UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW LIBRARY
|This month we examine the curious case of Mary Toft, the woman who supposedly gave birth to a litter of rabbits. This infamous 18th century medical hoax is documented in several pamphlets, letters, and books held in the Hunterian collection.|
||In September 1726, news reached the court of King George I of the alleged
birth of several rabbits to Mary Toft (1703-1763) of Godalming, near Guildford,
Toft was a twenty-five year old illiterate servant, married to Joshua Toft, a journeyman clothier. According to reports, despite having had a miscarriage just a month earlier in August 1726, Mary had still appeared to be pregnant. On September 27th, she went into labour and was attended initially by her neighbour Mary Gill, and then her mother in law Ann Toft. She gave birth to something resembling a liverless cat.
The family decided to call on the help of Guildford obstetrician John Howard. He visited Mary the next day where he was presented with more animal parts which Ann Toft said she had taken from Mary during the night. The following day, Howard returned and helped deliver yet more animal parts. Over the next month Howard recorded that she began producing a rabbit's head, the legs of a cat, and, in a single day, nine dead baby rabbits.
Howard sent letters to some of England's greatest doctors and scientists and the King's secretary, informing them of the miraculous births.
|The curious King dispatched two men to investigate to see
what they could ascertain about this case: Nathaniel St. André, Swiss
surgeon-anatomist to the King and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince
By now, news had spread and Mary was a local celebrity which necessitated moving her from Godalming to nearby Guildford so that she could be monitored more closely by John Howard. On November 15th St. André and Molyneux arrived at Howard's home in Guildford and were immediately greeted with the news that Mary was in labour with her fifteenth rabbit. Toft gave birth to several more dead rabbits in their presence.
|The doctors conducted examinations on the lungs and other internal organs of these rabbits, the results of which showed that they probably did not develop inside Mary's womb. St. André, however, still seemed convinced that her case was genuine. He believed that these were indeed supernatural births, and took some of the rabbit specimens back to London to show the King and the Prince of Wales.|
|As the story of Mary Toft quickly spread through London, the King decided to send a German surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, and his friend Mr. Brand to Guildford to investigate the matter further. Ahlers examined Mary and witnessed several of her rabbit births; however, he was not convinced. On examination of the rabbit parts he had taken back to London, Ahlers found that the dung pellets in the rectum of one of the rabbits contained corn, hay and straw, which proved that it could not have developed inside Mary. Ahlers reported back to the King on November 21st that he suspected a hoax with Mary Toft and John Howard in collusion and showed these rabbit specimens as evidence.|
||Meanwhile, Sir Richard Manningham (1690-1759) - an
eminent doctor and midwife among upper class society in London - was contacted by
St André to attend upon Mary Toft. After observing her and seeing her give birth
to what he believed was a hog's bladder, he also seemed unconvinced. But he was persuaded
to keep his doubts to himself by Howard and St. André until there was proof of
any fraud. Howard and St. André were trying to save their reputations in the
light of what Ahlers had concluded.
The story came to the attention of the press and caused a national sensation. Interest in monstrosities and willingness to pay to see them was common in Europe in the mid 18th century. It is not hard to see why a poor family like the Tofts saw a way to make money with what seems, at first, a ridiculous scheme, as monstrous or deformed people had been exhibited, at a price, all over Europe for hundreds of years, with poor and wealthy alike equally fascinated.
Mary Toft's explanation for her strange births was that, in April 1726, she had been working in a field and was startled by a rabbit. She, and another woman, ran after it, and but could not catch it. They also failed to catch another rabbit that they had chased. "That same Night she dreamt she was in a Field with those two Rabbets in her Lap, and awakened with a sick Fit, which lasted till Morning; from that time, for above three months, she had a constant and strong desire to eat Rabbets, but being very poor and indigent cou'd not procure any."1
St André published his account of the affair, A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets on 3rd December 1726. Dr. James Douglas (1675-1742), the respected anatomist and man midwife, read the draft of this book and declared it 'nothing but a collection of impossibilities'.
|'Maternal impression', according to medical theory, was a
phenomenon that explained the existence of birth defects and congenital
disorders. The theory was that an emotional stimulus experienced by a
pregnant woman (such as Mary's rabbit dreams and her desire for rabbit meat)
could influence the development of the foetus. Mental problems, such as
depression or schizophrenia were believed to be a manifestation of similar
feelings in the mother. For instance, a woman who experienced great sadness
whilst pregnant might imprint depressive tendencies onto the foetus she was
A famous example of this theory is the case of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), the so-called Elephant Man.
