Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). They’ll eventually repeat, but for now, we’re still on the initial installments of each of the various “Grab Bag” legends!
This is the first in a series of examinations of legends related to nursery rhymes and whether they are true or false.
NURSERY RHYME LEGEND: Humpty Dumpty was named after a cannon.
STATUS: I’m Going with False
A lot of the fun with nursery rhymes for adults is trying to figure out the meaning behind these children’s rhymes. Since the origins of almost all of them have been lost to the ages for centuries, a “best guess” is all we really can do for most of them, and in a lot of cases, said “best guesses” really can be quite a stretch (“You see, ___ stands for _____, so when he says ____, he really means ____” – stuff like that).
One such stretch is with the famous story of Humpty Dumpty.
As the tale goes:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Interestingly enough, it seems likely that the initial usage of the song was as a riddle. You know, sort of like the one about “Henry” being discovered in a pool of water and broken glass having drowned, and you’re supposed to figure out that Henry is a goldfish. It appears that the same was here originally, that you were supposed to figure out WHY Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together – because he’s an egg, not a human!
In any event, one popular “origin” of the rhyme comes down to these alternate lyrics to the tale…
In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the king’s men still fought for the crown
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of all
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired
Humpty-Dumpty was its name
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…
Thus the story is that in 1648, a Royalist cannon in Colchester used during the English Civil War was perched on a wall and was knocked down, and all of the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t get “Humpty Dumpty” back together again.
However, the main “proof” (or should I say, the ONLY proof) for this take on the story is the above lyrics, and those lyrics were actually created in the late 1950s as a joke by Professor David Daube in Oxford Magazine.
An alternate version is that “Humpty Dumpty” was a sniper during the same battle in Colchester.
Similarly, that story lacks, well, any proof.
So I’m going with false to both.
Honestly, from the looks of the lyrics, I don’t think this is one of those nursery rhymes that is anything except a fanciful children’s rhyme.
NURSERY RHYME LEGEND: There actually was a Mary who had a little lamb.
STATUS: I’m Going With True
Like I said, for almost all nursery rhymes, we really don’t know the origin of the rhyme.
In the case of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” we appear to know a little bit more than others.
Here’s the rhyme (the adapted version that was set to music in the 1830s)…
Mary had a little lamb,
little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb,
whose fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
Mary went, Mary went,
and everywhere that Mary went,
the lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day
school one day, school one day,
It followed her to school one day,
which was against the rules.
It made the children laugh and play,
laugh and play, laugh and play,
it made the children laugh and play
to see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out,
turned it out, turned it out,
And so the teacher turned it out,
but still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about,
patiently about, patiently about,
And waited patiently about
till Mary did appear.
“Why does the lamb love Mary so?”
Love Mary so? Love Mary so?
“Why does the lamb love Mary so,”
the eager children cry.
“Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know.”
The lamb, you know, the lamb, you know,
“Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,”
the teacher did reply.
While there have been some challengers to the “throne,” it is generally accepted that there actually WAS a “Mary” who brought a lamb to school with her one day, which caused much amusement.
That Mary was Mary Sawyer, who lived in Sterling, Massachusetts and was born in 1806 and died in 1889.
Her age DOES call into question, though, exactly when the rhyme was first written.
The first published version of the rhyme was by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830.
However, if Sawyer was born in 1806, the actual incident had to have been a number of years before 1830.
Sawyer herself recalled that a young man named John Roulstone wrote the first few lines of the poem at the time, and that Hale wrote the rest of the poem years later, with Hale’s just being the one which got published.
Naturally, there are those who argue that Hale wrote the whole thing.
Mary’s claim of being “the” Mary has been basically accepted, though.
Here is a statue of “her” lamb in Sterling, Massachusetts…
(Thanks to thebudman623 for the pictures of the statue)
It’s amazing to think that we appear to actually know the name of the “Mary” from “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
NURSERY RHYME LEGEND: Airline passengers sued Southwest Airlines over the usage of a nursery rhyme by a flight attendant.
Few children’s rhymes have as rough a history as the simple “counting” rhyme, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
The most popular version of the rhyme goes:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
With the rhyme designed to “randomly” count out one person, for purposes of determining who goes first, who is “it,” etc.
However, years ago, a particularly American take on the rhyme was quite popular (up until the late 19th Century, it was the most popular version of the rhyme in the United States), and in this version, instead of the word “tiger,” a common racial epithet for black people was used.
Some versions of the rhyme went even further, with stuff like:
If he won’t work then let him go;
Skidum, skidee, skidoo.
In any event, because of the history with the rhyme, some black people have a real problem with the rhyme, no matter the current lyrics.
So keep that in mind when you hear that a pair of black passengers were boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in 2001 (on Southwest, the passengers pick their own seats), when a flight attendant told them either:
Eeny meeny miny mo
Please sit down it’s time to go
Eeny meeny miny mo
Pick a seat, it’s time to go
(It was one or the other – both were alleged – it sounds like a matter of just not remembering the exact words correctly – they’re both pretty much the same)
Grace Fuller, 49, and her sister Louise Sawyer, 46 found this rhyme to be offensive and equivalent to a racial slur and wrote to Southwest Airlines to demand an apology and for Southwest to tell their flight attendants to cease to use the rhyme anymore. When neither happened, they sued the company.
A judge decided that there was a legitimate question of whether this was, in fact, a violation of a 1981 civil rights law that prevents businesses from treating black customers different than white customers. One of the sisters said that the incident was so disturbing to her that she suffered a seizure on the flight home and then a second one when she got home.
Eventually, a jury found against the sisters and in favor of Southwest Airlines (and their flight attendant, Jennifer Cundiff, who was just 22 years old at the time of the incident).
Cundiff notes that she no longer uses the rhyme on flights.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com