A Serial Killer, The Bubonic Plague, And Human Sacrifice: The Chilling Backstories Behind Seven Nursery Rhymes

Published October 13, 2023
Updated May 15, 2024

On the surface, these popular nursery rhymes may seem lighthearted, but their origin stories might be far darker than you ever imagined.

There are certain rhymes that follow us from childhood. Tunes like “Jack and Jill,” “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” and “Three Blind Mice” are easy to recite at a moment’s notice. But how did these popular nursery rhymes originate? The answer is often surprising — if not disturbing.

Take the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, who is often depicted as an egg who falls off a wall. Though the origins of the Humpty Dumpty story are murky, some historians believe that it has to do with public drunkenness, while others think that it’s a reference to the English King Richard III’s death.

Meanwhile, the Muffin Man may have been a murderer, and “London Bridge Is Falling Down” might be about a torturous execution method. And though the backstories of many nursery rhymes remain mysterious, these ominous rumors show that jaunty tunes can hide the dark meanings of lyrics.

King, Egg, Or Cannon? The Mystery Behind The Humpty Dumpty Nursery Rhyme

Nursery Rhymes With Dark Meanings

Christopher Wood/Wikimedia Commons“Humpty Dumpty” is a well-known nursery rhyme, but its origins are something of a question mark.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871), the character Alice encounters Humpty Dumpty as an egg. This image has stuck in our modern imagination, but Carroll was the first person to describe Humpty Dumpty that way. In the earliest iteration of the rhyme in 1797, it simply said:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

There’s no mention of an egg at all. So what does “Humpty Dumpty” mean?

Historians have a couple of theories. The first is that the Humpty Dumpty rhyme is a cheeky ditty about public drunkenness. As History Daily notes, people in the 17th and 18th centuries used the term “humpty dumpty” to refer to someone who was overweight and clumsy, and a “humpty dumpty” was also an 18th-century drink made by boiling brandy and ale.

Humpty Dumpty

Public DomainLewis Carroll was the first to describe Humpty Dumpty as an egg in 1871.

But it’s also possible that the character of Humpty Dumpty is a reference to one of two events from English history. Some historians believe that Humpty Dumpty’s name refers to a cannon that was used during the English Civil War, which took place between 1642 and 1651. As the story goes, a cannon dubbed “Humpty Dumpty” fell off a wall in the city of Colchester, which was known to be loyal to the English king, and promptly shattered.

“The king’s men” couldn’t put the cannon back together.

Then again, the origins of the nursery rhyme could be even older. Some believe that the Humpty Dumpty rhyme is a reference to King Richard III of England, who reigned between 1483 and 1485. “Humpty Dumpty” may have been a cruel nickname for Richard, who allegedly had a hunched back. He was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, during which Richard fell from his horse, which may have been named “Wall.”

So the fictional “egg” falling from a “wall” might have actually represented a real-life monarch tumbling from his steed, irrevocably defeated.

author
Kaleena Fraga
author
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
editor
John Kuroski
editor
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "A Serial Killer, The Bubonic Plague, And Human Sacrifice: The Chilling Backstories Behind Seven Nursery Rhymes." AllThatsInteresting.com, October 13, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/nursery-rhymes-with-dark-meanings. Accessed June 13, 2024.