|He wrote in his autobiographical pamphlet 'The deformity which I am now exhibiting was caused by my mother being frightened by an Elephant; my mother was going along the street when a procession of Animals was passing by, there was a terrible crush of people to see them, and unfortunately she was pushed under the Elephant's feet, which frightened her very much; this occurring during a time of pregnancy was the cause of my deformity'2. The fact that he was able to say this as if it were a literal fact is quite a telling example of how many people still believed in this theory in the mid to late 19th century. Five months after the Mary Toft affair was exposed as a hoax, James Blondel published his The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin'd in which he challenged the belief in the prenatal influence of the imagination. The debate he started continued well into the next century.||
||On November 29th, Mary Toft was brought to Lacy's Bagnio (bath house) in London's Leicester Fields, where she could be observed more closely. St André contacted Dr. James Douglas and asked him to come to the bagnio to observe Mary's rabbit births.|
|By the time Douglas arrived, he found himself in the
company of a large crowd of doctors and medical men who had been summoned
by St. André. Unfortunately for St. André, who was desperate to have
Douglas validate the rabbit births, Douglas believed the whole affair to
be a fraud.
Between 30th November and 3rd December, opinion was divided among the medical men gathered there. Mary produced no more new rabbits, but continued to appear to go into labour. She was also badly infected and had fits which made her lose consciousness.
Shortly thereafter, a porter at Mr. Lacy's bagnio was caught trying to sneak a rabbit into Mary Toft's room. He confessed to Douglas and Manningham that Margaret Toft (Mary's sister-in-law) had asked him to procure the smallest rabbit he could find. Manningham and Douglas were determined to obtain a confession of guilt from Mary but decided to see if she would incriminate herself. They didn't have long to wait as she went into labour on 4th December but produced nothing. On that evening they called Sir Thomas Clarges, Justice of the Peace, to the bagnio. The porter, Thomas Howard, swore a deposition before him and Clarges immediately took Mary into custody for questioning but she would admit nothing. Over the next two days, much pressure was put upon her to confess but Mary held out until Sir Richard Manningham threatened to perform painful experimental surgery on her to see if she was formed differently from other women. Toft was forced to admit on 7th December 1726 that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina and then allowed them to be removed as if she were giving birth.
In several different confessions, she implicated a mysterious stranger, the wife of the organ grinder, her mother in law, and John Howard.
On the 9th December, Mary Toft was charged with being a "Notorious and
Vile Cheat" and sent to Bridewell prison where, allegedly, she was
exhibited to large, curious crowds by her warders.
||In the aftermath of the hoax, the medical profession suffered a great deal of
mockery for what the public viewed as its gullibility. On December 9th, St.
had an advertisement (shown above) published in the Daily Journal to try
his own behaviour.
Doctors responded to the Toft affair in print as many were concerned that the episode had damaged the reputation, not only of the doctors involved, but of the profession as a whole.
One of the many tracts and pamphlets that appeared during the saga was The Anatomist Dissected by 'Lemuel Gulliver'. Jonathan Swift had published his satire Gulliver's Travels in 1726. This pamphlet claims that Lemuel Gulliver - "Surgeon and Anatomist to the Kings of Lilliput and Blefescu, and Fellow of the Academy of Sciences in Balnibarbi" - is its author.
||The case also proved to be
irresistible to contemporary artists. In this satirical print,
William Hogarth pokes fun at the incompetence of the early 1700s medical
profession. All the main characters in the Toft saga are featured, the doctors
being shown as ignorant and credulous fools.
Many Britons were angry about the Hanoverian King's preference for German- speaking courtiers and physicians. This is amply demonstrated by the plethora of pamphlets and drawings that appeared in the wake of the Toft scandal, ridiculing St. André and the German court physicians and depicting them as gullible or, even worse, as charlatans.
|Public interest in the case died out by around January of
the following year, but the repercussions continued for those involved. For
Sir Richard Manningham and James Douglas there had been temporary
embarrassment regarding their close connection with the affair but their
careers and reputations were secure.
