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The Disturbing History of Our Favorite Nursery Rhymes

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

This is a Native American baby swing but the ones encountered by our unnamed poetess probably were made of birch bark and were more like suspended cradle boards.

This is a Native American baby swing but the ones encountered by our unnamed poetess probably were made of birch bark and were more like suspended cradle boards.

Rock-a-Bye Baby

Who hasn't sung Rock-a-Bye Baby at least once in their life? With a calming melody and a soothing tone you can get just about any infant to pass right out listening to it, and yet there's always been something a little off with this rhyme. I mean it ends with a baby crashing to the ground from a tree, cradle and all. That's not really a comforting thought... And then I grew up and witnessed how stressful having a baby can be on new mothers and thought I understood this rhyme completely. You know, a joking threat muttered under the breathe on a day that Baby just wouldn't stay asleep and give mommy a break. Sort of like, "I love you but sometimes I really want to kill you." That makes perfect sense, only it's not the real history behind this common rhyme. Although, like most Nursery Rhymes, we can't know for sure who wrote it or why, it's most commonly believed that Rock-a-bye Baby was written by a Pilgrim woman in the American colonies sometime in the 1700's, perhaps as a snide observation of Native American tribes who'd construct cribs made of birch bark and suspend them in trees so that a gentle breeze could rock their babies to sleep. If this is the case it's a pretty harsh criticism of this practice seeing as the baby is thrown to the ground in the end. An even more disturbing explanation comes from Britain where infants who had died would sometimes be placed in a basket in a tree in the hopes they may revive, the end of the poem may be referring to one such babe who did not wake up and whose dead weight broke the branch he or she was swinging on.

"Cockle shells" may have been a euphemism for the Pear of Anguish, a torture device most commonly used on women, inserted into them, and opened.

"Cockle shells" may have been a euphemism for the Pear of Anguish, a torture device most commonly used on women, inserted into them, and opened.

Mary Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

This sounds innocent enough, like a little ditty about gardening. Perhaps a view of what gardening was like for the upper classes who could afford maids to tend to them? That would be pleasant wouldn't it? But no, this rhyme is one of the bloodiest there is. It refers to Mary of Tudor, later given the cheerful nickname Bloody Mary, after her political escapades. She was called contrary in this poem because she swore Catholics and Protestants could both keep their respective religions before being crowned queen. Afterwards she had a change of heart and started mercilessly slaughtering Protestants for being heretics. And what's a religious genocide without torture? Cockle shells referred to a device also called The Pear of Anguish, a truly nasty piece of technology mostly reserved to punish women. It could be inserted into their tenderest areas and opened wider and wider. Some men also got to experience this terror, though another orifice had to be found. Both sexes would occasionally find these pears in their mouths, at which point their teeth and jaws were usually broken by it. Silver bells referred to thumb screws, a small but no less unpleasant device, and all the maids in a row? They were Iron Maidens, basically spike filled sarcophagi that victims were shut into. The intention was to stab the victim as many times as possible without hitting any major organs. Wouldn't want then to die too swiftly you see. So what was the garden? It was a delightful euphemism for the ever growing cemeteries she was filling.


Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Peter , Peter , pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well

This quirky little American rhyme seems to be complete nonsense. Sure, we get the sense this Peter guy wasn't the best of husbands and had some pretty odd ideas about appropriate housing... but it seems innocent enough. Not really. You see the reason Peter had a wife he couldn't keep was because she was a little fond of the menfolk. Depending on who you believe she was everything from a flirt, to an adulteress, to a prostitute. Infidelity was a crime worthy of death so Peter slew his wife and buried her body in a pumpkin shell. Why a pumpkin shell? I have no idea. Maybe he was just in dire need of fertilizer. Either that or he knew no one would look in a giant pumpkin, I mean most wife killers make due with a suspicious pit in the cellar. Curiously the British have their own words for this rhyme:

Eeper Weeper, chimney sweeper,

Had a wife but couldn't keep her.

Had another, didn't love her,

Up the chimney he did shove her.

Little more harsh, that one. It's possible each was written to reflect news of the day. One such rumor is that it's actually about King John, who sealed a nobleman's wife into a brick room to starve to death.


Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water,

Jack fell down,

And broke his crown,

And Jill came tumbling after.

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As a child I always thought Jack and Jill were hopeless klutzes tripping down an actual hill, crown referring to Jack's skull... and yeah, busting his head open isn't the most comforting of thoughts, it's still a bit more chill then what the rhyme is really about. The crown, as it turns out, is an actual crown, worn by King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. This power couple lost their thrown in an uprising and lost their heads not long after. Jill's "tumbling down" refers to her head after being placed in a guillotine.


