Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.
And so the teacher turned it out;
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.
This poem is a true story … Yes, there really was a ‘Mary’ and she did have a ‘Little Lamb’. The lamb became her pet, and has always been known everywhere as ‘Mary’s lamb.’
Mary Elizabeth Sawyer was born on March 22, 1806 on a farm in Sterling, Massachusetts. Her father was Thomas, the son of Ezra Sawyer, and her mother was Elizabeth Houghton.
In 1815, Mary, then nine, was helping her father with farm chores when they discovered a sickly newborn lamb in the sheep pen that had been abandoned by its mother. After a lot of pleading, Mary was allowed to keep the animal, although her father didn’t hold out much hope for its survival. Against the odds, Mary managed to nurse the lamb back to health.
I’ll let Mary tell the rest of the story (from books by Dickerson and another by Ford) …
“One cold, bleak March morning I went out to the barn with father; and after the cows had been fed, we went to the sheep pen, and found two lambs which had been born in the night. One had been forsaken by its mother, and through neglect, cold and lack of food was nearly dead.”
“I saw it had still a little life, and asked to take it into the house; but father said, No, it was almost dead, anyway, and at the best could live but a short time. But I couldn’t bear to see the poor little thing suffer, so I teased until I got it into the house.”
“Then I worked upon mother’s sympathies. At first the little creature could not swallow, and the catnip tea mother made it could not take for a long time.”
“I got the lamb warm by wrapping it in an old garment and holding it in my arms beside the fireplace. All day long I nursed the lamb, and at night it could swallow just a little. Oh, how pleased I was!”
“But even then I wasn’t sure it would live; so I sat up all night with it, fearing it wouldn’t be warm enough if there was not someone at hand to look out for its comfort.”
“In the morning, much to my girlish delight, it could stand; and from that time it improved rapidly. It soon learned to drink milk; and from the time it would walk about, it would follow me anywhere if I only called it.”
“My little pet was a fast grower, as symmetrical a sheep as ever walked, and its fleece was of the finest and whitest. Why, I used to take as much care of my lamb as a mother would of a child. I washed it regularly, kept the burdocks picked out of its fleece, and combed and trimmed with bright-colored ribbons the wool on its forehead.”
“When that was being done, the lamb would hold down its head, shut its eyes, and stand as quiet as could be. From the time it could walk until the season came for the sheep to go to pasture my lamb stayed in the woodshed.”
“It did not take kindly to its own species; and when it was in the field, it preferred being with the cows and horses instead of with other sheep.”
“’The lamb was a ewe and became the mother of three lambs, a single one and twins, and her devotion to her little family was as strong as could be.”
“We roamed the fields together and were, in fact, companions and fast friends. I did not have many playmates outside the dumb creatures on the place. There were not many little girls to play with, and I had few dolls; but I used to dress up my lamb in pantalets, and had no end of pleasure in her company.”
“Then I had a little blanket or shawl for her; and usually when that was on, she would lie down at my feet, remaining perfectly quiet and seemingly quite contented.”
“The day the lamb went to school, I hadn’t seen her before starting off; and not wanting to go without seeing her, I called. She recognized my voice, and soon I heard a faint bleating far down the field. More and more distinctly I heard it, and I knew my pet was coming to greet me. My brother Nat said, ‘Let’s take the lamb to school with us.’”
“Childlike, I thought that would be a good idea, and quickly consented. The lamb followed along close behind me. There was a high stone wall to climb, and it was rather hard work to get her over. We got her on top, then clambered over to take her down.”
“She seemed to understand what was expected, and waited quietly for us to take her off the wall. When the schoolhouse was reached, the teacher had not arrived, and but few of the scholars were there. Then I began to think what I should do with the lamb while school was in session.”
“I took her down to my seat – you know we had old-fashioned, high, boarded-up seats then. Well, I put the lamb under the seat and covered her with her blanket; and she lay down as quietly as could be.”
“By and by I went forward to recite, leaving the lamb all right; but in a moment there was a clatter, clatter, clatter on the floor, and I knew it was the pattering of the hoofs of my lamb.”
“Oh, how mortified I felt! The teacher was Miss Polly Kimball, who was afterward married to a Mr. Loring, and became the mother of Loring, the circulating-library man of Boston. She laughed outright, and of course all the children giggled.”
“It was rare sport for them, but I could see nothing amusing in the situation. I was too ashamed to laugh, or even smile, at the unlooked-for appearance of my pet. I took her outdoors, and shut her in a shed until I was ready to go home at noon. Usually I did not go home till evening, as we carried our lunch with us; but I went home at noon that day.”
There are a couple stories about the poem, and who wrote it. Mary said the author was John Roulstone … “Visiting the school that morning was a young man by the name of John Roulstone, a nephew of the Reverend Lemuel Capen, who was then settled in Sterling.”
“It was the custom then for students to prepare for college with ministers, and for this purpose Mr. Roulstone was studying with his uncle.”
“The young man was very much pleased with the incident of the lamb; and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback to the little old schoolhouse, and handed me a slip of paper which had written upon it the three original stanzas of the poem.” (Mary, in Dickerson)
However, in 1830, Sarah Josepha Hale, a renowned writer and influential editor (she’s also known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving” for helping making the day a holiday), published Poems for Our Children, which included a version of the poem.
