Of rabbit and humble pieBMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b1817 (Published 07 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1817
- Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
In a world where health scares and medical uncertainty can so easily spiral into kneejerk reactions and blind panic, it is always useful to maintain a sense of reality. Or so Sir Richard Manningham, physician to George I, had to remind himself when faced with the unlikely tale of a woman who had given birth to 17 rabbits.
Young Mary Toft had become a “must see” on the Georgian tourist trail in her home town of Godalming, some 50 km south of London, in 1726. After watching two rabbits bounding in a field, the mother of three had given birth to an entire litter of bunnies—albeit in mangled parts—with the assistance of a local male midwife, John Howard. Diligently pickling the various heads, paws, and ears, Howard wrote excitedly to inform colleagues in London of the extraordinary phenomenon.
While the crowds flocking to the scene debated whether the “rabbet breeder” was a witch or the concubine of some supernatural buck, George I promptly dispatched two royal surgeons to settle the mystery.
Cyriacus Ahlers later testified that he saw Toft apparently give birth to the hind part of a rabbit, but his suspicions were aroused by the fact that before this miraculous delivery Howard kept Toft’s knees clamped together between his own as they sat in facing chairs. The royal anatomist, Nathaniel St André, was more easily impressed. He examined Toft and to his astonishment “delivered her of the entire Trunk, stripped of its skin, of a Rabbet of about four Months Growth,” much in the manner of a hapless magician at a nightmare children’s party.
As further parts issued, St André joined the sections to form one “perfect rabbet,” which he proudly brought back to show the king, informing colleagues that “had he not actually deliver’d the Woman of part of a Rabbet from the very uterus itself” he might have suspected a fraud. Unconvinced, the king urged Manningham to investigate. Examining Toft, Manningham felt “sudden Jerks and Risings” but remained sceptical when these produced merely a piece of membrane suspiciously similar to pig’s bladder.
After bringing Toft to London, where she continued her contractions before craning spectators, Manningham confirmed that delivery was imminent—until a porter revealed that he had been asked to smuggle rabbits into the labour room. When Toft insisted that she was “still big with a Rabbet” the doughty physician threatened her with “a very painful Experiment” unless she confessed the truth. Thus cowed she admitted the whole hoax, testifying that she had secreted rabbit parts in a special pocket in her skirt in order to feign birth.
After a brief spell in prison Toft returned home, where a few months later she gave birth again—to a daughter. But her rabbit children lived on in the popular imagination, fuelled by bawdy caricatures and songs lampooning the illiterate peasant who had made fools of learned medics. Although all the doctors no doubt now felt “sudden jerks,” St André was shunned and vilified. Ending his life in penury he reportedly never ate rabbit again—but presumably much humble pie.
Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b1817
Sources: J Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (New York, 1997):122-43; R Manningham, An Exact Diary of what was observ’d during a close attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended Rabbet-Breeder of Godalming in Surrey (London, 1726); N St André, A Narrative of the most extraordinary delivery of Mary Toft (Bath, 1774); C Ahlers, Much Ado about Nothing: Or, a plain refutation of all that has been written or said concerning the Rabbit-Woman of Godalming (London, 1727).