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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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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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