St André, however, lost favour with the court and, as his reputation plummeted, his patients deserted him. He retired from London and eventually died in poverty in an almshouse in Southampton. John Howard had to answer charges of being concerned in the 'Cheat and Conspiracy of Mary Toft' but the case against him was dropped and he remained a respected figure in Guildford.
As for Mary Toft, the case against her was dismissed, not for lack of proof of guilt, but probably because of the further embarrassment to the establishment that would ensue if the case were pursued any further. She spent a few months in jail then returned to relative obscurity. In the years that followed the scandal, the Duke of Richmond (who had a residence near Godalming) sometimes showed her at dinner parties for the curiosity of his guests. In April 1740 Mary was charged with receiving stolen goods and committed to the House of Correction in Guildford but was later acquitted by the jury. She died on 13th January 1763. The London papers' obituary columns announced her death alongside those of peers and statesmen.
Other items of interest:
Saint-André,Nathaniel, A propos Mr. St. Andre's case and depositions as publish'd in the London Gazette of February 23, 1724, and the Daily Post of March 4, London, . In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Hunterian Ei.1.2
Douglas, James, An advertisement occasion'd by some passages in Sir R. Manningham's Diary [of ... attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbit-breeder] lately publish'd. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20
Swift, Jonathan, The anatomist dissected: or the man-midwife finely brought to bed. Being an examination of the conduct of Mr. St. André touching the late pretended Rabbit-bearer .... Westminster, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20
The Discovery: or, the Squire turn'd ferret. An excellent new ballad... [on the Godalming Rabbit-Woman case]. [MS. copy.]. Westminster, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Hunterian Add f.37.
The doctors in labour or a new whim wham from Guildford. Being a representation of ye frauds by which ye Godliman woman carried on her pretended rabbit-breeding... [2 copper-plates.] In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20
Manningham, Richard, Sir, An exact diary of what was observ'd during a close attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended rabbet-breeder of Godalming..., [Sir Richard Manningham]. Together with an account of her confession of the fraud. London, 1726. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Mu56-i.6 .
Tuft, Merry, Much ado about nothing: or, a plain refutation of all that has been written or said c Tuft,oncerning the Rabbit-Woman of Godalming, [Merry pseud.]. Being a full... confession from her own mouth... of the whole affair... [A squib.]. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in In Sp Coll Hunterian Em.2.11
Braithwaite, Thomas, Remarks on A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets, perform'd by Mr. John Howard, [Thomas Braithwaite], as publish'd by Mr. St. André..., London 1726. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Hunterian Em.2.11
Costen, Edward, The several depositions of Edward Costen, Richard Stedman, John Sweetapple, Mary Peytoe, Elizabeth Mason, and Mary Costen; relating to the affair of Mary Toft, of Godalming being deliver'd of several rabbits: as they were taken before... Lord Onslow... 1726. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Hunterian Em.2.11
Saint André,-Nathaniel, A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets, perform'd by Mr John Howard, Surgeon at Guilford. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20
A shorter and truer advertisement, [Flamingo, pseud.]. By way of supplement, to what was published the 7th instant. Or, Dr. Douglas in an extasy at Lacey's Bagnio... [A poem on the Godalming Rabbit-woman. MS. copy.]. Flamingo. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20.
Ahlers, Cyriacus, Some observations concerning the woman of Godlyman [Mrs. Mary Toft]..., [Cyriacus Ahlers]. Tending to prove her extraordinary deliveries to be a cheat... London, 1726. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20. Also in Sp Coll Hunterian Ei.2.7
St. André's miscarriage: or, a full... account of the Rabbet Woman... [MS. copy.]. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20.
The Surrey-wonder: an anatomical farce. A plate with reference to the Godalming Rabbit-woman. [London, s.a.] In Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.7.20.
