Content warning: miscarriage, invasive gynecological details, animal cruelty and animal death
Jane and John Denyer were working-class farmers living in the poverty-stricken English village of Godalming. They had five children and the eldest, Mary, was baptized on February 21, 1703. Nothing at all is known about Mary Denyer’s life until she, aged seventeen, married eighteen-year-old Joshua Toft. While the common misconception is that people in olden times got married super-young, this was a bit younger than the usual for people in the year 1720. So this was either a love match, Mary was pregnant, or both.
Who was Joshua Toft? He was the sixth of twelve (!!) children born into the Toft family, a well-known family who had been working as clothiers for several centuries. What’s a clothier? Basically, someone who oversaw a fabric and clothing-making organization, employing people all the way from field workers who sheared the sheep to the spinners who turned the sheared fleece into wool all the way to people who made and sold the clothes made from these fabrics. It had been a successful business for them for a long time… until recently. By the time Joshua was born, the Tofts still described themselves as clothiers on census documents, but they were more at the “shearing sheep” level of work than the “overseeing an entire company” level. So Mary’s new husband’s family had a very good pedigree, but they weren’t actually wealthy at all by this point.
Mary and Joshua’s first child, a daughter named Mary (because everyone was called Mary back then, and also in honour of her mother maybe?) was born sometime between their marriage and 1723. In 1723, Mary gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Anne who died of smallpox aged around four months. In 1724, a son named James was born. The family rented a home from a farmer, and as a condition of living there, both were expected to work his fields. This meant that throughout all of her pregnancies and also postpartum periods (and also while mourning the death of her daughter), Mary was expected to walk two hours to the field, to work a long day on the field, and to walk two hours back home afterwards. Between the two of them, Mary worked more in the fields because Joshua’s time was divided between farm work and his clothier responsibilities*. *Joshua was actually a journeyman clothier, one of the beginning stages of that career path but there weren’t many jobs for clothiers so he was basically a poorly-paid labourer at this point.
Just to make sure we’ve all got the scene set: Mary and Joshua were both about twenty-five years old, the parents of two small children (and one who had very recently tragically died), both of whom were working physically demanding, low-paying jobs in a community where the Tofts used to be wealthy. And Mary was pregnant again! So they’d both assume soon there would be one more mouth to feed.
But in August 1726, Mary seemed to have a miscarriage. She later described this involved passing an object “as big as [her arm]” and then experiencing a “flooding” that lasted about a week. This object did not look to her or to the other women who sat with her (including her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, Margaret and Anne Toft) to look like a human fetus, but rather as something more monstrous. She went back to work as soon as she could physically do so (the other women she worked with likely helped cover for her) but then three weeks later, while in the fields, she experienced further “flooding” and great pain. This was clearly some sort of miscarriage, perhaps of an incomplete molar pregnancy (which is what happens when a non-viable fertilized egg implants in the uterus).
And from this situation, her in-laws decided to try and make their fortune by claiming it had been some sort of monster and making Mary famous as The Woman Who Gave Birth To A Monster. This is an unexpected decision, obviously, so let’s take a step back and figure out WTF the Tofts were thinking.
So bear in mind that English culture at this time was very interested in anything they saw as “monstrous”, and so ambitious people would try and round up interesting people or “monsters” to take on exhibit to get rich. For instance, a young feral boy known as Peter the Wild Boy had been the talk of the town just one year before Mary Toft had her miscarriage. Things like freak shows were also popular, which saw people with congenital disorders (or people pretending to have congenital disorders) toured around for the paying public. These people could be paid to attend dinner parties, to take part in exhibitions, and to basically make money for whoever their managers were. The Toft family, dealing with poverty after having previously been much more wealthy, saw this as a get-rich-quick scheme. And the tentpole of their scheme was the “monstrous” object Mary had just recently given birth to.
