Mary and the lamb

Sarah Josepha Hale published “Mary had a Little Lamb” in 1830. Forty-six years later, Mary Tyler claimed to be the original Mary.

Keven Law, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Josepha Hale touched many points of 19th century American culture. She edited the single most influential and popular magazine of the pre-Civil War period. She put her weight behind the creation of the second American women’s university, Vassar. It was her letters (to five separate US presidents!) that led to the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. And in 1830 she wrote the book Poems for our Children, which contained the nursery rhyme now known as “Mary had a Little Lamb.”

The rhyme’s original form didn’t have the characteristic repetition or melody. Those were added later by Lowell Mason, himself an influential figure in American music (the tune of “Joy to the World” that people sing at Christmastime? That was Lowell’s arrangement of a piece by Handel). But the words are from Hale.

Hale claimed that the inspiration for this rhyme was a real incident back when she was a schoolteacher in Newport, New Hampshire. The events of the nursery rhyme happened pretty much as described. A girl named Mary brought a pet lamb to school. It caused a lot of trouble. The kids asked why the lamb was so dedicated. The teacher (Hale) saw the opportunity to impart a moral lesson: it loved Mary because Mary loved it back.

Fast forward 46 years. An elderly lady by the name of Mary Tyler identified herself as the titular Mary. Her story was a convincing one. Her name was Mary. She had grown up in Newport. She had been a young pupil at the right time, and Hale had taught at her school. Tyler remembered bringing a lamb to school, and even remembered the creation of the rhyme. Just one complication: she claimed that Hale didn’t write it.

Tyler attributed the poem to a young man named John Roulstone, who was visiting the school that day. She offered no proof beyond her nearly half-century-old memory. The claim is contentious, to say the least, and at this point probably impossible to prove. The year after Tyler came forward, Thomas Edison recorded himself reciting the poem – the audio was the second verse (and first English verse) ever recorded.

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