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  • The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits

    By Jack Ashby, on 18 October 2017

    Our current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World ­­- explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition with the UCL researchers who helped put it together.

    Guest post by Dr Alan Bates (UCL Pathology)

    How did Mary Toft – a peasant from Godalming in Surrey – convince some of the eighteenth century’s leading medical men that she was giving birth to rabbits?

    Mary Toft, a copy of a portrait made in 1727 as Mary languished in Bridewell prison, while lawyers considered whether rabbit breeding was actually a crime. (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Mary Toft, a copy of a portrait made in 1727 as Mary languished in Bridewell prison, while lawyers considered whether rabbit breeding was actually a crime.
    (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Fake news out of Surrey

    The story first appeared in 1726, when a London journal reported that Mary had given birth to a creature ‘resembling’ a rabbit, but with its heart and lungs outside its body. In the following days, four more dead rabbits appeared. They were blamed on the theory of maternal impressions – that a child resembled whatever the mother was thinking of at the time of conception. Obviously, a good woman should be thinking about her partner at this key moment, but a child’s resemblance to some other man of her acquaintance might (perhaps conveniently for all concerned) be accounted for by a wandering imagination. Mary had supposedly seen rabbits hunted while she was pregnant, miscarried, and since then had had bunnies on the brain.

    Some were sceptical, but the British Royal Family took an interest, and George I sent a surgeon to Surrey to investigate. He dissected the rabbits, found droppings in their intestines, and concluded it was a hoax, since rabbits could hardly have eaten in the womb. However, Nathaniel St André, the Surgeon to the Royal Household, disagreed. He went to see Mary, and personally delivered another rabbit, though when the obstetrician Richard Manningham tried his hand, he brought forth a balloon-like object that looked and smelled suspiciously like a pig’s bladder.

    Mary Toft (Tofts) appearing to give birth to rabbits in the presence of several surgeons and man-midwives sent from London to examine her, 1726, by William Hogarth (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Mary Toft (Tofts) appearing to give birth to rabbits in the presence of several surgeons and man-midwives sent from London to examine her, 1726, by William Hogarth
    (C) Wellcome Library, London

    An eventful trip to London

    To settle the matter, Mary was brought to London, and installed at Lacey’s Bagnio, a bath house near modern-day Leicester Square. Now under constant scrutiny, she could no longer get hold of the dead rabbits she needed to perpetrate the hoax. Her sister-in-law tried smuggling one in, but was caught, lamely claiming that it was intended as a light snack for rabbit-fixated Mary. Manningham threatened Mary with a painful examination unless she confessed, after which she admitted that, following her miscarriage, she had persuaded a friend to insert parts of a dead cat and the head of a rabbit into her womb while her cervix was still dilated. For later deliveries, she had simply hidden rabbit parts in a secret pocket of her dress, and pushed them into her vagina when no one was looking.

    Nathaniel St André: The ambitious Royal Surgeon lost his credibility following the hoax, and refused to eat rabbit for the next fifty years. (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Nathaniel St André: The ambitious Royal Surgeon lost his credibility following the hoax, and refused to eat rabbit for the next fifty years. (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Reputations ruined

    It is not clear whether bravado or mental instability after the loss of her pregnancy first led Mary to this grotesque deception, but, like so many hoaxers, she was soon in over her head, and when the hoax was discovered found herself in the notorious Bridewell prison. Here she continued to draw a crowd, but was ignominiously sent home after four months.

    The press trounced the reputations of St André and the man-midwife John Maubray (person “C” in Hogarth’s print above). Male midwives were still seen as odd, and satirists ridiculed both the lewd nature of their trade and the deceitfulness of women: Mary had been unmasked, wrote one, ‘by touching her in the tenderest

    part, viz. her Conscience’. Ouch. It was a field day for punsters: she was ‘Merry Tuft’, a woman of ‘grate natturul partes’, whose ‘Kunny-Warren’ had tricked the surgeons.

    Down the rabbit hole of science

    At the time, childbirth was still largely a mystery, even to the medical ‘experts’. Man midwives had to work with their hands modestly under a sheet – no wonder it was so easy to fool them. Furthermore, scientists thought the developing foetus passed through, or recapitulated, the order of creation, from the lowest animals to the highest. In modern terms, we say that ontogeny (the development of the foetus), recapitulates phylogeny (the tree of life). The surgeons were fooled because they wanted publicity, but also because they believed that embryos had much in common between different species.

    4.Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Or does it? Not a popular theory today, but perhaps there is something in it. Those with a scientific bent might enjoy Stephen Jay Gould’s classic book on the subject.

    Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Or does it? Not a popular theory today, but perhaps there is something in it. Those with a scientific bent might enjoy Stephen Jay Gould’s classic book on the subject.

    References

    A.W. Bates. ‘The sooterkin dissected: the theoretical basis of animal births to human mothers in early modern Europe. Vesalius 2003; 9: 6-14.

    A.W. Bates. ‘The Sooterkin Doctor: The London career of John Maubray, MD. J. Med. Biog. 2004; 12: 147-53.

    Jan Bondeson. A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. New York, W.W. Norton, 1999.

    Stephen Jay Gould. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge MA, Belknap Press, 1977

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals runs until 22nd December. A number of events accompany the exhibition: through discussions, a late opening, a comedy night and offsite events discover how boring beasts shape our relationship with the natural world. Full details are on the exhibition’s website.

    Alan Bates is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Pathology at UCL. His most recent book, Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine, includes an account of the notorious UCL dog-stealing scandal and the Brown Dog affair, and can be downloaded for free.

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