Who was the ‘Rabbit Woman of Godalming’?

In 1726, a young woman from the Surrey town of Godalming caused a medical sensation, baffling physicians with her unusual condition.

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of History Revealed

William Hogarth’s drawing of Mary Toft, the ‘Rabbit Woman of Godalming’, 1726. (Alan EH Emery and Marcia LH Emery, Mother and Child Care, Royal Society of Medicine, 2006.)

Mary Toft convinced a number of the era’s doctors that after seeing a large rabbit while pregnant, she had given birth – over a period of time – to a litter of the creatures.

John Howard, a local surgeon and midwife, attended some of the so-called bunny births and believed her story.

He informed a number of eminent medics, including the surgeon to King George I’s royal household Nathaniel St Andre, who went on to examine some of the animal parts that Toft had claimed to have given birth to.

He concluded that Toft’s case was genuine. But a second royal surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, was decidedly sceptical, leading to Toft being intensely questioned in London.

Finally, after threats of a “very painful experiment”, Toft confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. She had faked the births by stuffing the animal parts inside herself, although what motivated her to do so is unclear.

She was imprisoned, but soon released to live out the rest of her days in Godalming, known as the ‘Rabbit Woman’.

Satirists and pamphleteers had a field day, and St Andre’s career never fully recovered from the abject humiliation.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Julian Humphrys. For more fascinating questions by Julian, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy ofHistory Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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