17 praeternatural Rabbits

William Hogarth

Here’s a gem of weirdness that I somehow missed, courtesy of Providentia:

Towards the end of the year 1726, a rather astounding revelation involving a 25-year old maidservant named Mary Tofts came out. Contemporary sources described her as having “a healthy, strong constitution, small size, fair complexion, a very stupid and sullen temper, and unable to read and write”. According to Mary, she was weeding in a field when a rabbit sprang up near her and caused her to run away. This left her with a craving for rabbit. . . The resulting craving for rabbit meat supposedly influenced the remainder of her pregnancy and caused her to give birth to rabbits. . . She was so skillful in her pretense that she was able to convince her midwife, John Howard, that, over the course of a month, that she had given birth to nearly twenty rabbits (all dead).

Mary, without recourse to modern conveniences such as reality shows, was dedicated and inventive in her pursuit of celebrity (and a hoped-for royal pension). But she took her rabbit trick a little too far, embarrassing a number of prominent physicians, and was imprisoned for fraud:

A Prosecution is ordered to be carried on in the Court of King’s Bench, next Hillary Term, against Mary Toft of Godalmin, for an infamous Cheat and Imposture, in pretending to have brought forth 17 præter-natural Rabbits (source).

She was eventually discharged without prosecution – perhaps everyone just wanted to pretend the whole mess hadn’t happened.

I kind of do, too. Euw.


Mary Toft – the Rabbit Breeder (Medical History, 1961); includes a larger reproduction of the Hogarth engraving above

Contemporary newspaper accounts

Bibliodyssey also mentioned Mary Toft a few weeks ago, in a collection of portraits of “Remarkable Persons.”

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3 Responses to 17 praeternatural Rabbits

  1. peacay says:

    I felt so ashamed I didn’t know who she was.
    Damn her! She killed off “pregnant with rabbits, can’t come to work today” as a possible excuse for everybody!

  2. cicada says:

    Don’t worry – I’m sure very few employers are up to speed on their 18th century lagomaniac hysterics. And if they do recognize the reference, surely they would be so tickled to find someone else who shares their bizarre field of interest, they’d let you have the day off anyway. I know I would!

  3. suzanne says:

    not sure if you’ve already heard of it, but there’s a short story by an irish author called emma donoghue based on mary toft called, not too surprisingly, ‘the woman who gave birth to rabbits’.. i love your site, by the way!

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