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The Rabbit Babies of Mary Toft, 1726


18th-century portrait of Mary Toft. Note the rabbit in her lap.
England during the reign of King George I (1660-1727) was full of oddities, shams, and charlatans. King George himself was a bit of an oddity, never bothering to learn English and keeping his wife imprisoned for 32 years. But for sheer strangeness, nothing surpassed the infamous case of Mary Toft of Godalming and her rabbit babies.

In September, 1726 Mary Toft began to give birth to rabbits. The local surgeon, John Howard, responded to her family's summons and hurried to Mary's house where, to his amazement, he helped her deliver nine of the animals. They were all born dead, and they were actually rabbit parts rather than whole rabbits. Nevertheless, this didn't lessen the amazing fact that she was giving birth to them.

John Howard excitedly wrote to other men of science around the country, urging them to help him investigate this bizarre phenomenon. Soon two prominent men, sent by the King himself, arrived to investigate: Nathanael St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to the King, and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales. Mary explained to these men that she had recently miscarried, but that during the pregnancy she had intensely craved rabbit meat. After unsuccessfully attempting to chase down several rabbits, she had dreamt that there were rabbits in her lap. The next thing she knew, she was giving birth to rabbits.

In the presence of the doctors, Mary continued to give birth to even more rabbits. The men performed tests to verify the reality of the phenomenon. For instance, they placed a piece of the lung of one of the rabbits in water and noted that it floated. This meant that the rabbit must have breathed air before its death, which could not have happened inside a womb. Amazingly, the doctors ignored this evidence and decided that there was no deception involved—that Mary really was giving birth to the rabbits.

On November 29th Mary was brought to London. By now her case had become a national sensation, and huge crowds surrounded the house where she was kept. But when kept under constant supervision, Mary stopped giving birth to rabbits, and her case quickly began to unravel.

Witnesses came forward who claimed that they had supplied Mary's husband with rabbits. Then, when a famous London physician, Sir Richard Manningham, threatened that he might have to surgically examine Mary's uterus in the name of science, she wisely decided to confess.

She explained that she had simply inserted the dead rabbits inside her womb when no one was looking, motivated by a desire for fame and the hope of receiving a pension from the King. She was briefly imprisoned for fraud, but was released without trial. It is said that she managed to give birth to a normal, human child less than a year later.

John Howard and Nathanael St. Andre, the two surgeons who had most passionately believed and defended her, fared less well. Their medical careers were both ruined.

Links and References
  • Pickover, Clifford A. (2000). The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: A True Medical Mystery. Prometheus Books.


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All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.