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Let's Be Unreasonable Here: History's dirty secrets hide behind nursery rhymes

At first glance, nursery rhymes seem childish, with nonsensical meanings hardly worth another look. I myself listened to them for years as a child, and all they solicited from me were a few laughs. After all, no sane mind would feed innocent children anything other than innocuous nonsense. Right?

But upon closer inspection, we see clearly enough that Mother Goose doesn’t live in idealistic nonsense. Instead, she exposes children’s innocent minds to torture weapons and death by black pustules.

No, really? Yes, it’s true. From the moment toddlers understand words, lounging in their cribs, we introduce them to gruesome violence and execution methods, something that I myself never realized as a kid.

Just another reason why we should worry about the next generation.

For example, let’s take a look at “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.”

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.

Mary’s quaint little garden an evil nursery rhyme?

In reality, “Mary” alludes to Queen Bloody Mary of England, infamous for her numerous executions of Protestant martyrs. Creative punishments ranged from chopping off heads to burning people alive at the stake.

But flowers? There can’t be anything evil about the flowers, can there? Unless, of course, they refer to torture weapons. “Silver bells” were thumbscrews, which crushed the thumb between two hard surfaces as the screw was tightened. And “cockle shells?” Torture weapons attached to the genitals.

Then the issue of the “maids,” actually alluding to the primitive 1500s version of the guillotine. At the time, beheadings were messily inefficient, requiring up to eleven blows to hack off a head. The “Maiden” was invented to ease the process, and has since been immortalized in this rhyme.

On the topic of head-severing, note that “Mary” isn’t the only song dealing with this distinctive form of execution. Take “Jack and Jill”:

Jack and Jill went up the hill

To fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown,

And Jill came tumbling after.

Jack and Jill stand for, respectively, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, the famous “Let-them-eat-cake” queen. Jack breaking his head is a euphemism for King Louis’s beheading by guillotine. “Jill came tumbling after” refers to Marie Antoinette’s beheading immediately afterwards.

Another example comes with “Ring around the Rosy,” a popular song for Kindergarten games:

Ring around the Rosy,

A pocketful of posies,

“A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”

We all fall down!

This rhyme actually refers to the Black Death that struck Europe during the 1350s and claimed approximately half of the population in less than 50 years.

Scientifically referred to as the bubonic plague, the disease started with a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin, hence “Ring around the Rosy.” People, in a futile attempt to prevent the disease, would carry around “a pocketful of posies,” sweet-smelling herbs that were supposed to keep away the bad smells purported to cause the sickness.

And then, of course, “’A-tishoo! A-tishoo!’” points to the disease’s sneezing bouts. Finally, “We all fall down!” refers to the inevitability of death for plague victims.

At least the makers of the rhyme were thoughtful enough to ignore even more gruesome details, such as the fact that victims developed black pustules throughout their bodies reaching the size of eggs, which later burst painfully.

Other nasty side effects included the vomiting of blood and frequent bouts of diarrhea.

And if you didn’t want to know that, you should’ve skipped the last paragraph.

The next time you read a nursery song to a kid, know what you’re talking about first. You never know when another beheading will pop up in those children’s rhymes.

Kevin Hwang is a junior at Athens High School, takes classes at Ohio University and a columnist for The Post. Know of any other mysteries behind nursery rhymes? Email him at


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