How Mary Toft convinced doctors she’d given birth to rabbit parts.
Edward White’s The Lives of Others is a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history.
News travels fast in London, where opinions are swiftly made and loudly shared. It is a great irony that the capital of a nation famed for its icy reserve should also be one of the historic crucibles of free speech; where Putney debaters, Clapham abolitionists, and Camden punks have all found voice in the past, and where Hyde Park philosophes, Westminster politicos, and East End grime-spitters still do today. Of course, the most urgent symptom of the loose London gob is Fleet Street, that ruthless, rabid hive of tabloid journalism. There, the byzantine codes of British politesse are redundant: gossip rules and “private lives” are a contradiction in terms. “Privacy is for pedos,” in the words of Paul McMullan, a twenty-first-century London hack of Dickensian aspect, the Platonic ideal of the Fleet Street guttersnipe; “circulation defines what is the public interest.”
When Paris got its first daily newspaper, in 1777, London already had nearly three hundred. Half a century earlier, the French writer César-François de Saussure had traveled to London and observed that the people were “great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee rooms in order to read the latest news.” Step on to the tube in the morning rush hour today and you’ll find much the same: silent tessellated blocks of humanity crammed and twisted like human Tetris patterns, each head uncomfortably bowed into the morning paper. By evening, carriages are ankle-deep with those same pages, now discarded. There are times when the chatter becomes too much, a deafening white noise of rubbernecking intrigue. At other times, when the tabloid hydra has a doe in its jaws, it is as if witnessing one of the public hangings in the city’s good old, bad old days. You hate yourself for it, but you cannot look away as a reputation, a life, is split open like the steaming belly of a sacrificial beast.
In the early eighteenth century a woman named Mary Toft felt the lacerations of London tongues as sharply as anyone of her generation. Her bizarre, sad story began fifty miles southwest of the city, in the market town of Godalming, where she lived with her husband and their three young children. Mary, depicted by sources at the time as a short, stocky woman of “sullen temper,” was illiterate and impoverished. Her husband had a trade as a clothier but was, apparently, not particularly skilled at it; work was sparse. On the infrequent occasions when life for the Tofts was not difficult, it was merely drab.
As Godalming was a stagecoach stop on the road to London, Mary likely caught glimpses of more exotic, wealthy, and eventful lives led in the big city. Perhaps she dreamt of such a life on an afternoon in April 1726 when, several weeks pregnant with a fourth child, she was weeding in a field and caught sight of a rabbit. Spotting the chance of a free dinner, she chased it, and though the animal escaped her grasp, it wouldn’t leave her mind. As Mary later told the story, for the next few weeks she developed an agonizing craving for rabbit meat, obsessing over rabbit stew, rabbit pie, rabbit fried, roasted, and poached. The craving was all the stronger because it could never be satisfied on the Tofts’ tiny income, an income that would spread thinner when the next child arrived.
Four months later, Mary took ill. It seemed that she was going into premature labour. But her midwife, John Howard, observed that Mary gave birth not to a baby but to dead, dismembered animals—first something that looked like a pig’s bladder, then a cat’s paw and head, and afterward rabbits, one after the other. By the time Howard reported the case to the distinguished medical men of London, he had delivered eleven rabbits from Mary, all of which he pickled in jars and lined up on the shelf in his study.
Most of the medical authorities in London ignored Howard and his tale of preternatural births as the yarns of a yokel or a prankster. But when King George I heard of it, he ordered his court anatomist Nathaniel St. André to investigate immediately. St. André, an opportunistic dilettante with a taste for ornately embroidered shirts, had a checkered past: born and raised in Switzerland, he wandered across Europe working as a servant, a language teacher, a dancer, and a fencing instructor, charming and seducing as he went. His interest in medicine came only after noticing the wealth of a surgeon who was treating him for an injury inflicted by one of his ham-fisted fencing students, and decided that a career as a physician might be a more agreeable way of earning a living. As soon as his wounds healed, St. André made his way to London and, after a perfunctory apprenticeship, set up a surgical practice of his own, soon charming his way to the heart of the Georgian court. In other walks of life a man like St. André would have been classed as a gentleman amateur, but this was a crucial time in the history of British science: for men of medicine, professional credentials and methodological rigor were valued over charisma and élan. St. André, therefore, became a totem of Britons’ fears about their German sovereign, whom they considered an overindulged, undereducated fop surrounded by dastardly foreigners on the make.