Now, to be clear, it seems like the instigator of this whole strategy was Mary’s mother-in-law Anne Toft, with an assist from her sister-in-law Margaret Toft. Mary herself necessarily became involved, but the evidence does not at all suggest that she’d ever been enthusiastic about taking part in any of this stuff. As the fleshy bits Mary had given birth to had likely already been disposed of (and didn’t look “monstrous” enough, perhaps), the Tofts killed a cat, removed some of its innards, and inserted a dead eel inside. And wait, it gets worse, because they then inserted this cat/eel combo up into Mary’s vagina. Now, Mary herself would later claim that the cat parts had been inserted into her cervix (which, if you aren’t up to date vis-a-vis gynecology, that’s the bit at the top of the vagina and it’s usually SEALED UP PRETTY TIGHT). I consulted, off the record, with a medical acquaintance of mine who said that it is very unlikely that the cat parts could have gotten in there. The cervix closes up really quickly after birth or miscarriage, and if she’d had cat bits inside likely Mary would have gotten a gruesome infection. But whether or not the cat parts passed the cervix or not they were put up her vagina, and THAT IS NOT OK!!!!
So, pretending Mary was in labour, one of her neighbours was called over to help. This neighbour heard the sound of something falling into a pot (the dead cat/eel, presumably), and then she was sent to go and fetch Anne Toft, the mother-in-law/instigator if the scheme, who was hanging out pretending not to know what was going on. Anne came over, like, “Hey, what’s up, having a baby OH MY GOD A MONSTER??? Did my daughter-in-law just give birth to a headless/tailless cat with an eel skeleton inside of it???” And so she decided to bring the “monster” to a surgeon/midwife who lived nearby so he could tell them what was going on.
This male midwife was named John Howard and, to his credit, was like, “I find it pretty hard to believe that a human woman just gave birth to this headless cat/eel” but not for the reason you’d think, his reasoning was that if Mary had given birth to a cat/eel, surely it would still have its head. That’s your concern, John??? Anyway, curiosity got the better of him, and he headed over to the Toft house to see what was going on.
Anne and Margaret got busy preparing Mary for John Howard’s visit, stuffing more dead cat bits up Mary’s vagina while Mary, presumably, was unable to stop them. When John Howard got to Mary’s house, he happened to just catch Mary “going into labour” again. Anne “delivered” the dead cat bits, and John Howard was like, “OK, this does seem like it’s really happening, but until I personally help deliver her of the cat head and tail, I won’t believe this is really a thing that is happening.” Wouldn’t you know, the Tofts had lost track of the cat head and tail (?????) and so they switched gears and decided to go with rabbit bits since rabbits were easier to find in their area and they were determined to stuff some dead animal up Mary’s vagina because THIS WHOLE THING IS A NIGHTMARE.
Important note on rabbits: rabbits were all over England at this time. A few hundred years before, Medieval lords had built warrens to raise rabbits for meat and fur for their fancy meals and outfits. But rabbits being rabbits, they escaped from these enclosures and became pests to lower status people in rural areas. So, these creatures were the easiest things for the Tofts to acquire but also they had a sort of political implication as rabbits were seen as symbolic of the carelessness of the upper classes.
So anyway, Anne and (presumably, because I don’t think she could do this all alone and Mary wasn’t helping out with this bit) Margaret and/or Joshua began pulling apart a rabbit carcass into vagina-sized pieces. Anne inserted the rabbit’s upper jaw into Mary’s vagina (because they needed a head for their “monster”) and then left. This OBVIOUSLY hurt Mary A LOT and so she called for help and someone (Margaret?? A neighbour???) removed this from her. But then the next day, Anne was back on the scene and she forced the rest of the rabbit skull inside of Mary (who, just remember, had only just very recently had a weeks-long miscarriage). By the time John Howard arrived, Mary was obviously BLEEDING and in SO MUCH PAIN, and John Howard delivered the rabbit skull and was like, “Huh, when you put this with the other bits, it makes a monster so now I believe that this is happening!”
Side note on John Howard: from the way he acted from basically this point forward, he seems to have been largely motivated by money and fame. So whether or not he actually believed Mary had somehow conceived and given birth to a rabbit monster, he knew there was lost of money in it for him if he was the doctor who delivered the rabbit monsters. So we don’t know if he was just utterly fooled by this extremely weird scheme, or if he was in on it, perhaps teaming up with Anne Toft. But from this point on, he was all in. And part of this was that he began giving money to the Toft family every time Mary gave birth to another rabbit bit.
