could find. Toft refused to confess until Manningham threatened to perform surgery to determine if she had strange reproductive organs. On December 7, she came clean. The confession surprised very few, but was unfortunately timed for St. André, who had just published his thrilling, “true-to-life” exposé, “A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets,” just four days prior.”
Toft admitted that she had manually inserted dead rabbits inside herself and allowed them to be removed as if she was giving birth. Honestly, it’s amazing that the infection didn’t kill her. She penned several confessions, blaming a mysterious stranger, the wife of an organ grinder, her mother in law, and John Howard for the deception. She even claimed a travelling woman had told her how to insert the rabbits into her body and how the scheme would ensure she would never want for anything else as long as she lived.
On the 9th of December, she was charged with being a “Notorious and Vile Cheat” and sent to Bridewell Prison. Allegedly, she was placed on exhibit to large and curious crowds by the wardens.
St Andre tried to vindicate his own behavior, but to no avail. Satirical prints began to surface poking fun at the medical profession and the incompetence of the doctors involved in the Toft saga. They’re shown as ignorant fools. Pamphlets and drawings appeared ridiculing St Andre as well as the other physicians who had examined Toft depicting them as completely gullible and as charlatans.
From the Curious Case of Mary Toft, “Public interest in the case died out by around January of the following year, but the repercussions continued for those involved. For Sir Richard Manningham and James Douglas there had been temporary embarrassment regarding their close connection with the affair but their careers and reputations were secure.
St André, however, lost favour with the court and, as his reputation plummeted, his patients deserted him. He retired from London and eventually died in poverty in an almshouse in Southampton. John Howard had to answer charges of being concerned in the ‘Cheat and Conspiracy of Mary Toft’ but the case against him was dropped and he remained a respected figure in Guildford.”
It came to light after Mary’s incarceration that rabbits had been sold to Mary’s husband. Several individuals came forward to affirm that they did sell them to Toft and Toft did not purchase the rabbits to eat. I think this adds further weight to the claim that Mary fabricated her pregnancies in hopes of obtaining money and social standing within her community.
As for Mary herself, the case against her was dismissed, not for lack of proof of guilt, but probably because of the further embarrassment to the establishment that would ensue if the case were pursued any further. She spent a few months in jail then returned to relative obscurity. In the years that followed the scandal, the Duke of Richmond (who had a residence near Godalming) sometimes showed her at dinner parties for the curiosity of his guests. In April 1740 Mary was charged with receiving stolen goods and committed to the House of Correction in Guildford but was later acquitted by the jury. She died on 13th January 1763. The London papers’ obituary columns announced her death alongside those of peers and statesmen.”
There have been extensive studies in recent years regarding the theory of maternal impressions, most of which basically use the Toft rabbit ruse as an example of how flimsy the science behind this phenomenon actually is. If you’d like to learn more about maternal impressions, I’d recommend Maternal Impressions by Christina Mazzoni. Mazzoni doesn’t analyze the Toft incident at all, but it’s still an enlightening read.
Alexander Pope and William Pulteney’s anonymous satirical ballad The Discovery; or, The Squire Turn’d Ferret. Published in 1726 opens 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.
Pope would go on to pen several satirical pieces about Toft. In one, he writes, “At Godliman, hard by the Bull, A Woman, long thought barren, Bears Rabbits, – Gad! so plentiful, You’d take her for a Warren.”
That’s it for this week dear listeners.
Tune in next week for more tales of the creepy, weird, and paranormal. Until next time, Stay Spooky!
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Book: Delivery of Rabbets https://www.gutenberg.org/files/62720/62720-h/62720-h.htm