The Curious Case of Mary Toft: The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits


| LAST UPDATE 05/29/2023

By Malikah Mcintosh

After Mary Toft went into labor in the 1700s and gave birth to dead rabbits, her story quickly spread from village to village. Everyone wanted to know more about this peculiar woman. Here's her unbelievable story.

There's Something About Mary

There was certainly something about Mary. Although she was a commoner who lived centuries ago, in the 1700s, her name and reputation have defied the ages. But how exactly did Mary rise to such fame?

Mary Toft Rabbit HistoricalMary Toft Rabbit Historical
John Laguerre via Wikimedia Commons

Mary Denyer was born in 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. At the time, it was one of the poorest areas in England, and living as a peasant in the 18th century was nothing to be desired. The days were long and never-ending, and many families dealt with malnutrition and hard labor.

Starting a Family

When Mary was 17 years old, she married a wool textile worker. He went by the name of Joshua Toft and was only one year older than her. Mary took on his last name, and she became Mary Toft. The newlyweds soon after had two kids of their own, beginning their small family unit.

England Peasants Field IllustrationEngland Peasants Field Illustration
Grafissimo via Getty Images

However, life was not easy for the Toft family. In addition to caring for the children, Mary was forced to work in a field. It would take her two hours of walking to get there each morning, per Atlas Obscura. That is one miserable and incredibly long commute.

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Troubling Pregnancy

Soon, Mary became pregnant with yet another one of Joshua's children. Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the happy occasion took a dark turn. Pregnant peasants were expected to continue to work in the fields despite carrying a child. This was a common practice during the 18th century.

Peasants Field England FarmingPeasants Field England Farming
NSA Digital Archive via Getty Images

Due to her harsh living and working conditions, Mary suffered a miscarriage in August of 1726. There were reports that lumps of flesh had come out of her. However, something strange was happening with the poor woman - something that would soon grab the attention of all of London...

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An Unnatural Occurrence

A month after Mary Toft miscarried, a peculiar incident took place that baffled everyone in the town: she gave birth again! This time, a neighbor of Toft's was called to assist with the process. But this neighbor could hardly believe her eyes when she saw that Toft had given birth to animal parts.

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duncan1890 via Getty Images

The family called upon John Howard, a local male midwife. According to Fiona Haslam's From Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Howard delivered "three legs of a Cat of a Tabby Colour, and one leg of a Rabbet: the guts were as a Cat's and in them were three pieces of the Back-Bone of an Eel."

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Stranger Things

What was happening to this ordinary family in this small town was genuinely unbelievable. As the days passed by, there were more and more animal pieces that Mary Toft was delivering. Howard continued to observe and help Mary Toft as she birthed more animal parts.

Mary Toft Pregnancy LaborMary Toft Pregnancy Labor
Wellcome Collection Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

According to The Public Domain Review, nine dead baby rabbits, the legs of a cat, and a rabbit's head were produced from Mary Toft over the course of a month. What could the explanation behind this bizarre occurrence be? John Howard didn't have the answers. 

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Asking Around

He was stumped about this curious case. How could a woman give birth to rabbits? So, he decided to reach out for help. He wrote letters to England's greatest doctors, scientists, and thinkers, letting them know what was happening in this small town.

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RockingStock via Getty Images

John Howard even wrote a letter to the secretary of King George I. Word began to spread about this strange mystery. Everyone wanted to know more about what was happening with Mary Toft. What did he write in these letters that intrigued so many? Let's find out…

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The Letter

John Howard gave updates as if he were updating his Twitter feed. He wrote, "Since I wrote to you, I have taken or deliver'd the poor Woman of three more Rabbets, all three half grown, one of them a dunn Rabbet; the last leap'd twenty three Hours in the Uterus before it dy'd."

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Universal History Archive/Contributor via Getty Images

Howard continued to describe what had happened to his patient, Mary Toft. To say the least, the general public and England's royalty were completely hooked on the story. Could it be true? Or was there something more sinister happening underneath the surface?