According to Mary herself, Roulstone’s original contained only the three stanzas, while Hale’s version had an additional three stanzas at the end.
Mary admitted she had no idea how Hale had gotten Roulstone’s poem. When asked, Hale said her version, titled “Mary’s Lamb,” wasn’t about a real incident, but rather something she’d just made up.
Soon the residents of Sterling and those of Newport, New Hampshire, where Hale hailed from, were arguing about the poem’s provenance – something they continued to do for years. Later, Henry Ford sided with Mary’s claim that Roulstone wrote the first three verses.
There’s a third version of how the Mary and her lamb story came to be. Mary Hughes, of Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales, was credited with being the subject of the nursery rhyme supposedly penned by a woman from London by the name of Miss Burls.
The only problem with the UK version of events is that Mary Hughes wasn’t born until 1842, twelve years after Hale’s poem was published. (Andrew Amelinckx)
Some Interesting Side Stories
Some say Mary and her lamb helped save Boston’s Old South Meeting House (Church). The Congregationalists built Old South Meeting House in Boston in 1729. Judge Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for taking part in the Salem Witch Trials there. Benjamin Franklin was baptized on the site. Phyllis Wheatley thought about freedom while attending services at Old South.
It is just down the street from Park Street Church where the first American Protestant missionaries to Hawai‘i gathered in 1819 to receive their instructions before departing on their mission.
In 1876, the building was to be sold for scrap (for $1,350, the value of its parts). The people of Boston organized to save it and, on July 13, 1876, the congregation’s leaders agreed to postpone the sale of Old South for two months, but the buyers had to come up with $420,000 and ask for no further delay.
Mary Sawyer Tyler, then living in Somerville, helped with the cause. As she noted, “From the fleece sheared from my lamb, mother knit two pairs of very nice stockings, which for years I kept in memory of my pet.”
“But when the ladies were raising money for the preservation of the Old South Church in Boston, I was asked to contribute one pair of these stockings for the benefit of the fund. This I did.”
“The stockings were raveled out, pieces of the yarn being fastened to cards bearing my autograph, and these cards were sold;” cards were attached the wool that said, “Knitted wool from the first fleece of Mary’s Little Lamb.” (New England Historical Society)
First Phonograph Recording
The poem was one of the oldest audio recordings of a musical performance — and possibly the oldest ever of an American voice. The audio, recorded on tin foil by Thomas Edison using one of his early phonographs, was made during a 1878 museum demonstration in St Louis.
Edison recalled the first words he spoke into the phonograph, a recital of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme. In his writings, Edison recounts further the 1878 recording:
“I designed a little machine using a cylinder provided with grooves around the surface. Over this was to be placed tinfoil, which easily received and recorded the movements of the diaphragm … Kruesi (the machinist), when he had nearly finished it, asked what it was for.”
“I told him I was going to record talking, and then have the machine talk back. He thought it absurd. However, it was finished, the foil was put on; I then shouted ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ etc. I adjusted the reproducer, and the machine reproduced it perfectly.”
“I was never so taken aback in my life. Everybody was astonished. I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.” (Edison)
This original recording was thought lost until scientists at the University of California Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in collaboration with the Library of Congress had a go at recreating it using “optical imaging”.
Despite Edison’s account of shouting a nursery rhyme on a recording, it’s somewhat unclear if it’s his voice on this recording. (Some experts believe the voice is actually that of political writer Thomas Mason.”
The Old Redstone Schoolhouse
Built sometime in the late 1700s, the tiny, one-room schoolhouse was in use from 1798 up until 1927, when it was finally closed (for the first time). The little schoolhouse takes its name from its original location, as opposed to its color, having been located on Redstone Hill in Sterling, Massachusetts.
Henry Ford acquired the old schoolhouse to be a part of his Wayside Inn historic district. Ford moved the schoolhouse around 20 miles to nearby Sudbury. The school reopened again in 1927, at its new location, teaching grades 1-4 to the local children.
This second life lasted until 1951, when the school was closed a second time and converted into a solely historical site. (Wayside Inn)
Death of Mary’s Lamb
Mary said, “I have not told you about the death of my little playmate. It occurred on a Thanksgiving morning. We were all out in the barn, where the lamb had followed me. It ran right in front of the cows fastened to the stanchions, built along the feed box.”
“One of the creatures gave its head a toss, then lowered its horns and gored my lamb, which gave an agonizing bleat and came toward me with the blood streaming from its side. I took it in my arms, placed its head in my lap, and there it bled to death.”
“During its dying moments it would turn its little head and look up into my face in a most appealing manner, as if it would ask if there was not something that I could do for it.”
“It was a sorrowful moment for me when the companion of many romps, my playfellow of many a long summer’s day, gave up its life; and its place could not be filled in my childish heart.’ (Mary; quoted in Dickerson and Ford)
Mary herself lived until 1889. (Ford) There’s a statue of the famous lamb in town, and a restored version of Mary’s home (the original was destroyed by a pair of arsonists back in 2007). Her descendants continue to farm the land that gave birth to the most famous nursery rhyme of all time. (Andrew Amelinckx)
Wini Matteson says
Charming story, Thank You
Carolynn Griffith says
Thank you for this lovely tribute to Mary, her lamb, and history. Blessings of love and hope in the new year.