Friday, April 24, 2009

Tart of the Week: Mary Toft

Nothing is really known of the beginning of May Toft's life. Nor, I'm sure, does anyone really care of it. Mary was born approximately in 1701. She came from very humble beginnings and was probably employed as maidservant from a young age. She married Joshua Toft whose business kept him on the road often. Yes, life was pretty plain and boring for Mary until she reached the age of twenty-five.

Mary was pregnant and picking weeds in a field with a friend when she came across two bunnies. The women chased the rabbits which, of course, got away. As the little white tails bounced into the horizon Mary felt a longing for the cute little fuzzballs. Not long afterward, Mary miscarried. After the unfortunate event she said she began to dream of rabbits and crave rabbit meat. Not pickles and ice cream? She also appeared to not lose her swollen belly.

Not long afterward, the local surgeon and male mid-wife, John Howard, was summoned to the Toft home because Mary had gone into labour again. Having helped Mary with her miscarriage, Howard was quite surprised by the summons. He was more surprised when he delivered nine rabbits out of Mary. They weren't entire rabbits, mind you, but rabbit parts. Howard was shocked, nonetheless and immediately sent word to London physicians about the event. Two of these doctors were King George I's doctors, and when they told the king, he immediately sent them to Godalming to investigate. Lo and behold, Mary gave birth to more rabbits in their presence. After putting a rabbit lung in water and seeing it float the educated men of medicine decided that the rabbit had breathed air which doesn't happen inside the womb. She really was giving birth to live rabbits! They inferred that the miraculous births were due to maternal impressions, since Mary drempt and craved rabbits beforehand.

As you can expect, such fantastic news gets around fast. Everyone erupted with the report that a woman was giving birth to bunnies. It was noted how rabbit meat sales dropped significantly. Mary was transferred to London and crowds planted themselves outside her house to view the special woman. Strangely though, the births stopped with Mary now being under constant supervision. Then, suddenly, witnesses began to step forward and admit to sneaking rabbits to Mary. What! No, it couldn't be!

When a doctor offered to inspect her uterus Mary relented. She admitted to stuffing rabbit parts in holes that rabbit parts should never be stuffed into. She craved celebrity. Of course this made the medical profession the laughing stock of the day. Mary was put into Bridewell prison for four months being a "Cheat and Imposture in pretending to have brought forth 17 præter-natural Rabbits." Despite Mary admitting to the faux births, many still believed in the phenomenon and rejoiced in her release. Mary herself returned to obscurity and died in 1763.


  1. I think you should add a warning: Pregnant women should not read this post!

    I remember seeing that first picture in a book when I was a child and being very much grossed out. Oh Lord!

  2. Oh dear God! I suppose that the rabbit-birthing incident is the Georgian equivalent of going on a Big Brother-type reality TV show today - you're not sure why they'd do it, you're disgusted by it, but disturbingly fascinated nonetheless...

  3. The Hogarth picture does look like one out of a fairy tale book; at least the ones I like that are totally un-PC and about 100 years old.

    Rachael I LOVE that comparison. Spot on!

  4. Thank you for posting this. It became my favorite medical oddity story when I read Dennis Todd's _Imagining Monsters_. As Rachael said, you wonder why anyone would do it, yet you cannot stop looking at it.

  5. Wha? Huh? I read the post twice and am still stunned. It really just boggles the mind. (Though I am highly amused by the photos, which are much cuter than the vision I had in my head.)

    Thanks for keeping us on our toes. I wonder what will be next....

  6. oh my gosh! This was so funny. So they didn't find her insane? Or did everybody just ignore her publicity stunt?

    love your blog! found it one day when I was searching for pics of The Duchess movie.

  7. Good lord, I never heard this one...actually didn't even know that the Elephant Man was at one time thought to be a result of the maternal impressions syndrome.

    Thanks for this fun...well not exactly...tale.

  8. Might we not begin a new category for Mary Toft? "Psychotic Douche of the Week", mayhaps?

  9. Haha yeah but who could measure up?