We've all told a white lie or two about our health at some point. After all, sometimes you just need a day off from school or work.
And that's totally harmless. While these little fibs might not hurt anyone, much more elaborate pranksters have been able to stir up controversy in the medical field by claiming some seriously bizarre anomalies.
A woman named Mary Toft was one of those people. With her elaborate tale of interspecies conception, not only was Toft able to baffle the entire medical field, but she fooled the royal family, too!
Mary Toft was an English peasant in the town of Godalming who had lived out most of her life tending to the fields. In 1720, she married her clothier husband, Joshua Toft, and together the couple had three children.
Despite expecting the couple’s fourth child, English law ruled that Toft would have to continue working in the fields throughout the course of her pregnancy. The strenuous manual labor left her with countless complications early on in her pregnancy. In August 1726, Toft suffered a miscarriage.
Nearly a month after her miscarriage, it was reported that she had gone into labor and had given birth to a litter of dead rabbits.
John Howard, a local nurse with more than 30 years of experience, was summoned to help out with Toft’s bizarre delivery. Howard was quick to dismiss the idea of Toft giving birth to animal parts, but decided he needed to see things with his own two eyes.
After a full examination, Howard concluded that there was nothing wrong with her. However, when she went into labor a second time, he supposedly helped the woman give birth to nine dead baby rabbits.
Howard’s excitement about the strange affair prompted him to write letters to his friends in the medical community. As Toft’s unexplained pregnancies continued to draw public attention, the story caught the eye of Henry Davenant, a member of King George I's court.
By the order of Howard, Toft was moved to the town of Guildford, where he urged any nonbelievers to come see her.
Nearly two months after first giving birth to animal parts, Toft’s story proved of considerable interest to the British Royal family, who sent Nathaniel St. André, a Swiss surgeon, as well as the secretary to the Prince of Wales, to investigate. Within hours of arriving at Toft’s bedside, legend has it that she birthed another rabbit.
During her meetings, Toft informed visitors that following her miscarriage, she began craving rabbit meat and started chasing them around the fields. She then claimed to have dreams about rabbits leading up to the "birth."
To test her claims, they began performing a series of tests such as placing the lungs of one of the rabbits in water to see whether or not they would float. When the lung passed the test, it was noted that the rabbit had been breathing air prior to its death. Despite the test’s findings, doctors ignored red flags and continued spreading the word of this strange phenomenon.
Dumbfounded, King George I sent another surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, to examine Mary Toft. During his examination, Ahlers found no signs of pregnancy and speculated that the entire ordeal was nothing more than an elaborate hoax.
Upon returning to London with a sampling of the animal parts, Ahlers discovered that many of them appeared to have been cut and manipulated. Ahlers reported back to the King on November 21 that he believed the entire event to be nothing but fiction.
Still, the King himself asked for St. André to return to London with the woman so that he could see her for himself. The King had famed Obstetrician Sir Richard Manningham examine her once again.
Trying to catch the woman lying, Manningham threatened her with an invasive surgery that would be performed to solve the mystery. It was in that moment that Mary Toft confessed to everything.
Witness came forward claiming that Toft’s husband had been purchasing young rabbits and sneaking them into her room. In the days following her miscarriage, she and her accomplices inserted the animal parts into her body.
Toft even said her mother-in-law was involved. She also mentioned that a traveling woman had given her the idea as a get-rich-quick scheme.
Following her confession, Toft was sent to Totgill Fields Bridewell where she was charged as being a “vile cheat and imposter.” Toft served some jail time but after a few months, she was released and was never heard from again.
The medical field also saw its fair share of mockery following the event. St André lost his esteemed reputation. Howard was charged in the case but those charges were eventually dropped.