The rabbit queen, fake news from 1726, the woman who gave birth to rabbits

Door San Daniel gepubliceerd in Verhalen en Poëzie


                    George I

President of America, Donald Trump more often than not calls unwilling reports about his person, "fake news." Reality dictates that a lot of 'made news' actually does appear on social media. It is not a new phenomenon, certainly not in American politics. Richard Nixon, the 37th president of America, is a good example of that. He won the 1968 elections by beating Hubert Humphrey.

During a campaign meeting with Nixon's team, his campaign leader suggested spreading a rumor about the opposing candidate Humphrey. The rumor was that his opponent would have had sexual contact with a cow. "That's ridiculous," voiced Richard Nixon, who would later go down in history as "tricky Dicky," "you can say a lot," he said, "but he would never do that!" "I know and everyone at this table knows that," his manager replied, "but I want to see him deny it in public, because where there is smoke ... there is fire."

There is nothing new under the sun, not then, not many centuries ago and not now.


'Mary Toft (1701-1763), was an English peasant woman from Godalming, Surrey, who became the subject of considerable controversy in 1726 when she made doctors believe she had given birth to rabbits. She worked in bitter poverty on the land and devised a way to improve her destiny.

In 1726 Toft became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. She then claimed that she had given birth to different parts of animals and that led to the arrival of John Howard, a local surgeon, who investigated the matter. He collected several pieces of animal meat and duly informed other prominent doctors, who brought the matter to the attention of Nathaniel St. André, surgeon at the royal palace of King George I.

John Howard helped deliver three legs of a cat, one of a rabbit and three pieces of an eel, according to pamphlets that were widely distributed at the time.

On another day shortly thereafter, she would also have given birth to nine dead rabbits.

Under the spell of what appeared to be a supernatural event, Howard wrote to England's most respected doctors and scientists, including King George I's secretary.

Howard initially rejected the idea that Toft had given birth to animal parts, but the next day, despite his reservations, he went to see her. When Mary gave birth again and more animal parts appeared, Howard returned to research this phenomena. According to a report of 9 November she gave birth in the following days to "three legs of a tabby cat and a rabbit's leg: also of animal guts including three pieces of a spine of an eel ...


As the story became known, Henry Davenant, a member of the court of King George I, went to see for himself on November 4 what was going on. He examined the samples that Howard had collected and returned to London, apparently convinced. Some of the letters he wrote to Davenant informing him of any progress in the matter came to the attention of Nathaniel St. André, a Swiss surgeon employed by the Royal Family since 1723.St. André would eventually describe the content of one of these letters in his pamphlet, "A short description of an extraordinary birth of rabbets (rabbit's old spelling)" (1727):

In mid-November, the British royal family was so interested in the story that they sent St. André and Samuel Molyneux, secretary of the Prince of Wales, to investigate. Apparently they were not disappointed; When they arrived on November 15, they were taken by Howard to see Toft, who delivered the body of a rabbit within hours.

The story of St. André gives details about his investigation of the rabbit. To check if the rabbit had breathed, he placed a piece of his lung in water to see if it would float - what it did. St. André then carried out a medical examination on Toft and concluded that the rabbits had grown in her fallopian tubes.

In the absence of the doctor, Toft later reportedly delivered the torso of another rabbit later that day, which the two were also investigating. They came back that evening to see Toft again as she seemed to be suffering from violent contractions. A further medical examination followed and this yielded some rabbit skin, followed a few minutes later by the head of a rabbit. Both men inspected the pieces of meat, indicating that some resembled the body parts of a cat.



Fascinated by all this, the king sent his personal surgeon Cyriacus Ahlers to Guildford. Ahlers arrived on November 20 and noticed that Toft showed no signs of pregnancy. He already suspected deception and noticed that Toft seemed to be pressing on her knees and thighs, as if she wanted to prevent something from falling down. He thought Howard's behavior was just as suspicious as he wouldn't let him help the rabbits be born.

Convinced that there was deceit, he lied, telling those involved that he believed Toft's story before apologizing and returning to London, taking along samples of the rabbit parts. Upon closer examination in London, he reportedly found evidence that they had been cut with a man-made instrument and noticed pieces of straw and grain in their gut.


