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R Rated Nursery Rhymes: 15 Creepy Rhymes For Kids and Their Disturbing Origins

By Monica Bielanko |

Ma Goose is one morbid old broad.

Violet has this big book of nursery rhymes that is at the top of her favorite book rotation.

This means that at least once or twice a week I read her rhymes and songs featured in the book.

It’s this book, by the way, and I highly recommend it despite the questionably R-rated contents. I say that with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, because nursery rhymes are nursery rhymes regardless of what book you find them in.

But there’s the thing…  Have you ever actually thought about some of these rhymes and songs we’ve been repeating since the time we were toddlers ourselves? Sometimes I’ll be reading a little ditty to Violet and what I’m joyfully sing-songing suddenly strikes my brain and I’m all, What in the hell am I singing to my kid? A falling baby?  Cutting off mice tails? Domestic abuse?

According to Book Dirt, there was actually a movement for nursery rhyme reform in the fifties. Mother Goose rhymes have been sanitized in recent years but original versions were filled with violence.

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.

But much like parents today, outraged over violence in video games and music, moms and dads in the fifties weren’t all that thrilled with nursery rhymes. So much so that a man named Geoffrey Handley-Taylor was charged with the task of surveying 200 popular rhymes and listing in detail the inappropriate content.  Handley-Taylor’s list reads like the outline of a horror film including:

  • 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)

You can read the full list here. But, despite the apparent sanitization of Ma Goose, nursery rhymes are still pretty out there.  Take a look at 15 popular nursery rhymes chock full of violence, fear and death and read about their origins. Plus, find out which historical figure was so horrifying she’s the star of two popular nursery rhymes you grew up chanting.
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Rated R Nursery Rhymes

There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Nothing wrong with a sound whipping every now and again, right? I also happen to be serving broth for dinner tonight. There is no specific origin for this rhyme but there are several theories. According to, "Some students of Mother Goose believe that the “old woman” was a symbol for the English Parliament and that the rhyme represents its treatment of its colonies (children) in the 17th Century. Others believe the “old woman” was Mother Goose herself who they claim was Elizabeth Goose, or Vergoose, of colonial Boston." Others believe the old woman represents King George III who had a contentious relationship with Parliament and was often called "the old woman" behind his back. "Supporters of “George III as the old woman” contend that the “shoe” represents Great Britain, the “children” are Parliament members, and the “bed” is a symbol for the houses of Parliament." This is just one of several nursery rhymes based on English history.
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About Monica Bielanko


Monica Bielanko

Monica Bielanko was raised on the wild frontier of late 1970's Utah. She is a recovering Mormon who married the guitar player of an unknown band. She's been married to her Babble Voices writing partner, Serge Bielanko, for the past nine years. Her personal blog, The Girl Who was in the top ten of last year's Top 50 list. Read bio and latest posts → Read Monica's latest posts →

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9 thoughts on “R Rated Nursery Rhymes: 15 Creepy Rhymes For Kids and Their Disturbing Origins

  1. DeathMetalMommy says:

    Hearing most of these growing up, it occurs to me now that my understanding of them as a child was totally different. They didn’t seem violent or odd at all. Maybe it’s the rhyme scheme.

  2. Dianna says:

    Calm down,

  3. Anne says:

    Cardinal Wolsey did not refuse to facilitate a divorce between King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. He tried very hard to obtain the divorce, but the Pope would not allow it. Also, it’s Anne Boleyn, not Bolyn.

  4. Michelle says:

    If none of us knew the origins or meanings of these rhymes as kids, why would our children? Of course some of them are disturbing now, from a grown-up standpoint, but I didn’t find any of them disturbing as a kid. Kids like saying them because of the rhyming, not because they have any clue what they’re really about. I’m not going to read my kid “sanitized” versions or omit them entirely out of fear of it sending the wrong message when they’re clearly not understanding it to begin with.

  5. Violetta1485 says:

    Humpty-Dumpty refers to Richard III, who was reputed to be a hunchback.
    Mary Quite Contrary’s silvers bells refer to the bells rung at Catholic Mass, which Mary tried to restore to Reformation England, the cockle shells mean veneration of the saints (cockle shells were tokens of visiting the shrine of San Juan de Compostella), and the pretty maids were nuns.
    Rock-a-Bye-Baby may refer to any number of boy kings (Richard II, Henry VIII’s son Edward VI) who were considered too young to maintain stability in the kingdom.

  6. kidacookie says:

    These nursery rhymes are nothing compared to the original brothers Grimm fairy tales. Example in Cinderella the bad step-sisters cut off their heels and toes to make the glass slipper fit.

  7. nellie says:


  8. Caroline says:

    Regarding the Pumpkin Shell rhyme:

    Had a wife and couldn’t keep her,
    wife not necessarily a harlot but wandered…
    “put her in a pumpkin shell, where he kept her very well” refers to keeping the woman pregnant with children, where of course, the woman needs to remain for support for herself and her many children; and who else would want them then.

    not murder, but masocistic

  9. Grand Wizzard says:

    What you all don’t know is that Mother Goose is a 100% masonic term used in masonry with esoteric meaning. Witchcraft and sadism are in the Mother Goose tales due to them being the composers of those – and most other famous literary examples -
    Mother Goose is a reference to the goose being the ancient symbol for Ra, and his androgenous parenthood over mankind. So is the goose that laid the golden egg… etc etc

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