The True Origins of “The Muffin Man” Nursery Rhyme

The song isn't nearly as dark as the internet claims.

No serial killer here!
No serial killer here! / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Do you know the muffin man?” Chances are you’re familiar with the nursery rhyme this line kicks off, but you might not be as clued up on its history. As with many sweet-sounding rhymes, there are rumors about it having dark origins, so let’s dig in to discover the truth.

Debunking the Urban Legend of a Serial Killer “Muffin Man”

You may have heard that the titular muffin man was actually a 16th-century serial killer named Frederic Thomas Lynwood, a.k.a. the Drury Lane Dicer. Lynwood supposedly lured his victims—amounting to 15 children and seven fellow bakers—with the temptation of muffins. The story goes that the rhyme was created to warn people of his M.O.

But things read on the internet should be taken with a grain—or, in this case, a handful—of salt. There’s no record of a baked-goods killer in the late 1500s and no proof that the rhyme was written in reference to a murderer. The original source of this half-baked tale is most likely the Wikipedia parody site Uncyclopedia, where it was first posted in 2007 before being stripped of its crass comedy and passed off as true by netizens.

The Actual Origins of “The Muffin Man”

illustration of a baker's boy selling muffins and crumpets
Muffin men really did exist. / Culture Club/GettyImages

So if the rhyme isn’t about a Renaissance serial killer, where did it come from? The verse first appeared in print in the 1819 book Life High and Low, with slightly different lyrics to the ones we know today:

“Don’t you the know the muffin-man,
Don’t you know his name?
Don’t you know the muffin-man,
As lives in Drury Lane?”

It’s noted to have been sung “in attic entertainments and at cellar-balls, at promiscuous clubs, and at gallows hops.” While the oral history of the song remains unknown, it likely originated in these less-than-reputable adult venues.

Within a few decades the rhyme had entered family-friendly circles. Artist Frank Bellew’s The Art of Amusing (1866), describes people sitting in a ring and singing the song, with the game being “to keep a gwave face all the time. If yaw laugh yaw pay a forfeit.” This version also substitutes “Cwumpet [i.e. Crumpet] lane” for “Drury Lane.” Folklorist Alice Gomme records another game linked to the rhyme in The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1894), this time in the form of a guessing game children played.

As for the meaning behind the ditty, it isn’t any deeper or darker than it sounds. At the time, muffin men walked the streets selling muffins, which were a bread-like product similar to English muffins, rather than sweet treats filled with blueberries or chocolate chips. In London Labour and the London Poor (1851), English journalist and playwright Henry Mayhew writes that muffin men were usually “the children of bakers, or worn-out bakers.” While the character from the rhyme is often depicted as a baker himself—as in the Shrek (2001) sequels—Mayhew reports that he “did not hear of any street-seller who made the muffins or crumpets he vended.” Now you definitely know the muffin man.

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The Muffin Man Lyrics

There are several variations to the nursery rhyme, as people have tweaked the verses over the years. You can find the most common lyrics to The Muffin Man song below:

Oh, do you know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Oh, do you know the muffin man,
Who lives in Drury Lane?

Oh, yes I know the muffin man,
The muffin man, the muffin man,
Oh, yes I know the muffin man,
Who lives in Drury Lane.