Sunday, October 30, 2011

The 15 Most Disturbing Nursery Rhymes You've Never Heard

Nursery rhymes aren’t all pudding and pie. Look closely and you’ll start to notice the starving dogs, nose-severing blackbirds, women held captive in pumpkin shells, and tails lopped off with carving knives. Those horrific images are just the remnants, though. 

Mother Goose rhymes have been fairly sanitized over the years, and earlier versions were chock-full of atrocities. The farther back one looks, the more gruesome the rhymes become. Some even believe that the seemingly harmless “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” counting rhymes derive from ancient methods of choosing human sacrifices (though the source material is sketchy.)

Domestic violence is one of the more common themes in old nursery rhymes, with wives and daughters bearing the brunt of the abuse, ranging from beating with a stick to flat-out murder. The early Victorians no doubt thought these rhymes were instructive to their daughters, who would learn to be obedient, dutiful wives.

Women weren’t the only ones to suffer in verse. Plenty of men are burnt, hacked or otherwise disposed of, as are children of any gender and a bevy of pets and wildlife.

Nursery rhyme reform was the rallying cause of a few upstanding gentlemen of the 1950s, including Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, who surveyed 200 popular rhymes and listed in detail what sorts of unsavoriness they contained (much as parents groups today decry animated films or video game content).

Handley-Taylor’s list of unsavory elements in the rhymes he read is a whole page long, and includes these bothersome incidents:

  • 8 allusions to murder (unclassified)
  • 2 cases of choking to death
  • 1 case of cutting a person in half
  • 1 case of death by devouring
  • 15 allusions to maimed human beings or animals
  • 23 cases of physical violence (unclassified)
Full list here

Here are 15 examples of nursery rhymes that don’t make the cut in childrens books today. Keep them handy if you have any children you need to keep awake.

There was a Man so Wise,
He jumpt into
A Bramble Bush,
And scratcht out both his Eyes.
And when he saw
His Eyes were out,
And reason to Complain,
He jumpt into a Quickset Hedge,
And scratcht them in again.

Originally from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744

Old father Long-Legs
Can’t say his prayers:
Take him by the left leg,
And throw him down the stairs.
And when he’s at the bottom,
Before he long has lain,
Take him by the right leg,
And throw him up again.

Originally from Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book for all little Misses and Masters, 1780

There was an old woman,
Her name it was Peg;
Her head was of wood and
She wore a cork leg.
The neighbours all pitch’d
Her into the water,
Her leg was drowned first,
And her head followed after.

From James Halliwell Phillips Nursery Rhymes, 1842 

THERE was a lady all skin and bone;
Sure such a lady was never known :
It happen'd upon a certain day,
This lady went to church to pray.

When she came to the church stile,
There she did rest a little while ;
When she came to the churchyard,
There the bells so loud she heard. 

When she came to the church door,
She stopt to rest a little more ;
When she came the church within,

The parson pray'd 'gainst pride and sin.

On looking up, on looking down,
She saw a dead man on the ground ;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crawl'd out, the worms crawl'd in.

Then she unto the parson said,
Shall I be so when I am dead :
O yes ! O yes, the parson said,
You will be so when you are dead.

Here the lady screams.*

*The person reciting the rhyme is meant to scream bloody murder at the end of the verse.

Originally from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, 1784 (Full text online)


There was a man, he went mad,
He jumped into a paper bag;

The paper bag was too narrow,
He jumped into a wheelbarrow;

The wheelbarrow took on fire,
He jumped into a cow byre;

The cow byre was too nasty;
He jumped into an apple pasty;

The apple pasty was too sweet,
He jumped into Chester-le-Street;

Chester-le-Street was full of stones,
He fell down and broke his bones.

From an early Mother Goose


I charge my daughters every one
To keep good house while I am gone,
You and you and especially you,
Or else I'll beat you black and blue.

