Truth be told, history is chock-full of freaks. In fact, the modern-day world we enjoy was built by people with weird ideas and bizarre inclinations. Most of these historical figures at least accomplished big things with their freaky talents, but the most others achieved was a strange reputation and a curious, often-overlooked spot in our history books.
Such is the fate of Mary Toft, the woman who, in the early 1700s, stretched biological and society boundaries by giving birth to rabbits. But what began as a peculiar phenomenon turned into something even the most distinguished minds of the age couldn’t quite figure out. They had no idea that Mary was concealing a dark, disturbing secret.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mary Toft lived in abject poverty. Born in one of the poorest areas of London, Mary was only 17 when she married textile worker Joshua Toft. Her status wasn’t exactly elevated by the marriage.
Instead, Mary found herself working harder than ever to keep her family, which now included two young children, afloat. She walked two hours each day to work as a laborer, only to return to a hungry family and even more responsibilities at home.
Now, none of this can excuse what happened to Mary later on, but it’s important to remember when telling her story. After all, it all began with what was back then considered to be a lower-class, poor person tragedy: Mary had a miscarriage.
Her backbreaking days likely caused the miscarriage, which occurred frequently among poor women. Mary’s doctor brushed it off. In the early 1700s — 300 years before modern day medical knowledge — the female reproductive system was a mystery.
And mere months later, another mystery developed: Mary randomly started having contractions. Fear of another miscarriage alarmed her family enough to send for the doctor. Mary sweat, screamed, and shuddered with pain as the unexpected labor progressed…
National Library of Medicine
When obstetrician John Howard arrived at the Toft house, what he saw would frighten anyone. Mary, in the middle of a seemingly impossible birth. According to Howard, Mary birthed “three legs of a cat of a tabby color, and one leg of a rabbit.”
Unfortunately, his description wasn’t done yet. “The guts were as a cat’s and in them were three pieces of the back-bone of an eel.” By the time Mary’s shrieks ended, she had apparently given birth to nine baby rabbits…all dead.
Wellcome Collection/CC by 4.0
Needless to say, Howard was shocked by what he’d witnessed. A small-town doctor, Howard immediately sent word of Mary’s situation to England’s most revered doctors in hopes of attracting national attention. To his delight, that’s exactly what happened.
The King found out about Mary and sent Nathaniel St. Andre, a surgeon-anatomist, to investigate the claims. With that, one of the pickled fetuses Howard had collected made its way from Mary Toft’s humble home all the way to the King.
From then on, Mary was shepherded around London by St. Andre. She was poked, prodded, and examined by various doctors; all the while, Mary continued to give birth to rabbits…especially on days when she was to be seen by a large room filled with doctors.
It wasn’t long before the doctors, who thoroughly examined Mary and the “fetuses,” noticed some peculiar details about the bunnies: For one, there was no way they were formed in Mary’s body. One of the rabbits had grass in its stomach, proof it had once frolicked free.
The rabbits also differed in age; some were newborns while others were at least three months old. Still, St. Andre refused to see these suspicious factors for what they were. He reasoned that the contractions of the labor killed the rabbits, and not foul play.
The other doctors, however, weren’t so easily fooled. They demanded an explanation from Mary, and she hurriedly gave them one: She had once been startled by a rabbit, which led to her pregnancies. Shockingly, this explanation made sense to some 1700s-era doctors.
Back then, a theory called “maternal impression” was quite common in the medical field. It was a way of explaining birth defects and congenital disorders. For instance, Joseph Merrick, known as the “Elephant Man,” told a similarly bizarre story to Mary’s.
The Elephant Man/Paramount Pictures/Universal Pictures
Though we now know that Merrick was born with a congenital disorder, it was believed that Merrick’s mother was startled by an elephant while pregnant with him, resulting in his elephant-like facial deformity at birth. St. Andre believed this theory wholeheartedly.
The other doctors? Not so much. Still, Mary was continuously examined by as many as ten doctors at once, who were disappointed (if not unsurprised) to find that Mary, who suddenly stopped giving birth to rabbits, was actually quite ill.
It was around this time that Mary was found out: A porter was caught sneaking into Mary’s room with a rabbit. He was quick to blame it all on Margaret, Mary’s sister-in-law, who, he claimed, asked him to find the smallest rabbit he could catch.
Wellcome Collection/CC by 4.0
Still, Mary refused to admit that it was all a sham…until one of the doctors threatened to perform reproductive surgery if she didn’t tell the truth. That did the trick: To the surprise of no one but St. Andre, Mary confessed to the ruse.
So, how did she do it? Again, we’ll spare you the truly gory details. The ruse was achieved the way you’d expect. Once in her body, the rabbits didn’t have far to travel during the fake “birth.” So much was a lie…
Watership Down/Richard Adams/Nepenthe Productions
But what wasn’t faked was her screaming. Mary really was in excruciating pain, and it’s easy to see why. “It’s astonishing she didn’t die of a bacterial infection,” historian Karen Harvey said. The rabbits were often “concealed” for days, even weeks at a time…
Toft repeatedly blamed other people, from her husband to her mother-in-law and even to the wife of a local organ-grinder. “I think she was just playing the lead role in a performance orchestrated by other people,” Harvey said. The papers at the time believed otherwise.
