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Nightmarish Nursery Rhymes

Nursery rhymes are meant for children to enjoy, to listen to and to learn. Some even are used in games children play. So it was not a surprise that I was shocked to find some disturbing things behind nursery rhymes.

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There was a girl named Mary who had a garden. In it, the nursery rhyme said she grew “silver bells and cockleshells and pretty maids all in a row”. No problem with that, right? It does not even really have to make much sense and children still love to recite it.

Well, guess what? According to certain sources, silver bells and cockleshells were “torture devices” which Queen Mary I of England used on her victims. She had a nickname and it was Bloody Mary. 

Children enjoy playing a game and reciting the rhyme about London Bridge falling down. Everyone smiles while listening to them recite – “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.”

Well, this was not just a made-up rhyme. It apparently goes back to a time when the bodies of dead children were found entombed in large structures like bridges. The game consists of holding hands like an arch and then crashing down to capture a child once the song is over.

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Who remembers the three men in a tub? They were a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick-maker. The truth about his is quite awful. Apparently it was sung about men who spied on women in a tub. In the original version was a line that said to the effect that it was enough to make a man stare. Most likely these three fellows could have been sued by women for intruding on their privacy.

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There were supposedly two children named Jack and Jill who went up a hill to get some water. Well, there is an English legend that says it was not about two children but about two adults who were supposedly having an affair up on top of that hill.

We have the delightful ancient song with children going around in circles – “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

According to some sources, this actually refers to the Black Plague. Rosie refers to a symptom which was a rosie rash and posies were used so the smell of this disease could be warded off. Those who had the plague fell down just before they died.

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For ages babies have heard their mothers singing to them “Rock-a-bye Baby”. The words have the baby rocking on a treetop and the wind is what rocks the cradle. Unfortunately, the bough of the tree might break and then the cradle will come falling down. As tragic as this situation might be since it was only in a song babies would fall asleep when this was sung and no one really paid much attention to the words or their meaning.

The deeper meaning here, first of all, goes back to the Native Americans who would rock their babies in cradles that were suspended from tree branches. The second meaning is that the tree symbolizes the pregnant mother and eventually the blowing wind leads to her going into labor and when the cradle and all comes down the baby is born.

There was the song about Jimmy crack corn, someone not caring, a rousing melody and something about a blue-tail fly. Well, this one takes us back to slavery days and is not really a nursery rhyme. Apparently this one tells the story about a slave who was shooing flies away from his master. Alas, his master fell from his horse and died. The pony, he was riding pitched him off because the pony has been bitten by a blue-tail fly. Do you get the picture? So after the master dies, the slave might be considered guilty, the jury would wonder why and finally the verdict turns out to be that it was the fault of the blue-tail fly.

Finally, we have a boy named Peter, who was a pumpkin eater.  This lovely little rhyme goes – “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.”

Once again if it was just a rhyme no one would really think about what the words actually meant. Well, the real scenario could have been that Peter was not a boy, but a man who discovered that he had a cheating wife. So he killed her and hid her body inside of a pumpkin.


What do you think?


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