In November 1726 news arrived in London that a 25 year old woman named Mary Toft had given birth to rabbits in the presence of a surgeon named John Howard in Surrey. King George I taking an interest in this event sent a surgeon of his own to examine the woman and he arrived just as she was giving birth to a fifteenth rabbit. The king’s surgeon Nathaniel St. André examined the rabbit and it appeared to have four months growth, it was noted how the woman seemed cheerful and easy after the birth and how there seemed to be no water or blood or any vaginal trauma. Mary Toft claimed that she had started thinking and dreaming about rabbits during her pregnancy, this was seemingly offered as a possible cause for the strange births. St. André was convinced by the births, even though the evidence was dubious, and took some samples to show the King. The King wanted further investigation and sent surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers to visit Mary who again gave birth to rabbits. However Ahlers found that on further examination the rabbits could not have developed inside Mary due to the presence of dung, hay, corn and straw inside the rabbits. Meanwhile St. André asked Richard Manningham a prominent obstetrician to examine Mary as well. Manningham was not convinced either and decided that she should be sent to London for further observation where she seemingly went into labour again. However Mary did not give birth to any more rabbits, a servant was caught trying to sneak a rabbit into Mary’s room on the request of Mary’s sister in law. After being threatened by Manningham with intrusive surgery she admitted that she had been lying about the whole affair. She confessed that in fact a woman (who she would not name) had colluded with her, encouraging her to emulate the births for profit.
‘The woman told her she must put up her Body so many pieces of Rabbets...From that time Mary Tofts did often, by the Assistance of that Woman, convey parts of Rabbets into her body, till at last she could do it by her self, as she has an Opportunity, and that she did continue to so do.’
This was unfortunate for St. André who had openly expressed his belief in the case publishing A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets on 3rd December 1726. His career was left in ruins and he died in poverty in an almshouse in Southampton. The case had caused a great public stir and its disproval caused a great deal of embarrassment to the medical profession making them the brunt of jokes at their perceived naivety. Mary spent a few months in prison but it seems that the establishment did not wish to create further embarrassment and the case was dismissed.
As mentioned in an earlier post (Monstrous Births Imagined) in the medieval and early modern period it was thought to be entirely possible for a woman to affect the birth of her child through her thoughts during pregnancy. It comes as no surprise then that Mary was able to convince some others, even a surgeon that she had given birth to rabbits. However as Gelis points out in History of Childbirth, this case shows that the time in which monstrous births were considered a bad omen for the future had passed. Perhaps too the belief in the possibility of monstrous births of this kind had by the end of the 18th century passed as well.