Mary Toft: The Woman Who Kept "Giving Birth" To Rabbits, Cats And Assorted Other Meats

Mary Toft gives birth to rabbits. Etching by W. Hogarth, 1726. Image credit: Wellcome Collection (CC by 4.0)

In 1726, a 25-year-old servant named Mary Toft began to push a series of rabbits, cats and miscellaneous animal limbs out of her vagina over the course of several months.

On September 27, watched over by her neighbor and mother-in-law, Toft went "into labor". When the newborn came out, at around the time under normal circumstances doctors and midwives would check the baby was OK and hand it to the mother, they were a little pre-occupied with the fact that she had appeared to have given birth to a cat that had had its liver removed, which is understandable.

The family could have gone two ways, but decided to contact an obstetrician rather than a vet. The next day, when John Howard arrived, the family presented him with the liverless cat, as well as an assortment of other meats that had reportedly made their way out of Toft's vagina during the night.

The doctor was understandably baffled by the case. He monitored her over the next month, and recording what came out, like a butcher doing a stock check. During that month, he noted that she had pushed out several legs from a cat, a rabbit's head, as well as nine baby rabbits (all dead). He informed local scientists, doctors, and, for an extra level of weirdness, the King of England.

While he waited for the medical community to arrive, Howard took any animal body parts that came out of the woman and pickled them like onions, one of which was eventually delivered to the King.

Mary's fame, understandably, grew. There was little by way of entertainment in a society that had yet to invent Shrek; don't judge them for finding a woman who was shooting rabbits out of her vagina a welcome distraction. The medical team, dispatched by the King, arrived on November 15, just in time to witness Toft delivering yet another dead rabbit.

Rather than making a pickle, the doctors this time examined the dead parts more closely. One of the King's men, Swiss surgeon and anatomist Nathaniel St. André, was convinced that the births were of supernatural origin, which is probably not the kind of medical knowledge you're looking for in someone whose job it is to cut you open and fix whatever's gone wrong. He took samples back to the King and the Prince of Wales to show them the evidence.

But others had some fairly major questions. For instance, some of the rabbits appeared to be newborns, but others appeared to be three months old. When the King sent a better surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, he investigated more closely and found that one of the rabbits had dung in its rectum. Picking it apart, he found traces of hay, corn and straw in there. Either the rabbit had been placed inside her vagina after it had had a big old meal, or Toft was growing a whole farm up there.

Toft explained her supernatural births as having been caused by a rabbit she was startled by while working in a field. At the time, people believed that mothers' thoughts and feelings could impact the look and development of their offspring in the womb. However, it was soon to be shown that the actual explanation was that she and her husband had been purchasing meat to push up into her vagina, later to fake labor and push them back out again.

By November, Toft was being watched by a large crowd of people who had been invited by André to validate her claims, which was somewhat of an own goal. Under careful watch, she produced no more rabbits, nor any random limbs. Due to infection, likely caused by the dead carcasses inside her for the past two months, she was passing in and out of consciousness.

A porter was soon found attempting to sneak a rabbit into her room, upon the request of Mary's sister-in-law. To make an already grim tale worse, Toft – who there is a strong case had been manipulated into the bizarre situation, historians argue – was placed under pressure to confess that she had been inserting the animal parts herself. Eventually, after being threatened with a painful surgery in order to investigate the births, she confessed. 

Toft was jailed for a few months, before she returned to her life, only occasionally being wheeled out as a curiosity by the Duke of Richmond. Meanwhile, the medical profession was mocked mercilessly by the press for being taken in by the fakery, and St André's reputation lay in tatters. He lost all his patients and died in poverty, learning the lesson the hard way that the last thing that people want in a surgeon is somebody who is willing to state in a published paper that human women can give birth to bunnies.

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