Douglas, James, Remarks on some passages in Sir R. Manningham's Diary [of ... attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbet-Breeder] lately publish'd. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.3.12
The strength of imagination in pregnant women examin'd, and the opinion that marks and deformities in children arise from thence, demonstrated to be a vulgar error. By a Member of the College of Physicians in London. London, 1727. In Sp Coll Hunterian Em.2.11. Also in Sp Coll Mu56-i.6
Turner, Daniel, The force of the mother's imagination upon her foetus in utero, still farther considered: in the way of a reply to Dr. Blondel's last book, entitled, The power of the mother's imagination over the foetus examined, [Daniel Turner]. To which is added, the twelfth chapter of the first part of a treatise De morbis cutaneis, as it was printed therein many years past... London, 1730. In Sp Coll Hunterian Em.2.11
A letter from William Pountney at Farnham to his father in Kensington, undated, giving an account of events in Godalming relating to Mary Toft. His letter was circulated to various people including 'ye Dcts'. In 1726 James Douglas became involved in the case of Mary Toft, the Rabbit Woman of Godalming, who claimed to have given birth to rabbits. MS Hunter D321/1
Letter from St André telling Douglas that Mary Toft has been brought from Guildford to the Bagnio in Leicester Fields, 29 Nov. 1726. MS Hunter D322
Mary Toft's confession on 7 Sept., taken down by James Douglas. In this confession she accuses the wife of the organ-grinder for putting her up to the deception of giving birth to rabbits: MS Hunter D324
Fair copy of Mary Toft's confession. In this confession she accuses the wife of the organ-grinder for putting her up to the deception of giving birth to rabbits. Amanuensis, (?)G. Douglas.MS Hunter D325 Fair copy of Mary Toft's confession. In this confession she accuses the wife of the organ-grinder for putting her up to the deception of giving birth to rabbits. Amanuensis, (?)G. Douglas. MS Hunter D325
An account of Mary Toft's first confession. Amanuensis, (?)G. Douglas. MS Hunter D326
Mary Toft's confession on 8 Dec. taken down by James Douglas. In this she implicates her mother-in-law and Mr Howard, the Guildford surgeon. MS Hunter D327
Mary Toft's confession on 12 Dec., taken down by James Douglas in which she implicates her mother-in-law. MS Hunter D328
Recto - Statement of why James Douglas cannot publish an account of Mary Toft's confession. Amanuensis, (?)G. Douglas. Verso - A restatement of why Douglas cannot publish the confession. In unidentified hand. MS Hunter D329
Draft of James Douglas's Advertisement occasioned by some passages in Sir R Manningham's diary lately published, London (1727), including six attempts at the introduction. Regarding Mary Toft. MS Hunter D330
Statement in unknown hand that James Douglas believed in the rabbit-births [of Mary Toft] and that Manningham and Douglas, together with St André and Howard, were in league over the deception. MS Hunter D331
Transcribed extract regarding Mary Toft from Whitehall Evening Post, 29 Dec. 1726. Headings in Douglas's hand, extract in unidentified hand. MS Hunter D332
Transcribed extract from Daily Journal and from Daily Post, 9 Jan. 1727, on prosecution of Mary Toft and Mr Howard. MS Hunter D333
Notes on authors' accounts of monstrous births, and comments on authors who wrote on the case of Mary Toft. Amanuensis, G. Douglas. MS Hunter D334
Letter to James Douglas from W. Kinleside, ND. Verso - A list of parts of rabbit, presumably those removed from Mary Toft. MS Hunter D335
A full and true account of a Horrid, Cruel, Barbarous, Bloody and Inhuman Self Murder committed by Ann Toft. 27 Dec. Purporting to be an account of the suicide of [Mary] Toft. Full of errors. Mary Toft's husband was Joseph, not William. Mary Toft died in 1763. See The Gazetteer, 21 Jan. 1763 MS Hunter D337
Cunicularii Cunicularii, or the wise men of Godliman in consultation. Print depicting Mary Toft of Godalming giving birth to rabbits. Annotated in manuscript: Published about the 20th Octobe,r 1726. MS Hunter D321/2
The following have been useful in creating this article:
Jan Bondeson A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities I.B. Taurus, 1997 [not available in library]
Lisa Forman Cody Birthing the Nation; Sex, Science and the Conception of Eighteenth Century Britons Oxford University Press, 2005 [not available in library]
Mark Hallett and Christine Riding Hogarth Tate Britain, 2006 [not available in library]
Michael Howell & Peter Ford The True History of the Elephant Man Alison & Busby, 2001 [not available in library]
Clifford A. Pickover The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: A True Medical Mystery Prometheus Books, NY, 2000 (Sp Coll Hunterian Add. 278)
Dennis Todd Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the self in Eighteenth-Century England University of Chicago Press, 1995
The Wellcome Library website http://wellcomelibrary.blogspot.com/2009/03/extraordinary-delivery-of-rabbets-see.html
References cited in text
Niki Pollock August 2009