Except nature, and humanity wasn’t always well ordered, sometimes there are birth defects or complications during pregnancies. These were, in the 18th century often blamed on some animal having interfered with the pregnancy in some manner. The more uncharitable doctors, midwives and gossips might insinuate that the mother had conceived the child from having had congress with an animal and the more tactful might have suggested that this was as a result of the mother having been startled or scared by a similar animal during the pregnancy causing the baby to take on the look or traits of that animal. This bizarre superstition persisted into Victorian times among the great uneducated masses of the city slums of London as it was used by sideshow exhibitors as the explanation for why Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick looked the way he did.
These hoaky home-spun theories would be pushed to the limit by a strange case in Godalming, Surry in 1726. Mary Toft, the wife of a clothing salesman, miscarried something that had the appearance of a rabbit but with exterior lungs and heart. About 14 days later Mary was said to have given birth to a live rabbit, followed by several more over the subsequent hours and days. None of the bunnies survived for more than a few minutes, but several people are said to have seen the births and the rabbits afterwards.
Reports of the event were published in Mist’s Weekly Journal and eventually reached the ear of King George I as a result. The king, who was very intrigued by the reports, was to send his own investigators, his surgeon Nathanial St Andre and the secretary to the Prince of Wales Samuel Molyneux, to Godalming to find out more about the case. It turned out the event had not been a one off and that Mary was still giving birth to rabbits and bits of other animals. One midwife, John Howard, who had initially been sceptical of the claims, had supervised at the birth of 3 cats legs, one rabbits leg, the guts of an animal Howard presumed was a cat and the backbone of an eel. The explanation for the rabbit and cat births was thought to be that Mary had dreamed about or strongly desired each creature during her pregnancy so her baby had turned into them.
Shortly after the arrival of the kings investigators Mary gave birth to the torso of a rabbit and St Andre examined her determining that the rabbits had indeed come from her womb. Later that evening Mary gave birth to another rabbit torso in their absence and a head in the presence of the two men. The investigators left either wholey convinced, or perhaps in on the scam although neither actually confessed to it, and submitted a report to the king.
Deciding that all this was so compelling that it needed further study the King then sent another surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers to investigate Mary Toft and the ever present midwife John Howard. Ahlers was a lot more sceptical of the claims than St Andre and Molyneux had been especially because, when he arrived Ahlers was showing no signs of pregnancy but proceeded to plop out a few bunnies for him on queue. Ahlers noticed that prior to these births Mary had been holding her legs together as if to prevent something falling out and that John Howard insisted in delivering the bunnies with no interference from Ahlers and Mary would cry out in pain whenever Ahlers came too near. When he left he pretended to be convinced in order to get his hands on some of the birthed bunny bits to study further. Ahlers determined that they had been cut with a knife and found straw and grain in their digestive tract and faeces. All was not looking good for Toft and Howard’s story and things were also looking bad for St Andre as well who had endorsed the claims. Howard somehow caught wind of what was happening, probably via St Andre, and wrote a letter requesting the immediate return of specimens. St Andre returned to Surry to see Howard and was handed two more rabbits that Mary had supposedly given birth to. St Andre also used the trip to collect affidavits from all concerned just so he could use them to cast doubt on Ahlders’ version of events should he ever need to. St Andre then gave the king an anatomical demonstration of the births which led to the king asking for Mary Toft to be brought to London for more examination.
To be continued…