Was the Popular Mary Had a Little Lamb Plagiarized?

Who knew that such a sweet nursery rhyme about a girl and her lamb had such a complicated history?

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A little girl wearing a strawy hat sitting next to a little lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb is a sweet, innocent nursery rhyme that everyone knows. It is said that a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, who was an editor and writer, wrote the poem. However, she may not actually be the author of the poem.

The Story of Mary and Her Lamb

A plaque with the 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' poem by John Roulstone inscribed on it

The nursery rhyme is about a real little girl named Mary Elizabeth Sawyer and her real lamb in the small Massachusetts town of Sterling. Mary had nursed the lamb back to health after it was born sickly and abandoned by its mother, and the lamb loved Mary so much that it didn’t want to leave her side. So, one day in 1815, it followed Mary to school. She tried to hide her lamb, but her teacher saw it anyway. She made the lamb wait outside the schoolroom. This is where the potential plagiarism started.

So, who wrote the poem?

Black and white photo of Sarah Jospeha Hale

Hale included this poem in her 1830 poetry collection Poems for Our Children. She claimed that it was her original poem and not inspired by the events of that day but just something she made up. But that wasn’t how Mary remembered it. There was a student a few years older than her named John Roulstone, who was preparing for college. He was there that day, and he wrote the famous poem and gave it to Mary. However, he passed away not long after, so he was never able to say whether or not Hale stole his poem and passed it off as his own. Both Mary and Hale swore that their version of the events was true, so it’s difficult to know who was right and who was lying.

Henry Ford was involved?

Black and white photo of Henry Ford

Hale was from Newport, New Hampshire, so Newport took her side and supported her, while Sterling took Mary and Roulstone’s side. Later, in 1927, Henry Ford decided to take up this case. He published a book, Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb, where he supported Mary’s side of the story and gave Roulstone credit. His reasoning for why is flawed: he claimed the two towns were next to each other, but they were 90 miles apart. It’s unclear why Ford decided to force himself into this debate, but he only made things more complicated.

This incident is quite a mess, though I think we can all agree on one thing—regardless of who wrote the poem, it’s a wonderful nursery rhyme.

For another article on Mary Had a Little Lamb, click here.