From an early Mother Goose


Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

From an early Mother Goose

Die, pussy, die,
Shut your little eye:
When you wake,
Find a cake,
Die, pussy, die.

From an early Mother Goose (Actually less threatening than it sounds, this is a rhyme to be recited while stopping a swing.)


Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you into pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

From an early Mother Goose lullaby


Here come I,
  Little David Doubt;
If you don't give me money,
 I'll sweep you all out.

Money I want,
  And money I crave;
If you don't give me money,
  I'll sweep you all to the grave!

From an early Mother Goose’s Almanack


John Ball shot them all;
John Scott made the shot,
But John Ball shot them all.

From James Halliwell Phillips Nursery Rhymes, 1842 (Full text of the poem, which continues on in "The House That Jack Built" style)


Little General Monk
Sat upon a trunk
Eating a crust of bread;
There fell a hot coal
And burnt into his clothes a hole,
Now little General Monk is dead.
Keep always from the fire,
If it catch your attire
You too, like General Monk, will be dead.

From Rhymes for the Nursery, 1824


I married a wife on Sunday,
She began to scold on Monday,
Bad was she on Tuesday,
Middling was she on Wednesday,
Worse she was on Thursday,
Dead was she on Friday,
Glad was I on Saturday night,
To bury my wife on Sunday.

From Tom Tit’s Song Book, 1790


 A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds

And when the weeds begin to grow
It's like a garden full of snow

And when the snow begins to fall
It's like a bird upon the wall

And when the bird away does fly
It's like an eagle in the sky

And when the sky begins to roar
It's like a lion at the door

And when the door begins to crack
It's like a stick across your back

And when your back begins to smart
It's like a penknife in your heart

And when your heart begins to bleed
You're dead, and dead, and dead indeed.

Originally from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, 1784


A  long tail’d pig, or a short tail’d  pig,
Or a pig without any tail,
A sow-pig, or a boar-pig,
Or a pig with a curling  tail.

Take hold of his tail,
And eat off his head,
And then you will be sure
The pig-hog is dead.

Originally the street cry of the pig-pie man, reproduced in several early nursery rhyme books.


What's the grimmest nursery rhyme or story you recall? Give me your creepiest verse in the comments section.


  1. I actually enjoyed the one about “Old Father Long-Legs” – it made me laugh. I guess I’m just a bad person.

    >> . . . Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
    Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

    And that one above reminded me of a scene in the original “Wicker Man” movie. Ever see that? Now that’s my kind of “Horror” movie!

    >> . . . What's the grimmest nursery rhyme or story you recall? Give me your creepiest verse in the comments section.

    Mine you just recently read . . . about a blog pirate. Not really all that grim or creepy but probably not for impressionable young children either (despite it having been written by a child).

    ~ D-FensDogg
    ‘Loyal American Underground’

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    2. "Wicker Man", now there's a classic. In my opinion the best out of the lot coming from the 70s Hammer Horror series featuring legendary and sadly late Christopher Lee. I totally agree with you Stephen, no chainsaw massacres for me either (regardless of where they come from)

  2. The one about the old man of Wise was in a children's book when I was a child. I remember reading it over and over. I thought it was great.

  3. You're the second person to tell me they grew up with that one. (I'm starting to wish I hadn't led with it.) I wonder if macabre nursery rhymes have an influence on whether or not one goes into crime writing?

  4. " Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
    Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."

    I love how rhythmic and catchy these rhymes are.

    I remember this- the ending of "Bells of St.Clemmons"
    from when I was a child.

  5. "Here comes a candle to light you to bed/Here comes a chopper to chop off your head" is the concluding verse to a longer poem--sometimes known as "Gay Go Up and Gay Go Down" or "Oranges and Lemons"--which can be found at

  6. From 'The Juniper Tree' collected by the Brothers Grimm:
    "My mother she killed me,
    My father he ate me,
    My sister Marlene made sure to see
    My bones were wrapped as neat as could be,
    And laid beneath the Juniper tree.
    Tweet tweet! What a lovely bird I am! "

  7. I've never liked this one:

    Ding dong bell!
    Pussy's in the well.
    Who put her in?
    Little Johnny Thin.
    Who pulled her out?
    Little Johnny Stout.
    Oh, what a naughty boy was that
    Who tried to drown poor pussy-cat
    Who never did him any harm
    And killed the rats in Father's barn.

