The Dark Side of Mother Goose

Murder, torture, mass death by plague…not exactly the stuff of children’s literature, right? Actually, if you read the rhymes of Mother Goose, it is. Most people don’t realize the macabre history of these innocuous-sounding rhymes, but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find Mother Goose poetry is chock-full of gruesome imagery.

In fact, many of today’s nursery rhymes are sanitized versions of the grim originals. Back in the 1950s, a group of concerned citizens rallied to clean them up lest they terrify little children, a crusade similar to one today’s parents wage against violent video games.

If you doubt the dark side of good Mother Goose, check out the stories behind these rhymes.

Ring Around the Rosie

Children love to hold hands and chant this little rhyme, falling to the ground in a fit of giggles at the phrase, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” What could be better than a ring of roses and a pocket full of posies? Actually, this rhyme reputedly refers to the bubonic plague that wiped out 20 percent of the population of London in less than a year. Ring of roses? The ugly rash that heralds the disease. Pocket full of posies? To disguise the smell of sickness. Ashes, ashes? Cremated bodies. Not such a cheery children’s rhyme after all.

Three Blind Mice

This cute little ditty seems bland enough, other than the somewhat disturbing imagery of a knife-wielding farmer’s wife hacking off a few rodent tails. In truth, this rhyme is about the bloody reign of England’s Queen Mary I, the fierce Catholic who spent much of her time on the throne executing Protestants. The three mice in this rhyme refer to Nicholas Ridley the Bishop of London, Hugh Latimer, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who were burned at the stake for heresy. The blindness is a device referring to their refusal to see Catholicism as the true faith.

Mary Mary Quite Contrary

What could be more innocuous than a little agricultural advice? This sweet rhyme conjures up a garden full of blooms tended by smiling maidens surrounded by tinkling bells and cockle shells. In truth, however, this is another tribute to Bloody Mary and her murdering methods. Silver bells and cockle shells were medieval torture devices, and the garden is a metaphor for the fast-growing graveyards that accompanied her reign.

Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill

Reading this rhyme brings to mind a pair of laughing children merrily filling their buckets at the well and suffering a small slip as they skip down the hill. Actually, most theorists believe this rhyme is a reference to France’s King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, who were found guilty of treason and publicly beheaded by the guillotine.

London Bridge is Falling Down

On the surface, this utterly harmless little rhyme seems to be just another story set to a tune and turned into a playground game for children. The rhyme refers to the famous bridge of stone built by Henry II in the 1100s; no one is certain of the identity of “my fair lady.” However, the second verse is where things get gruesome. The line “Set a man to watch all night” refers to the practice of embedding living human beings into bridges and foundational walls to act as a guardian spirit. In the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, three bridges are cited where the bodies of adults or children were found embedded in the walls. For the record, there’s no evidence any human beings were used to build the London Bridge.

So you see, old Mother Goose wasn’t exactly the benign feathered scribe depicted in children’s books. There’s a sinister streak in her collection of kiddie poems.

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