This week’s entry: Mary Toft
What it’s about: One of the most bizarre stories we’ve yet come across. In 1726, a 25-year-old woman from Surrey convinced several doctors she had given birth to disembodied animal parts, and in one instance, several intact rabbits. For several months, all of England was enthralled by Mary Toft’s story, and when she was revealed to be a fraud, the country was caught up in ridiculing the doctors who fell for the hoax.
Biggest controversy: The part about it being a hoax. The story was published in Mist’s Weekly Journal, a newspaper that was frequently sued for libel for criticizing the government. It skirted the era’s restrictive laws by writing about far-flung lands, assuming the paper’s readers would know the real subject was Britain. Whatever its reputation when it came to political facts, when Mist’s Weekly Journal published Toft’s story in November 1726, the public believed it. The story described how an “Eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife” named John Howard assisted Toft in delivering nine rabbits over the course of a few weeks. As the story went, Toft was working in a field while pregnant and chased a rabbit, “and from that Time she hath not been able to avoid thinking of Rabbits.” The thinking went that her rabbit-obsessed mental state caused her to miscarry rabbits, instead of a human fetus. (Keep in mind that medicine’s level of sophistication in 1726 was such that bleeding the patient—sometimes to death—was recommended for nearly every ailment.)
Strangest fact: Instead of merely producing animal parts and making wild claims, Toft somehow birthed them in front of witnesses. She seems to have miscarried in August of 1726, after complaining of painful complications. But in late September, she went into labor and “her neighbor was called and watched as she produced several animal parts.” Her mother-in-law, a midwife, sent the remains to Howard, the Man-Midwife, who closely observed Toft as, over the next few days, she continued to birth “three legs of a Cat of a Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet [sic].”
By mid-November, even the royal family was caught up in the Toft saga. King George I sent a royal surgeon, Nathaniel St. André, to investigate. St. André examined Toft before and after she gave birth to a rabbit’s head, and was convinced the stories were real. The king was fascinated, and had Toft sent to London to be examined by a second doctor, the wonderfully named Cyriacus Ahlers.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Ahlers played Sherlock Holmes to the other doctors’ Watson. He noticed that Toft didn’t appear pregnant, and kept her legs pressed together, “as if to prevent something from dropping down.” Ahlers pretended to believe Toft’s story unquestioningly, but only so he could be allowed to examine some of the rabbit parts. He discovered they had been cut cleanly in pieces, as if by “a man-made instrument,” and that their droppings contained straw and grain—food they wouldn’t have been able to get in utero.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ahlers’ findings were dismissed by St. André, who had several witnesses to confirm his version of events, and got to the king first to assure him Toft’s story was real. But Baron Thomas Onslow, a former MP, undertook his own investigation, and discovered that Toft’s husband had been buying rabbits, and a porter at Toft’s London accommodations admitted he had been bribed to sneak rabbits to Toft. She held up under questioning for several days, but when doctors threatened to perform surgery to prove her claims, she confessed.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Toft’s methods were horrifying. We can only quote Wikipedia: “Following her miscarriage and while her cervix permitted access, an accomplice had inserted into her womb the claws and body of a cat, and the head of a rabbit.” Wikipedia neglects to name the accomplice, or how such a thing is physically possible. The article suggests that after the initial phony birth, Toft inserted subsequent animal parts into her vagina, and not all the way into her cervix. Toft later claimed a “travelling woman told her how to insert the rabbits into her body,” and that the stunt would bring her fame and fortune. In fact, it brought her criminal charges as a “vile cheat and impostor.”
Also noteworthy: Toft wasn’t the only one who suffered as a result of her deception. St. André, who had just published a 40-page pamphlet detailing a medical account of Toft’s case, A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets, became a laughingstock, and soon left his place at court. Beyond St. André, the medical profession in general was held up to ridicule for being gullible enough to accept Toft’s story.
Toft herself was released after a few months, as “vile cheat and impostor” was too vague a charge to imprison her for long-term. She was, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite ill after inserting various foreign bodies into herself, but made a full recovery and later gave birth to at least one more child. (She and her husband had three before the miscarriage that began the whole affair.) She’s known to have returned to jail in 1740 for theft, and by her death in 1763, her story was still so well-known that “her obituary ran alongside those of aristocrats.”
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of the doctors who examined Toft, John Maubray, had already written a treatise suggesting women could give birth to a sooterkin, a mythical creature about the size of a mouse. The myth began with the Dutch, as what Wikipedia calls an “initially jocular fantasy.” But well-educated physicians began to take the stories seriously, and Maubray in particular thought his theories were validated by Toft’s experiences. Oddly, the sooterkin myth survives in the present day via the children’s book Stuart Little, in which a talking mouse is born to human parents.
Further down the Wormhole: Yet another physician who examined Toft was obstetrician Richard Manningham. He helped Toft deliver what he believed was a hog’s bladder. He was suspicious because it smelled of urine, but was convinced by St. André to say nothing. Despite his questionable medical expertise, Manningham was knighted in 1721. While the word “knight” conjures up images of noble armored warriors on horseback, it’s important to remember the title also applies to more modern heroic figures, like Elton John.
One of the most influential figures to hold the title was Sir Roger Mortimer, a 14th-century baron who led a revolt against King Edward II, possibly slept with Edward’s wife, and ruled England until being overthrown by Edward III. Mortimer’s story had enough sex, violence, and intrigue to make it into The Accursed Kings, Maurice Druon’s mid-20th-century historical novels based on 14th-century power struggles among the French monarchy. The books were a smash hit in Druon’s native France, and a huge influence on George R.R. Martin’s series A Song Of Ice And Fire. Just in time for Game Of Thrones to return, we’ll look at one of its principal inspirations next week.