University of Glasgow Library
According to historian Niki Russell, Mary and her bizarre plight was the media sensation of the year. “It certainly helped to tarnish the reputation of doctors as a profession.” Unfortunately for her, Mary wasn’t just an outcast as a result of the trick.
Daugher of Dr. Jekyll/Allied Artists
She was charged as a “Notorious and Vile Cheat” and imprisoned for 4 months. While in Bridewell prison, she was basically a sideshow for intrigued passersby: Her cell faced the public, making her vulnerable to nearly constant torment.
She was eventually released without being charged, but found that she never could quite return to her normal life. After all, what does “normal” mean in Mary’s shoes? Still, believe it or not, much of Mary’s story isn’t unusual.
Whether it’s the 1700s or today, there will always be people going to insane lengths to be noticed, to rise out of poverty, or to gain a brief 15 minutes of fame. Mary’s fifteen minutes ended long ago, though historians are comparing her to other eccentric figures from the past.
University of Glasgow Library
19th-century aristocrat Henry Cyril Paget had a lot of money…and many strange habits. He built a home theater for himself and hired actors to perform with him without an audience. He even had the biggest collection of walking sticks in the world!
Caligula was a cruel Roman king…and one of the weirdest. He loved his horse, Incitatus, so much that he vied to get him the highest position the Roman Senate had to offer, that of Consul. Maybe horses are man’s best friend, and not dogs!
Caligula/Penthouse Film International
Caligula was brutal, but Nero was downright insane. Rumor has it that he started the Great Fire of Rome that destroyed half the city, all so he could build himself a lavish palace and/or prove his leadership qualities. Makes total sense!
Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t only the President who oversaw the height of the Vietnam War. As those close to him knew, he was also the President who often took meetings while he was on the toilet! He truly dedicated every moment to the American people.
Yoichi Okamoto/National Archives/Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
Rasputin, one of history’s strangest and most confounding people, was reportedly poisoned, shot, and stabbed numerous times before he finally died by drowning. Maybe it was his rumored magical abilities that kept him alive?
Pope Stephen VI was the weirdest of the weird. He hated his predecessor, Pope Formosus, so much that he exhumed Formosus’ corpse, dressed him in his Papal uniform, and put him on trial to answer for his “crimes.” Stephen wasn’t very popular after that!
Pope Gregory IX had a pretty weird belief: that cats were directly linked to devil worship. Because of this, he ordered that all cats be exterminated…which some experts think led to the bubonic plague. He was definitely a dog person!
Charles Dickens clearly wasn’t your average literary genius. He would allegedly speak in a language of his own creation, and run up to random strangers on the street and scream gibberish into their faces. Definitely an odd bloke!
A lot of historical figures really loved their horses! Omaha Indian Chief Blackbird is rumored to have loved his horse so much that he put a peculiar request in his will: that he be buried sitting on top of his beloved steed.
Francis Egerton, the 8th Earl of Bridgewater, threw the most unusual dinner parties: For starters, you had to have four legs and tail in order to attend. Yes, the Earl hosted dinner parties for dogs, and they were all dressed in the finest fashions…including shoes!
Philosophers are known for overthinking, but it’s safe to say that Diogenes the Cynic didn’t have that problem. This influential figure in Greek philosophy routinely ate off the floor, defecated wherever he was standing, and barked at passersby!
Hetty Green was one of the richest women in the 19th century, and it’s partly because of her budgeting skills. She refused to pay for an office of her own, preferring instead to conduct her business on the floor of the bank.
Green’s cheap ways finally caught up to her when, after her son broke his leg, she went to a free clinic instead of providing him with the best care money could buy. Years later, his leg got infected and had to be amputated!
Sawney Bean was one of Scotland’s most infamous figures. Legend has it that he and his 14 children lived in a cave for 25 years. Over time, the family had no choice but to procreate, and their family grew from 16 to 48.
Alexander Graham Bell was all about communication…just not for everybody. He believed that those born with disabilities such as deafness should, horrifically, be sterilized. He even tried to outlaw sign language, and was in several eugenics organizations.
As one of the world’s most celebrated writers, it’s no surprise that William Shakespeare felt the need to protect himself from crooks…before and after his death. He composed his own epitaph, which cursed any grave robbers who tried to steal his remains.
Lord Byron was a poet and a prankster: He wasn’t allowed to bring his dog to school, so instead he brought…a bear! He insisted that his pet bear didn’t break any school rules, but he probably wasn’t the most popular kid on campus after that.
William Buckland was a zoologist famous for the unique menagerie of animals that lived in his house. Unfortunately, the animals didn’t live for long. Buckland claimed that he ate every single one, from a panther to a crocodile to a mole.
