September 27, 1726 in Surrey, England…
Servant Mary Toft, 25 years old, was in labor. She and her husband, Josh, had a child already, but this pregnancy was very different.
In August, Mary showed all the signs of a miscarriage, but over a month later, she still appeared pregnant and was lactating.
Mary’s neighbor Mary Gill came to assist with the labor and Mary’s mother in Law, Ann Toft, was sent for. Ann was a midwife.
Eventually, Mary gave birth… to a cat.
Ann sent for an obstetrician named John Howard in the neighboring town of Guildford.
Upon his arrival, he was shown the cat, which appeared to be missing its liver, and parts of several other animals that Mary and Ann claimed had been birthed overnight.
On September 29, John helped Mary to deliver even more animal parts. His written record of the event listed a rabbit’s head, cat legs and 9 dead baby rabbits.
John sent a letter to King George I telling him about the miracle that he had witnessed.
The king sent his personal surgeon, Nathaniel St. André, and the prince’s secretary, Samuel Molyneux, to investigate.
News spread quickly and Mary became a popular figure in her small town.
John, Nathaniel and Samuel wanted to monitor Mary more closely, so they moved her to a hospital close to John’s home.
By November 15, Mary had given birth to almost 20 rabbits.
The men researched the latest batch of rabbits born to Mary. All of her rabbits had been “born” dead, but their lungs floated in water, which meant they had been filled with air. These rabbits had clearly lived outside of Mary’s body.
Nathaniel was not convinced. He had seen Mary give birth to some of the rabbits. He took them to London to show the king.
King George I sent Cyriacus Ahlers, a German surgeon, and Mr. Brand to do some more research. Both witnessed several more of the miraculous births, but they were skeptical.
Cyriacus found fecal matter in one of the rabbits that contained hay and corn. On November 21, he told the king that he believed the whole thing to be a hoax. He accused John of being in on the fraud.
John called on Sir Richard Manningham, a doctor and midwife, to examine Mary. He was there when Mary gave birth to a hog bladder. He also believed that Mary was lying.
Nathaniel and John asked Sir Richard to keep his opinions quiet because, by now, their reputations were on the line.
On November 29, Mary was taken to a bath house in London and kept under supervision. Dr. James Douglas, a midwife, was brought in and he also concluded that Mary had faked the births.
Mary had developed an infection and was in and out of consciousness. She still appeared to labor, but produced no more rabbits.
In early December, a man tried to sneak a dead rabbit into Mary’s room. The jig was up. He told the doctors that Mary’s sister in law, Margaret Toft, had hired him to bring her the smallest rabbit he could find.
Justice of the Peace Sir Thomas Clarges was called to the bath house and Mary was arrested, but would not confess. Sir Richard had to threaten to operate on Mary before she would admit to the ruse.
Mary was charged with being a “notorious and vile cheat.” She was imprisoned in Bridewell prison and was put on display for groups that came to see her there.
John believed her until the bitter end. Shortly before her confession, he published a 40 page paper about the events called A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets.
In his writing, John recounts the story, as told to him by Mary. He wrote that she had been working in the fields when she spotted a rabbit. She and some other women chased after it, but were unable to catch it. From that night on, she dreamt of rabbits, but her family was too poor to purchase one.
John, and many others of the time, bought into the idea of maternal impression (the idea that thoughts and action of a pregnant woman would influence the intelligence, looks and attitude of the baby she was carrying). Mental disorders and physical deformities were often touted as the result of maternal impression.
Mary’s stunt would set the reputation of the medical profession back for a time. At a time when doctors were becoming more common place and they were beginning to take on positions typically held by laymen, midwifery for example, they had yet to prove their viability to individuals. The fact that so many doctors were fooled by Mary’s antics did not bode well for those that sought to be trusted and respected.
Nathaniel was unable to continue working as a doctor and he died penniless.
The charges against Mary were dropped several months after her arrest and she was free.
Mary continued to tell the story of her “miraculous” births and continued to be called to spin her tale for groups of people at parties.
It was common for people with some sort of abnormality to be exhibited to the public for money. Mary may have seen this scheme as a way to escape the bonds of servitude.
There is also a chance that the recent miscarriage had caused Mary severe emotional stress. She lost a child in infancy and the miscarriage made her very ill for over a week.
Mary wrote three different confessions to police about her rabbit birthing. In each, she goes into great detail about the miscarriage. This event clearly set the stage for the one to follow.
Mary found herself behind bars again in April 1740 for receiving stolen goods, but was found not guilty and released.
Mary died on January 13, 1765.
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at