Content warning: Human meat clown car.
Under different circumstances, Mary Toft may have been ignored by history.
An illiterate serving-woman from Surrey, Toft led a relatively unremarkable life for twenty five years — she was married to a journeyman clothier, and together they had three children. Her fourth pregnancy didn’t quite go as planned, unfortunately, and she suffered from painful complications early on. After going into labor early, her neighbor Mary Gill attended her until her mother-in-law arrived to help.
But what Mary Toft delivered wasn’t a human baby.
Instead, the labor resulted in something resembling a dead cat. Concerned, the family sent for obstetrician John Howard. The first day, Gill showed him a series of small animal parts that Toft had produced. When he returned the next day, there were even more. For an entire month afterward, Toft continued to produce various animal parts before her labor culminated in the birth of a litter of nine dead baby rabbits.
Unsurprisingly, Toft became somewhat of a celebrity. The King even sent two men to investigate, one of whom was his own royal surgeon, Nathaniel St. André. More rabbits had been born by the time they arrived, and they witnessed the birth of several others. St. André was certain that, somehow, Toft was genuinely giving birth to rabbits — she claimed that seeing a rabbit had triggered a rabbit obsession that caused her to miscarry, resulting in the unusual birth. While that sounds ridiculous to modern ears, the idea of “maternal impression” was a medical theory that managed to stick around up until we realized genes existed. Tom Norman, the barker who displayed the Elephant Man as a sideshow curiosity in the late 19th century, blamed Joseph Merrick’s disabilities (likely due to Proteus syndrome) on his mother being frightened by an elephant. Even today, new mothers often have to be reassured that a sudden fright won’t cause a miscarriage or other fetal problems.
The skeptical King sent another surgeon, this time a German man named Cyriacus Ahlers, and Ahlers’ friend. Toft continued to give birth to more dead rabbits in their presence, but was confronted by a very damning piece of evidence: the colons of the rabbits contained fecal matter comprised of grain and hay (both of which are in relatively short supply in the average human uterus). Concerned about what Ahlers’ evidence might mean for his reputation with the King, St. André began working with Howard to make Ahlers’ testimony look suspicious. St. André then summoned another doctor, James Douglas, to examine Toft (who was, by now, probably both terrified and genuinely physically ill).
Still skeptical, the King ordered St. André to bring toft to London for further examination. They were accompanied by another obstetrician named Richard Manningham. Manningham had examined a mysterious organ that Toft had birthed, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was actually a hog bladder (complete with suspicious urine smell, despite the fact that urine is also generally in short supply in the average human uterus). Everyone involved agreed that mentioning this was, at this late stage of the game, probably a bad idea.
Even after Toft was relocated, the relentless examinations didn’t let up.One notable example was John Maubray, who was excited to examine Toft as he believed she validated a lot of his completely crazyballs medical fanfiction theories. This was a man who believed that sooterkins were a thing that could happen if you sat too close to a stove, so his excitement at Toft’s case is probably unsurprising.
Eventually, it was discovered that Toft’s husband had been buying rabbits. Toft denied that the rabbits were for anything other than eating, but finally caved and admitted that, immediately following her miscarriage, she’d allowed someone to stick cat parts and a rabbit’s head into her uterus in a stunning case of “Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should.” In the months afterward, once her cervix no longer allowed people to treat her body like some kind of horrible piñata, the parts had been placed in her vagina instead.
Still with me? Good.
The medical profession’s reputation was understandably damaged by this series of events (St. André and Maubray’s, in particular). St. André had just published a manuscript called A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets perform’d by Mr. John Howard, surgeon at Guilford mere days before Toft’s inconvenient confession. Several doctors who had never professed believing in Maubray’s sooterkin theory felt compelled to come out against it, distancing themselves as much as possible from the collection of medical quackery that allowed Toft’s case to gain so much momentum in the first place.
As for Toft? She was briefly imprisoned, then released once authorities realized they had absolutely no idea what to charge her with. (Shockingly, “duping the entire country by shoving dead rabbits into your vagina” was not something the legal system had anticipated.) She was imprisoned at another time for receiving stolen goods, and eventually died at the age of 62.