    I've always thought the second part had to have been added by some Victorian as a moral, since the meter and tone change so much.

    I think a lot of these rhymes are violent for comic effect, like more modern ones that aren't supposed to be taken seriously. I can't remember the author (Ciardi?) but I memorized this fun little poem a few years ago:

    Her Pa committed suicide
    By biting off his head.
    Her mother saw her uncle's ghost
    And died of fright, she said.
    So her unpleasant habits
    Seem most curious to me,
    Because she seems to come from such
    A happy family.

    I probably have part of it wrong, but the first few lines are correct.

  8. Michael: Thanks for posting the link to "Gay go up and gay go down." I've never seen that verse in its entirety.

    KC: I think I have the same Ciardi book. Edward Gorey cover, right?

    I feel the same way about "pussy's in the well." A lot of the rhymes we're used to are pretty gruesome themselves.

  9. I was raised on the old standard safe versions of rhymes and don't remember any that were particularly gruesome. These examples that you present are pretty wacky, but really not so much when you consider some of the cartoons and TV shows that kids watch. I think a good scare is a natural fun pursuit for us humans.

    Tossing It Out

  10. They are gruesome, but then I again, I grew up watching Wile E Coyote try all kinds of violent means to catch the Road Runner, and many people (not me) love horror movies and stories. I'm thinking it's a way to emotionally explore the scary side of life.

  11. Oh, say, do you know
    That a long time ago,
    There were two little children,
    Whose names I don’t know.

    They were stolen away
    On a bright summer’s day,
    And left in the woods
    In a place far away.

    And when it was night
    So sad was their plight
    The stars were not out
    And the moon gave no light
    They sobbed and they sighed
    And they bitterly cried.
    Poor Babes in the Woods!
    Poor Babes in the Woods.

    And when they were dead
    The robins so red
    Took mulberry branches
    And over them spread
    And all the day long
    They sang their poor song
    Poor Babes in the Woods!
    Poor Babes in the Woods

  12. Oh, that's a bizarrely beautiful one. Kidnapped kids left dead in the woods? Fine subject for a nursery rhyme, huh?

    1. I think there's a beautiful picture of it in the Marguerite D'Angeli Mother Goose book (my favorite, and the one I grew up with).

  13. I used to sang mother goose rhymes before but I haven't heard any of these dark ones I wonder what happened to them quite eerie I must say do they still print/publish any of these?thanks for sharing ^_^

  14. Found your blog when you commented on my Chronicle post - so glad I did! Now I'm a new follower, AND I'm going to post about this post on my next Friday round-up post. Can't wait to read more!

  15. Thanks so much! I'm following you right back!

  16. Now I lay me down to sleep,
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
    If I should die before I wake,
    I pray the Lord my soul to take.

    Always seemed a bit scary: Really? My prayers should include the possibility of dying before I wake? What if he takes my soul but I'm not really dead yet?

    I can't sleep!

    1. I have always felt that "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep" and "Little Boy Blue", with their hints that it was common for healthy children to just suddenly die during sleep, were terrorizing to many children growing up.

    2. they used that in a matillica song called enter sandman its great :)

  17. Little Willie, dressed in sashes
    Fell in the fire and burned to ashes
    After a while, the room grew chilly,
    But no one wanted to poke up Willie

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  19. Not only are some of these nurseries a bit disturbing, some a full of innuendos. There is definitely some sexual undertones in some, Like this one:

    "I like little pussy, her coat is so warm,
    And if I don’t hurt her she’ll do me no harm;
    So I’ll not pull her tail, nor drive her away,
    But pussy and I very gently will play."

