Rawhead and Bloody Bones
Steals naughty children from their homes,
Takes them to his dirty den,
And they are never seen again.
–Traditional Nursery Rhyme, Yorkshire, UK
Life as a nursery bogeyman is tough. Other monsters are out there facilitating the apocalypse, eating brains, sinking ships, wreaking all manner of mythological mayhem, and generally menacing society. The nursery bogey is used to threaten unruly children. This is the kind of thing other monsters make fun of in gym class. Every once in a while a shining example of a nursery bogey gets in touch with his inner insidiousness, rises above his humble origins, and establishes himself in the pantheon of creepier creatures. Sometimes they overcompensate, as in the case of Tommy Rawhead, for whom one descriptive moniker was not enough, so fearsome a creature was he, that he has for several hundred years been known by his unwieldy full name of “Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones”. Bonus point for use of a conjunction in a proper name.
Tommy Rawhead, as one would expect, literally had a raw head, that is, in his most basic incarnation he appeared as a disturbing critter whose skin had been stripped from his skull. Apparently, lack of skin frightens kids. Inexplicable if you’ve ever looked at a toddler’s knees after an hour on the playground. Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones makes his first official literary appearance in the 1548 “Wyll of the Deuyll” (“Will of the Devil”), an anti-Catholic tract published by the man who introduced printing to Ireland under a grant from English King Edward VI in 1550, Humfrey Powell (but probably written by English poet George Gascoigne), that takes the form of the last will and testament of the devil, listing the things he gives to unscrupulous folks, supposedly dictated to none other than our nightmarish friend “Rawhead and Bloody Bone”, who is described as a faithful secretary to the Devil in the Court of Hell. The relevant excerpt from the Devil’s Last Will is reproduced below. I recommend reading it in your best imitation of a Shakespearean monologue for the full effect. They had neither invented dictionaries nor standardized spelling in 1550, so be warned – such linguistic fanciness had to await the invention of obsessive-compulsive disorders and Ph.D.’s in English to fully flower. I didn’t bother to normalize the spelling because; hey I had to read it. And I have a day job.
Item, I geue to the Goldesmithes, brasse and copper inough to myngle with their rynges and plate, to make them to woye for aduauutage. Item I geue to the Peuterers and all other that occupy weights and measures, to haue false and contraryvweights, to bye with one and sel by another. Item to the Apothyeariee I geue leaue, that when a man asketh them a thyng, and haue it not, to bring them another thing and say it is that. Item, I geue to my Dearlynges the priuy papistes, Images, Crucifixes, and other lyke puppet maumettry, to worship secretly in their Oratoryes and bed chambers, because they may not worship them openly abrode in Temples and Churches. Ouer this my Testament and Last Wyll, which I haue here made, in my ragious mind and spightful deuilish memory, in the presence of my gret counccllours Minos, Radamanteus, I do make the furyes of hell Executors, that is to say: Megera, Alecto, and Tisiphone: all Massemongers and Papistes, with the Author of Heresyes Will and Testament, being faithfull Ocerseers of the same–Written by our faithful Secretaryes, Hobgoblin, Rawhed, and Bloody bone: in the spitefull Audience of all the Court of Hell. Teste Meipso (Gascoigne, 1548, “The Wyll of the Deuyll”).
Apparently there is a brief reference to Mr. Rawhead and Bloody Bones in a 1564 A.D. adaptation of an Italian comedy of errors by John Jefferes called Buggbear, which reads, “Hob Goblin, Rawhead & Bloudibone the ouglie hagges Bugbeares, & hellhoundes, and Hecate the nyght mare”. This is not of course, especially informative, unless you have some notion of what “ouglie hagges Bugbeares” are – fear not, as I always keep my Old English dictionary handy (translation: “ugly, slimy Bugbear”). Doesn’t help much, does it? At any rate, Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones seems to have been a well-known figure as early as the mid-16th Century in England, Scotland, and Ireland. Scottish reference is made to Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones as the traditional bogeyman.
Perhaps the mountain mists in like manner impeded the view of the dwellers on the mountain and the plain, for Fin MacCoul was a “God in Ireland,” as they say, and is a “rawhead and bloody bones” in the Scottish lowlands now (Campbell, 1850, pXC1X).
And, he maintains his historical role as a creature used to frighten children, mentioned in the same breath as a historical British Officer named Thomas Lunford, an English officer “of a very small and decayed fortune, with no good education; of a lawless disposition a violent temper” who led a regiment of foot soldiers against the Scots for King Charles I.
Amongst the objects to terrify children, we must not forget Rawhead and Bloodybones, who twice occurs in Butler’s Hudibras: “Turns meek and secret sneaking ones/To Raw-heads fierce and Bloody-bones.” And again: “Made children with your tones to run for’t/As bad as Bloody-bones or Lunsford.” Lunsford was an officer’s name, said to have been cruel to women and children (Brand, 1849, p516).