Three Blind Mice

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice

I'll admit it. Some of my favorite characters in the Shrek franchise are the three blind mice bumbling around the background running into things. How darn cute! And who is this evil farmer's wife? Why on earth would she cut off their tails with a carving knife? Was she some sort of super sadist? You know the sort of serial killer in the making who sits in a dark corner ripping the wings off flies? Almost! It refers once again to our favorite medieval super villain Bloody Mary. Her blind mice are three bishops she tortured and burned at the stake, although the public at the time believed she burned out their eyes and chopped them to bits, not unlike these poor unfortunate mice!

Not all spiders are scary...

Little Miss Muffet

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

There doesn't seem to be anything deeper to this poem than it states. A lot of people are afraid of spiders so it doesn't seem odd for someone to ditch their breakfast at the sight of one. Yet, this one has a bit of tongue-in-cheek social satire going on. You see little Miss Muffet was the young daughter of famed entomologist Dr Thomas Muffet who was said to breed deadly species of spiders in his lab. He was considered a bit of a mad scientist at the time... and his ironically named step-daughter Patience may not have always appreciated his contributions to science.


Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Was that not a tasty dish
To set before a king?

The King was in his counting house
Counting out his money
The Queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey

The Maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose!

This one is one of my favorites. It's four great stanzas of total Gibberish. It even has a weird joke at the end! We're not certain where this beautiful non sequitur came from but there are a few things we can guess with some accuracy. Some people think it's a political criticism of the wealthy - and having a bird snip off their nose is somehow cathartic. It might be, but the part about baking a bird into a pie was the 1700's equivalent of Snakes in a Can. Actual live birds were placed into pies in hopes that when it was cut open they'd flutter out, probably rightfully pissed at being thrown in a pie and nearly killed by a cleaver slicing said pie, and scare the bejesus out of anyone sitting there. Not exactly a stunt PETA would be happy with but this is the 1700's we're talking about.

My favorite explanation however is that the rhyme is an elaborate coded message sent out by Blackbeard to recruit more pirates to his ship. He paid his crewman a steady salary (not guaranteed on most pirate ships) of a sixpence and a liter of whiskey (a pocket full of rye) a day. The blackbirds were said to be his men waiting in ambush for another ship. The king was supposed to be Blackbeard himself, his Queen was his ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, who needed to be periodically restocked with supplies (bread and honey) and the maid was another tasty target for looting. As for the part about snipping off her nose? There seems to be a lively debate on that one... personally I am going to go for "insider pirate joke."


Rub a Dub Dub


Three men in a tub,

And who do you think they be?

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,

And all of them out to sea.

This one had me desperately confused as a child. Why would three men be in a tub?! Did they live in an apartment complex with only one bathroom?? Or were they just that dirty they needed help? As a teenager I became wary of the rub a dub dub part. Maybe this was just a joyously homoerotic ditty. But then why make it palpable to wee children? Seems off. Then again most of these seem a bit off. As it turns out this is the cleaned up version of the original poem which only had a few words different but was much more saucy, describing a travelling peep show and a tub full of women...

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub

And who do you think were there?

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker

And all of them gone to the fair.

George Villiers

George Villiers

Georgie Porgy

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry.

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

In the middle of the #MeToo movement this poem will probably either die under scrutiny or be used to teach a moral lesson (i.e. what NOT to do.) You might think it's about a little boy, that same little brat that's running around pulling on pigtails and throwing his crushes in the mud. However that interpretation is too kind. There are two competing theories, both of which claim it was written to reflect a real adult man. The first is my favorite, giving this dubious honor to George Villiers, an unusual man who showed the sexual cunning of a competitive woman in waiting. He was a drop dead gorgeous nobleman who damn well knew what his assets were and slept his way to the top - quite literally. He became the not-quite secret "good friend" of King James I. Understandably this caused a great deal of tension in the court and many people were not terribly amused. Still Villiers knew how to use his influence to get out of just about any trouble so he used his relationship with the king protect himself from allegations he was forcing himself on the prominent daughters of other nobles.