    Granted these are for child and he/she equate the tale to the animal cat. I know most of these stories and as child I too didn't link any overt ideas, suggestive natures to the mother goose stories, they fun rhythmic tales, that could be sang but reading these now with an adult mind it is very much different. LOL. The innocence of youth right.

  20. How about this one:

    "See-saw, Margery Daw,
    Sold her bed, and lay upon straw.
    Was not she a dirty slut,
    To sell her bed and lay in the dirt?"

    Questionable to say the least.

    1. Who wrote it?

      Curious to say the least. ..

    2. I am from London, Great Britain and we sang that one very differently !!

      See-saw Margery Daw
      Johnny shall have a good master,
      He shall earn but a penny a day,
      Because he can't go any faster ....

  21. Solomon Grundy
    Born on Monday
    Christened on Tuesday
    Married on Wednesday
    Sick on Thursday
    Worse on Friday
    Died on Saturday
    Buried on Sunday.
    That is the end of Solomon Grundy.

    That one always freaked me out....

  22. Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head, chip, chop, the last mans dead. I remember it with hand movements and loved it. Surely children were never scared by these rhymes.
    Hickity pickity my black hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen, gentlemen come every day to see what my black hen doth lay. This one referred to a certain 18th century prostitute who performed a certain trick.
    Billy falling into the fire was a tongue in cheek 'ruthless rhyme' written by Harry Graham in the early 20th century. He also wrote, Weep not for little Leonie, abducted by a French marquis. Though loss of honour was a wrench, just think how it's improved her french!

    1. I knew this one as Hickity pickity my fine hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen. Sometimes 9 and sometimes 10, hickity, pickity, my fine hen.
      I forget about the verse "gentlemen come every day..." and I did not know the reference to prostitution! Not surprising, some rhymes did not start out as children's rhymes.

  23. Thanks so much, I hope my kid loves them as much as I did!

  24. My mother and grandmother used to sing a rhyme to my brother and I when we were younger, I'm not sure if anyone else has heard of it though.. It went:

    (Name of your child, so I'll use mine) Shanice, Shanice is no good, chop her up for firewood. When she's dead, bash her on the head, turn her into gingerbread!

    It used to make me laugh so much, but now I think about it, it is quite horrific..

    1. re the above rhyme about 'let's chop her up for firewood. The next line as I remember it was... when the wood begins to crack all the fleas run down her back.
      Strange how the words get altered over the years.

  25. Little baby bunting, daddy's gone a hunting, to fetch a rabbit skin to sew the baby in...

  26. Tell, tale, tit.
    Your tongue shall be slit.
    And all the doggies of the town
    Shall have a little bit.

    This from a sweet little book of nursery rhymes to read to your child before they tumble off to slumber land!!

  27. Hicory dickory dock the bird went up the clock as soon as it struck 12 we all burned in hell.... forgot where it was from

    1. Oh no !!

      Hickory, dickory, dock.
      The mouse ran up the clock.
      The clock struck one,
      The mouse ran down,
      Hickory, dickory, dock

      That is what I learned !

  28. wow these r disturbing rhymes!

  29. You don't need to look hard:

    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?

  30. When people tell me I'm warped, I just point to my copy of SLOVENLY PETER. One of my favorites was about the little girl who cried and cried until her eyes fell out. And it was illustrated with a wonderful picture of a little girl, sitting on the floor, with her eyes (attached by long stringy cords of flesh) were rolling on the floor beside her.

  31. I actually like the one, "A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds." Might use that one at work :)

  32. I actually like the one, "A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds." Might use that one at work :)

  33. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  34. I had a really old volume of Mother Goose rhymes when I was a kid. This one freaked me out.

    Your tongue shall be slit,
    And all the dogs in the town
    Shall have a little bit.

    I didn't help that there was a drawing of a man holding a pair of scissors, pulling a boy's tongue out of his mouth. yikes!