Ahlers reported his findings to the king on November 21, and later to "several people of importance and distinction." Howard wrote to Ahlers the next day and asked for the return of the samples taken. Ahlers' distrust began to worry both Howard and St. André, and apparently the king, because two days later St. André and a colleague were called back to Guildford.

Upon their arrival, they met Howard, who told St. André that Toft had given birth to two more rabbits.

St. André was now instructed by the king to travel back to Guildford and bring Toft to London so that further investigation could be conducted. He was accompanied by Richard Manningham, a famous surgeon who had been knighted in 1721, and was the second son of Thomas Manningham, bishop of Chichester.

He examined Toft and found the right side of her belly slightly larger. Manningham helped give birth to what he thought was a pig's bladder - although St. André and Howard disagreed with his identification - they became suspicious because of the smell of urine. Nevertheless, those involved agreed not to say anything in public, and on their return to London on November 29, Toft was housed in Lacey's Bagnio, in Leicester Fields.

The event now received national attention and appeared in the national press.


Under strict control of St. André, Toft was now examined by a number of prominent doctors and surgeons, including John Maubray. In 'The Female Physician' Maubray had suggested that women could give birth to a creature he called a sooterkin. He was a proponent of maternal impression, a widespread belief that conception and pregnancy could be influenced by what the mother dreamed or saw and warned pregnant women that excessive familiarity with pets could lead their children to resemble those pets. He was allegedly pleased with Toft, happy that her case seemed to confirm his theories, but colleague James Douglas, a highly reputed physician, as well as Manningham, assumed that the affair was a joke and despite St. André's repeated invitations they declined.

Douglas was one of the most respected anatomists in the country, while St. André was often regarded as a member of the court. Douglas thought that a woman who gave birth to a rabbit was just as likely as a rabbit who gave birth to a child, but despite his skepticism, he eventually went to her. When Manningham informed him of the suspected pig's bladder, and after he had investigated Toft, he refused to inform St. André about his findings, he felt that his opinions were no longer objective.



The deception was discovered on December 4. Thomas Onslow, 2nd Baron Onslow, had started his own investigation and discovered that Toft's husband, Joshua, had bought quite a number of young rabbits in the previous month. Convinced that he had enough evidence to continue, he wrote in a letter to doctor Sir Hans Sloane that "England was very troubled with the whole  affair"and that he would soon publish his findings. That same day, Thomas Howard, an errant boy, confessed to a judge, Sir Thomas Clarges, that he had been bribed by Toft's sister-in-law, Margaret, to smuggle a rabbit into Toft's room. T

Manningham examined Toft and together with fellow doctors they started to put pressure on Toft. They examined her and then interrogated her for 3 to 4 hours. After a few days of this, Manningham threatened to perform a painful operation on her to determine if her reproductive organs were different from those of other women, and on December 7, Toft confessed in the presence of Manningham, Douglas, John Montagu, and Frederick Calvert finally up.

After her miscarriage and while her cervix allowed it, an accomplice had inserted into her womb the claws and body of a cat and the head of a rabbit. They also made up a story in which Toft claimed that she was shocked by a rabbit during her pregnancy and while working in a field and had been obsessed with rabbits ever since. When attention was drawn to the extraordinary 'births', the accomplice continued to provide her with bizarre animal parts that were 'placed' in her.



Manningham later wrote in a report that it was a miracle that she had not died of serious infectious diseases, given that she had brought indead animal parts.

Her only defense was that "she led a miserable life and that a Gypsy woman had given her the idea of becoming famous and never be short of anything ...."

 The British Journal reported that it appeared on January 7, 1727 at the Courts of Quarter Sessions in Westminster, accused of "horrible deception and deceit." If the king is also involved and prominent doctors, some of them noblemen, such matters are not taken lightly and so the rabbit queen disappeared behind bars.


Fake news is of all times, it is grateful stuff for social media and for what people want to believe. In addition, people suffer from an almost inexhaustible urge for sensation. What motivates people to bring in dead animals and then come out with completely nonsensical stories?

Mary Toft could not go back on her story when it became well known (too well) and attracted the king's attention, she had not foreseen that. She had just wanted to escape a hard life on the land.

San Daniel 2019


23/07/2019 06:22

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