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Local Celebrity

Mary Toft became a local celebrity with all the news buzzing around her. Everyone wanted to see the woman behind these spooky birthings. She had become so sought after that John Howard had her moved. So, Mary Toft packed up her things and relocated to a larger town called Guildford.

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Print made by James Vertue/After George Vertue/Published by John Clark via Wikimedia Commons

It also just so happened to be the town where Howard lived and worked. Mary's new proximity to her doctor meant that he could care for her around the clock. Whenever Mary gave birth to another rabbit, he would take the animal and preserve it in a jar for research and safekeeping.

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The King Gets Involved

King George I had been in power since 1698. During his reign, he was known for his foreign policy and contributions to creating the Triple Alliance between Great Britain, France, and the Dutch Republic. When he found out about the curious case of Mary Toft, the King was intrigued.

King George I EnglandKing George I England
Godfrey Kneller via Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Family wanted to know more about what was happening, so they decided to send some of their own men to investigate and learn more. Nathaniel St. André, a Swiss surgeon, and Samuel Molyneux, the Prince of Wales's secretary, were chosen to head to Mary Toft.

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Witnesses to the Madness

St. André and Molyneux made the journey from London to Guildford. They arrived on November 15, and they were just in time. Mary Toft was in labor and undergoing contractions. She was expected to give birth to her fifteenth rabbit in just a few hours.

Mary Toft Rabbit BirthMary Toft Rabbit Birth
Print made by Ernst Ludwig Riepenhausen/After William Hogarth via Wikimedia Commons

The two noblemen watched as Toft gave birth to several dead rabbits. According to The Paris Review, St. André watched as "Mary's abdomen pulsated and quivered, as though the animals were jumping or burrowing down her fallopian tubes searching for an escape." The men were fascinated. 

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A Thrilling Discovery

St. André investigated the animal pieces. He took one of the lungs to see if it had breathed air. When the Swiss surgeon placed the lung in water, it floated. St. André also examined Toft. He concluded that the rabbits must have been bred in her Fallopian tubes.

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Rosa Brett via Wikimedia Commons

As they examined more rabbits, there was crucial evidence that the rabbits did not originate from Toft's stomach, like they found hay and grass in one of the rabbit's stomachs. Yet, St. André paid no attention, thrilled by this supernatural discovery.

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London Calling

The Swiss surgeon took a jar of pickled rabbit with him and returned to London. King George I also wanted Mary Toft to be examined further. So, she was brought along to the capital city. St. André was in charge of Toft's care and examinations, and he kept her under strict control.

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RockingStock via Getty Images

While in London, Mary Toft resided at a bathhouse in Leicester Fields. There she was under heavy examination at all times. There could be up to 10 doctors at a time studying Toft. No one could decide what the truth was behind Mary's bizarre case. Was she evidence of a supernatural phenomenon? Or was this all a scam?

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Everyone Wanted To See Mary

Everyone wanted to see the woman who was giving birth to rabbits for themselves. She intrigued curious physicians and members of London society that had read about the whole affair in the paper. Writer John Hervey told a friend, "Every creature in town, both men and women, have been to see and feel her…"

London Crowds Illustration HistoricalLondon Crowds Illustration Historical
duncan1890 via Getty Images

He continued, "… the perpetual emotions, noises and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious; all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next production." Mary's story completely engrossed the nation.

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Suspicions Arising

Some believed that Mary's situation was exactly that, a story. The King sent Cyriacus Ahlers, another surgeon, to look at Mary. He had witnessed several rabbit births and was not convinced this could be real. He found hay and straw in the rabbit's bellies, proving they could not have developed inside Mary.

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Print made by John Clark via Wikimedia Commons

There were a few other prominent doctors who examined Mary. They also believed, like Ahlers, that this whole thing was a fraud. However, there were still many who thought that Mary was telling the truth, and according to them, she gave a completely reasonable explanation for it all.

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The Reason Behind It All

Toft told everyone she had seen a rabbit in the fields. The rabbit had scared her while she was working, leading to her abnormal pregnancies. It may seem entirely strange to read this now in our day and age. However, back then, there was a theory called maternal impression.

