I haven’t done a completely non-law piece for a while, and this true story of deception, medical minds being baffled and the strange theory of maternal impression is one of my favourite things.
So if you read the blog purely for law, you may skip this one. If you enjoy the digressions more than the law bits, this may be right up your street. (Someone more erudite than me might be able to develop an argument that this was an early example of what later became called Munchausen Syndrome and later FII, but I don’t know enough to claim that)
On 27th September 1726, a woman named Mary Toft went into labour. That was not terribly unusual. What was unusual is that she gave birth to a rabbit. Or in the parlance of the time, a rabbet.
Mary was not done there, however. The next day, a local obstetrician, Dr Howard, was called and Mary gave birth to another rabbet. Over the next month, she delivered nine more rabbets. All dead.
Dr Howard was much impressed by this, and more so once he heard Mary’s account that during her pregnancy, she had seen a rabbet in a field and desired to catch it and chased it but failed and that she had spent her pregnancy dreaming of rabbets.
In a theory that persisted at the time (and indeed wasn’t disproved until the early part of the 20th century), it was considered that things women were exposed to during pregnancy could account for characteristics or failings of their offspring – a timid child might be because the mother had been scared during pregnancy, a child with disabilities because mother had seen someone in the street with similar ailments and so forth. If you are thinking that sounds an awful lot like the Patriarchy just blaming the mother for things that were outside of her control, then, yes, it does.
The most famous example of this theory, maternal impression, was John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who told stories of how his mother had been startled by an elephant during her pregnancy and hence his unusual appearance.
Mary’s rabbets seemed conclusive proof of this theory, and Dr Howard wrote to a number of other doctors stressing the importance of this case and inviting them to come and observe. He even wrote to Nathaniel St. André, Swiss surgeon-anatomist to the King and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales. They both came to attend on Mary, who was still popping out rabbets.
They were much impressed with this peculiar medical condition and took some of the rabbets back to show the King.
The King was more sceptical, and sent another doctor down to Mary, who had been moved by then from Godalming to Guildford.
Cyriacus Ahlers was the doctor sent, a German surgeon. He dissected some of the rabbets that Mary had given birth to. He found pellets in the rabbit’s digestive tract. Pellets containing undigested straw and corn. Unless Mary’s womb was full of corn, it seemed very likely that these rabbits had been born elsewhere…
Members of the public were flocking to see Mary, and paying an admission fee to do so. Ahlers and others kept Mary under observation. The supply of rabbits dried up.
And then, the case broke. A hospital porter was caught trying to smuggle a dead rabbit into Mary’s room, having been paid to do so by Mary’s sister-in-law, who had asked him to purchase ‘the smallest rabbit he could find’
Enquiries then revealed that Mary’s husband had been buying a suspicious amount of small rabbits from local sources.
The great medical mystery was solved. Mary had just been (there’s no delicate way to put this), installing dead rabbits into her nether regions whilst nobody was around, and then delivering them in front of a crowd or host of medical gullible fools.
The King’s surgeon, Dr Richard Manningham, devised a plan to get Mary to confess this. He went to her and explained that because there were so many rabbits being born to her (I think the count was 15 at that point), that they would have to operate to remove her womb.
That wasn’t something Mary wanted anyway, and at that particular time the risk of death in surgery was extremely high (It is said that Dr Robert Liston once removed a patient’s leg in lightning fast surgery, working so fast that he accidentally cut off the patient’s testicles, his assistant’s fingers and nicked the abdomen of a member of the audience watching – all three died, making it a piece of surgery that had a 300% mortality rate. This is possibly apocryphal, but it is a great story anyway.)
To avoid the surgery, Mary confessed. She was to stand trial, but the case was dropped due to the embarrassment it caused the medical profession and those who had swallowed the story of the miracles. When Mary died, her name was published in the great newspapers of the day along with dignitaries and Dukes, with the annotation “Impostress Rabbet”