Thus do we see Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones begins to emerge as a figure of some prominence in terms of terror, and for some odd reason he begins to be associated with water. In Lincolshire, England he was considered a “kind of ghost that haunts wells (Gutch, 1908, p58), and in Yorkshire, England he became a full blown water demon.
In some parts of the country, instead of Jenny Green-teeth, the boggart of the ponds is a masculine water demon called Rawhead, Tommy Rawhead, Bloody-bones, or Rawhead and Bloody-bones, e. g. Keep away from the marl-pit or Rawhead and Bloody-bones will have you. This personage is often mentioned in our earlier literature. Dr. Johnson has: ‘Rawhead. . . .The name of a spectre, mentioned to fright children (Wright, 1913, p199).
No less important personage than philosopher John Locke had a few unkind words for Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones, objecting to his use as a means to control children on the grounds that it implanted unhealthy ideas upon their little brains, and perpetuated irrational fears. Empiricist bastard.
But even then and always whilst he is young, be sure to preserve his tender mind from all impressions and notions of spirits and goblins, or any fearful apprehensions in the dark. This he will be in danger of from the indiscretion of servants, whose usual method is to awe children, and keep them in subjection, by telling them of raw-head and bloody-bones, and such other names, as carry with them ideas of something terrible and hurtful, which they have reason to be afraid of, when alone, especially in the dark. This must be carefully prevented; for though by this foolish way they may keep them from little faults, yet the remedy is much worse than the disease; and there are stamped upon their imaginations ideas that follow them with terror and affrightment. Such bugbear thoughts, once got into the tender minds of children, and being set on with a strong impression from the dread that accompanies such apprehensions, sink deep, and fasten themselves so, as not easily, if ever, to be got out again; and whilst they are there, frequently haunt them with strange visions, making children dastards when alone, and afraid of their shadows and darkness all their lives after (Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, p49).
Turns our Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones had some staying power, so much so that he literally “jumped the pond” and appears in the folklore of the American Southeast, losing some of his nursery rhyme trappings and emerging as a truly horrific addition to our phantasmagoria, although, he was still used to frighten children into compliance with societal standards. A collection of North Carolina folktales mentions still mention him as a standard in nursery bogeydom.
Children were told that unless they did so and so “Old Raw-Head and Bloody Bones” would get them (Frank C. Brown Collection, 1952, p155)
A folktale from Missouri gives us an origin story for Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones as the companion Razorback (wild boar) of a backwoods Missouri conjuring woman named “Old Betty”. The poor old pig was gunned down by a hunter, and in despair over the death of her only friend, Old Betty raised the boar from the dead with a chant of “Raw Head and Bloody Bones. Raw Head and Bloody Bones.” The results being an upright walking hog skeleton with a skinless head, wandering the Ozarks. This is in stark contrast, except for the skinless head, with the traditional non-porcine version of the British Isles. Tommy Rawhead and Bloody Bones has entered modern pop culture as everything from the central figure in the B-Movie Rawhead Rex to a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Now that’s achievement for someone who started out as a nursery bogey.
There is something vaguely twisted about 500 years of telling children that unless they behave, a monster with a flayed head will kidnap them. Then again, if it makes the kids go to sleep…back me up here recent parents. Perhaps we’re just too sensitive to child psychology these days. God forbid they hear a fairy tale where the monster is, well, monstrous. My four year old has no fear of monsters. He knows they don’t exist and even if they do, the more you know the safer you are (from the mouths of babes). Mostly he thinks the stories are pretty cool. Sometimes he helps me choose pictures. Adults are the ones who ascribe real malevolence to monsters. Kids get it. AS G.K. Chesterton observed, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon”. Unless of course, the monsters are real.
Brand, John, 1744-1806. Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar And Provincial Customs, Ceremonies, And Superstitions. new ed. London: H. G. Bohn, 1849.
Campbell, J. F. 1822-1885. Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1860.
Gascoigne, George (disputed). Chetham Society. “Collectanea Anglo-Poetica”. Remains, Historical And Literary, Connected With the Palatine Counties of Lancaster And Chester. Manchester: Chetham Society. “Wyll of the Deuyll”, originally written 1548.
Duke University. Library. Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: the Folklore of North Carolina. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1952.
Gutch, Eliza, Mrs. Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning Lincolnshire. London: Pub. For the Folk-lore society by D. Nutt, 1908.
Locke, John, 1632-1704. Some Thoughts Concerning Education: And Consequences of the Lowering of Interest And Raising the Value of Money. London: Ward, Lock, 18th Century edition.
Wright, Elizabeth Mary, 1863-1958. Rustic Speech And Folk-lore. London: H. Milford, 1913.