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Harting, James Edmund Shand, A.I. via Wikimedia Commons

Maternal impression was a commonly held belief that pregnancy and conception could be influenced by what a mother saw or dreamt of. This theory was one of the ways doctors could explain birth defects and congenital disorders. So many doctors believed Mary's story.

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Elephant Man

Another famous story involved a man named Joseph Merrick and his mother. While pregnant with her son, she was knocked over and frightened by an elephant at the fair. Joseph was born with several deformities and disabilities. The family explained his appearance using the theory of maternal impression.

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Unknown via Wikimedia Commons

He was known as the Elephant Man and traveled around England and Europe as a sideshow. At the circus, he was a human oddity attraction, with people coming from all over to catch a glimpse of the Half-Man Half-Elephant. To this day, his story is famous.

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Calling the Bluff

Although Toft kept going into labor, she didn't give birth to more rabbits. One man, Thomas Onslow, became increasingly suspicious as the days passed. He started a side investigation, looking into the matter at hand, like a Sherlock Holmes of his time. He uncovered something big.

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anonymous via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Onslow discovered that Mary Toft's husband, Joshua, had been purchasing baby rabbits for the past month. Onslow felt that this was damaging enough evidence to inform the presses. He was planning on publishing the information for all of England to read. Then, something else happened that sent the case into a spiral.

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More Damaging Evidence

As time went on, Mary Toft fell quite ill. She suffered from a terrible infection and kept having fits, making her lose consciousness. Yet, she still hadn't produced another rabbit. Opinion remained divided among the doctors about whether or not this was all a scam or the real thing.

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Universal History Archive/Contributor via Getty Images

Then, a porter was caught rabbit-handed. Someone spotted a man trying to sneak a rabbit into Mary Toft's room. He confessed that he had been bribed by Mary's sister-in-law, Margaret, to bring a rabbit into the room. Mary's story was coming apart at the seams.

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Fake It

However, she was determined not to let a peep out. Mary Toft seemed to be planning to fake it until you make it. She refused to admit to any wrongdoing. She insisted that her story was entirely accurate. Even when they took her into custody for questioning, Mary did not let up.

Mary Toft Trial JudgeMary Toft Trial Judge
The Trustees of the British Museum via Wikimedia Commons

For two days and through hours of interrogation, Mary Toft stayed loyal to her story, refusing to admit she had lied. Then, after several days, one doctor threatened to operate on Toft to see if her reproductive organs were capable of producing rabbits. She finally confessed.

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How Did She Do It?

So, how did she fake this entire ordeal? It is just as unpleasant and painful as one could expect. Toft would have someone help her insert the rabbits inside of her. The rabbits and various animals would remain inside her for days, or sometimes weeks, at a time.

Mary Toft Illustrations NewspaperMary Toft Illustrations Newspaper
Unknown author via Wikimedia Commons

Then, they would be removed from her as if she were actually giving birth to dead animals. Historian Karen Harvey wrote in her paper What Mary Toft Felt: Women's Voices, Pain, Power and the Body, "It's astonishing she didn't die of a bacterial infection." 

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Awkward Timing

Mary Toft's confession was shocking but came with bad timing. St. André wrote a forty-page pamphlet about his supernatural findings with Mary Toft. It was titled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits and had just been released a few days earlier. How was the surgeon going to bounce back from this?

St. Andre Surgeon EnglandSt. Andre Surgeon England
Unknown author via Wikimedia Commons

He retracted his original statement and opinions a couple of days after the release of Mary Toft's confession. However, the damage was already done to his reputation. His life was never the same afterward, and St. André only worsened matters for himself.

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Moving to the Countryside

A few years following the ordeal, the Prince of Wales's secretary, Samuel Molyneux, passed away. St. André married his widow, Elizabeth. Many, who already disapproved of St. André, were mortified by this. Some even accused him of poisoning Samuel Molyneux.

Queen Caroline British MonarchQueen Caroline British Monarch
Wellcome Collection Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth lost her standing in Queen Caroline's court, and St. André was publicly humiliated. They decided to retire to the country and live the rest of their lives on Elizabeth's wealth. St. André lived a long life, dying in 1776 at 96. The disgraced surgeon was not the only one who suffered from this scandal.