If you'd rather this poem be about a boorish idiot than a dapper possible rapist then there is another idea knocking about that it could be describing the life of King George IV. He wasn't particularly loved... for one he was gluttonously fat and wearing corsets only made people make up more fat jokes about the poor sod. Secondly his personality was one of a half-witted womanizing coward. His handlers constantly warned others not to leave their wives or daughters alone with him. He had one wife, whom he hated, another unofficial wife, both of whom he made utterly contentious of him, probably by siring a series of bastard children with other women. As far as "And when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgy ran away" this could refer to that time he was watching an illegal bare-knuckled boxing match when one of the men succeeded in killing his opponent, at which point cowardly George literally ran away in the hopes he wouldn't get in trouble for being at the event...

I'll end this little section by showing how Aldous Huxley updated the verse for Brave New World. "Orgy-Porgy, Ford and fun/ Kiss the girls and make them one!"


London Bridges Falling Down

This catchy little tune could actually be about London Bridge falling down. The more morbid among us like to think there's more to it, like the belief that children were sacrificed in it's building to guard over the bridge after their death (though God only knows why they'd want to guard a bridge they died unwillingly for. My ghost self would be packing a bag lunch and heading for the hills!) Of course there's no evidence this actually happened at London Bridge. It also may be about the sacking of London by Vikings led by Olaf II of Norway in 1009 or 1014. This is however dubious since this event was only written down in one source and thus isn't considered proven by historians.


Lizzie Borden Jump Rope Rhyme

Lizzie Borden Took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks,

When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one,

:Start counting to each skip:

Somehow I feel like I should add something from New England to my list since I grew up here and it's one of the damned creepiest places in the US, especially in terms of literature. Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, and for a short stint even Edgar Allen Poe lived here. Surely we must be teaching our children something horrific... and we are. Everyone here knows the Lizzie Borden jump rope rhyme. It's gruesome, and factually inaccurate, but no one seems to care. Lizzie Borden was one of our favorite potential murderesses. I say potential because she was never actually convicted of the crime. Suffice to say she was living in the same household as her father and much loathed step-mother who mysteriously died from having a hatchet flung repeatedly at their heads. Was it forty whacks? No, but it was certainly enough to make a mess of things. Lizzie was seen burning a dress soaked in red "paint" soon after and when the cops finally got around to accusing her (half-halfheartedly because she was a respectable woman) they had her so drugged up to "calm her nerves" that no one could possibly take a word she said as meaning anything. This lasted through the trial. She was found innocent, not because there were several other people who could have done it, but because of her fair sex. She lived the rest of her life well into old age in the same town, a spinster, an eccentric, and always someone no one quite trusted. This rhyme was written during the trial and she would have had to have heard it many times in her life.


Burke and Hare

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare,
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox the man who buys the beef.

I learned this rhyme when I was twelve, off some questionable documentary I was watching at the time. I am including it to show that Americans aren't the only one to feed their children stories of murder in catchy little rhymes. This one is about two "body snatchers," that is two men who sold bodies to be publicly autopsied for medical students to learn. It was highly illegal and almost no one donated their bodies so men would go out in the dead of night and dig up fresh graves. Burke and Hare however took a lazier route, plying local drunks with booze and smothering them. They sold sixteen suspiciously fresh bodies to Dr Knox before being captured and hung for their crimes.


An End Note...

If you're looking at all these stories of murder, torture, royal affairs, and other debaucheries and wondering if nursery rhymes were ever worse then the answer is YES, over the years they have been cleaned up A LOT. In fact here are a few that have gone obsolete over the years. Enjoy!

Multiplication is a Vexation,

Division is just as bad,

The Rule of Three perplexes me,

And practice drives me mad!


Here come I,
Little David Doubt;
If you don't give me money,
I'll sweep you all out.

Money I want,
And money I crave;
If you don't give me money,
I'll sweep you all to the grave!


I charge my daughters every one
To keep good house while I am gone,
You and you and especially you,
Or else I'll beat you black and blue.


Old father Long-Legs
Can’t say his prayers:
Take him by the left leg,
And throw him down the stairs.
And when he’s at the bottom,
Before he long has lain,
Take him by the right leg,
And throw him up again.


I married a wife on Sunday,
She began to scold on Monday,
Bad was she on Tuesday,
Middling was she on Wednesday,
Worse she was on Thursday,
Dead was she on Friday,
Glad was I on Saturday night,
To bury my wife on Sunday.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Dannyb on October 26, 2020:

Great read. I enjoyed the way you write. Keep it up!

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on July 17, 2018:

No problem Delilah! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

Delilah from Kentucky on July 17, 2018:

I had never heard those stories about the nursery rhymes. It was interesting to read. Thanks for sharing!

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