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The Dark and Mysterious Origins of 10 Classic Nursery Rhymes

Jennifer M Wood
Thomas Webster's Ring O' Roses
Thomas Webster's Ring O' Roses / Thomas Webster, Google Art Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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In the canon of great horror writing, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley tend to dominate the craft. But Mother Goose isn’t too far behind. Yes, that fictional grande dame of kiddie poems has got a bit of a dark streak, as evidenced by the unexpectedly sinister theories surrounding the origins of these 10 well-known nursery rhymes.

1. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep // 1731

Though most scholars agree that “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is about the Great Custom, a tax on wool that was introduced in 1275, its use of the color black and the word master led some to wonder whether there was a racial message at its center. Its political correctness was called into question yet again in the latter part of the 20th century, with some schools banning it from being repeated in classrooms, and others simply switching out the word black for something deemed less offensive. In 2011, news outlets reported on the proliferation of “Baa, Baa, Rainbow Sheep” as an alternative.

2. Goosey Goosey Gander // 1784

Goose Farms Prepare For Christmas Season
This nursery rhyme isn't really about a goose. / Sean Gallup/GettyImages

It’s hard to imagine that any rhyme with the phrase goosey goosey in its title could be described as anything but feel-good. But one popular version of the ditty is actually a tale of religious persecution. Some years after the song’s first appearance in the historical record, it was appended with some disturbing lines. “[T]here I met an old man, who wouldn't say his prayers, so I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.” Ouch!

According to noted English folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, “It is very probable that they had a separate origin. They are much the same as the lines which school-children address to the cranefly (‘Daddy-long-legs’), sometimes pulling off its legs as they repeat,
Old Father Long-Legs
/ Can’t say his prayers;
/ Take him by the left leg,
/ And throw him downstairs.”

3. Jack and Jill // 1765

One of the most common theories surrounding the story’s origin is that it’s about France’s Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded. The only problem is that those events occurred nearly 30 years after “Jack and Jill” was first written. The more likely story attributes the rhyme to the 17th-century king of England, Charles I. Apparently he attempted to increase taxes on alcohol, which were generally measured in units known as jacks and gills. After that failed, he instead reduced the of a jack (about one-eighth of a pint), and in turn, the gill, which is twice the size of a jack. So the gill’s increased price “came tumbling after.”

4. London Bridge Is Falling Down // 1744

Part of Old London Bridge, c1600.
Part of Old London Bridge, c1600. / Print Collector/GettyImages

In 2006, Fergie got saucy with some of this classic kid tune’s lyrics. But the original song wasn’t much better. Depending on whom you ask, “London Bridge is Falling Down” could be about a 1014 Viking attack or the normal deterioration of an old bridge. More specifically, many sources tie the nursery rhyme to the alleged destruction of London Bridge at the hands of Olaf II of Norway some time in the early 1000s. (“Alleged” because some historians don’t believe that attack ever took place.) The song’s popularity around the world is often cited as further proof that it was the Vikings who created it, believing that they brought the tune to the many places they traveled.

There's a pretty big problem with this explanation, though. It largely hinges on Samuel Laing's 19th-century translation of an Old Norse poem that seems to mirror the well-known “London Bridge.” The translation begins, “London Bridge is broken down—Gold is won, and bright renown.” That apparently illustrative similarity is no accident, though. It’s quite likely that the translation was, in fact, intentionally mimicking the already well known nursery rhyme. A more accurate translation, from years later, renders the similarities between the skaldic verse and the children's rhyme basically non-existent.

5. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary // 1744

Mary I
Mary I. / Print Collector/GettyImages

“Contrary” is one way to describe a murderous psychopath. This popular English nursery rhyme, which reads like a solicitation for gardening advice, is actually—according to many—a recounting of the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England, a.k.a. Bloody Mary. A fierce believer in Catholicism, her reign as queen—from 1553 to 1558—was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. (Silver bells and cockle shells, in this understanding, are actually torture devices, not garden accouterments.)

6. Three Blind Mice // 1805

“Three Blind Mice” is supposedly yet another ode to Bloody Mary’s reign, with the trio in question believed to be a group of Protestant bishops—Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—who (unsuccessfully) conspired to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake for their heresy. Critics suggest that the blindness in the title refers to their religious beliefs.

7. Eeny Meeny Miny Mo // Early 19th Century

No, there’s nothing particularly inflammatory about the lines “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, Catch a tiger by his toe.” Different versions of the tune popped up around the world, and most are appropriately innocent. The late 19th/early 20th century version in the United States was explicitly racist, though, with a racial slur in place of the tiger kids catch today. That version has, for good reason, fallen out of favor.

Even with the lyrical switch-out, a reference to the poem can still be offensive. In 2004, two Black passengers sued Southwest Airlines for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress, following an incident where a flight attendant used the rhyme in a humorous fashion during takeoff when she told passengers: “Eeny meeny miny mo, Please sit down it’s time to go.” (The court sided with the airline.)

8. Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush // 1840

The top part of a mulberry bush.
The theorized origin for this nursery rhyme isn't exactly cute. / Tran Vu Quang Duy/Moment/Getty Images

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” is often sung as part of a children’s game. Historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, suggested that the song originated with that 420-year-old institution’s female prisoners, who exercised around a mulberry tree. Which is probably not the connotation your 6-year-old self had in mind.

9. Rock-A-Bye Baby // 1765

One interpretation of this famous lullaby is that it is about the son of King James II of England and Mary of Modena. It’s widely believed that the boy was not their son at all, but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.

10. Ring Around the Rosie // 1881

Kids in two circles, moving around and blurry
Experts doubt the plague theory for this nursery rhyme. / Stephen Simpson/Moment/Getty Images

Considering that some of today’s classic nursery rhymes are more than two centuries old, there are often several theories surrounding their origins—and not a lot of sound proof about which argument is correct. But of all the alleged nursery rhyme backstories, “Ring Around the Rosie” is probably the most infamous. Though its lyrics and even its title have gone through some changes over the years, the most popular contention is that the sing-songy verse refers to the 1665 Great Plague of London. “The rosie” is the rash that covered the afflicted, the smell from which they attempted to cover up with “a pocket full of posies.” The plague killed nearly 15 percent of the country’s population, which makes the final verse—“Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down”—rather self-explanatory.

But Snopes labels this reading false, and quotes folklorist Philip Hiscock with a more likely suggestion: That the nursery rhyme probably has its origins “in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the ‘play-party.’ Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too.”

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2022.

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