Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Praeternatural Rabbets? In My Vagina?: The Monstrous Births of Mary Toft

Some time in the spring of 1726, Mary Toft, the young wife of a journeyman clothier, suffered a miscarriage. The event followed three successful births, themselves a wonder in an age where pregnancy and childbirth endangered the lives of mother and fetus alike. Mary reported expelling materials from her body over the course of several days, a sad but not unusual reminder of the loss of her child.

Title page to the 1726 account of Mary's births

As members of the lower class from Godalming, Surrey, the Tofts lived a hand-to-mouth existence during the long 18th century, often supplementing their diet with the countryside’s abundant rabbit population. As Mary was out in the fields weeding, she experienced the first pangs of her uterine contractions leading to the miscarriage – as she would later report – after watching a rabbit and “longing” for it.

Childbirth during the 18th century was laden with superstitions about unhealthy prenatal stimuli that could affect a fetus. A certain longing for foods, for instance, an attachment to a certain pet, or any obsessive behavior during pregnancy, it was believed, might impact the child’s looks and temperament. This commonplace superstition would aid the conspirators in the events that followed.

Much of the evidence that survives from this case is from eyewitness testimony, considered reliable proof for the age. In this instance, the evidence of Mary’s monstrous births also serve as witness to the crime with the publication of A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets Perform’d by Mr. John Howard, Surgeon at Guilford, “Published by Mr. St. André.” As the conclusion of the pamphlet includes elaborate witness testimonies, Mary’s later admission that the events following her miscarriage, though conceived by her, clearly involved a large-scale conspiracy.

As Toft’s surgeon and midwife, John Howard entered the tale early, and the tone in his account is certainly not tongue-in-cheek; in it, Howard demonstrates forensic science of the age, though he distorts it to fit his scheme. The Short Narrative consists of a detailed, scientific examination of Mary Toft and her births, an account of her life to that point, and the testimony of witnesses involved with Mary.

18th-century engraving of Mary Toft's rabbit births

After receiving strange animal parts purported to have been expelled from Mary’s uterus after her miscarriage, Howard helped to spread the story. When a 1726 newspaper reported that the Surrey woman was giving birth to rabbits, King George himself took interest, requesting that his own household doctor, Nathaniel St. André, investigate. George sent another surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, to further examine the report.

The more sordid details of the observations the three doctors made are shocking. Howard writes, “I deliver’d [Mary] of the entire Trunk, strip’d of its Skin, of a Rabbet of about four Months growth, in which the hearth and Lungs were contained with the Diaphragm entire. I instantly cut off a piece of them, and tried them in Water; they seemed but just specially lighter than it…” Here, Howard is attempting to demonstrate that the rabbits issuing from Mary’s body had breathed air into the lungs, hence the water test. He testifies that she gives birth to rabbit, cat, and eel parts and bodies, though the majority of parts were those of rabbits.

Howard also maintains he investigated the physiology of the patient. “I examined her,” he writes, “and found, that in the Course of the Fallopian Tubes, there were some Inequalities, but more sensibly on the right side of her Belly; which made me conjecture that the Rabbets were bred in those Tubes, and only came in to the Uterus…As there was no Blood nor Water that iffused from the Vagina, after I had delivered her, I again examined that Part, and found in not in the least inflamed or lacerated. Upon examining her Breasts, I found Milk in one of them, but only a little yellowish Serum in the other.” This diction, coupled with the investigation from three doctors, would have convinced nearly any reader of the validity of the events.

In addition to examining the patient, Howard claims to have carefully examined the rabbits, down to their waste: “In the Rectum of this Animal, which remain’d affix’d to the Body, we found five or six Pellets, must of the same Colour and Consistence as the common Dung of a Rabbet, little Bodies, like dried Fragments, being matted together with a mucous Matter.”

The Surrey doctor also notes, “One remarkable Circumstance is, that most of these Animals were Females, as far as I could judge.” After witnessing and displaying several of these births for the king’s visiting physicians, Howard reaches his scientific conclusion: “This, I think, proves in the strongest Terms possible that these Animals were of a particular kind, and not bred in any natural Way… .” These animals, he claims, are “Praeternatural Rabbets.”

18th-century poem and engraving satirizing Toft

After witnessing these births, the king’s two doctors were divided. St. André, as his name on the pamphlet indicates, either thoroughly believed in the rabbit births or willingly joined in the growing conspiracy. Ahlers, by contrast, was not easily swayed. Known for his cynicism – a trait, perhaps, that led King George to include him in the investigation – Ahlers would return to court and dismiss the story as a hoax. He testified that Howard orchestrated the births and investigations, never allowing either of the king’s physicians to examine Mary alone. He also noted that the animal parts she delivered appeared to have been cut with a manmade tool.

The scheme further unraveled in late-1726 when a witness revealed he had observed Mary’s husband Joshua purchasing rabbits. Mary was taken to court and threatened with an invasive operation to investigate her uterus. Under this threat, Mary confessed to inserting animal parts into her vagina. She admitted that she believed the notoriety from the monstrous births would gain her fame and wealth; instead, she was charged with being a “vile cheat and an imposter,” and remanded to Tothill Fields Birdwell Prison.

Tothill Fields Birdwell prison (top)
Portrait of Mary Toft in prison (bottom)
Howard said of Mary that she was "of a very stupid 
and sullen Temper: She can neither write nor read..."

Mary’s prison sentence was brief, though storied. Crowds gathered at the prison, and Mary was often displayed to them, to satisfy their curiosity. False reports of her suicide by slicing her throat were printed. By the time of her release in 1727, Mary was notorious, a widely mocked liar.

18th-century false account of Mary's suicide

The aftermath of the Mary Toft case during the 18th century was widespread. Satirists mocked the conspirators, questioning the ability of physicians provide reliable forensic testimony. And while Mary was considered a simpleton, a pawn in a game created by men, her sexuality was the subject of speculation and further mockery in poems and satirical cartoons of the era.