St. André arrived at John Howard’s house with apparently impeccable timing: the moment he crossed the threshold, Mary was in the late stages of labor with a fifteenth rabbit, and over the ensuing hours more followed. The royal doctor could barely believe his eyes. Before each birth, he observed, Mary’s abdomen pulsated and quivered, as though the animals were jumping or burrowing down her fallopian tubes searching for an escape. The pressure of being expelled through the uterus, he concluded in a rakish leap of logic, accounted for the fact that the rabbits were born dead, and in crushed pieces. Although she screamed in anguish during the final stage of each labor, Toft remained remarkably calm—“she laugh’d very heartily with us,” St. André noted. That, if nothing else, should have given him pause. But St. André was too excited by his discovery and the prestige he would gain from it to allow the intrusion of doubt. Instead, he took several of the pickled rabbits back to London to present before a dumbfounded King, and arranged for Mary to be transported to the capital, where she might be studied and displayed before all the great scientists of the age. For her troubles, she was promised a royal pension.
Inevitably, St. André published a self-aggrandizing account of these events; equally inevitably, it proved a sensational hit in London. Mary Toft became a citywide obsession. Tales of monstrous births are ever-present throughout history—search “Obama Clone” to see how they persist even today—but in the early 1700s, Toft’s story had a particular resonance with Londoners. In England, it had become common for parents to make money by displaying their conjoined twins or the corpses of their stillborn children, the unedifying symptom of a wider fascination with “human monstrosities” that was strong in northwest Europe. In eighteenth-century Netherlands, for instance, it was believed even by many doctors that women had been known to give birth to a mouse-like creature called a “sooterkin.” Folk wisdom had it that such aberrations were possible because women were able to influence the nature of the things in their wombs by the mysterious power of their thoughts, an idea that persisted into the tender years of the Enlightenment, as medieval lore found curious points of fusion with the modern scientific methods of Bacon, Newton, and Descartes.
In his seminal early eighteenth-century work on midwifery, The Female Physician, Dr. John Maubray sketched out some key aspects of modern obstetrics, yet he also advised that women should avoid “playing with Dogs, Squirrels, Apes, &c.,” as this could lead to the birth of vile creatures. When Maubray, an outspoken believer in the sooterkin, heard of Mary Toft, he regarded it as affirmation of his own convictions. But many of St. André’s contemporaries were too instilled with rational Enlightenment principles—as well as old-fashioned common sense—to be convinced, and they began to investigate for themselves. Leading the skeptics was Richard Manningham, a colleague of St. André’s, who had briefly seen Mary before she was brought to London. When he initially examined her, Manningham was startled by several things: “the Motion on the right side of her Belly, which they call’d the leaping up of the Rabbet,” the flushing of her face, the quickening of her pulse, and the fact that the opening to her uterus “spread a little,” as it would in the later stages of pregnancy. And then, quite suddenly, Mary’s condition took an alarming turn. She had “Convulsions,” according to Manningham, “which I never before observed in her, with frequent Contractions of her Fingers, rolling of her Eyes, and great Riflings in her Stomach and Belly: During the Fit she would often make a whining Noise and at Intervals be more than ordinary faint.” The seizure lasted two fraught hours. At one point Manningham could not detect a pulse. Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the symptoms disappeared, and Mary fell asleep. When she woke the next morning, she said she had no memory of the incident. And neither had she given birth to any more rabbits.
Later that evening: a decisive twist in the tale. A porter at the house where Mary Toft was living reported that Mary had attempted to bribe him into smuggling pieces of rabbit into her quarters. Manningham confronted his patient, who indignantly rejected the accusation at first, but when Manningham suggested to her that the only way to discover the truth of her strange condition was exploratory surgery, Mary broke down in tears and confessed that the whole thing had been a ruse.
