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The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits

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It was September 27, 1726, and Mary Toft was going into labor. The 24-year-old peasant, who worked in hop fields of rural England, called out for her neighbor, Mary Gill. Gill rushed inside Mary’s house and found her squirming in pain. Then something unusual happened. Mary hovered over a bucket and gave birth to a monster.

It was a ghastly but miraculous birth. Gill ran to find Mary’s sister-in-law—a midwife by trade—and told her the baffling news. The “baby” looked like a rotten jumble of animal parts. The family quickly sent the remains to a local surgeon, John Howard, a man with over 30 years of experience delivering babies. Howard inspected the remains, writing that they resembled “three legs of a cat of tabby colour, and one leg of a rabbet . . . in them were three pieces of the Back bone of an Eel.”

Yes, an eel.

Howard was skeptical, but he begrudgingly visited Mary. He complained that she was difficult to work with. “[Mary is] of a very stupid and sullen Temper,” he later wrote. But then it happened before his eyes: Mary gave birth to a baby bunny. It was like magic. Except the rabbit wasn’t coming out of a hat.

Seventeen Little Bunnies Hopping on a Hill

The proud mother of a cat-eel monster, Mary became a local celebrity. Over the next month, Howard witnessed Mary give birth to eight more baby rabbits—and more were on the way. He preserved the bodies in alcohol and sent letters to prominent physicians all over England about the mystery. On November 9, he wrote:

I have taken or deliver’d the poor Woman of three more Rabbets, all three half grown, one of them a dunn Rabbet; the last leap’d twenty three Hours in the Uterus before it dy’d. As soon as the eleventh Rabbet was taken away, up leap’d the twelfth Rabbet, which is now leaping. If you have any curious Person that is pleased to come Post, may see another leap in her Uterus, and shall take it from her if he pleases . . . I do not know how many Rabbets may be behind.

One physician who received Howard’s letter was the surgeon to King George I, Nathaniel St. André. The King was curious, so he sent St. André to investigate. It could not have been a worse choice. St. André was obviously no fan of the scientific method—he believed Mary’s case before stepping in the door. (St. André wasn’t known for his medical prowess anyway. George only gave him the gig because he spoke German, the King’s native language.) When St. André visited Mary, he felt her belly and confidently deduced that the rabbits were forming in her right fallopian tube. The belief cemented when he personally helped Toft deliver a rabbit’s head, her fifteenth.

Over the coming weeks, Mary became a national sensation. On November 19, 1726, Mist’s Weekly Journal reported:

From Guildford comes a strange but well-attested Piece of News. That a poor Woman who lives at Godalmin, near that Town, was about a Month past delivered by Mr. John Howard, an Eminent Surgeon and Man-Midwife, of a creature resembling a Rabbit . . . about 14 Days since she was delivered by the same Person, of a perfect Rabbit: and in a few Days after of 4 more . . . they died all in bringing into the World.

For rabbit-peddling merchants, the gossip was a terrible blow. The public was disgusted. Rabbit stew dropped from Britain’s supper tables. “The public horror was so great that the rent of rabbit-warrens sank to nothing; and nobody, till the delusion was over, presumed to eat a rabbit,” recorded James Caulfield.

Doctors and the public believed Mary’s story because of a popular pseudoscientific theory circulating at the time called “Maternal Impression.” They believed that a mother’s emotions and imagination could cause birth defects and disorders. A pregnant woman who was startled by a rabbit, as Mary claimed, could easily pollute the fetus with her thoughts—leading her to pop out baby rabbits. (This wasn’t just a crackpot idea from the 1700s; it lasted until the early 20th century!)

King George followed the hype closely, so he sent another surgeon, Cyriacus Ahlers, to triple-check. Unlike his fellow medical men, Ahlers didn’t buy into the maternal impression theory, so when he visited Mary, he wasn’t impressed. Despite witnessing several rabbit births—the count had now reached 17—Ahlers remained skeptical.

The Truth is Born

On November 29, Mary was taken against her will to London for study. She was locked away in a bathhouse. With King George’s court expectantly ogling her, Mary suddenly stopped having rabbits. (She did, however, break into a nasty fever, slipping in and out consciousness.) While the Dukes took turns watching Mary, Ahlers dissected some specimens in his lab. Something, he found, wasn’t right. The rabbits appeared to have been cleaved with a knife, and one contained droppings full of corn and hay.

By December 4, the jig was up. A porter was caught sneaking a baby rabbit into Mary’s chamber. When questioned, he claimed she had bribed him. A separate investigation found that, over the past few months, Mary’s husband had bought a suspicious number of rabbits from the town’s merchants. Evidence was mounting. On December 6, the court told Mary they would perform a painful, experimental pelvic surgery to see what made Mary so unique. (To quote, they said they were going to send in a “chimneysweep’s boy.”) On December 7, Mary confessed that it was all a hoax.

For St. André, the timing was terrible. Days earlier, he had published a 40-page pamphlet called “A Short Narrative of The Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets.” He explicitly bet his name on the account’s authority. His reputation fell into shambles. He lost his job and the whole medical community became London’s laughing stock. 

The Impostress Rabbitt

But how did Mary dupe the King’s team of smartypants physicians? Truth is, Mary had been pregnant earlier in the year but miscarried. While her cervix was still open, an accomplice inserted the body of a cat and the head of a rabbit—which her unwitting neighbor helped deliver. As the ruse became more elaborate, Toft sewed a special pocket in her skirt where she hid bits of filleted rabbit. When the doctors weren’t looking, she’d tuck them inside herself and feign labor.

Mary believed it was her ticket out of poverty. (In her words, it was to “get so good a living that I should never want as long as I lived.”) Back then, freak shows featuring human oddities—like conjoined twins and legless magicians—were popular ways to rake in dough. Mary was sure they’d have room for a lady pregnant with rabbits.

But Mary didn’t make a penny from the charade. She was thrown in jail for five months and came home just as poor. When she died in 1763, the parish epitaph read: “Mary Toft, Widow, the Impostress Rabbitt.”

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
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Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.

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