This 18th century woman tricked doctors she had given birth to bunnies, and they fell for it.

We normally hear about stories that seem so weird, and as a matter of fact, fool us into believing them because they seem mysterious. Hoax stories and a whole lot of other myths and paradox scenarios that people just fall prey to, are always so convincing. Sometimes, such stories just don’t seem convincing as they intend to be. Not in the case of this 18th century woman, Mary Toft.

 

Related media: The woman who gave birth to 9 rabbits

 

Meet Bugs Bunny’s Mom

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Image: Laguezze Painting | Mary Toft (1726)

On September 27, 1726, a 25-year-old woman named Mary Toft of Godalming in Surrey, England, went into labor. It seemed quite odd because she had a miscarriage a month before, though reports were suggesting that she still appeared to be pregnant at the time. She was helped by her neighbor Anna Gill and her mother-in-law Ann Toft during labor.

Obviously, she gave birth nevertheless, but to something really bizarre. The two women removed a creature resembling a cat or sort of, from her womb. Being disturbed, they rushed and called a man named John Howard, a professional obstetrician. With Howard’s witness, things were just about to get even worse.

Throughout the next month, she gave birth to more deceased creatures (and parts of animals) — a limb of a cat, head of a rabbit, and on one day, gave birth to nine bunnies. Howard sent off several letters to the special doctors, physicians and scientists in all of England, even to the royal secretary of King George I. While rumors went around the country, she kept on given birth to more and more bunnies. The king sent one of the renowned anatomists at the time, Nathaniel St André, to investigate the issue.

St André arrived at the office of Howard the very moment that Mary was given birth to her 15th bunny. Several more bunnies were delivered that same day. St André, upon witnessing what he needed to see, knew that these mysterious births could permanently write his name into medical history books. So he published a book: “A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets.” All of a sudden, the weirdest hoax of the 18th century had legs.

 

The Controversial Medical Theory

The explanation St André gave was “maternal impression.” This theory carried along with it some weight of evidence at the time. As medical doctors claimed that an offspring could be strongly influenced by experiences of the mother, but this was the first time that anyone was claiming that it could also lead to a human given birth to an animal.

Mary admitted that, while she was pregnant, she attempted to capture rabbits in the bush but failed in doing so. And ever since she became insatiably starving for rabbit meat. The theory, together with the testimony of Mary, were the two basis that concluded that her body was able to reproduce bunnies instead of human babies. Though St André’s story was a convincing one, yet the primitive medical theory was highly skeptical as at that time.

The king sent another anatomist, Cyriacus Ahlers, a German surgeon — who was quite skeptical — to verify the claims of Mary, Howard, and St André. He discovered a very compelling evidence against the claims: the intestines of one of the rabbits had dung food of corn, hay, and straw — typical rabbit feed — which they found none in Mary’s own diets. But André was still committed to his theory and belief.

Mary Toft was later taken to London, whereupon a team of doctors were ready to analyze her. This included the renowned physician, James Douglas, who kept an eagle eye on Mary as she went again into labor several times, but she never gave birth to anymore bunnies.

 

What A Bunny Prank

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is the intriguing part of the story: a porter in attempts to smuggle a small dead rabbit into the room, was caught in the action. He then confessed to Douglas that a member of the Toft family had requested it. On December 7, about a week since Mary arrived in London, she finally confessed that, she herself, Howard, and her mother-in-law had been making all this up since that first day in September.

The hoax was really a buzz in the news. The newspapers of the time had broadsheets and even satirical comics became a lampoon about skeptical doctors who had fallen prey to such a hoax with the affair for taking the claim seriously enough to attempt to disprove it. Yet still, Douglas, Ahlers, and others were able to recover their reputations.

Howard later managed to retain his livelihood in his local community as a medical practitioner. Mary Toft herself was later imprisoned for a few months, likely because a longer sentence would have drawn even more attention to the embarrassing incident. But the grandstanding St. André never recovered. We almost feel bad for him — but he really shouldn’t have jumped to such a conclusion.

 

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Mon, Dec 31, 2018.

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