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Mary Toft - Womb Full of Rabbits

The rabbit is a symbol of fecundity throughout the world. Fertility runs in the rodent family, but rabbits have become a near-universal archetype. People likely don't want to associate the less-cute rodents with the act of human copulation.

This symbolism was always pure metaphor. Until 1726, that is, when Mary Toft started giving birth to rabbits in Surrey. The births stumped a generation of doctors, and earned Mary a spot in the history of the bizarre.

Mary Toft

Mary Toft Mother of Rabbits
This is, in fact, my baby

Mary was the wife of a journeyman clothier. She lived in a time when doctors thought that women were incredibly fragile. They believed that a woman might collapse at the faintest sign of something as untoward as an oddly colored bird, or a rat.

During her pregnancy, Mary became fascinated with a rabbit she saw. This fascination, according to her doctors, caused her to miscarry. Yes, the sight of a rabbit proved too exciting for Mary's delicate constitution.

Despite miscarrying in August, Mary was still showing signs of pregnancy in late September. She went into labor on the evening of 27 September. Her neighbor and mother-in-law were by her side, confusing as the situation must have been.

Mary's labor produced something her mother-in-law described as looking like a liverless, hairless cat.

The family called in their local obstetrician, john Howard. He arrived on the 28th, and was shown the various animal parts that had allegedly come from Mary's womb.

One day later, John helped deliver even more animal parts. This would carry on for a month, until in late October. That's when the rabbits came. Nine baby rabbits, deceased, were produced by Mary.

King George I gets Involved

John Howard started sending out letters to every doctor he knew. That included doctors connected to King George I.

Keeping such odd news from the king proved impossible, and he sent 2 of his best men out to investigate. One, a Swiss surgeon named Nathaniel St. André, and the other the secretary to the Prince of Wales, Samuel Molyneux.

When they arrived in Guildford, Surrey, they were taken to John Howard's home. He had moved Mary Toft in to observe her.

Their timing proved to be perfect, as upon their arrival they witnessed Mary giving birth to her 15th rabbit. Mary Toft gave birth to more rabbits in under the supervision of the king's men.

Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux studied the stillborn rabbits. They found evidence that the creatures had not formed in Mary's womb. Because, obviously the rabbits didn't.

Despite all evidence and reason, Nathaniel St. André determined the births to be supernatural. He sent the dead rabbits back to the king in what must have been a very soggy envelope. The enclosed letter conveyed his assertion that the births were caused by magical forces.

King George I must have been questioning his decision to make this man his personal surgeon at this point. He sent a German doctor, Cyriacus Ahlers, to investigate the investigation. Likely hoping that the German's logic could prove the equal of the mystery.

Ahlers found fecal pellets in the rabbits' digestive tracts. These pellets contained corn, hay, and straw. He wrote to the king, speculating that the miraculous births may have in fact been a hoax perpetrated by Mary Toft and John Howard.

Believers vs. Skeptics

St. André and Howard weren't done with Mary Toft's miraculous womb. They were willing to hedge their reputations on the truth of the rabbit-births. So, in order to support their argument, they sent for Sir Richard Manningham – a doctor and renowned midwife.

Manningham was present for the 'birth' of a pig's bladder. He expressed his doubt in the phenomenon, but St. André convinced him to keep said doubt to himself.

St. André was about to publish his account of the case, and the doubt of a famous midwife might hurt sales. On 3 December 1726, St. André's A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets, was published.

The pamphlet was successful, and Mary became a household name. People in the 18th century loved a freak show, and here they had one. St. André and Howard were coining it.

Still, believers lingered. They propped up their belief with the Maternal Impression theory. According to which, a pregnant woman's experiences could directly affect the development of their baby.

Cleft lips were caused when a woman was startled by a rabbit during pregnancy. This was due to the slightly rabbit-like look caused by a cleft palate. Logic has always existed, but was based on pure fantasy for the longest time.

Toft believers clawed onto the belief that her encounter with the rabbit had left such a strong impression that it turned her womb into a rabbit factory. Doctors at the time were just getting into obstetrics, and took to it with all the idiocy of their fledgling profession.

Man-midwives usually disregarded the knowledge of the women who had been midwives for decades. Instead, they speculated about the function of wombs without so much as dissecting a cadaver, because that would be yucky.

The End of the Toft Fiasco

Doctors flocked to witness Mary's miraculous rabbit factory of a womb. Many of them left the experience as believers. Others pegged it as a fraud right away. Something had to give.

Mary was moved to a bathhouse in Leicester Fields, London, for further observation of the births.

Hundreds of respected doctors came to watch Mary do her thing. The added scrutiny proved to be her downfall.

In the first days of December 1726, Mary started to show signs of a bad infection. She would periodically have fits or seizures as well. No new rabbits were produced, though she still went into labor.

Dr. James Douglas, who had been summoned by St. André, and Manningham cornered a porter trying to sneak a small rabbit into Mary's room on 3 December. They questioned the porter, who confessed that Mary's sister-in-law had tasked him with procuring a small rabbit.

The next day, a justice of the peace was brought in. Following the sworn testimony of the porter, Mary was taken into custody. She denied the hoax for 3 days. That is, until Manningham threatened to perform live surgery on her reproductive organs to determine whether she was 'built different'.

On 7 December 1726, Mary Toft confessed to the fraud. She really didn't like how eager Manningham was to cut her open and dig around. He was threatening to torture and murder her, after all.

Mary was imprisoned for her lies. The medical profession was openly mocked for their gullibility.



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