historiettes; Mary Toft

So, it has come to this. A weekly blog-cast in which I dissect and dissever a lady of the historical persuasion, an historiette, pulling her from the tragic mire of oblivion, that municipal Lethe. We shall amble with the most muliebral, romp with the strumpets, and cavort with the crafty.

Tonight, our opening act, a lady of the latter, welcome to the stage; Mrs Mary Toft of Godalming

Mary Toft

Mary Toft, stout, illiterate and five weeks pregnant, caught sight of a rabbit whilst out weeding in April 1726. Pursuing it briefly, driven by pauperal hunger, or doltish fascination, Toft soon lost sight of the rabbit; though it remained firmly lodged in the warrens of her mind for months to come, four months to be precise. In August, Toft suffered a miscarriage, discharging “a large lump of flesh”. Three weeks later, this happened again. The vaguely described “symptoms” of pregnancy remained. But what could her bloated belly hold?

On the 27th September, she “voided somewhat, which she took to be the Lights and Guts of a Pig”. Quel horreur. Quickly! Send for Mr John Howard, 30 years the Man Midwife of Guildford. In whose presence, the giblets of piglets proceeded to gamble from her gynaecic particulars.

Eleven litters and a perplexed midwife later, a letter was sent by Howard to King George I’s secretary, who, under command from his majesty himself, went to verify the claims. Accompanying the Hon. Mr Samuel Molyneux, the secretary, was a Nathaniel St André, a Swiss linguist-cum-fencer-cum-surgeon-cum-court anatomist; a popular figure, since fluency in German in Hanoverian England had its advantages. They arrived just in time; Toft was delivering her fifteenth bunny.

Howard had kept all the deliveries, claimed mostly to be rabbits, in jars of alcohol, preserving the medical monstrosities. None of which, it should be noted, had been delivered in one piece, tumbling out more like an anatomical airfix kit. The fifteenth was no different; Toft birthed “the trunk of a rabbit of about four months’ growth stripped of its skin but containing the heart, lungs and diaphragm”, followed two hours later by “the lower body of a male rabbit, also stripped of its skin and perfectly fitting the part delivered earlier.” Excellent. The whole set.

All the while Mary Toft sat by, cheerful, chipper and thoroughly unstrained.

St André returned with several jars of rabbit for the king & Prince of Wales, and a hankering for a pamphlet; A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets. Was it a hit? Boy, was it. Public and medical London was ablaze with conversation about the rabbit-bearing woman. On the 29th November, Toft was whisked to Lacy’s Bagnio in Leicester Fields in London’s West End, a public bath.

Joining Howard and St André at Bagnio were many noblemen, notably Sir Richard Manningham, a leading obstetrician, James Douglas, a gynaecological specialist, and John Maubray, who had dealt with animal-breeding women before. A distinguished bunch… and Maubray. Understandably, Douglas and Manningham were suspicious; Manningham had even examined the placenta of a previous tot, and found it identical to the bladder of a hog. But everyone was waiting with bated breath for Toft to throw forth her eighteenth bundle of fur.

So eager was St André for his discovery to astounded modern medicine, that he at one point barred Douglas from seeing Toft, presumably for fear that he should tear aside the smock-like veil and bring an end to this leporidal tour de force. And eventually, this is exactly what happened.

On the 4th December, Toft went into labour, but a porter at the Bagnio, Thomas Howard, pipped her at the post, for he went one better, and delivered the news to justice of the peace Sir Thomas Clarges that he had been bribed earlier to bring her a rabbit. Curses! if it wasn’t for those meddling kids…

Toft confessed, though not before Manningham had threatened to open her up and “explore her pelvic organs”. Toft told an audience how, allegedly under the guiding hand of an old travelling woman, she had learned to keep bits of rabbit in her skirt and then insert them into her person when curious eyes were averted. She would feign most dramatically a labour, and easily release her horrible soup of rabbit-child chunks.

London medical society was suitably embarrassed and satirized. Astoundingly, no one seems to have subsequently lost their job; even St André, stripped of duties and salary, was allowed to keep his title, and was presumably still technically allowed to practice, though unsurprisingly business was slow.

You may think the doctors deserved it. Amongst the gory excreta were cats paws, hog and lungs that floated in water, having clearly breathed air once. Still, I don’t suppose they’re paid to know the difference between cats and rabbits, they’re not exactly vets.

Toft herself was imprisoned. Her husband was allowed to visit her, though only after he was thoroughly searched for rabbits each time, as was the general public. She became a freak attraction in her cell. In a way, not entirely far from her original aims. Then, her vitals having miraculously survived this harrowing ordeal, she gave birth to an actual, real-life, living, breathing daughter in early 1727. Mary Toft died in 1763.

Sympathetically perhaps, historians – “historians” – have generally disregarded Toft as the brains behind this scheme. She was, after all, a poor country bumpkin. Numerous other agent provocateurs include; her husband, Joshua Toft, midwife John Howard, and St André.

And so we say goodbye to our coney-warren baby. May her total trumping of our medical society ne’er be forgot.

j.

post-script; in case you thought Toft was alone in her bestial births, many more abound; Pliny the Elder reliably informs us of a Roman lady named Alcippa who birthed a young elephant. Well, you wouldn’t like to birth an old elephant, would you? One wonders how many pieces Jumbo was delivered in.

for more on Mrs Toft;
A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities – Jan Bondeson
Mysteries of History, with Accounts of Some Remarkable Characters and Charlatans –  CJS Thompson
Tracts Related to Mary Toft, in Royal Society of Medicine Manuscripts Collection, MSS 265 – Samuel Merriman (ed.)

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2 Responses to “historiettes; Mary Toft”

  1. Aurora Says:

    Brilliant start to new mini blog series.

  2. erzulieredeyes Says:

    Interesting story never heard of it.

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