So, now that the rabbit head had been delivered, the Tofts changed their story to try and present a plausible reason for why Mary would have given birth to this “monster.” Mary began to claim that she’d dreamed of rabbits throughout her (recent, actual pregnancy) and had a craving to eat rabbits the whole time. And this all tied in with some of the medical science of the day which suggested the importance of “pre-natal influence” aka that whatever pregnant people think about can affect their babies. Like, not in a 21st-century way where you put headphones on your belly and play Baby Mozart or whatever; but in a sort of if you dream about rabbits, you will give birth to rabbits sort of way.
And so suddenly, rather than just having “birthed” one monster, Mary began delivering entire rabbits on a daily basis, piece by piece. FROM OUT OF HER VAGINA. John Howard delivered them all, like his were the unwashed 18th-century hands reaching up inside of her to pull out the rabbit skulls and ribcages and pointy, pointy claws. Anne and perhaps Margaret were likely the ones putting the rabbit bits up inside of her, and Mary was the one, legs spread, who had to literally embody the whole scheme.
John Howard began spending so much time with her that he decided to move to Godalming so he could be with her 24/7 as one never knew when a new rabbit bit might need to be delivered. By the end of November 1726, she’d “given birth” to twelve complete rabbits, piece by piece. Sometimes she had to keep rabbit bits up inside of her for days or weeks so that John Howard wouldn’t see them beig put inside, and frankly the fact she didn’t die of 1000 different blood infections is pretty remarkable.
As this was all going on, John Howard wrote letters to every rich and important person he knew, hoping for more publicity and therefore, more money for himself. He also pickled all the rabbit bits, and offered to put them on display or give lectures about them, for money. All of this hustling led to a small notice about the rabbit births popping up in a London newspaper, which them gained the attention of some of King George I’s courtiers. Which is how the King’s personal physician, Nathanael St. Andre, enters the whole picture and everything gets EVER WILDER.
A note on King George I: he was the grand-nephew of Queen Anne I (from The Favourite, a film with its own rabbits/fertility imagery now that I think about it). George had become King of Great Britain because Queen Anne I died without any living heirs, and nobody wanted a Catholic to inherit, and George was the next closest family member who was a Protestant. He was also German, and never learned to speak English, and spent most of his reign living in Germany. Which is why, when he needed to hire a personal physician, he chose Nathanael St. Andre — a Swiss man who spoke German, but who was a terrible doctor and an even worse person. But all George cared about was that he spoke German.
A note on Nathanael St. Andre: he was a terrible doctor and an even worse person. He had a long history of odd behaviour, and he seemed to find himself caught up in weird scandals a lot more often than most other people because he loved being in the middle of scandals. And so of course the rabbit births caught his attention, he was a messy bitch who lived for drama and was constantly desperate to keep his name in the newspapers as a famous eccentric genius. So, this is all turning into an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario where John Howard and Nathanael St. Andre were so desperate for fame and acclaim that they got super carried away with it all and forgot to use their logical brains, meanwhile Mary Toft is suffering and having rabbits shoved into her vagina on a daily basis and didn’t want any of this.
Now, by this point, word of Mary’s rabbit births had gotten so locally famous that she couldn’t stay in Godalming anymore, so she was moved to the bigger town of Guildford. Also bear in mind, her husband Joshua had been and still was running around buying dead baby rabbits and being not at all discreet, literally saying things like, “Yep, these are for my wife!” and this was not a smooth operation. Regardless, St. Andre swept up into Guildford just in time to witness Mary’s fifteenth “rabbit birth”.
St. Andre — who was a terrible doctor who didn’t know what he was doing, and also wasn’t a obstetrician, gynecologist or midwife at all — “personally” helped her deliver a skinned rabbit carcass, and than ran off to autopsy it to see what was what. Now, it’s at this point that he noticed the rabbit lungs floated in water, which meant that they had breathed air (e.g. had been part of an alive rabbit that didn’t just emerge from a human uterus). He was called back to Mary’s side again shortly after, and witnessed the “birth” of another skinned rabbit carcass.
This time, St. Andre followed up the “birth” by examining Mary’s vaginal area (note, again, he had no idea what he was doing vis-a-vis gynecology). He was like, “Well, I don’t see any more rabbit bits hidden up there so I guess we’re done for today,” but then he was called back into her room again and she delivered another dead rabbit. This did the trick, as this time St. Andre was like, “Guess what: this whole this is for real!!!”