    1. Oops.. just noticed somebody else already posted this one!

  35. I like this book...thanks for sharing with us.. i really like this..

    Adult Babies
    ABDL London Nursery
    Diaper lover

  36. English Nursery Rhymes with lyrics and some visual effects by me.
    Hope you like this and also Subscribe to my channel

  37. mine is not a nursery rhyme its a lullaby

    go to sleep and close your eyes,and dream of broken butterflies
    That tore their wings upon a thorn,you know the pain they've endured

    silver metal shine so bright,scarlet blood that feels so right
    dream of blood trickling down,and wake up just before you drown

    the moonlight shining off your tears,As you bleed out your own worst fears
    so tonight when you start to cry whisper the cutters lullaby:

    Hushabye baby,your almost dead,you don't have a pulse and your pillow is red,your family hates you,your friends let you bleed,sleep tight with a knife cause that's all you need.

    rockabye aby broken ans scarred,you didn't know life would be this hard,Time to end the pain you hid so well
    And down will go baby,straight back to hell

  38. The Animals Went In Two By Two - is one of my favorite rhyme,

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  40. We used to sing about Lizzie Borden at recess, probably while jumping rope as a lot of the rhymes we did were done while jumping rope. I always loved it. I was so disappointed this year at the preschool I worked at that the Giant did not threaten to grind Jack's bones to make his bread, that the wolf in Red Riding Hood did not eat her and grandma and wind up with stones sewn into his belly, and that the wolf and the 3 pigs all are friends in the end. I delighted in the scary factor of rhymes and stories as a kid. I suppose had we done Hansel and Gretel no one would have wound up in an oven. And that's the best part of the story.

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  43. Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.
    Be he live or be he dead, I will grind his bones to make my bread.

  44. This comment has been removed by the author.

  45. Cecil was a caterpillar, Cecil was my friend
    Last time I saw him he was 2 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” “I’ve eaten my baby” Naughty naughty Cecil

    Cecil was a caterpillar Cecil was my friend Last time I saw him he was 4 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” “I’ve eaten my sister” Naughty naughty Cecil

    Cecil was a caterpillar Cecil was my friend Last time I saw him he was 6 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” “I’ve eaten my brother” Naughty naughty Cecil

    Cecil was a caterpillar Cecil was my friend Last time I saw him he was 8 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” “I’ve eaten my mummy” Naughty naughty Cecil

    Cecil was a caterpillar Cecil was my friend Last time I saw him he was 10 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” “I’ve eaten my daddy” Naughty naughty Cecil

    Cecil was a caterpillar Cecil was my friend Last time I saw him he was 2 centimetres I said Cecil! “What have you done?” I’ve been sick

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  47. Mary Hood (my name) is no good, chop her up for kindling wood, if the wood does not burn, you may have another turn. My father sang this to me....I loved it until I really understood the words!

    1. My dad sang it: first name last name is no good, chop him/her up for fire wood. If the fire doesn't burn first name last name is a worm. Then he would go into a series of oompas to the same meter and move on to the next kid.

    2. My dad sang it: first name last name is no good, chop him/her up for fire wood. If the fire doesn't burn first name last name is a worm. Then he would go into a series of oompas to the same meter and move on to the next kid.

  48. nice blog with lot of rhymes and beautiful comments, i would like to remember this blog to keep coming back for any references in our iris florets play schools!

  49. Really very impressive... I had never heard about these... Keep sharing your informative with us. Nursery Rhymes

  50. Its a wonderful Song and Kids will really going to enjoy it .Thanks for sharing. Always keep Posting such things.

  51. Its a wonderful Song and Kids will really going to enjoy it .Thanks for sharing. Always keep Posting such things.

  52. As far as I know no child has had their mind damaged or was turned into a serial killer through reading Mother Goose.Until such is proven to be the case my grandchildren will continue to be read to and read for themselves from said Mother Goose.