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Mary Toft hoax
Mary Toft, the Rabbit Woman of Godalming [Guildford, Godliman], was a 25-year-old servant girl when she convinced several physicians, including the King of England’s surgeon, that she had given birth to rabbits. She craved a bit of fame and fortune, which she achieved, but her harebrained scheme was also rewarded with a short stay in prison awaiting prosecution for being "a vile Cheat and Impostor."*
Mary Toft's hoax happened in 1726, during the reign of King George I. Mrs. Toft had inserted the parts of several rabbits where no rabbit parts should ever be and summoned the local surgeon, John Howard. She feigned delivery and the astonished Howard was convinced he'd participated in a medical oddity worthy of widespread notification.
Eventually, King George sent his surgeon, Nathanael St. Andre, and Samuel Molyneux, an astronomer and secretary to the Prince of Wales, to investigate. In their interview with Mrs. Toft, she told them that before her misadventure with rabbit births she had had a strong craving for rabbit meat, she often dreamed of rabbits, and spent much time trying to catch them in the garden. She then repeated her variation on the rabbits-out-of-the-hat trick. St. Andre and Molyneux were so convinced of the worthiness of her effort that they did a scientific examination of one of the rabbit parts. A rabbit lung floated when placed in water. Thus, they concluded - though it is not clear why - that Mary was not tricking them.
William Hogarth, 'Cunicularii, or the Wise Men of Godliman in Consultation', 1726. (MaryToft giving birth to rabbits. Courtesy of OldBaily.org)
Mary Toft's hoax didn't require much technique but it did require a bit of ingenuity. And, she must have been a pretty fair actress to have carried off her hoax. She kept up the lie even after she was brought to London, where large numbers of curiosity seekers camped outside her lodgings. Eventually, she confessed to her rabbit abuse and was imprisoned. The British Gazetteer reported on December 24, 1726:
A Prosecution is ordered to be carried on in the Court of King’s Bench, next Hillary Term, against Mary Toft of Godalmin, for an infamous Cheat and Imposture, in pretending to have brought forth 17 præter-natural Rabbits. She is still detained a Prisoner in Bridewell, where none but the Keeper’s Wife is permitted to go into the Room to deliver any thing to her; the infinite Crowds of People that resort to see her, not being suffered to approach her too near, and more especially her Husband, who is strictly search’d when he comes to the Prison.
However, after about four months in Bridewell, she was released without being prosecuted, a fact that brought joy to the heart of one of those who had believed in the rabbit births. This anonymous fellow wrote in The Craftsman in April 1727 that he was confident that Mary Toft's story was true because the authorities would not have released her "if there had been any reasonable Grounds to form a Prosecution against Her."
Except for the truly gullible such as Toft's defender in The Craftsman, how could anyone fall for such a hoax? Were the wise men of 18th century England especially stupid or ignorant? Didn't people in those days know that humans can only give birth to humans?
One explanation is that the notion of a human giving birth to rabbits fit well with another belief held by many eminent men of the day. The medical establishment of 18th century England was willing to believe in the possibility of a human giving birth to rabbits because it was consistent with the notion of maternal impressions: that a pregnant woman’s experiences are directly imprinted on her unborn child. The theory was used to explain birth defects. For example, a child born deaf was due to the mother having been shocked by a loud sound during pregnancy or a child born blind might be due to the mother having looked at a blind person during pregnancy. Thus, Toft's tale about her desires, dreams, and garden exploits fit well with the maternal impressions belief and lent plausibility to her rather strange attempt at recognition.
Ian Stevenson (1918-2007), a psychiatrist who thought that science consists of collecting stories that support a hypothesis such as reincarnation, collected 50 stories in support of the theory of maternal impressions. His report is published in the Journal for Scientific Exploration.
In 1896, Gould and Pyle wrote:
Another curious fact associated with pregnancy is the apparent influence of the emotions of the mother on the child in utero. Everyone knows of the popular explanation of many birthmarks, their supposed resemblance to some animal or object seen by the mother during pregnancy, etc. The truth of maternal impressions, however, seems to be more firmly established by facts of a substantial nature. There is a natural desire to explain any abnormality or anomaly of the child as due to some incident during the period of the mother's pregnancy, and the truth is often distorted and the imagination heavily drawn upon to furnish the satisfactory explanation. It is the customary speech of the dime-museum lecturer to attribute the existence of some "freak" to an episode in the mother's pregnancy. The poor "Elephant-man" [Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890)] firmly believed his peculiarity was due to the fact that his mother while carrying him in utero was knocked down at the circus by an elephant. In some countries the exhibition of monstrosities is forbidden because of the supposed danger of maternal impression. The celebrated "Siamese Twins" for this reason were forbidden to exhibit themselves for quite a period in France'.*
Modern genetics should have put an end to belief in maternal impressions and other superstitions of ancient teratology, but Dr. Stevenson's work shows that where there is a will, there is a way to find supportive evidence for any hypothesis, no matter what the totality of the evidence might be.
Not everybody in 18th century England was as gullible as Nathanael St. Andre, Samuel Molyneux, and Mary Toft's anonymous defender quoted above. Some, like the artist William Hogarth (1697-1764), obviously took great pleasure in mocking the "credulity, superstition, and fanaticism" of his time. One can only wonder what Hogarth would make of today's fascination with psychics who hear clipped sounds from heaven or whose visions direct them to solve crimes for Court TV.
See also Aztec UFO hoax, channeling, confirmation bias, Bridey Murphy, Cottingly fairy hoax, Arthur Ford hoax, magical thinking, Mary Toft hoax, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, Ramtha, Steve Terbot, hoax, and the Sokal hoax.
books and articles
Boese, Alex. (2003). The Museum of Hoaxes: A Collection of Pranks, Stunts, Deceptions, and Other Wonderful Stories Contrived for the Public from the Middle Ages to the New Millennium. Plume, reprint ed.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists lists the following 18th century publications relating to Mary Toft:
The several depositions of Edward Costen, Richard Stedman, John Sweetapple, Mary Peytoe, Elizabeth Mason, and Mary Costen; relating to the affair of Mary Toft, of Godalming in the county of Surrey, being deliver'd of several rabbits, [etc.] 8vo. London: Pemberton, 1727.
AHLERS (C.). Some observations concerning the woman of Godlyman, 1726.
BRATHWAITE (T.). Remarks on A short narrative of an extra- ordinary delivery of rabbits, 1726.
DOUGLAS (J.). An advertisement occasion'd by some passages in Sir R. Manningham's diary, 1727.
MANNINGHAM (Sir R.). An exact diary of what was observ'd during a close attendance upon Mary Toft, the pretended rabbet- breeder of Godalming, 1726.
[POPE A.)]. The discovery: or, the squire turn'd ferret. An excellent new ballad, 1727.
ST. ANDRÉ (N.). A short narrative of an extraordinary delivery of rabbets perform'd by Mr. John Howard, surgeon at Guilford, 2nd ed., 1727.