Today we have a story that brought out the worst in everybody: the story of Mary Toft, the so-called Rabbit Queen of 18th Century England.

Toft was living a very bare-bones life with her husband in Godalming, a village some 50 miles southwest of London.

As she told it, in April 1726 she had been out working in the fields while pregnant with her fourth child.

She saw a rabbit, and then said she became obsessed with eating rabbit.

Several months later she gave birth not to a human child but to a series of what looked like animal parts, mostly rabbit pieces.

The story somehow found its way to London, where a doctor started preserving the apparent Toft animal brethren in jars and examining Mary Toft to figure out what the heck was going on.

Back then, many people including medical men believed in what was called maternal impression.

If a woman was pregnant and she thought sad thoughts, so the theory went, her baby would probably be depressed.

The so-called Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, once wrote that his facial deformities were caused by his mother being frightened by an elephant.

Toft seemed to be absolute living proof of this theory, at least to Nathaniel St. André.

He was the English King’s court anatomist even though he wasn’t really a trained doctor.

And he was convinced he’d made a really important scientific discovery.

St. André reportedly told Toft that if he could just study her, she’d end up with a royal pension.

He wrote detailed accounts of each new rabbit birth, and even brought some of the parts to show the king!

While the other doctors who came in for consults thought the whole thing was a hoax, St. Andre was convinced it was perfectly legitimate and that the reason none of the rabbits survived was because of contractions during birth.

The newspapers printed graphic accounts of all this, and soon Mary Toft the rabbit lady was the talk of the city.

And, of course, that’s when someone spotted a guy sneaking into the house where Toft was living with some rabbits.

He confessed Toft had asked him for the rabbits.

She then admitted that several people had put her up to the whole scheme.

To keep up the hoax, she had been putting animal parts into her own body, sometimes with the nails still attached.

And while newspaper readers apparently loved being titillated by accounts of a woman giving birth to rabbit parts, what they enjoyed even more was judging a woman who’d fooled everybody for money or attention or both.

Toft ended up being sent to prison, and the public was invited in to shame her to her face.

St. Andre’s reputation was in tatters and he ended up living his final days in an almshouse.

The papers and their readers moved on to the next salacious story.

Like I said, nobody comes out of this story looking good.

In 1474, in Basel, Switzerland, people put a rooster on trial “for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.”

Because they believed such an egg might hatch into a basilisk or some other evil creature, they decided that the bird would have to be burned alive – though scientists later learned that some hens show the physical characteristics of roosters because of hormones.

An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits (The Paris Review)

The Curious Case of Mary Toft (University of Glasgow Library)

Nature on Trial: The Case of the Rooster that Laid an Egg (SpringerLink)

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Image via Wikicommons