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Sunday, April 10, 2011

OLL LEWIS: Crypto Cons - More Rabbit Than Sainsbury’s - Part 2

You would think that being moved to London at the request and expense of the King of England would have made Mary Toft and her collaborators think twice about organizing more human-rabbit births. It was probably organized and agreed to in the first place as an exercise to call her bluff; surely, if this was all a hoax and they had any common sense, she, her husband Joshua and midwife John Howard would see sense and abandon the charade before they got in any deeper. Unfortunately though they were not really that intelligent and like most stupid people who get into similar circumstances they were probably busy congratulating themselves on how they had been clever enough to fool all these big city types with their fancy qualifications and thought themselves to be invincible. The trouble was that the Tofts and Howard were not fooling everyone, in fact it was probably only the first surgeon who had seen them, Nathanial St Andre, and the secretary to the Prince of Wales, Samuel Molyneux, who had wholly convinced by the validity of Mary Toft’s rabbit births. St Andre, the King’s surgeon, had foolishly staked his reputation on Mary’s unusual births and issued challenges that anyone who did not believe him could visit Mary and witness a birth in person.

St Andre’s challenge was one thing when Mary was living out in the sticks in Surry, only one surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, who had like St Andre also been sent by the King, bothered making the trip. Ahlers found evidence of the rabbits and other animal parts Mary had been giving birth to having been cut by knives and found straw in their droppings so was less than impressed by the evidence. However, when Mary was moved to the bustling metropolis of London, right slap bang in the middle of the enlightenment it put her within easy reach of most of England’s reputable surgeons and gentlemen scientists so visits and investigations became more frequent. Naturally Mary obliged her visitors by conveniently plopping out bits of meat in their presence every time, despite usually not appearing to be pregnant.

One such visitor was Richard Manningham, who had gone to collect Mary Toft from Surry with St Andre. Manningham was completely unconvinced by Mary and identified one of the bits she had plopped out for him as a fully grown pigs bladder that still contained urine. St Andre was able to convince some of the London set with Mary’s displays though, John Maubray, one of the leaders of the male midwife movement, gladly jumped on the bunny birth bandwagon as this vindicated his theory of “sooterkin”. According to Maubray, and several others at the time, Mary’s strange rabbit births were small creatures named sooterkin, formed in the womb as a result of over familiarity with household pets. A more respected midwife than Maubray and expert in female anatomy. James Douglas, was often invited to view a birth by St Andre but felt sure that the births were a hoax.

While in London it was decided to put Mary Toft under constant supervision and during this time, whenever she had a visitor that wanted to see her giving birth to a rabbit she would go into labour but produce nothing.

The endgame for Mary and her collaborators began when Thomas Onslow started to investigate the affair. Onslow had Mary’s husband Joshua, who had been more or less ignored by most people investigating the case, followed. Joshua was caught red handed buying rabbits for use in the hoax. Upon hearing the news that Joshua had been caught buying rabbits one of the porters that was charged with looking after Mary also confessed that he had been bribed by Mary’s sister in law to smuggle rabbits and other animal parts into a hiding place in Mary’s room. Still refusing to believe she had been rumbled, Mary continued to deny it had been a hoax when interrogated by Richard Manningham and James Douglas. During these interrogations Manningham examined her and found that she still had something in her uterus, eventually, after Manningham threatened to cut her open painfully to find out what it was, Mary confessed.

It turned out that it was the rest of the cat, of which parts had been delivered by Jhon Howard in one of the first fake births. Immediately following her initial miscarriage Mary Toft had inserted animal parts into her uterus after being told how to do this, she claimed, by a gypsy who said that if she were to do that she would become famous and want for nothing. After her uterus had contracted she had started pushing meat and body parts into her vagina and birthing them by opening her legs, after a bit of theatrical moaning.

As all this was happening St Andre was busy publishing a 40 page book on Mary’s strange sooterkin, which was published on the 3rd of December 1726, leading to a humiliating climb down by him on the 9th of December when the hoax finally came to light. St Andre lost his position as the Kings surgeon as a result of the affair. Two years later in the houses of parliament he was to encounter Samuel Molyneux once more, and received widespread condemnation when Molyneux died in his arms after suffering an apparent fit in the chamber and it was alleged that St Andre had poisoned him and used his position as a surgeon to prevent him from getting help before he died. St Andre then eloped with Molyneux’s rich widow, so there may well have been something in those accusations. Indeed, the whole Toft affair could well have been used by St Andre as cover for an affair with Molyneux’s wife.

Mary Toft and John Howard appeared in court the following January. Howard was fined £800 for his part in the scam and Mary was briefly incarcerated. Ill health was to secure her release and she went back to her husband in Godalming where she later had a normal, healthy and human daughter.

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