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7/19/11

Mary Toft, the Rabbit Woman of Godalming

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"In 1726, a rumor spread through England about a peasant woman from the outskirts of Guildford, who was giving birth to rabbits. . . . The rumor soon made its way to the Prince of Wales, who, fascinated, promptly dispatched the court anatomist, Nathaniel St. Andre, to investigate. St. Andre, an ambitious self-promoter with no real medical training, arrived to find Mary in labor, about to give birth to her fifteenth rabbit.
The fourteen siblings, all stillborn, were on display in jars of alcohol, arranged by Mary's proud man-midwife, John Howard. Minutes after the bewigged St. Andre entered the room, the forward half of a skinned four-month-old rabbit dropped into Howard's receiving blanket. Howard conjectured to St. Andre that the rabbits were being crushed to pieces and skinned by the force of Mary's contractions. Later that night, Mary 'gave birth' to the back half of the animal . . . .

A postmortem, performed by St. Andre's staff back at the court, uncovered pellets of 'common rabbit dung' in the rectum, an obvious indication of fraud that went unnoticed by St. Andre. The ignorant anatomist vouched for Mary's authenticity, and the prince ordered the peasant woman brought to London, where she and Howard enjoyed a brief spell of fame and (relative) wealth. Unfortunately for Mary, one of her London visitors was the respected obstetrician Sir Richard Manningham. When Mary tried to pass off half a hog's bladder as her placenta, Manningham--you have to love this guy--came back the following day toting a fresh hog bladder for comparison. Whereupon Mary, having no good explanation for why her placenta carried the 'strong urinous Smell peculiar to a hog's bladder,' burst into tears.

Mary Toft's final downfall came at the hands of a porter at her lodgings. Unable to procure rabbits in central London, she had tried to bribe a porter into tracking one down. The porter talked, and Mary confessed. She explained that when the doctors' backs were turned, she would transfer into her birth canal a rabbit, or rabbit portion, which she had concealed in a special 'hare pocket' inside her skirt. Whether John Howard was in on the hoax or simply another victim of it was never clear. What is clear is that male medical professionals could be ruinously susceptible to vaginal deceits." (From Spook, by Mary Roach)Bookmark and Share

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