But, spoiler, in her later deposition, Mary explained that his internal examination of her hadn’t been very thorough, and she’d had the rabbit hidden up inside of her the whole time. That’s right: Nathanael St. Andre was such a useless and unqualified doctor that he didn’t notice an entire rabbit carcass inside the vagina of a woman whose vagina he was inspecting to see if there was a rabbit carcass in it. So basically: St. Andre was a terrible doctor and/or a co-conspirator, and Mary Toft truly needed to stop having dead rabbits put up her vagina because I MEAN COME ON THIS POOR WOMAN!!!
Now, even King George I knew that St. Andre was a terrible doctor, so he sent another doctor up to see Mary Toft to investigate. This new person was Cyriacus Ahlers (great name), the official royal doctor of the German royal family (St. Andre was the physician of the British royal family). Ahlers to his credit was way more skeptical than St. Andre had been, and basically showed up being like, “Mary Toft, I don’t believe you’ve given birth to rabbits, prove me wrong.”
So, the clown car that was this whole scheme didn’t impress Ahlers at all. For instance, when he arrived, he was shown a rabbit skin that she’d allegedly just given birth to. And Ahlers, who was a doctor who at least borderline knew the basic facts of childbirth, was like, “Yeah no, there’s no blood or fluid on this rabbit skin whatsoever. There’s literally no way this was just born out of either a human woman or a female rabbit. Also? This Mary Toft person doesn’t look pregnant at all, like her belly doesn’t stick out, she’s not lactating, and I think she’s literally wearing a corset right now?? And also, she’s walking around holding her knees together like she’s trying to keep something from falling out of her vagina so this is all more than a little SUSPICIOUS TO ME.”
And all at once, Mary suddenly went into “labour” and Ahlers was like, “I’ve got this” but — despite what I just said about him knowing some stuff about human anatomy — he wasn’t an obstetrician and so when he reached his hand inside of Mary, he accidentally shoved the rabbit HIGHER UP INSIDE HER VAGINA which OH MY GOD NOOOOO and Mary screamed and probably passed out from the pain, and John Howard took over the delivery. But then Ahlers sneakily stole some of the rabbit bits, and even though he was supposed to stay in Guildford for three days, pretended to have a headache to go to bed early and secretly left town with the rabbit bits.
Back in London, he tested the rabbit bits and found that a) the rabbits had had their muscles cut from their bones with sharp knives, not something that could have happened in utero and b) the rabbits had pellets in their anuses that had corn and wheat and grass in them, meaning these rabbits had eaten corn and wheat and grass, meaning they had not literally just been born. Ahlers now had proof that Mary’s rabbit births were a total hoax.
At this point, Mary herself was probably holding the 18th century version of bags of frozen peas to her vulva, and sobbing quietly from the pain of it all. But nobody else cared about her, because what happened next was a dick-swinging contest between Ahlers, John Howard, and St. Andre about which of them was the smartest doctor. All three men wrote letters to the editors of newspapers being like, “Mary Toft is a hoaxer!!” and “Ahlers is a hypocrite!!” and back and forth and blah blah blah. As they did that, Anne Toft kept shoving rabbit bits into her daughter-in-law and John Howard kept “delivering” them, Finally, to settle this once and for all, an obstetrician named Sir Richard Manningham (yes, he’d been Knighted!) was commanded by King George I to visit Mary Toft and figure out what the literal fuck for fuck’s sake was going on.
Manningham went to Guildford and thoroughly examined Mary, noting that her breasts were excreting a bit of milk, that there was absolutely nothing weird inside of her vagina, and that her cervix was closed up as per usual for a person who was not in labour. But after Manningham left the room, John Howard ran after him like, “Oh hey, I just delivered these membranes from inside of her! Guess you missed them during your exam!!” And Manningham was like, “Why I never!!” And so he looked at the membranes, which were clearly bits of a hog’s bladder than even still smelled like hog urine. He was like, “bring me a hog’s bladder so I can compare them!” And he did, and they looked just the same. When she heard his accusations of a hoax, Mary started crying because I mean: poor her, honestly. And then Manningham, Ahlers, and St. Andre all agreed to bring Mary back to London for further examinations.