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Public Mockery

The papers across the country had a field day when the news broke of Mary's lies. They went after the medical professionals, absolutely destroying them and their reputations. They became the target of public mockery. Doctors involved were desperate to put out statements that they were suspicious the whole time.

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The incident caused such a scene that several doctors who were never once connected with Mary Toft's case also decided to release statements. They felt compelled to show the world they had never believed her story. Everyone was trying to keep their careers intact. The next question is, what happened to Mary?

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A Confessional

The doctors weren't the only ones who were writing and publishing confessionals. According to The Paris Review, "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."

Mary Toft Confessional LetterMary Toft Confessional Letter
taken by James Douglas 7.12.1726 via Wikimedia Commons

She also attempted to place the blame on the local man-midwife who helped her give birth to the rabbits, John Howard. Toft tried implicating everyone besides herself in this scandal. Despite her confessional, Mary Toft was taken into custody and awaited her sentence.

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Serving Her Time

Mary Toft was brought before the court. She was charged as a "Notorious and Vile Cheat" and was incarcerated at Tothill Fields Bridewell for four months. The entire time mobs would fill the space, hoping to glimpse the infamous woman who "gave birth" to rabbits. She had become an attraction of her own.

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During 18th century England, many cells faced the public. This was the standard practice, so people could watch the criminals placed there. Per The Paris Review, "members of the public were invited in, for a small fee, and Mary was paraded before them by her wardens."

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Life After the Scandal

After a few months in prison, Mary Toft was released without charge. The authorities were not sure what crime to actually charge her with. So, she was let go and allowed to return to her regular routine. She gave birth to a daughter a year later, which was noted in the local register.

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William Frederick Rock National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons

Then, Mary Toft faded into obscurity. She lived out the rest of her days without any fame following her. Ultimately, her family made no money from the entire scandal. Mary Toft returned to the papers one last time when her obituary ran in the London newspapers alongside the aristocrats.

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Why Did She Do It?

So, now the question on everyone's mind is why she did it. Why go through all of this trouble and pain? While we may never know the real answer, many have come up with their own theories behind why Mary Toft felt compelled to follow through with this big-toothed lie.

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ivan-96 via Getty Images

Karen Harvey wrote in her paper, "She was a young, extremely poor woman from a small town, all the time escorted and watched by titled, landed, aristocratic men. I think she was just playing the lead role in a performance orchestrated by other people." Maybe it was for the fame, the riches, or just to do it.

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Curiosities and Abnormalities

At this time in history, people were fascinated by abnormalities and curiosities. Many were interested in stories like Mary Toft and the Elephant Man. They wanted to see these strange occurrences for themselves. These curiosities and abnormalities attracted fame and fortune.

British Giant Henry BlackerBritish Giant Henry Blacker
Wellcome Collection Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

Another example of a human curiosity was Henry Blacker, whose nicknames were the Living Colossus or the British Giant. He was incredibly tall, and people would wait in line to view his stature. Even after being released, Mary Toft remained an object of curiosity for many.

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Extra, Extra, Read All About It

If TikTok had been around back in the 18th century, Mary Toft would have gone viral; she was the media sensation of that time. Every paper in England wrote about her curious case as if she were a Kardashian. Everyone wanted to know what was going on with Mary Toft.

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John Meres via Wikimedia Commons

She went viral before it was cool to do. Niki Russell, who works in the special collections department at the University of Glasgow, said, "It was the media sensation of 1726 to 1727." For an entire year, the only thing that people could talk about was the woman who gave birth to rabbits.

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Still Fascinating Today

Centuries have passed since Mary Toft claimed she was giving birth to rabbits, yet her story is still repeated today. Her tale is taught by professors and examined by scholars. People continue to write papers about this scandal that swept the nation.

Woman Rabbit Painting HistoricalWoman Rabbit Painting Historical
Richard Houston Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons

From the atrocious details of how Mary Toft went through with the lie to the many who were fooled by her deceit, this curious and ghastly case continues to intrigue today. The wildest part is how similar it feels to the story that still interests us today.

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