The satirists and journalists of London had a proverbial field day. They took particular glee in bringing low St. André, the so-called expert close to the seat of power. One writer dismissed him as “due composition of Knave and Fool both,” and declared that in this case of monstrous births, “the Monster of Monsters, beyond Comprehension, / Is that they expected a monstrous Pension.” And the medical establishment as a whole took a hammering: when they weren’t ridiculed for their gullibility, their ineptitude, and their venality, they were accused of being sex pests, dirty old men whose peccadilloes they cloaked behind erudite mumbo jumbo. The most famous takedown came from William Hogarth, who spoofed the adoration of the magi with Toft as the Virgin Mary and the “wise men” roles taken by St. André and his colleagues. “It pouts, it swells, it spreads, it comes,” one of them exclaims as his arm disappears up Toft’s skirt, “searching into the depths of things.” Hogarth titled this illustration Cunicularii, a double pun on the Latin for rabbit (cuniculus) and vulva (cunnus). A similar word, coney, was ubiquitous eighteenth-century London slang for both rabbit and female genitalia.
But nailing the dirty old sods and the Johnny Foreigner imbeciles who filled the ranks of the establishment was just the entrée. What the London reading public really hungered for was its pound of underclass flesh. It’s a tiny joy that’s felt viscerally by many Britons even today: the schadenfreude of watching someone with ideas above her station being brought down to where she really belongs, face down in the dirt with everyone else. In some places Mary was pitied as a “stupid creature,” or the “mere simple tool” of her husband, who, it was thought, had manipulated her into the scam, hoping for a windfall. Others were less charitable. A spoof confession, titled “Much Ado About Nothing,” was published, depicting Mary as a grasping, stupid, amoral slut, of the sort that the British have long loved to loathe, a misogynistic caricature of a repugnant banshee that the London tabloids of our century have kept alive.
In accordance with the conventions of what we would now call the tabloid exposé, Mary dictated her own apology and confession, variously blaming her husband, her mother-in-law, and—somewhat oddly—the wife of a local organ grinder for pushing her into the hoax. But, sadly, that document never reached as wide a contemporary audience as the spoofs; her obvious contrition and embarrassment went unacknowledged by the public at large. Instead of a cunning and avaricious self-promoter, Mary Toft seems to have been a confused, impressionable, and scared woman who wanted perhaps a little attention and excitement, and a few shillings extra as she contemplated how she might feed a continually growing family. What Mary needed was an Oprah, someone to offer her a confessional platform where the public shaming would go hand in hand with instant atonement. What she got instead was a custodial sentence: several weeks inside Bridewell prison, where her continued humiliation was deemed part of the punishment. Several times a week, members of the public were invited in, for a small fee, and Mary was paraded before them by her wardens. In the days before cameras, celebrity hounding had to be done in a more bespoke fashion; papping back then was an immersive experience for the viewer as well as the subject. Soon after her release from Bridewell, Mary gave birth to a little girl, seemingly healthy and non-leporine. Her infamy persisted for the next several decades, though the woman herself disappeared from the records, save for newspaper reports many years later that she had been convicted of a petty theft. Her life, it seems, remained difficult and unsatisfying long after the public interest had drifted elsewhere.
What’s fascinating about the Mary Toft case is not its weirdness but its urgent familiarity. The coverage of her story fulfilled every criteria of the modern London tabloid scoop: sex scandals; fear and derision of foreigners; the suspicion that the people in power are neither power-mad nor wicked, just clueless chancers; and an individual claimed as public property, pilloried and reviled so the rest of us have someone to feel superior to. Perhaps it’s the national tendency for guardedness and saving face that is at heart of this thirst for what Elizabeth I once drily dismissed as “a London news,” a heated rumor of no consequence that spins everyone into a frenzy. In a land where having one’s true self revealed in public is a source of infinite terror, it is comforting to open a paper and feel that everybody else is losing their secrets—and thrilling to wonder how much longer you can cling to yours.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005, he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.