And so onto London! St. Andre was keen for Mary’s next #RabbitBirth to happen publicly so that he could become even more famous, in case anyone had forgotten what his goal was with this whole thing. But in London, Mary was kept under 24/7 surveillance and so there was no opportunity for anyone to bring her a rabbit to put inside of her vagina and THANK GOD!!! THIS POOR WOMAN’S VAGINA!!! Seventeen rabbits! A dead cat with eel inside of it! Repeated invasive examinations from men who DID NOT KNOW WHAT THEY WERE DOING???? MARY TOFT!!!!! God I just want to give her a big hug, and a bag of frozen peas, and let her go off and have a nice bath or something.
But the thing is that Mary was now legitimately sick because NO KIDDING, likely from about 1000 various internal infections. The doctors who tended to her noticed that she went into fits which sort of looked like going into labour, but which were probably involuntary convulsions from VERY SERIOUS INFECTIONS. And then a man was caught trying to smuggle a rabbit into Mary’s room, and he was like, “Her sister-in-law Margaret paid me to do this!” And the jig was up!
Margaret Toft was brought in for questioning and she was like, “Yes, I hired that guy to sneak a rabbit into Mary’s room but it was just for her to eat! Girl was craving rabbit meat!!” And Mary was also brought in for questioning and she agreed the rabbit had just been for her to eat. For two days, Manningham and other men interrogated Mary, trying to get her to admit to the hoax. She refused to give in until finally Manningham was like, “OK, so if you did birth rabbits that means your inside bits are really weird and so we’ll need to literally vivisect and cut you open to look at your uterus” and Mary was like, “OK it’s a hoax!! Please don’t vivisect me!!!”
So it was that on December 7th 1726, Mary dictated her confession. Initially, she claimed that she’d met a stranger on the road who had suggested the scheme as a way for her to “never want as long as I liv’d” (aka, would make her rich). Then, she admitted it had been her in-law’s idea, further implicating John Howard. She was steadfast that she was innocent in all of it and had been a pawn to other peoples’ plans. Based on her confession and all the other evidence, Mary was officially charged with “being a Notorious and Vile Cheat” which apparently was a crime back then, and she was sent to prison.
During her stay in prison, crowds mobbed nearby, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous Rabbit Queen. It was during this period her time that she had the only contemporaneous portrait made of her, drawn by the artist John Laguerre. In it, she’s posed with a rabbit on her map because Laguerre knew what his audience wanted to see (it’s the first image in this essay, if you’re curious what she looked like).
After three months, Mary was discharged mainly because “being a Notorious and Vile Cheat” wasn’t easy to prosecute. Her health issues now seemingly improved, maybe because she wasn’t having dead animal bits and unwashed men’s hands forced into her vagina on a daily basis, she returned home to Godalming and her husband and two children — and her in-laws, who had put her in this situation to begin with, and who were probably upset with her for implicating them in all the lies. About one year after all of this had occurred, Mary Toft, now aged twenty-six, gave birth to a daughter named Elizabeth.
Though satirists and other writers continued to share the story of the rabbit hoax, Mary herself fades from the public record almost entirely until her death in 1763. Joshua died before her, as upon her death, the parish register recorded her as “Mary Toft, Widow” and included her claim to fame, calling her “the Impostress Rabbitt Breeder.” Although poor women from Surrey weren’t generally written up in London newspapers upon their deaths, Mary Toft’s obituary was included in London newspapers alongside those of aristocrats.
There is a new biography coming out in 2020 called The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England by Karen Harvey. This author has already written several great essays about Toft, one of which I referred to while working on this piece, and I can’t wait to read more of her work on this topic. Harvey is determined to elevate Mary Toft, rather than the male doctors, in her own story.
There is also a fiction book coming out in 2020, called Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer, which sounds intriguing.
Here are some of the works I used to research this piece:
What Mary Toft Felt: Women’s Voices, Pain, Power and the Body by Karen Harvey (History Workshop Journal)
Why Historians Are Reexamining the Case of the Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Sabrina Imbler (Atlas Obscura)
Lore, episode 45: First Impressions (Lore Podcast)
Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits by Niki Russell (The Public Domain Review)
An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits by Edward White (The Paris Review)
The Curious Case of Mary Toft (University of Glasgow Special Collections)
The confessions of a rabbit woman and other recently digitized tales from the Osler Library by Mary Yearl (McGill University Library News)
Mary Toft or Tofts (Godalming Musem)
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Lucas Reilly (Mental Floss)