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Mary Tofts

Mary Tofts (born c. 1701-January 1763), also called Mary Toft, was a maidservant from Godalming, England, who in 1726 became the subject of considerable controversy when she hoaxed doctors into believing that she had given birth to at least sixteen rabbits.

Tofts was twenty-five years old and married at the time to Joshua Tofts, a journeyman clothier, and despite a miscarriage in August had still seemed pregnant. She went into apparent labor and the Guildford male-midwife John Howard arrived to assist. Howard reported that Mary told him she and a friend had been weeding in a field when they saw two rabbits and chased them: the escape of the rabbits created "such a longing" in Mary that she miscarried and from then on could think of nothing but rabbits. Soon, Howard recorded, she began producing parts of animals: a rabbit's liver, the legs of a cat, and, in a single day, nine baby rabbits. Howard sent letters to some of England's greatest doctors and scientists asking for help investigating the situation, and among those who came to his assistance were Nathaniel St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, the most famous obstetrician in London. Tofts gave birth to several more dead rabbits in their presence.

Tofts claimed that during pregnancy she had an intense craving for roast rabbit, that she tried to catch rabbits in the garden, that she had admired them in the village market, and that she had dreamed about rabbits. Based on this testimony, the doctors explained the births as a result of "maternal impressions", contending that a pregnant woman's experiences could be imprinted directly on the fetus at conception and cause birth defects.

In these early days of newspapers, the story became a national sensation. Lord Onslow told Sir Hans Sloane that it had "almost alarmed England". Rabbit stew and jugged hare disappeared from the dinner table. John Howard lectured to the Royal Society. St André wrote the forty-page pamphlet: A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets. Mary was brought to London, where she was bombarded with curious doctors and fashionable visitors. Lord Hervey told Henry Fox that:

Every creature in town, both men and women, have been to see and feel her: the perpetual emotions, noises and rumblings in her Belly are something prodigious; all the eminent physicians, surgeons and man-midwives in London are there Day and Night to watch her next production.

Sir Richard Manningham eventually exposed the birthings as a hoax after a porter admitted smuggling a rabbit into Mary's chamber. Tofts was forced to admit on 7 December 1726 that she had manually inserted dead rabbits into her vagina and then allowed them to be removed as if she were giving birth.

In the aftermath of the hoax, the medical profession suffered a great deal of public mockery for its gullibility. William Hogarth published the print The Cunicularii or the Wise Men of Godalming in Consultation, showing St André and Manningham witnessing Mary "giving birth" while John Howard skulks at the door turning down an offered rabbit with the words "it's too big". A week or so after Mary's exposure, Lincoln's Inn Fields added a new "rabbit" scene to their Harlequin the Sorcerer.

The following are the chief of the contemporary pamphlets upon the imposture:

  • An Exact Diary by Sir R. Manningham, 1726, 8vo;
  • A Short Narrative, 1726 and 1727, 8vo;
  • Remarks on A Short Narrative by Thos. Braithwaite, 1726, 8vo;
  • Some Observations by Ahler, 1726, 8vo;
  • The Several Depositions of Edward Costen, &c., 1727, 8vo;
  • The Sooterkin Dissected, 1726, 8vo;
  • The Anatomist Dissected … by Lemuel Gulliver, 1727, 8vo;
  • Advertisement occasioned by some Passages in Sir R. Manningham’s Diary, by I. Douglas, 1727, 8vo;
  • Much Ado about Nothing, or the Rabbit Woman’s Confession, 1727, 8vo;
  • A Letter from a Male Physician, 1726, 8vo;
  • The Doctors in Labour, or a New Wim-Wam in Guildford (12 plates), 1727;
  • The Discovery, or the Squire turned Ferret, 1727, fol. and 8vo;
  • St. André’s Miscarriage, 1727;
  • The Wonder of Wonders, Ipswich, 1726. Bound in rabbit-skin, sets of these tracts have frequently sold for from ten to fifteen guineas.

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