Urban legends about our childhoods are extremely pervasive. Whether it be that the actor portraying Barney the Dinosaur was fired after it was found that he was storing cocaine in the tail of the suit or that the kids of the cul-de-sac in “Ed, Edd, ‘n Eddy” are all dead and are stuck in purgatory, we seem to find great joy in uncovering these imagined ‘dark origins’ of the media we consumed, regardless of the truth. Some are even treated as fact, as many people believe that “Ring Around the Rosie” is about the bubonic plague, when there is no truth to that. This may be due to the fact that many of us have trouble bridging the carefree environment of our childhoods to the reality of our adulthoods. It may be of some comfort for a person to convince themselves that they’ve always faced these conditions, even without knowing it, and have already braved them. In many ways, this perception is correct, yet it would be of more use applying this critical lens to the social systems and services, such as the police, rather than the media we consume.
The other day, an article, Do You Know The Muffin Man? He Was A Serial Killer Who Preyed on Kids, appeared on the front page of Medium. Being that I have an intense interest in both true crime and media analysis, I was immediately enthralled by this and began to read. It is a good article, and I did feel like I learned something from reading it, as it does talk about the conditions in which Victorian bakers lived. The sheer amount of information in the article also enraptured me. It featured this alleged serial killer’s full name, birth and death year, as well as his total body count. The note the article ends on, however, left me a little disappointed.
“No one knows if this story is true. It has been told (and retold) so many times that the story’s true origins are forever lost.”
While this may disappoint some, it immediately threw me into research. I first began by searching this alleged serial killer’s full name, Frederic Thomas Lynwood. Being that he was supposedly the first documented serial killer in England, there must be some documentation about him. The first result was an Uncyclopedia article, titled the Muffin Man. For those not in the know, Uncyclopedia is a website designed as a parody of Wikipedia. They deliberately pride themselves on being satirical and are definitely not acting as a true source. Still, I opened up the page, as it still had the chance to point me in a direction of a legitimate source. The opening sentence is nearly identical to that of the Medium article. Several other pieces of information lined up as well, such as the statement that he murdered seven other rival bakers. While the article forgoes mentioning the ways these ‘murders’ were carried out, the Uncyclopedia article mentions one being ‘drowned in brownie batter’ and another being ‘shaked and baked’. It became abundantly clear that the article sourced a majority of its information from this page. This doesn’t necessarily disprove this origin of the song, however. After all, Uncyclopedia has articles on plenty of real life individuals.
I, then, attempted to search the killer’s alleged nickname, the Drury Lane Dicer, which, unfortunately, brought me right back to the Uncyclopedia article. Following this, I narrowed my search to just that of the history of Drury Lane, as it is an actual location. I found that the street actually got its name during the 1500s from the “Drury House”, a mansion built by Sir Robert Drury, Knight to the Body of King Henry VII and King Henry VIII. The house stayed within his family until 1615, when it became the home of the Earl of Craven. This clearly contradicts the claim that Lynwood lived on Drury Lane between 1589 and 1598, as an aristocratic area would not likely be home to a baker. Drury Lane would eventually become one of the worst slums in London in the 1800s, though this would be long after Lynwood’s lifetime.
Following this, I investigated the claim of Lynwood being the “first documented serial killer in England”. This also appeared to be untrue, as the first serial killer in England seemed to be George Bourne, a Scottish Bandit who killed seven Englishmen and was executed in 1597, which is one year before Lynwood would have been caught. Our would-be Muffin Man doesn’t even appear on the page for pre-1900 serial killers on Wikipedia. This page even features a section for ‘Legendary Serial Killers’, such as Sweeney Todd, who some claim to have existed but have no documented evidence to back up their existence, yet Lynwood’s name is not mentioned at all.
Finally, I investigated the nursery rhyme itself. It is incredibly important to note that many nursery rhymes survived for centuries before being officially documented, surviving purely through the oral tradition. That being said, while the popular version of the rhyme has our Muffin Man living on Drury Lane, the first documented version of the rhyme from 1820 has our titular baker living on ‘Blueberry Lane’.
“Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives in Blueberry Lane?”
There is also an actual Blueberry Lane just outside of London, as well. From there, many alternate versions of the rhyme began to appear, further obscuring the original. There is even a Dutch version, about the mussel man who lives in Scheveningen.
So, what is the nursery rhyme about then, if not a serial killer?
As the original article stated, muffin men were like the milkmen of the 1950s. They delivered English muffins directly to the doors of English homes. It is more than likely just about an individual muffin man. There’s another theory from 1829 reported by British journalist, Pierce Egan, that it was about an arrangement made between prizefighters for one of them to throw a fight, with a baker acting as the go-between for the payment. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny however, as this fight that was allegedly fixed took place in 1825, five years after the rhyme was first documented.
There is one additional interpretation that I have read, though, that I like a lot. This is specific to the most popular version where the muffin man lives on Drury Lane. As stated early, Drury Lane was one of the worst areas in London during the 1800s. The term, ragamuffin, could have probably been used in a derogatory sense by the upper class to refer to the people living there. To me, it seems just like a child to hear a term, like ragamuffin, and not truly understand what it means and incorrectly assume the definition. It’s entirely possible that a child heard their parents talking about the ‘ragamuffins on Drury Lane’, innocently assume that they were referring to a baker, and make up a silly song about it.
We all know that the world is a dark, scary place. We all know that not all the things we were taught as children are necessarily true. Something being illegal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s morally bad. The police aren’t always the good guys. The bad guys don’t always get what they deserve. When you look at the facts, our world sucks…
But that doesn’t mean we have to find darkness in every facet of it. Sometimes people do things out of the goodness of their hearts, sometimes we find hope to hold on to, and sometimes a silly song is just a silly song. You should absolutely look at everything through a critical lens, but if you can’t find anything bad, don’t assume it’s there. We should take solace in the nice things in life, because don’t they make it all worthwhile?