February 08, 2011

Mother Goose's Grave

There's a legend that Mother Goose, that benevolent bird-riding witch associated with nursery rhymes, is actually buried in Boston. Is it true?

Well, there is a grave in the Granary Burying ground for one Mary Goose (born 1648, died 1690). Mary had ten children with her husband Isaac, who according to a plaque in the burying ground, made his living as a "carter (wagon-driver) and scavenger." Apparently these were attractive professions in the 17th century, because after Mary died Isaac found a new wife and had five more children. If you're counting, that's fifteen children on a scavenger's salary!

One of the children, Elizabeth Goose, married Boston publisher Thomas Fleet. Fleet was best known for producing the Boston Evening Post, but beginning in the nineteenth century a story circulated that he was the first person to publish the Mother Goose stories. It was widely believed that the tales had been passed down from one of his mother-in-laws, including possibly Mary Goose.

Unfortunately, I don't think Boston can claim to be the hometown of Humpty Dumpy and Little Bo Peep. First of all no copy of Mother Goose stories published by Thomas Fleet has ever actually been found. That's a big strike against the legend, but perhaps more importantly the name Mother Goose was mentioned in a satirical French work printed in 1628. Mary Goose wasn't even born then.

If Mother Goose wasn't a Bostonian, who was she? There seem to be a few theories floating around out there. For example, maybe she was really one of two French queens. Both were named Bertha, and one was known as Bertha Goosefoot. Or, if you want something more pagan, Mother Goose may be a memory of various ancient European goddesses associated with geese, including one called Bertha who was portrayed with a goose foot. They're both interesting explanations, but there's no hard proof for either one. Personally I prefer the more pagan theory, but I think this is just one of those cultural mysteries we won't be able to ever resolve.

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