Wellcome Library, London/CC by 4.0
Tarrare, an 18th-century French peasant, had such a voracious appetite that he could eat 15-course meals without getting full. He eventually left home because his family couldn’t keep up with his appetite, and he turned his “skill” into an entertainment career.
In order to impress audiences, Tarrare went from eating drumsticks to boulders to stray cats. It came to a head during one of his hospital stays, where he was accused of cannibalism! He unsurprisingly died at the young age of 27.
A multi-Guinness World Record holder, Iseo Machii is arguably the deftest swordsman on Earth. He owes his katana skills to an innate perceptive ability that allows him to anticipate and react to movement three times faster than the average human.
Years before her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Joy Milne noticed he gave off a particularly “musky” scent. She soon learned she had a sensitivity to certain compounds contained in the skin of Parkinson’s patients, allowing her to literally smell the disease.
Dubbed “The Iceman,” Wim Hof possesses the uncanny ability to withstand prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures. While he attributes this ability to a meditation technique that allows him suppress his immune responses, his genetic makeup indicates a near superhuman tolerance to the cold.
Also known as “Monsieur Mangetout,” or “Mr. Eat-All,” Michel Lotito was renown for his ability to eat materials like metal, glass, and rubber. Compelled by the eating disorder Pica, Lotito also possessed a thick stomach lining and highly acidic digestive juices that made his “diet” possible.
Thanks to the development of four types of cone cells in her retinas, Concetta Antico has the ability to view nearly a million colors, most of which are invisible to the average person. Unsurprisingly, Antico works as an artist.
That’s right — Ozzy Osbourne, the “Prince of Darkness,” is superhuman! According to a gene sequence taken from the rock legend back in 2010, Ozzy possesses several never-before-seen gene variants that allow his body to withstand fatally high doses of drugs and alcohol.
A former circus performer, Eskil Rønningsbakken has ridiculous balance, though his abilities don’t stop there. The Norwegian native also has significantly lower adrenaline levels than the average human, allowing him to stay calm, cool, and collected while performing death-defying stunts.
Sons of Norway
When Antonio Alfonseca made his MLB debut in 1997, fans and players alike couldn’t help but notice the tiny sixth digit on each of the relief pitcher’s hands. Unfortunately, those extra fingers didn’t give him the ability to throw any crazy new pitches.
Whether it was scraping her knee or giving birth, Jo Cameron has never felt pain. She’s one of just two people in the world with a unique genetic mutation that blocks her pain receptors, preventing her from feeling discomfort and even anxiety.
After losing his retinas to cancer as a child, Ben Underwood became a real-life superhero by teaching himself to echo-locate. Using a series of clicks, Underwood could navigate a room, play basketball, and even ride a bike — all without seeing a thing.
One of the greatest cross-country skiers in Finnish history, Eero Mäntyranta was later found to have a competitive edge. A 1993 DNA study revealed a mutation that allowed Mäntyranta to store more oxygen in his blood, a trait especially useful for endurance sports.
The long, full lashes that made Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes pop on screen were actually the result of a mutation. The legendary actress had distichia, which gave her a second set of eyelashes that made the first appear longer and fuller.
If you’re a horror movie fan, chances are you’ve seen Javier Botet’s work. A sufferer of Marfan syndrome, Botet boasts long, lanky limbs and incredible flexibility, allowing him to play a variety of horrifying, human-like monsters.
The former competitive eating superstar of the world, Takeru Kobeyashi owes his incredible stomach to his genes. Kobeyashi was born with a stomach that sits far lower in his body than that of an average human, allowing it to expand upward as he eats.
Yahoo Finance / CTV News
At age three, Liam Hoekstra possessed the strength of a seven-year-old and 40 percent more muscle mass than children his age. That’s because Hoekstra was born lacking the muscle-regulating protein myostatin, allowing his body to grow at a Hulk-like rate.
An ultra-marathon legend, Dean Karnazes has completed several unbelievable endurance feats, including running 350 miles without stopping to rest or sleep. He owes this superhuman skill to his body’s ability to stay beneath its lactate threshold, thus preventing his muscles from fatiguing.
Best remembered for her breakout role in Taxi, Marilu Henner had no problem memorizing her lines — or anything at all. That’s because the actress has hyperthymesia, a condition that allows her to remember minor details of nearly every day of her life.
An autistic savant, Daniel Tammet possesses a genius intellect and superhuman memory, with the ability to recall pi to the 22,514th digit. This is primarily due to synaesthesia, a condition that allows Tammet to assign physical sensations such as touch to numbers and memories.
Also known as “The Rubberboy,” Daniel Browning Smith’s hypermobile Ehlers–Danlos syndrome allows him to bend and contort his body into all manner of unnatural shapes. He currently owns seven Guinness World Records for his flexibility, making him the most flexible person in history.
After grabbing a power line as a child, Raj Mohan Nair discovered that he could withstand electric shocks. Not only that, but his body is capable of absorbing electricity 30 times the amount that could kill an average person.