It was on September 27, 1726, when a 23-year-old peasant by the name Mary Toft went into labour at Goldaming, Surrey, which was about 40 miles from London, England’s capital. This was odd to Mary Toft’s neighbours as she had just had a miscarriage in August, a month earlier, even though rumours flew around, of her still being pregnant. 

However, Toft who was born Mary Denyer in 1703 in the same Goldaming gave birth on that fateful day in September with the help of her neighbour and her mother-in-law. The product was awful. With fright, the women withdrew a dead creature with four limbs from Toft and quickly summoned John Howard, a professional obstetrician.

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A copy of a portrait of Mary Toft, 1726/Wikimedia Commons.

When Howard arrived, the situation got worse and over the next one month, Mary Toft had given birth to nine dead rabbits. Alarmed, the obstetrician sent a deluge of letters to the most skilled scientists and doctors all over England and, of course, to King George I through his secretary.

But, how could a 23-year-old able-bodied woman give birth to dead animals?

Mary Toft: A Medical Gaffe

As the news kept flying all over England, Mary Toft was still giving birth to more and more rabbits. Quickly, the king sent one of the most famous anatomists of the time, Nathaniel Saint André who arrived when Toft was giving birth to her 15th dead rabbit. Saint André had seen everything he needed to see.

To his knowledge, this weird, miraculous births would give him fame and stamp his name in medical history. In haste, the anatomist published a paper, A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits.

In the manuscript, Saint André explained what he termed maternal impression – that a child could be influenced by the thoughts and experiences of the mother, which could cause a human woman to give birth to an animal.

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King George I by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1714/Public Domain.

Mary Toft also claimed that while she was pregnant, she had failed to capture two rabbits when she went hunting. As a result, she felt a hunger for rabbit meat and it would explain why she was giving birth to dead rabbits instead of a human child.

Saint André was ecstatic as he wrote these words. Even medieval medicine would have skeptical of this occurrence.

Not satisfied, King George sent a German surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers to verify the claims of St. André, Howard, and Toft but the surgeon found some new disturbing facts.

Ahlers discovered that dung found inside one of the rabbits contained hay, stray, and corn, none of which was eaten by Toft. But St. André stood his ground and was committed to his theory.

The Truth comes to Light

However, Ahlers had Toft brought to London, where a gathering of physicians, including the respected Dr. James Douglas, watched over her as she went to labour many times. Interestingly, Toft never gave birth to a single rabbit in the presence of these people.

This continued for some days until a porter was caught trying to smuggle a small dead rabbit into the room. He confessed to the doctors that Margaret Toft, Mary’s sister-in-law, had asked him to look for any rabbit he could find.

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Illustration to Lichtenberg’s Göttinger Taschen Kalender: reverse copy of Mary Tofts and the Boy of Bilston in Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, 1787/The British Museum.

On December 7, 1726, a week after she arrived in London, Mary Toft finally confessed that she, her mother-in-law, and Howard had been conniving together to perpetuate the prank since that fateful day in September.

Only a few were surprised with the confession, but for St. André, his career suffered as he had just published his thrilling discovery on December 3, 1726, just four days before Toft’s confession. It was the end of a medical career for him and the newspapers of the time had a field day.

So, how did Mary Toft give birth to these dead rabbits? You can check that out in the video below…

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