The 13th Floor

5 Nursery Rhymes With Not-So-Child-Friendly Origins

In addition to being raised on a steady diet of horror movies and television, my mother also frequently did the normal parent thing and read me fairytales and nursery rhymes when I was a child. Before the poetic stylings of Metallica, Mother Goose was blowing my mind with verses about an old woman who lived in a shoe (that can’t be sanitary), a little boy blowing a horn, and other odd occurrences.

As children, we all likely dismissed the cryptic and sometimes nonsensical content of such stories and simply went along for the ride. However, now that we are older and have been blessed with inquisitive minds as well as the power of Google and Siri, we demand to know everything about even the most trivial of life’s mysteries. So, why not dig into some of our earliest reading material?

Delving deep into the history of some childhood favorites, it has been theorized that they were not purely built on fiction. Many of the dainty characters in Mother Goose’s tales are believed to be real-life malevolent beings from the past. And many of the perceived antagonists are believed to be victims of bloody tyranny. While the classic nursery rhymes from our youth may appear friendly on the surface, you will find that these five may have rather dark origins…


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

Contrary to the imagery that this nursery rhyme exhibits, it is hardly rooted in flowers and young women. As you will find with many nursery rhymes, MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY is believed to come from Medieval Europe. There are several different theories disputed regarding this rhyme, the darkest of them suggesting that “Mary” refers to Mary I of England, better known as Bloody Mary. A devout Catholic, Mary’s “garden” is actually believed to be a cemetery which grew in terms of the body count as the “pretty maids” represent executed Protestants. The “silver belles and cockle shells” may refer to torture apparatuses. Other versions of this theory infer that the pretty maids might also symbolize miscarriages or “The Maiden,” which was another common torture device.


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?

Although the possible author of this ditty is believed to be teenaged Thomas Ravencroft in 1609, there is another theory that points to THREE BLIND MICE being yet another ode to Queen Mary I. According to this theory, the three blind mice are Protestants Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer who were burned at the stake— not cut with a carving knife— under the Catholic Queen’s rule. The blindness is not a literal translation but a reference to the men’s Protestantism. Hell hath no fury like Bloody Mary.


Goosey goosey gander
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There 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.

Unlike the first two nursery rhymes in this list, GOOSEY, GOOSEY GANDER is believed by most historians to be an anti-Catholic warning during the reign of Henry VIII. The first half of the rhyme refers to hiding places called “priest holes” that were designed to hide Catholic priests within houses throughout England. The latter half in which an “old man who wouldn’t say his prayers” was thrown from the stairs refers to the deadly torment a priest faced if discovered. Seriously, what were our parents trying to teach us with these rhymes?


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

Setting aside the Protestant-Catholic debate, this rhyme is believed to be a classic tale of infidelity and revenge. So, it’s likely not meant to be a bedtime story for the kiddies. Peter’s wife is believed to not be a runaway but rather a… “lady of the night.” A common interpretation is that Peter grew angry with his wife’s occupation and killed her, stuffing her body in a pumpkin shell. I imagine some carving had to be done in order for her body to fit in such a tight space. Another speculation dates the nursery rhyme back to the 13th century England under the reign of King John, who supposedly kept a noble’s wife confined within a wall and left her to starve. But then who is Peter?


Rock-a-bye baby
On the tree top
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby
Cradle and all.

There are several theories that have been disputed regarding this nursery rhyme and lullaby, but the most unsettling refers to the newborn son of King James II of England. In this horrifying interpretation, it is believed that the King’s son was not born of his wife but instead someone else’s son who was stolen and taken to the birthing room so that a Roman Catholic was ensured to be heir to the thrown. It is suggested that the remainder of the rhyme involving the blowing wind and the fall of the baby and cradle refer to the Revolution of 1688 in which King James II was overthrown. For such a children’s tranquil song, it’s packed with underlying action and scandal.

*All Photos: iStock


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