We’ve all heard about our fair share of hoaxes over the years, and some of them are pretty convincing. From rumors of a secret alien autopsy to the discovery of a mermaid skeleton, it just takes a little bit of time and a whole lot of research before the fakers are weeded out.

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The Paris Review

However, we bet you’ve never heard of Mary Toft—a woman who pulled off a hoax so elaborate, no one would’ve found out the truth had she not admitted it herself.

On Sept. 27, 1726, Mary Toft gave birth to…something.

Toft was a 24-year-old woman living in rural England, a peasant who typically worked in her town’s hop fields. One day after work, she suddenly began to call out for her neighbor, a woman named Mary Gill.

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John Laguerre/Wikipedia

Her neighbor rushed over to her home and found Toft writhing in pain, both women unsure of what was actually happening and what to do about it. However, Toft suddenly stood up, positioned herself over a nearby bucket, and gave birth—just like that.

Her baby wasn’t human, though.

What Toft gave birth to that day baffled Gill, and she promptly ran to get Toft’s sister-in-law, who happened to be a midwife. Once the shock of seeing the “baby” wore off, the family sent it off to a surgeon named John Howard, who described what Toft gave birth to as, “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.”

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iStock

He was rightfully skeptical of what he had been brought to examine and the story behind it, but he eventually agreed to pay Toft a visit. He later complained that she was a difficult person to work with, saying that she was, “of a very stupid and sullen Temper.” However, visiting her ultimately paid off, because she later gave birth again right in front of him, this time to a baby rabbit.

And they just kept coming…

Soon after, Toft became somewhat of a celebrity in her area and eventually gave birth to eight more baby bunnies with Howard as a witness at every single birth. He decided to preserve the bodies of the young rabbits so they could be studied, and sent letter after letter to England’s most prominent doctors, hoping that someone would help him discover what might be happening to Toft. He wrote:

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William Hogarth, 1726 (in Hunterian Aa.7.20)

“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 doctor finally came to help.

One of the physicians who received a letter from Howard was Nathaniel St. Andre, personal surgeon to King George I. The King sent St. Andre to assist Howard merely to satisfy his own curiosity, but the man wouldn’t end up being much help when it came to Howard figuring out what was actually happening, as he already believed that what was happening to Toft was real.

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Getty Images

Upon a quick physical examination, St. Andre confidently stated that he detected the presence of the baby rabbits within her right Fallopian tube, and his belief was cemented when he later helped her deliver the head of a rabbit.

Not everyone was excited, though.

Eventually, the public became somewhat disgusted over the continuous news involving Toft and her rabbit babies, so much so that many families stopped eating an English staple back then, rabbit stew. After all, who truly knew where rabbits even came from at that point?

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iStock

Much of the public, as well as doctors, believed that Toft was able to create the baby rabbits as a result of something called “maternal impression.” The theory speculates that emotions and events, real or imagined, could create physical deformities and abnormalities that affect a baby in the womb. Toft herself went along with the theory, claiming that she had been startled by a rabbit while pregnant, which then led to thoughts that produced her rabbit offspring.

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“King George I” Sir Godfrey Kneller, (c. 1714)

Though he had already sent one surgeon, King George I decided to send another, this time a man named Cyriacus Ahlers, who was far less convinced than St. Andre. Ahlers remained skeptical even after witnessing a couple of births himself, and Toft was later taken to London by order of the King so she could be examined further.

There, she stopped having babies.

Not surprisingly, Toft didn’t give birth to any more rabbits with a royal court keeping a close eye on her. She was kept locked in a bathhouse and eventually slipped into a bad fever, frequently moving in and out of consciousness while there.

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The Doctors in Labour, or a new Whim Wham from Guildford (in Hunterian Aa.7.20) (c. 1726)

In the meantime, Ahlers took some of the rabbits she had given birth to and dissected them in his lab, only to find that something wasn’t quite right with their bodies—he noted that they appeared to be cut, and one even had droppings in its system, something he knew would be impossible if Toft had carried it in her own body until birth.

Shortly after his discovery, Toft was found out.

On Dec. 4, 1726, a porter who worked in the castle was found carrying a rabbit, and he was heading toward Toft’s room. When questioned, he quickly admitted that Toft had offered him money to bring the rabbit to her.

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“The Surrey-Wonder. An Anatomical Farce” (in Hunterian Aa.7.20)

After doing a little digging, it was discovered that Toft’s husband had recently become interested in the rabbit business, buying a large number of the animals prior to Toft’s mysterious pregnancies.

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“The Surrey-Wonder. An Anatomical Farce” (in Hunterian Aa.7.20)

Two days later, on Dec. 6, a court told Toft they were going to perform an experimental pelvic surgery to see for themselves what was going on inside her body. Whether they were bluffing or not, Toft confessed to faking everything the next day.

How’d she do it?

As it turns out, Toft really was pregnant at one point in time, but she miscarried. She essentially decided that her ticket out of a life of poverty was to be an attraction in a freak show, which were popular back then, and she’d become one by giving birth to baby rabbits. So, while her cervix remained open from her actual pregnancy, she had a friend help her arrange pieces of a cat, rabbit, and eel within her body so she could later give birth to them.

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Alamy

She later sewed a pocket onto the inside of her skirt and kept pieces of rabbits in it for when she decided she wanted to “give birth” again. We’ll spare you the overly descriptive details, but she’d wait until no one was looking, put a piece in, and then fake going into labor when someone was there to see.

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“Credulity, Superstition, and Fanatacism” William Hogarth (c. 1760)

When she came up with her plan of being adopted by a freak show, she was positive they’d make space for a woman birthing rabbits, but it seems that she didn’t anticipate people wanting to know why it was happening.

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Jack Delano, for the Office of War Information – Library of Congress

Though her scheme started out as a way to make money, Toft made nothing off of her elaborate prank. What she did get, however, was a five-month stay in her local jail. When she passed away just shy of four decades later, the town still remembered her for one main thing—her epitaph read “Mary Toft, Widow, the Impostress Rabbitt.”